The publication of these two books is a notable event for all Latin Americanists with any interest in cultural history. Professor Earle’s is the first substantial study of one of the most gifted Latin American writers of this century, the well-read and deeply pessimistic Argentine Ezequiel Martínez Estrada (1895-1964); and X-Ray of the Pampa is the first English translation of his most famous book, Radiografía de la Pampa (1933).
For historians, Martínez Estrada’s fife and writings are a treasure trove. He took a deep interest in the history of Argentina and wrote at length about two of its main themes, the poem and myth of Martín Fierro and the Facundo of Domingo Sarmiento, whose thesis about the conflict between civilization and barbarism he turned upside down in favor of the latter. His writings are a prime expression of the irrationalism that had been welling up in the Atlantic world since the turn of the century. And there is much of interest to historians in his relations with his contemporaries and his powerful influence on the younger generation after World War II.
Earle has not given us either a full-length biography or a life-and-times of his subject. Instead, he has confined his study to an analysis of Martínez Estrada’s principal works and an interpretation of his “role in Argentine intellectual history.” So closely does Earle adhere to these purposes that he tells us next to nothing about Don Ezequiel’s early life; we have to learn from other sources that he was born in 1895, in the interior village of San José de la Esquina, and that his father was a coachman or hack driver. The omission is rather surprising in view of the book’s stress on psychology and psychologists, especially Sigmund Freud, who is described as one of Martínez Estrada’s “basic masters” (the other two were Spengler and Schopenhauer). Similarly, so little is said about the violently changing political, economic, and social scene that many readers may be puzzled to learn that Martínez Estrada suffered severely from what seems to have been a psychosomatic skin disease during the last, worst years of Juan Perón’s rule and was then so disappointed by the post-Perón regimes that he went into virtual exile, first in Mexico, then in Castro’s Cuba (where he wrote a big biography of José Martí but never met Fidel), and finally in one of the more remote provincial cities of Argentina, Bahía Blanca.
Within his chosen limits Earle’s book is a model of its kind. It is a thorough, comprehensive, and remarkably well balanced analysis and interpretation of this stimulating, cantankerous writer’s principal works, which included poems and novels as well as essays. After an introductory chapter, Earle discusses Martínez Estrada’s five “most important” books and underlines the analytical character of his approach by taking them up in an order widely different from that in which they were written. Beginning with a chapter on Sarmiento (1946), he goes back in the next to X-Ray of the Pampa, moves forward again to Death and Transfiguration of Martín Fierro (1948), and then, in Chapter V, jumps first back and then forward to The Head of Goliath (1940) and The Marvelous World of William Henry Hudson (1951), along with several pages on the novels. A chapter on “The Poet” (Martínez Estrada’s primary role until he shifted to the long essay in 1933) and an Epilogue bring the text to a close. The bibliography lists books and articles by Martínez Estrada (the titles are given only in Spanish here, but only in English translation in the text) and “Critical and Related Writings.” There is an adequate index.
Earle has no doubt that Martínez Estrada was “a great writer” and brackets him with the present-day best in Argentina and Latin America at large. He recognizes, though, that his opinion is not universally shared. One dissenter is Jorge Abelardo Ramos, who insists that the title of the 1948 book ought to be Death and Disfiguration of Martín Fierro. Another is Juan José Sebreli, the author of the only other book-length study, who describes Martínez Estrada’s whole literary career as a futile exercise in “irrational pessimism” and romantic anarchism à la Rousseau. To be sure, both Ramos and Sebreli write from a Marxist angle, but so do many of the younger Latin American writers. One wonders, then, what the future holds for his reputation in his own cultural enclave.
That he is “not well known outside the Hispanic world” is admitted by Earle, who is probably right in thinking that the explanation lies, “at least in part,” in Martínez Estrada’s “obsessive nationalism” and in what others might call his Argentine parochialism. In this respect he contrasts sharply with his Spanish contemporary, José Ortega y Gasset, by whom he was influenced in some ways, but not enough, it seems. For Ortega went on from his obsession with “Invertebrate Spain” to write his classic of far wider scope, The Revolt of the Masses, which has no counterpart in the Argentine’s bibliography. But another part of the explanation may be that, as Earle points out, Martínez Estrada was a derivative writer—“as the solitary writer in our century is likely to be,” he adds, but with the further admission that Martínez Estrada’s “view of Argentina and the Latin American world . . . was inseparable from his interpretation of Spengler, Nietzsche, Montaigne, Kafka, and Simone Weil. . ..” All this (and there is more, much more) does great credit to his absorptive capacity, but it is not the best basis for a claim to world-wide fame, any more than is the fact that this obsessive nationalist and pitiless critic of European civilization depended on European writers for his guiding ideas.
Yet even such sharp critics as Ramos admit that he is one of the best writers of Spanish in the present century. This talent, together with his vigor in presenting a wide variety of ideas (no matter how derivative) should preserve his niche in the Hispanic literary Hall of Fame despite the ebb and flow of political tides. And he is a must for students of Argentina’s past, especially of his own lifetime.
But was he a prophet? Earle calls him one in the title of his book. It may be only a coincidence that in 1945, the year before the appearanee of Martínez Estrada’s Sarmiento, Ricardo Rojas published a book of his own on the same man under the title El profeta de la pampa; and Earle tells us that Martínez Estrada in his later years showed “a growing tendency to self-dramatization” and “lived and acted out in a symbolic way his complex role as voluntary exile, prophet (‘Ezequiel’) and excitator Argentiniae.” If he turned to the Rook of Ezekiel in the Bible, Don Ezequiel must have been gratified to find that he had already made a good start in that role, for in the first two chapters we read that the voice of the Lord told the prophet, “I send thee to . . . a rebellious nation . . . impudent children and stiff-hearted,” and a hand (doubtless the Lord’s) presented him with a book wherein “there was written . . . lamentations, and mourning, and woe.” Not unlike X-Ray of the Pampa.
But Earle’s book also suggests a different kind of prophet. Its main title brings to mind the voice of John the Baptist and the text describes X-Ray as “a first cry in the wilderness.” The only trouble with this identification is that Martínez Estrada’s voice heralded the coming not of a Messiah, a Savior, but of doom. Moreover, he was far from being unique among Argentines for either the gloom or the accuracy of his prognostications. Rather, as Earle so well says, his “literary mission was to recapitulate the hopes and disappointments of many preceding generations,” to express “the foreboding spirit that has permeated Argentine literature” since 1930, and to “reflect quite truthfully the extensive deterioration of Argentine civic life” in the 1930s and ’40s (emphasis added). It is this very just observation that brings Martínez Estrada down to earth, where mere historians can deal with him.
For them X-Ray of the Pampa is probably the most important of his books, both because of its broad sweep and provocative pronouncements and because of its ultimate impact. It was little noticed at first, but, as Earle points out, it opened “a new epoch in Argentine literature,” arousing a national consciousness comparable to that of the Generation of 1898 in Spain, and his later essays were in many cases supplements and appendices to this one. Opinions of its quality differ widely. Earle himself finds either The Head of Goliath or Death and Transfiguration, or both, more “creative,” more “serious,” more “ambitious,” and “literarily superior.” Yet X-Ray has the unquestioned primacy of a pioneering work and it may still be today, as one commentator found it in 1947, the only work for which many readers remember its author.
This translation of X-Ray is acceptable despite occasional lapses. More serious is the lack of explanatory notes. In his sprightly Introduction Thomas F. McGann makes a virtue of this omission. After making the questionable assertion that the omission “will not impair appreciation of Martínez Estrada’s themes,” McGann suggests that it “may lead the reader to search into the history of Argentina, to find out about Sarmiento and Mansilla and Pellegrini and the other Argentine people and places to whom the author refers.” Such an explication de texte, conducted as a group activity in a less hurried and harried age, might prove entertaining as well as instructive if it were only the Argentine people and places the readers would have to look up. But that would be only the beginning of their labors, for Martínez Estrada showed all the fondness of an autodidact for using out-of-the-way terms and allusions even when he is not sure of their meaning, as he apparently did with “entelechy” (p. 157) and “eristic” (p. 386). One wonders how much time it will take for even a better-than-average student to make anything of “georgic vapor” (p. 156), “euchologia” and “infula” (p. 212), “Hesiodic period” and “gnomic poem” (p. 387), and “Caudine gallows” (p. 382), which should almost certainly be translated “Caudine Forks,” the scene of a famous defeat of the ancient Romans. And imagine the picture that will be summoned up in the mind’s eye of the student when, after reading that in a man’s “ownership of thousands of leagues there is a lordly drive (that of a digitigrade)” he finds “digitigrade” defined in the dictionary as “an animal walking on the toes, as most quadrupeds.”