An independent thinker and writer whose authentic expression diverges from the social realism that dominated Argentine literature in those years, Mallea developed on his own terms an ontological awareness that would become quite fashionable among French existentialists a few years later.
Undoubtedly, Mallea’s existentialism has its roots in the Spanish thinker and author Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo, who is mentioned in the final pages of History of an Argentine Passion. The themes explored in Mallea’s fiction are more fully developed in his essays, with this collection representing his search for the values and vital forces of authentic Argentine culture that Mallea viewed as betrayed, altered by waves of European immigrants, submerged beneath layers of urban congestion and an inauthentic way of life. The typicalprotagonist of Mallea’s novels is cerebral, hermetic, anguished, yearning to transcend his unauthentic condition, and desirous of a Kierkegaardian leap of faith enabling discovery and communication of his true self. Nevertheless, Mallea did not consider himself an existentialist following the French model and often bitterly repudiated such labels.
Critics are not in accord as to whether Eduardo Mallea’s Nocturno europeo (European nocturne) ought to be termed a novel; it consists largely of impressions of the writer’s travels, the most important of which are derived from a lecture tour of France and Italy taken the previous year. It might be classed a fictionalized travel book, with meditative and philosophical tendencies that impart an essaylike character.
The novel’s main character—and in fact, the only one—Adrian, something of a globetrotter, has spent much of his life in travel (a symbolic voyage through this world), reaching old age without encountering the ontological objective of his search. On an individual plane, he seeks himself, his identity; on a more universal level, he seeks the meaning of life. Having abandoned his own country because he found no meaning there, he belongs spiritually to the “lost generation” (no gratuitous association, since Mallea quotes Gertrude Stein’s comment to Ernest Hemingway: “You are the lost generation”). The search for identity frequently takes the form of comparisons and contrasts between Argentina and Europe and, given the protagonist’s interest in art, includes much analysis of works in galleries that are explicitly or implicitly juxtaposed to his own heritage.
Lacking a plot in the traditional sense, the novel is saved from becoming a travelogue by virtue of the subthemes injected by Mallea, which add a valuable dimension of intellectual substance. Not only are contrasts established in the areas of art and the protagonist’s heritage but also the sociopolitical situation of Europe during the 1930’s provides material for comparisons with the Argentine background, much as occasional human encounters inspire a comparative view of mores and morality. The liberated females the protagonist finds in Paris prove much too threatening and his puritanical upbringing much too rigid to allow him to risk libidinal release: His alienation is thus even more pronounced. Adrian spends his evenings surrounded by the wealthy and their sycophants, silently watching the human comedy around him, unable to communicate, empty and bored. The novel’s most important dimension is constituted by Adrian’s constant self-analysis and search for identity, his efforts to transcend his confining middle-class origins and his own limited state.
Fiesta in November
Fiesta in November is the work of an independent and contemplative intellectual, little indebted to the literary fashions of the day. During the 1930’s, the vogue in Spanish America was the criollista novel, in which man appears as the victim of the mindless, overpowering forces of nature. Fiesta in November, in both a formal and a thematic departure, offered two juxtaposed yet seemingly unrelated story lines linked by problems of existential authenticity and the motif of art, artistic creation, and its meaning and value.
Some critics have suggested that part of Fiesta in November was inspired by the murder of Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca at the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in July of 1936 (an event that might well have coincided with the novel’s genesis, for it appeared in 1938). Inasmuch as one of the two narratives relates the kidnapping and murder of a young poet, this interpretation acquires credence. Events in this story line—set against the background of civil strife in an unnamed European country—are intercalated between episodes of the other narrative, producing not a contrapuntal effect but an opportunity for the reader to observe the ironic contrast and to reflect upon what is “real” and important in life and what is not.
Fiesta in November is a title with different levels of meaning. First, it refers to the frivolous party on which the novel’s second story line is centered; second, it refers to a celebration or rite and in Spain is used to denote the bullfight, so that its associations with violence and death are appropriate to the contrasting narrative. The party that is the title’s primary referent is an elegant soiree given by the very wealthy Mrs. de Rague, to which the cream of porteño (Buenos Aires) society has been invited: ambassadors, financiers, judges, politicians, artists, and the landed gentry. Its atmosphere could hardly be more inane, with shallowness the norm among the guests and pseudo-artistic conversations the order of the evening, thanks to the de Ragues’ collections of paintings. Lintas, the male protagonist, is an existential hero who has been to Europe and aspires to transcendence via his art. The de Ragues talk of the monetary rather than intrinsic artistic worth of their acquisitions, causing Lintas to commit the faux pas of telling the hostess that the prices of some paintings were inflated, with the result that he is forced to leave the party. Marta, daughter of the family, accompanies Lintas to his studio, where they engage in typical existentialist dialogues questioning the class structure, their place in life, and how to reach fulfillment.
In the novel’s other story line, the poet, about to add a line to a poem in progress and holding a piece of bread in one hand, has his human and creative activity interrupted by the intrusion of his country’s internal strife into his private domain. Soldiers invade the home of the nameless writer, taking him to the outskirts of the town, where he is executed. On the way, his sensations, his thoughts about dying, and the reflection that his white shirt will be covered with blood, together with his final perceptions, are detailed by an omniscient narrator. The tragic reality of this episode becomes even more stark in juxtaposition to the banality of the de Ragues’ party, their meaningless existence and bourgeois decadence in contrast with humanity’s need for physical and intellectual nourishment, as symbolized by the bread and poetry.
The Bay of Silence
Mallea’s next novel, The Bay of Silence, established him as one of Argentina’s most important writers. Probably one of his most autobiographical works, it reflects Mallea’s constant struggle to convince his people of the need to espouse certain social ideals. The protagonist’s suffering as he contemplates a misguided Argentina and perceives the reactions of an uncaring and impersonal public is the novel’s most important and obsessive theme.
Mallea’s attempt to encompass and portray a far more vast setting in time and space than in his previous novels, together with the work’s complexity, has caused some critics to view it as too rambling and amorphous. The novel is divided into three parts, “Los jóvenes” (“The Young Men”), “Las islas” (“The Islands”), and “Los derrotados” (“The Defeated”), spanning the period between 1926 and 1939. Set both in Argentina and in Europe, it shares with Nocturno europeo a contrast between the two cultures, a search for identity, and political themes reflecting the crises of the 1930’s. The novel is narrated in diary form by Martín Tregua, a former law student attempting to become a famous novelist (and thus a probable mask of Mallea). The coeditor of a magazine who is surrounded by intellectuals, he is working on a long novel titled The Forty Nights of Juan Argentino, suggesting incipient metaliterary elements and aspects of the self-aware novel.
Mallea apparently intends to present an Argentine archetype in the person of Tregua—ordinary, humble, filled with existential angst—as opposed to the corrupt oligarchy in power, a regime that is seen as not representative of the homo argentinus but intent only upon profit, even at the price of the country’s being sacrificed in the international marketplace. Tregua’s efforts to alter the status quo seem predestined to failure as they take the form of the publication of an avant-garde magazine, an undertaking not exempt of absurdity because of its inherent...
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