Eduardo Mallea

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3784

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.

Nocturno europeo

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 futility. The first part, “The Young Men,” spanning eight years, portrays the young intellectual in Argentina in a constant groping for some meaning in life, agreeing with cohorts that the country has a problem but unable either to hit upon a solution or to try to do anything concrete and practical about it.

The second section, “The Islands,” covers only a few months and is set in Europe, where Tregua stays at a friend’s house in Brussels, discovers Joyce’s Ulysses of 1922 (an echo of Mallea’s encounter as a youthful translator), is overwhelmed by Joyce’s prose, and from Ulysses takes the inspiration for the form—a novel within a novel—of his own work in progress, The Forty Nights of Juan Argentino.

Returning to Argentina, the third division extends over a period of roughly five years. Professor Donald Shaw has correctly indicated the resemblance between Mallea’s novel and certain novels of the generación del 1898, or Generation of ’98, in Spain, especially of Pío Baroja, in being essentially an autobiographical essay in which the protagonist is a spokesperson for the author, while other characters serving as interlocutors are handpicked to express ideas that allow the protagonist to propound his own philosophy.

The Bay of Silence closes with a quasi-mystical self-analysis. Tregua comes to believe that he is reaching further inside himself and is concurrently almost at one with the silent heart of his land as a result of his contacts with simple people and the reduction of his life to the most elementary essentials.

All Green Shall Perish

All Green Shall Perish was written almost simultaneously with The Bay of Silence, appearing the following year, in 1941. While such temporal proximity might suggest similarities between the two works, All Green Shall Perish is a novel of very different structure, theme, and nature. Gone are the amorphous structure, constant digressions, and almost anarchic form of The Bay of Silence.

All Green Shall Perish is a novel of action, dramatic intensity, and classic structure with a tight, well-developed plot. Furthermore, the protagonist and other characters of The Bay of Silence are drawn from real life, while those in the latter novel are completely fictitious. The settings, however, are not invented but are taken from places the novelist had visited or lived, most particularly from around his native region of Bahía Blanca. In seeking to find the true, invisible Argentina, Mallea abandons the city and its urban dwellers, commonplace in his previous novels, to turn to a land frequently barren and silent, so desolate that its desert nature is projected upon or reflected in the inhabitants. Strangely enough, this novel—which is probably Mallea’s best-known work—is the one in which he comes closest to thethematics of the criollista novel (humankind’s doomed struggle against overpowering natural forces) and at the same time most nearly approaches the French version of existentialism that he so often repudiated.

All Green Shall Perish opens with a cinematographic panorama of barren land, skeletal trees, dry river, and emaciated cattle at the point of becoming part of the bleached bones strewn across the burning land, devastated by a forty-five-day drought. The preface, quoting from Ecclesiastes, reminds the reader how ill winds will devastate humankind when it least expects it. Nicanor Cruz and his wife, Agata, the protagonists, blend well with this background (the symbolic surname, meaning “cross,” suggests the burden the characters must bear in their struggle with nature). Agata’s name, with its reference to stone, is also suggestive: Her drunken and embittered father named her for the agate on his desk, the object of her dying mother’s stares. Her adolescence in Ingeniero White, near the large port of Bahía Blanca, is presented in a series of flashbacks that contrast the cosmopolitan milieu with her current isolation, the well-watered town with the arid desert, hopeful beginnings with the desperate present.

Husband and wife have been struggling in vain for fifteen years to produce green pastures and to bring the land to bear fruit; this failure parallels another, their inability to produce a child and to find a meaningful relationship in their marriage. Failing in all these efforts, they have succumbed physically and mentally to their environment. Unable to continue this miserable existence, Agata decides one winter when Nicanor is bedridden with pneumonia to end it all, opening doors and windows and disrobing as the freezing air rushes into the room. Field hands find them in the morning, but only Nicanor is dead; Agata’s aborted suicide ends the first part.

Bahía Blanca, the setting of the second part, provides a strong physical, environmental, and cultural contrast. By returning Agata (and the reader) to this more vital area, Mallea seems to suggest hope for those wishing to escape ennui, isolation, and despair. The city, however, has undergone a metamorphosis since Agata’s adolescence, and her attempts to retrace her steps, recapture her past, and thereby attain physical and spiritual rejuvenation are doomed to failure: Material change and technological progress have overwhelmed the past as she knew it, undermining its spiritual values.

The novelist presents a parade of characters—lawyers, physicians, accountants, merchants, single women, and others—all seeking the quickest means to make money and become a part of the boomtown prosperity. Entering this milieu, Agata becomes acquainted with a group of social butterflies and falls in love with one of them, a lawyer named Sotero. A nearly exact opposite of Agata, he is dynamic, loud, aggressive, and charming. The narrative viewpoint does not permit the reader to penetrate Agata’s mind, but her entering into a love affair with Sotero suggests not only her wish to change her personality but also a willingness to give of herself beyond a mere sexual relationship. An apparent desire for continuity is visible when Agata refuses to leave Sotero’s hotel room in the early morning hours. The lawyer is a self-centered hedonist, more interested in appearances than in Agata, and he has no wish for a permanent relationship with her. His decision to break off the relationship soon thereafter, by going to Buenos Aires, plunges Agata into a stupor; now certain of her failure and total isolation, she avoids all social contact.

At the novel’s end, Agata appears alone against the backdrop of the deserted town and empty countryside, pursued by a menacing juvenile gang. The mood of All Green Shall Perish is not one of unremitting gloom, since there is a period of hope when Agata returns to Bahía Blanca, but she is not sufficiently aware to make the right existential choices and so once more plummets into pessimism and desolation. The denouement seems to suggest that humankind is condemned to loneliness, each person predestined by nature to become that which he or she ultimately proves to be.

Despite the novel’s generally favorable critical reception, there has been adverse reaction by some critics to the limited autonomy accorded to Agata by the novelist. These observers perceive in her a monotonous personality, the result of a flat, one-dimensional character. Others, however, have seen in her suffering and state of mind a mystical experience comparable to that described by the Spanish mystic Saint John of the Cross in his The Dark Night of the Soul (1579).

Los enemigos del alma

Los enemigos del alma (the enemies of the soul) was described by Mallea as a “sort of visual exultation that took hold of me.” That visual fervor underlies one of his best descriptive achievements, and critics have singled out the descriptive element as perhaps the most significant aspect of the novel.

Set in Bahía Blanca in the 1930’s, the novel provides a fascinating glimpse of the city by means of a large cast of marvelously well-described secondary characters. Against the backdrop of the city appear five protagonists belonging to two families: Three—Cora, Debora, and Mario—are descendants of José Guillén, and the remaining two are a married couple, Luis Ortigosa and his wife, Consuelo. Debora, the oldest of the Guillén offspring, is hermetic, antisocial, and puritanical in the extreme, while the younger brother and sister are hedonists who engage in every pleasure available in the town. Villa Rita, the mansion that was constructed by their father and in which they live, reflects the psychological and spiritual condition of its inhabitants: It is dilapidated and gloomy, humid and stale, often engulfed by fog and drizzle. José Guillén, their father, a vain and jealous man, had brutalized their mother, and their existence was nothing more than an affirmation of his machismo. As a result of living in a psychological atmosphere charged with hate, the three younger Guilléns become enemies of the spiritual realm.

The Ortigosas provide a counterpart to the inhabitants of Villa Rita. Consuelo married Luis to save her father, subsequently seizing on Luis’s platonic relationship with a young girl (with whom he shared artistic ambitions) as a pretext for withdrawing into her own world and remaining estranged from her husband and perpetually unforgiving. Mario Guillén, bored and seeking amusement, sets out to seduce Consuelo, while his younger sister Cora flirts with Luis. Debora, suspecting the relationship among the four and outraged in her puritanical repression, sends a series of anonymous letters to the Ortigosas in the hope of putting an end to the presumptive affairs, but she is unable to provoke either spouse to act. Increasingly certain that their encounters are sexual, she considers leaving Villa Rita but is deterred by the realization that this would please them all. Rather than acknowledge defeat, Debora sets the living-room curtains afire, rapidly igniting the rest of the house, and perishes in the flames with her brother and sister.

Although she has occasional parodic points of contact with the avenging angel of the Apocalypse, Debora was not intended as an allegorical figure. Mallea, responding to criticism, indicated that she is a complex human being with a large number of contradictory and conflicting emotions just below the surface. Her behavior is allegedly the result of the cruel and emotionally sterile past that molded her character and predetermined her destiny (much like Agata in All Green Shall Perish, she is limited in her autonomy by the nature of the personality she possesses). Aware of her limitations and half-intuiting her emotional sterility, she resents humanity in general and rejects all psychological or spiritual growth.

As fictional creations, Mallea’s heroines seem to lack the complexity of their more autobiographically inspired masculine counterparts, but male and female protagonists alike struggle, with generally little success, to meet the existential challenges of authenticity, communication, commitment, and self-realization. The discouraging conclusions to be drawn from their failures and frustrations are reinforced by the reiterated motif of predestination, a result not as much of social determinism (for, in the course of several novels, Mallea presents characters of varying classes of society—urban and rural, rich and poor, old and young) as of an inherent deficiency in the human condition, whereby the limits of one’s personality, set early in life, conspire to annihilate freedom.

Chaves

Perhaps Mallea’s best-structured novel, Chaves contains few of the digressions present in earlier works that detract from the linear narrative: prolonged, erudite discussions of art, literature, philosophy, and history; the relentless focus on bourgeois manners and environment; the myriad soliloquies by “beautiful people” of wealth and family whose lives are an endless round of receptions, drinking, talking, and other accoutrements of the dolce vita. Thereby reduced to about one-third the length of the average Mallea novel, Chaves attains a dramatic impact appropriate to its subject that would have been lost by a more extended, rambling narrative.

A brief, intense character study of a withdrawn sawmill worker whose taciturnity is the result of profound grief and frustration, Chaves concentrates upon its grave, aloof, self-sufficient protagonist, who sometimes seems almost an allegorical figure. His refusal to socialize and participate in the pettiness of the primitive society of the sawmill community in Argentina’s southwestern mountains arouses hostility and alienates him. Although Chaves is cast as an outsider, his behavior is not calculated arrogance or intellectual withdrawal, for he is rather a simple man.

From flashbacks, Chaves’s psychological formation is reconstructed. Born, like the author, in Bahía Blanca, he grew up with nature and the ocean, amid sand dunes, without developing ambition or a competitive spirit. A change ensues when he meets a woman named Pura (“pure”), whom he marries. He then decides to compromise his ethical values to better support her: He sells worthless real estate while they live in a rented room. A daughter born to the couple dies at age four, underlining their failure and inability to conquer the sterile, dead environment. Moving from the hills of Córdoba to Tucumán, they settle in a small town where they live uneventfully for years, until fate intervenes and Pura dies of typhoid fever. Chaves’s last attempt to communicate with other human beings is part of the futile effort to save Pura, but his recourse to the long-unused spoken word is to no avail. His silence deepens, and coworkers’ attempts to force him to speak nearly degenerate into violence. Rescued by the foreman from an attack by coworkers, Chaves responds to his benefactor’s request that he terminate his alienation with one word, “No.” He is the existential outsider, a prototype of the hero so popular among French existentialists during the succeeding decade.

Some critics have suggested parallels between Chaves and Meursault in Albert Camus’s The Stranger (1942). Both refuse to play by the rules and as a result become pariahs, but with certain differences. At the end of The Stranger, Meursault rises to denounce humankind’s inhumanity to humans and points to humanity’s eagerly awaiting death. Chaves, by contrast, refuses to speak, and his alienation is prolonged beyond the novel’s end because he is not released by death.

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