Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Mad Toy (21/81)

El Juguete Rabioso (usually translated as The Mad Toy), the debut novel of Roberto Arlt, was published with the help of Ricardo Güiraldes. It is arguably Arlt's most biographical work, chronicling the (mis)adventures of Silvio Drodman Astier as he attempts to find some way out of the poverty and alienation he has been born into.

Silvio is the parent of immigrants, an outsider in the world of early 20th Century Buenos Aires. He does not lack for ambition, though it often seems that the world works hard to thwart whatever minor dreams he may nurture. Because his father has abandoned the family, he finds himself having to quit school and seek work in order to support his mother and sister. At first he gets together with a couple of other neighborhood kids to engage in some theft, though their first crime--the break-in and robbery of a library--becomes their last after a close call with the police. Later, Silvio goes to work for a dishonest book seller, lands a job with the mechanic corps of the Air Force, and finally works as a paper salesman. The last of these turns out to be such drudgery, that he begins to consider returning to a life of crime.

Arlt expresses Silvio's drive, his hunger for success, in terms that must have been very familiar to him, as the changing circumstances move Silvio to alternate between hope and despair. The title is perhaps a little obvious in its metaphor: Silvio's overwhelming drives and passions combined with his inability to be enact them make him feel like some fierce frivolity. These different poles of existence are expressed in Arlt's unique prose, which combines lyricism with the street language of Buenos Aires.

The Mad Toy, as with most of Arlt's works, is a bracing, sometimes almost painful, work with moments of dark humor or fascinating inventiveness. It pales a bit in relation to Arlt's later The Seven Madmen (arguably his best work), in comparison with which it seems somewhat conventional, but if you've never read Arlt and are interested in encountering his unique representation of the alienation of modern life (Argentine style), The Mad Toy would be a good place to start.

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