A weird wonder of Argentine and modern literature and a crucial work for Julio Cortázar, The Seven Madmen begins when its hapless and hopeless hero, Erdosain, is dismissed from his job as a bill collector for embezzlement. Then his wife leaves him and things only go downhill after that. Erdosain wanders the crowded, confusing streets of Buenos Aires, thronging with immigrants almost as displaced and alienated as he is, and finds himself among a group of conspirators who are in thrall to a man known simply as the Astrologer. The Astrologer has the cure for everything that ails civilization. Unemployment will be cured by mass enslavement. (Mountains will be hollowed out and turned into factories.) Mass enslavement will be funded by industrial-scale prostitution. That scheme will be kicked off with murder. “D’you know you look like Lenin?” Erdosain asks the Astrologer. Meanwhile Erdosain struggles to determine the physical location and dimensions of the soul, this thing that is causing him so much pain.
Brutal, uncouth, caustic, and brilliantly colored, The Seven Madmen takes its bearings from Dostoyevsky while looking forward to Thomas Pynchon and Marvel Comics.
Let’s say, modestly, that Arlt is Jesus Christ.
[Arlt] wryly memorialized the polyglot vitality of Buenos Aires as a menacing objective correlative of his own—and, by extension, modern man’s—alienation and psychic disintegration.
As Erdosian’s fantasies blur into reality, we are treated to a world reminiscent of the intense Georg Grosz paintings of sex murderers…Arlt’s magnum opus will lure new readers into a keenly rendered dystopia where official facts and psychic fictions tend to change places. His dark imagination uncannily foretold the impending political milieu.
So firmly rooted was Arlt in the explosive urban society and political culture of his time that his book is able to illuminate what was actually to happen during the first Peronist era in the 1940s and in the country’s later descent into violence in the 1970s after Juan Peron had returned as President for the last time. It is one of the great books of the 20th century.