Roberto Arlt was the antithesis of the genteel dilettantes who dominated Argentine literature in his day. He was forced to abandon his formal education when he was in the third grade, after which he became by turns a dock worker, salesman, laborer, factory worker, and newspaperman. The poverty of tenement life in Buenos Aires was what Arlt knew best. His background made him resolutely unsympathetic to that subject matter favored by upper-class writers—the pleasures of the rich, the glories of the past, and the myths of the vanishing pastoral life—though he knew something of this kind of literature from having served as a secretary in 1925-1927 to one of those writers, the justly acclaimed Ricardo Güiraldes.
Despite having had to leave school, Arlt lost neither the desire to learn nor his passionate interest in science, which his German immigrant parents had encouraged in him. He continued his education through reading, and years later he secured a patent for rubberized hosiery. Arlt fictionalizes the thwarting of his scientific obsessions in several novels. The recasting of youthful interests is also evident in his transformation of the techniques and stock subjects of his favorite childhood authors. In his novels and plays he relies heavily on peril, criminality, and fantasy to create mock-heroic adventures that provide a stark contrast to the pinched lives of the poor.
Models for his characters came from many sources. In addition to reflecting his painful childhood experiences, his writing shows the influence of Friedrich Nietzsche’s writings on Christianity and authority and of such literary classics as the works of Fyodor Dostoevski and Maxim Gorky. Beyond that, Arlt also drew on his wide acquaintance among the theosophists, petty thieves, pimps, and anarchists of the Buenos Aires underworld whom he met in La Puñalada, a popular working-class café. Arlt celebrates many of these figures, mostly immigrants and variously...
(The entire section is 800 words.)