Argentine Classic Heroizes the Gaucho
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By Ricardo Guiraldes
Patricia Owen Steiner
University of Pittsburgh Press, 302 pp.,$49.95
As with many highly regarded literary works, the characterization of a subculture mixes enough truth with myth so that critics can disagree on levels of veracity. This is the case with Ricardo Guiraldes' classic novel of the Argentine pampa, ''Don Segundo Sombra.''
First published in 1926, the novel depicts the world of the gaucho with enormously readable charm. Beyond this, because of the issues raised by the novel, it remains important to Argentine national identity. Praised either as an emotional elegy to the gaucho, or an indigenous vindication of the Argentine spirit, the novel took the country by storm in 1926 and has been mandatory reading since.
This critical edition, translated by Patricia Owen Steiner, also includes essays by several scholars placing the novel, Guiraldes, and the gaucho in a wider context.
''Don Segundo Sombra'' arrived as Argentina was experiencing a wave of immigration and struggling to define nationalism including, for many artists, the authenticity of the primitive. The gaucho, often compared mistakenly to the American cowboy, was not part of a traditional community, but lived in a rootless, completely masculine culture that was a nomadic brotherhood to the core.
Gauchos carried big knives, not pistols in holsters. ''To gallop is to swallow distance,'' Guiraldes writes. ''To arrive, for the gaucho, is but a pretext for departing.''
The novel is narrated by Fabio Cacerces, a rebellious 14-year-old orphan first attracted to gaucho life by the figure of Don Segundo Sombra, a legendary gaucho who rides proudly into a rural town one afternoon looking for work.
Fabio is awed by him: ''His chest was huge, his joints bony like those of a colt, his feet short with an instep like a round roll, his hands bulky and leathery like an armadillo's shell. His skin was like an Indian's, his eyes slightly slanted toward the temples and small. To talk with greater ease, he had pushed back his narrow-brimmed hat, revealing a fringe of hair cut like a mane to the level of his eyebrows.''
What marks Don Segundo is his taciturn wisdom. It thwarts foolish attacks by strangers and leads to mastery of any situation in which he and his horse tangle with cattle or bulls. He can out-guess the weather, break any horse, avoid women, use his knife with great skill, and tell archival-quality myths around the campfire. In any culture he would be endearing and memorable.
While Guiraldes balances his elegy with sweat, danger, and the humor of being a gaucho, crucial journalistic information is just at the margins. Steiner writes that gauchos were mostly illiterate and superstitious. Gauchos held outsiders in contempt and ridiculed educated people. ''The gaucho looked down on women as somehow weaker than men and given to tears,'' Steiner writes. Prostitutes traveled from ranch to ranch or stopped at pulperias (a country store and bar) for the gaucho. Not wanting to be part of community life, gauchos looked on marriage as simply an arrangement. Their women usually lived in poverty at the edge of a ranch. The government considered their children illegitimate.
Don Segundo becomes a padrino, (godfather or protector) to the impulsive Fabio as they roam the pampas. Eventually, after many coming-of-age adventures, Fabio learns the identity of his father - a large landowner - and ironically becomes what he first rejected. The novel is told as a remembrance, infused with love and longing, and the tension between gaucho rootlessness and the demands of civilization.
Over time, with the continuing popularity of the book, the gaucho has become more of an idealized hero in Argentina rather than a skillful primitive.