Epic Poem

The National Book of Argentina

Every culture seems to have its National Writer or National Book.  England has Shakespeare (and the US borrows him as the emblem of writerly perfection, at least until they decide that The Great Gatsby is the Great American Novel and stop dicking around), Italy has Dante (who had Virgil) and so forth.  Moving to the Spanish-speaking world, the situation is similar.  Spain has Cervante’s Don Quixote.  Perú has the wonderful Mario Vargas Llosa and Colombia, García Márquez.

But what about Argentina, my own land?

Ask a foreigner and, if he knows a little about literature, he would say “Borges” without hesitation… but that isn’t necessarily true, even though I wish it were, since Borges represents everything that’s good about Argentine culture.  Hell, they even passed him over for the Nobel Prize for the right reasons despite now being considered an embarrassing error on the part of the committee.

But there is one book that Argentines consider the national book, and it isn’t by Borges.  It’s by a man called José Hernández, and it’s a poem. (Yes, we do poetry here sometimes).

Martin Fierro José Hernández

Yes, the Martin Fierro (always referred to as “the” Martin Fierro, never just Martin Fierro) is the book that Borges pointed to when he said that Argentina has at least one work of great literature.  Everyone else in the country can name it.  It’s the ONLY work of Argentine literature that everyone can name, and would be the very first book most people would name.

Better still, it speaks to the very soul of the country.  Not only to the people from the ranches and farms, whose life int eh mid 19th century it describes so well, but you can also, in the fatalist view and the celebration of suffering as the only real road to becoming a man, see the roots of the art form that most people would associate with the country: tango.

I recently quoted a line that said that only in Buenos Aires can sadness be turned into an art form… but it isn’t exactly true.  Martin Fierro did it half a century earlier.  It’s something I’ve always hated about the national character, that we dwell on the negative so much (I tend to look at positive stuff much more than negative, so I end up in endless arguments).

Other than being a paean to suffering, this book is actually quite good.  Entertaining (he isn’t suffering from imaginary ills and persecutions, but very real ones), true to its time (PC crusaders will need to avert their gazes) and reflecting the politics of its time without bothering to be overtly political or naming names (something the great Dante would have been well advised to do).

It’s been used as a battle flag by everyone including anarchists, but it’s not really that kind of book.  It’s more of an ode to the gaucho life and the kind of men it forms, and even ends on a reasonably hopeful note.  The politics of the day are long gone, but we can still identify with the characters.  And that is timeless.

Finally, a technical note.  The Martin Fierro, like the Quixote (again, if you don’t want to look like an idiot in front of Spanish speakers, remember it’s “the Quixote”) before it, consists of two books.  If you only read the first, you’ll miss a lot of what people are talking about when they mention it.

Anyway, grab a copy and get to know the Argentine soul.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer who writes about the world, and the things that make everyone similar–as thrown into sharp relief by the things that make us different.  If you like to read about people like you from different parts of the world dealing with problems that wouldn’t happen to you, then his science fiction and fantasy collection Off the Beaten Path will probably make you very happy.  You can have a look at it here.

Better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven

Paradise Lost by John Milton - Airmont Edition

You’re reading a blog called Classically Educated.  I suppose that an appearance by Milton shouldn’t be much of a surprise…  Also, we’ve done poetry before, too…

Of course, even those of us who’ve never read John Milton’s epic poems, Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, know about Milton’s Satan.  He is often pointed at as one of the great characters in the history of literature, and used as the prime example of how villains are so much more interesting than the good guys.

And it’s true, he is.  Not particularly sympathetic, perhaps, but definitely interesting.

But I often wonder how much of the character’s sympathetic nature has been created by modern readings of the poem.  Would a 17th century reader have been captivated by Satan’s cleverness or perseverance or have seen it as a warning and a danger, kind of the way modern people might see the industrial might of a military rival?

Most readers of that time, I believe, would have read the poem as a cautionary tale, and heeded the implied warnings against pride and arrogance contained within.

Milton's Satan by Gustav Doré

Nevertheless, the more interesting question of what Milton intended still persists.  We need to remember that, before composing his opus, John Milton was an official of Cromwell’s Commonwealth and, as such, the Christian paradise he refers to might be a symbol of the political one he feels was destroyed by Oliver’s death–although it would be really, really hard to place Cromwell in Satan’s role in this case.

Viewed in a different light, the poems (Lost and Regained) might have been written more in the way of a Shakespearian tragedy: the virtuous, albeit flawed protagonist struggles to the best of his ability, only to be crushed in the end.

Contemporary critics appeared to take the poems in the same light as his readers.  They were much more astonished at his skill than offended at the positive portrayal of some of the devil’s characteristics…  so no light got shed there.

I suppose the truth went to the grave with the author.  That hasn’t stopped seas of ink flowing into analysis later… but I can’t give the answer.  What I will say is that, unlike Chapman’s Homer, this one is an easy, often riveting read that holds up well in modern times.

If you’ve read it, I’d love to know your thoughts about what old Mr. Milton intended.

If you haven’t, don’t do what I did.

I made the mistake of taking this one along as reading material on an international trip…  Not a good idea.  When you’re on a trip, you want something that can immediately, effortlessly, whisk you away into a plot.  This one requires concentration and effort.  Not airport reading material.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short-story writer.  His latest novel, The Malakiad, has one major advantage compared to Paradise Lost: it is not in blank verse.  You can check it out here.