Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 777

Eduardo Mallea is considered one of the promoters of vanguardism in Latin American literature. Extremely well read, he produced works that reflect multiple influences from European writers and intellectuals, especially from existentialist thinkers. In his own country, he was respected for his many articles as an editor of the literary section of La Nación, Argentina’s major newspaper. It is said that his positive recommendation of a young writer resulted in that individual’s immediate success.

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Mallea’s literary production reflects his strong inclination to the contemplative essay, in which he often explores two favorite themes: the purpose of human existence and Argentina’s role in the twentieth century. Early in his career, with the publication in 1937 of Historia de una pasión argentina(History of an Argentine Passion, 1983) Mallea demonstrates interest in the existential quest in a systematic analysis of the history of Argentina in a worldwide context. In this autobiographical essay, Mallea brings forward issues relevant to pre-World War II society, such as social alienation and its related existential angst.

Unlike other existentialists, however, Mallea displays hope for the resolution of his characters’ anguish. Following in the footsteps of the Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo (1864-1936), Mallea offers in his philosophical analysis a new historical perspective by bringing a new point of view to the national history experienced by the common citizen. Mallea evaluates Argentine history by means of characters who, affected by everyday occurrences, take a closer look into those events that appear harmless but directly affect their existence. That untold history—what Mallea refers to as “the invisible Argentina”—is the core of Mallea’s sociopolitical existentialism. His characters, true existential protagonists, accept the limitations of reason and view their experiences, however unimportant they may at first seem, as an intricate part of the natural or instinctual learning process. The protagonists soon learn that these experiences are not coincidental, and they start viewing them as part of the larger concept of life.

A novel of thesis, or novela de conciencia (novel of the conscience) to use Mallea’s label, The Bay of Silence presents an intimate picture of the existential conflicts experienced by Martín Treba, an aspiring young writer. This strongly autobiographical novel is a fictional account of Martín’s desire to document his existence, moved by an inexplicable need to address his memoirs to a mysterious woman, known throughout the novel simply as “you.” Although a shadow character, the unnamed woman contributes to his existential crisis because the encounter triggers his exploration of his existential questioning. The unusual interpersonal dynamic of their casual meetings creates in Martín a feeling of aloofness or isolation, which leads him to leave the country.

The influence of the German bildungsroman is obvious here. A young character feeling alienated from society leaves it for other environments and eventually returns home a mature adult. Unlike the traditional bildungsroman, however, Mallea’s work places the protagonist as the axis of the plot. Martín exemplifies the existentialist’s efforts to use systematic analysis of his own experiences to articulate the essential isolation of the individual in a purposeless society. That fact is stressed by frequent interruption of the plot line by philosophical comments of a purely didactic nature. The lengthy novel subordinates the minimal action to the message, a constant attack on the dehumanizing influence of modern social structures.

Mallea is a literary figure, however, not a philosopher or a politician in the conventional sense. His interest in literature is evident in his vanguardist preference for spontaneous or unconscious thinking. The automatic thought, expressed in literature by means of stream of consciousness, verbalizes Martín’s existentialist conflicts in a consciousness of existence. That consciousness conveys strong political convictions, that are related to Mallea’s involvement in Argentine politics. After his existential crisis is over, Martín has gained a special knowledge, the so-called existential truth that affirms his natural freedom and his refusal to submit to repressive social structures.

Mallea’s work may be considered a precursor of the highly experimental movement of the 1960’s in Latin American literature. His literary style is an example of the influence of European literature in Latin America after World War II, a period that shaped later twentieth century literature. The fact that his characters are individuals who respond to human needs not necessarily limited to their Latin American locale makes Mallea one of the first Latin American writers of the twentieth century attractive to international readers. An intellectual with foreign connections, Mallea offers a production free of geographical boundaries. His work is the mature product of a threefold purpose of literature: personal, political, and aesthetic.

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