Kick-starting The Argentina Independent’s ‘Beyond Borges’ series is an author generally accepted as marking the beginning of Argentine literature, and arguably the first writer to play a significant role in its development.
Esteban Echeverría (courtesy of Wikipedia)
As one of the earliest romantic writers in Latin America, founder and figurehead of the first circle of young Argentine intellectuals, and the author behind the country’s first work of literary prose, poet Esteban Echeverría is a man credited with many literary titles.
His graphic and bloody vignette, ‘El matadero’, is commonly considered a cornerstone of national literature and remains one of the most studied texts in Argentina.
Born in Buenos Aires in 1805, Echeverría spent his early twenties educating himself in Paris where he absorbed the spirit of a flourishing French romantic movement. On his return to Argentina he became one of the first authors to pioneer and adopt romanticism inside Latin America.
While several other Spanish-speaking nations also claim to have had the first romantic poet, some say that when Echeverría published his collections ‘Los consuelos’ and ‘Rimas’ in the mid-1830s, he introduced the movement not only to Latin Americans, but also to the Spanish.
For this reason, his poetry and prose can be seen as marking the beginning of a new style of writing – one which signified Argentina’s literary break from the Spanish and a move away from the artistic currents that had previously flowed from Madrid. Until then, Argentine writers had grown up under independence fervour, but remained limited by a paradoxical Spanish influence that prevented them from developing their own distinct style.
Quoting French poet Victor Hugo by describing romanticism as “liberalism in literature”, Echeverría became one of the first Latin American writers to employ literature as a vehicle for communicating strong political and social opinion.
Although he authored several works, Echeverría’s reputation as a writer rests most securely on ‘El matadero’ and on his long narrative poem ‘La cautiva’, published as the 2,100-line centrepiece of ‘Rimas’ in 1837.
‘El matadero’ was written in the late 1830s but not published until 1871. It came politically-charged and packed a powerful punch against the federalist dictatorship that existed in Argentina at the time. Set inside a Buenos Aires slaughteryard, this short story describes the capture and torture of a passing unitarian by the Mazorca – brutal enforcers of Juan Manuel de Rosas’ federalist regime.
Inside 'El matadero' slaughteryard (Photo: Sam Verhaert)
Written as a political allegory, the Mazorca can be seen to represent barbarism and the young protagonist to represent civilisation. Or in a different light, the federalists are presented as butchers and the unitarians as animals.
First published inside the ‘Revista del Río de la Plata’ twenty years after Echeverría’s death and more than thirty years after it was written, the text is widely acclaimed for its realistic presentation of a gruesome period in Argentina’s history.
The poem ‘La cautiva’, translated into English as ‘The captive woman’, marks the first instance of rural Latin America serving as poetic backdrop, and is also listed among the best known romantic works of 19th century Latin American literature.
Featuring the indigenous people of the time as its subjects, the poem was commended for bursting the illusion of harmonious racial relations. Whereas captivity tales had traditionally been told in the first person by the survivor, ‘La cautiva’ uses the third person to narrate the fate of a couple captured by indians at the frontier.
Like ‘El matadero’, the poem is noted for its incorporation of local dialects and regionalisms without the use of italics or quotation marks. It also explores the struggle to position a national identity somewhere between Europe and America – an issue which journalist, essayist, and author Domingo Faustino Sarmiento would later place at the heart of Latin American culture.
The Generation of 1837
Along with many intellectuals of the period, Echeverría sought shelter from the Rosas dictatorship in neighbouring Uruguay, where he lived until his death in 1851. What forced him into exile, however, was not the unpublished manuscript of ‘El matadero’, but his association with the group of Argentine writers and intellectuals known collectively as the ‘Generation of 1837’.
The Generation of '37 created a literary salon in the backroom of Marcos Sastre's bookstore (Photo: Sam Verhaert)
Brought together by a shared passion for aesthetics and freedom, they gathered in the backroom of Marcos Sastre’s bookstore to give readings and engage in intellectual debate.
Within six months, the movement Echeverría had been so fundamental in starting was taken underground. Renamed the ‘Assosciation of May’ and holding onto the spirit of the 1810 revolution, they became Rosas’ most determined opposition with the slogan: “May, Progress, Democracy”.
When his signature on an anti-Rosas petition eventually brought about his exile in 1840, Echeverría moved to Montevideo where he made up part of a far-reaching network of exiled intellectuals in Uruguay, Chile and France. The movement continued to actively oppose the Argentine government whilst simultaneously campaigning for the creation of a national literature that was representative and responsive to social climates.
Echeverría’s popularity among his peers was such that one present day scholar has described him as “a Beatle”, with others suggesting that his esteem exceeded the literary merit of the majority of his work, taking care to make an exception of his brief but impacting novel ‘El matadero’.
As undoubtedly the most popular Argentine intellectual of the first half of the 19th century, Echeverría became a leader of many and an attraction for the rest- paving the way for a change of direction in Argentine literature.
The Slaughter Yard (Spanish El matadero, title often imprecisely translated as The Slaughterhouse[note 1]), is a short story by the Argentine poet and essayist Esteban Echeverría (1805-1851). It was the first Argentine work of prose fiction. It is one of the most studied texts in Latin American literature. Written in exile but published posthumously in 1871, it is an attack on the brutality of the Federalist regime of Juan Manuel Rosas and his parapolice thugs, the Mazorca.
The text in the first uniform[note 2] edition of Echeverría's works (ed. Gutiérrez together with Gutiérrez's editorial commentary) may be downloaded from the Internet Archive. A printed English translation by Norman Thomas di Giovanni has been published.[note 3]
The following is an English-language précis of the original Spanish text.
The action takes place on some unspecified date in the 1830s during the season of Lent. The City of Buenos Aires has been isolated by floods. Pounding their pulpits, the preachers thunder that the Day of Judgement is nigh; that God is angry with the wickedness of man – and, more especially, with the heretical unitarios (adherents of the proscribed Unitario political party).
Eventually the floods abate but not before the city has run out of beef. The government gives orders that 50 bullocks are to be slaughtered, ostensibly to provide beef for children and the sick (for otherwise meat is forbidden to Catholics during Lent). The reader is given to understand that the meat is really intended for privileged persons including Rosas himself and his corrupt clergy.
Echeverría proceeds to paint the slaughter yard scene in lurid colours: in the pens, the cattle stuck in the glutinous mud; the blood-smeared, half-naked butchers – brutal men, staunch Rosas supporters to a man; the hideous black female offal-scavengers; the growling mastiffs; the screaming carrion birds; the riotous youths who amuse themselves by pelting the females and each other with lumps of bloody meat or guts; the cynical, bestial language.
On a ruinous shed there are signboards declaiming: "Long live the Federation"; "Long live the Restorer[note 4] and the heroine doña Encarnación Ezcurra";[note 5] "Death to the savage unitarios". Presiding there is the sinister Judge of the Slaughter Yard. By order of Rosas the Judge enjoys absolute power over this collection of debased humanity.
Forty-nine bullocks are slaughtered, flayed and quartered with axes. One more animal remains. But there is a suspicion that he may be no bullock, but a bull – though bulls are not allowed in the slaughter yard. Driven mad with rage by the crowd's handling, he charges. A horseman lassoes him but owing to an accident the taut lasso decapitates a child. The animal escapes and heads off to the city, pursued by a crowd, which, incidentally, tramples a passing Englishman.[note 6] After an hour the animal is recaptured, taken back to the slaughter yard and despatched in horrific terms by the butcher Matasiete (the name means braggart, bully, literally "he kills seven"). The "bullock" is then cut open and proves after all to possess an enormous pair of retracted testicles – much to the amusement of the crowd, which by now has forgotten the decapitated boy.
At this point the chief protagonist, who is never named but is a man of about 25, enters the scene. The crowd immediately spots that he is a unitario (supporter of the proscribed political party). His sideburns are cut in the form of a letter U (for unitario); he is not displaying the mandatory rosista emblem; neither is he wearing the obligatory mourning for Rosas' late wife. (It is not explained why the protagonist has chosen to ride about Buenos Aires dressed in this illegal, indeed reckless manner.) Furthermore, his horse bears a silla or gringo saddle[note 7] – in the crowd's mentality, the sure sign of the effete city slicker.
Egged on by the crowd, Matasiete throws him from his horse, seizes him by the necktie and holds a dagger to his throat.
"Cut his throat, Matasiete" jeers the crowd. At that point the slaughter yard Judge rides up and orders that the protagonist be taken to his shed, which is also a rudimentary courtroom. In this room is a massive table never without glasses of grog and playing cards "unless to make room for the executions and tortures of the Federalist thugs of the slaughter yard". After the crowd has shouted threats and ribald insults the Judge orders everyone to shut up and sit down.
There then transpires an angry dialogue between (on the one hand) the Judge and taunting crowd and (on the other) the defiant, brave but rather high-minded protagonist. The Judge and the crowd speak in direct, colloquial street Spanish but, curiously, the protagonist, even when insulting them, uses correct literary language, addressing them in the third person.
At last the Judge delivers his ruling: "Drop this city slicker's underpants and give him the verge[note 8] to his bald buttocks". The reader is assumed to understand the inward significance of the word Mazorca (mazorca is Spanish for "corncob": the corncob is the Mazorca's chosen instrument of torture by rectal insertion). The protagonist is violently stretched out on the torture-table and he develops paroxysms of uncontrollable rage, demanding to have his throat cut rather than submit to this indignity.
After a terrible struggle the young man bursts a blood vessel and dies on the spot. The Judge comments: "Poor devil; we only wanted to amuse ourselves, but he took it too seriously."
Significance in Latin American literature
According to the American editor, translator and Borges collaborator Norman Thomas di Giovanni, "Esteban Echeverría’s El matadero, written towards the end of the 1830s, is chronologically the first work of Argentine prose fiction…. Owing in part to its brevity – a mere 6,000 or so words – it may be the most studied school text in all Latin American literature. It is certainly known and acclaimed beyond the borders of Argentina."
For Borges himself, who wrote a foreword to one edition, "In Echeverría's text there is a sort of hallucinatory realism, which can recall the great shadows of Hugo and Herman Melville".
"If one text has exercised a decisive influence in Argentine literature and art, it seems to be The Slaughter Yard, spearhead of a large number of editions and studies, and seed of a still-prevailing movement where new readings and meanings are sought."
A 1998 survey of U.S. universities found the work was required graduate reading at 73% of Ph.D.-granting Spanish faculties, the highest score for any Spanish American nineteenth century work of fiction.[note 9]
Echeverría's oeuvre extends to five printed volumes, but his literary prestige chiefly depends on this single short story.
Although The Slaughter Yard is a story, it is based on some elements of fact. English-speaking memorialists described the setting (the south Matadero shown in the Vidal image) and their accounts corroborate many of Echeverría's details. The clergy indeed upheld Rosas' dictatorship.[note 10] It was indeed compulsory to display rosista emblems including "Death to the savage unitarios.[note 11] The butchers in the slaughter yards were indeed staunch Rosas supporters and did supply thugs for his Mazorca. The Mazorca did use the corncob as an instrument of torture. Further, according to Gutiérrez
The scene of the "savage unitario" in the power of the Judge of the Slaughter Yard and his myrmidons is not an invention but a reality that happened more than once in that ill-fated era. The only thing in this picture that can have been the author's invention would be the moral appreciation of the circumstances, the language and the victim's conduct, which functions as the noble poet would have done himself in an analogous situation.
Writing and publication
It is usually said[by whom?] that Echeverría wrote "The Slaughter Yard" at some time in 1838-40. Although he had fled to Uruguay the long arm of Rosas could still reach him there; according to Echeverría's friend Juan María Gutiérrez, who was afterwards rector of the University of Buenos Aires, "If the story had fallen into the hands of Rosas its author would have disappeared immediately." Gutiérrez, who said he personally examined the manuscript, added:
He well knew the risk he was running, but it could have been rage, more than fear, that produced his trembling handwriting , which is almost illegible in the original manuscript.
It was Gutiérrez who edited the work for publication in 1871.
Challenge to the traditional view
That Echeverría did not publish the story because he feared assassination even in Uruguay was denied by Cabañas, who pointed out that Echeverría did publish other works which, he claimed, were equally offensive. Rather, the story did not fit Echeverría's aesthetic sensibility.
The traditional view[which?] as to dating and authorship was challenged by Emilio Carilla in 1993. Carilla acknowledged that Gutiérrez had a venerable reputation as a man of letters. But he pointed out that Gutierrez had a habit of unilaterally "correcting" the works of the authors he edited (for editors of that era, his was a not uncommon failing); supplying copious examples. He also noted that – according to his own admission: in a private letter to Alberdi – Gutiérrez wrote and published a detailed book review of Sarmiento'sFacundo before he had read the book! As regards "The Slaughter Yard", said Carilla:
- The manuscript of the story has never been found.
- It cannot be found amongst Gutierrez's collection of Echeverría's papers.
- There is no positive evidence that the manuscript was ever seen by anyone, apart from Gutiérrez and (presumably) Echeverría himself.
- Therefore, critics have had to take Gutierrez's text and account on trust.
- Before 1871, when discussing Echeverría's works, Gutierrez not so much as mentioned the most important item: "The Slaughter Yard". Presumably, he did not acquire the MS until about that year.
- In his own writings Echeverría never mentioned "The Slaughter Yard" either.
Therefore, for Carilla, it was surprising that critics had assumed "The Slaughter Yard" was composed around 1838-40: that was merely the time in which the story was set. It could equally well have been written at any time up to Echeverría's death in 1851 – shortly before the dictator Rosas was overthrown. Hence, although it was tempting to regard "The Slaughter House" as a work composed at the height of Rosas' state terrorism, there was really no evidence that it was.
Carllla then turned to Gutierrez's editorial notes on the story. According to Gutierrez, the manuscript had not been intended for publication but as a sketch for a poem Echeverría had intended to write, "as is proved by the haste and carelessness with which it had been drawn up". But that, said Carilla, is absurd, for the published text of "The Slaughter Yard" is pretty well flawless. We may therefore suspect that Gutierrez himself had to do with the composition of the story. And the proof is in the story's last paragraph:
In those days the throat-cutting butchers of the Slaughter Yard were the advocates who spread the rosista Federation by rod and dagger ... They used to call a savage unitario ... anyone who was not a cutthroat, butcher, nor savage, nor thief, every decent man with a good heart, every enlightened patriot friend of light and liberty ...
That, said Carilla, must have been written after the Rosas dictatorship, and by Gutierrez himself. Gutiérrez was a collaborator, a joint author of "The Slaughter Yard".
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There is endless discussion about the literary type or genre to which "The Slaughter House" belongs: story, novel of manners, essay or hybrid. For German scholar Christian Wehr, "The Slaughter Yard" is the foundational text of an autochthonous Latin American genre he called Diktatorenromans : the dictator novel.
As noted, the protagonist speaks in elite literary Spanish but the slaughter yard denizens (including the Judge) use the direct street Spanish of low class Buenos Aires. "The Slaughter Yard" is the first work to record this argot. It may be fruitfully compared with the vernacular Spanish of the city that is in use today, long after the massive Italo-Hispanic immigrations of the early twentieth century.[note 12] The text appears to be the first to record the typical Argentine interjection "che".
Readings and symbolism
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In its immediate or obvious meaning it is simply a story of biting political criticism: almost as obvious is the symbolism of the slaughter yard as a microcosm of Rosas' polity where, but for the hero and the one bull who does have cojones, all are easily controlled. However all sorts of interpretations or symbolic meanings have been sought: Freudian, as a necessary ritual sacrifice, as an item in "Argentina's necrophilic catalogue", as a racist attack on Rosas' Afro-Argentines, from a feminist perspective, and as Echeverría's (and indeed his political school's) crisis of masculinity.
- ^ accessed 19 November 2015.
- ^di Giovanni.
- ^Borges (in Spanish)
- ^Guarino (in Spanish).
- ^Brown and Johnson, 1, 16.
- ^Gutierrez, 1.
- ^Pupo-Walker, 402.
- ^Vidal, 34-40.
- ^Hudson, 286-7.
- ^Hutchinson, 27-33.
- ^Di Meglio.
- ^Lynch,100; Hadfield, 291).
- ^Gutiérrez, 213.
- ^See e.g. Carla, 48-9.
- ^Gutiérrez, 213.
- ^Revista del Río de la Plata, I, 563-585: Carilla, 585.
- ^Cabañas, 133-4.
- ^Carilla, 30.
- ^Cabañas, 133.
- ^Wehr, 310.
- ^Sorbille, 2007, 23.
- ^Sorbille, 2009, 94.
- ^Bauzá, 191.
- ^Martínez, 75-6.
- ^Shumway, 207.
- ^Coromina, 15. (The woman scavengers must be represented as old, ugly birds of prey and harpies because the slaughter yard is not a "domestic space".)
- ^Haberly, 291.
- Bauzá, Hugo F. "El matadero": Estampa de un sacrificio ritual. Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana, Año 26, No. 51 (2000), pp. 191–198. (Centro de Estudios Literarios "Antonio Cornejo Polar" - CELACP.) Stable URL https://www.jstor.org/stable/4531102.
- Borges, Prologue to El Matadero by Esteban Echeverría, Buenos Aires, 8 December 1982, in Borges Todo El Año,  accessed 18 November 2015.
- Brown, Joan L. and Johnson, Crista, Required Reading: The Canon of Spanish and Spanish American Literature, Hispania, Vol. 1, No 1 (March 1998), pp. 1–19, American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese, stable URL https://www.jstor.org/stable/345448.
- Cabañas, Miguel Angel. Géneros al matadero: Esteban Echeverría y la cuestión de los tipos literarios. Revista de Crítica Literaria Latinoamericana, Año 24, No. 48 (1998), pp. 133–147. Centro de Estudios Literarios "Antonio Cornejo Polar" - CELACP. Stable URL https://www.jstor.org/stable/4530999.
- Carilla, Emilio, "Juan María Gutiérrez y <<El Matadero>>, THESAURUS. Tomo XLVIII. Núm. 1 (1993). Centro Virtual Cervantes, , accessed 21 November 2015.
- Coromina, Irene S. La mujer en las escritas antirosistas de Echeverría, Sarmiento y Mármol. Hispania, Vol. 89 No. 1, (Mar., 2006), pp. 13-19. (American Association of Teachers of Spanish and Portuguese.) Stable URL https://www.jstor.org/stable/20063223.
- Di Giovanni, The Slaughteryard Project, , accessed 19 November 2015.
- Di Meglio, Gabriel. ¡Mueran los salvajes unitarios! La mazorca y la política en tiempos de Rosas (Penguin Random House Grupo Editorial Argentina, Buenos Aires, 2012).
- Guarino, Julián (2007), La vigencia de "El Matadero" en la cultura Argentina contemporánea, Clarín, 19 February 2007, , accessed 18 November 2015.
- Gutiérrez, J.M., notes to El Matadero, in Echeverría, Esteban, Obras Completas, volume V (Carlos Casavalle, Buenos Aires, 1874).
- Hadfield, William, Brazil, the River Plate and the Falkland Islands (Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, London, 1854).
- Haberly, David T. Male Anxiety and Sacrificial Masculinity: The Case of Echeverría. Hispanic Review, Vol. 73 No. 3 (Summer, 2005), pp. 291–307. (University of Pennsylvania Press.) Stable URL https://www.jstor.org/stable/30040404.
- Hudson, William Henry, Far Away and Long Ago: A History of My Early Life, (J.M. Dent and Sons Ltd, London and Toronto, 1918).
- Hutchinson, Thomas Joseph. Buenos Ayres and Argentine Gleanings, (Edward Stanford, London, 1865.)
- Lynch, John, Argentine Caudillo: Juan Manuel de Rosas (Lanham, Maryland, 2001)
- Martínez, Tomás Eloy. Tombs of Unrest: on the uses of necrophilia. Transition, No. 80 (1999), pp. 72–84 9 (Indiana University Press on behalf of the Hutchisn Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.) Stable URL https://www.jstor.org/stable/2903169.
- Pupo-Walker, Review of Esteban Echeverría por Edgar C. Knowlton, Hispanic Review, Vol. 55, No. 3 (Summer, 1987), University of Pennsylvania Press, pp. 402–403, stable URL https://www.jstor.org/stable/473710.
- Shumway, Jeffrey M. "The Purity of My Blood Cannot Put Food on My Table": Changing Attitudes towards Interracial Marriage in Nineteenth-Century Buenos Aires. The Americas, Vol. 58 No. 2 (October 2001), pp. 201–220. (Academy of American Franciscan History.) Stable URL https://www.jstor.org/stable/1007965.
- Sorbille, Martín. Echeverría y "El matadero": anticipación del mito freudiano y paternidad de la Argentina moderna. Iberoamericana (2001-), Nueva época Año 7, No. 25 (Marzo de 2007), pp. 23–42. (Iberoamericana Editorial Vervuet), Stable URL https://www.jstor.org/stable/41676156.
- Sorbille, Martín. ROSAS QUA PETIT OBJET a: LA OMNIPOTENCIA DE SU YÓ-SUPERYÓ Y MIRADA EN "EL MATADERO" DE ESTEBAN ECHEVERRÍA. Chasqui, Vol. 36, No. 2 (Noviembre 2009), pp. 94–112. (Chasqui: revista de literature latinoamericana). Stable URL https://www.jstor.org/stable/27822193.
- Vidal, Emeric Essex, Picturesque Illustrations of Buenos Ayres and Monte Video, (R. Ackerman, London, 1820).
- Wehr, Christian. ALLEGORIE – GROTESKE – LEGENDE: Stationen des Diktatorenromans, Romanische Forschungen, 117. Bd., H. 3 (2005), pp. 310–343, Vittorio Klostermann GmbH, stable URL https://www.jstor.org/stable/27942369.
- ^The Spanish word matadero does not necessarily imply a building. In 19th century Buenos Aires cattle were frequently killed in open air yards, as illustrated in Vidal, 34 and described in Hudson, 286.
- ^Gutierrez had previously published the story in the magazine Revista del Río de la Plata.
- ^Together with miscellaneous notes; published under the title "The Slaughteryard", The Friday Project, ISBN 9780007346738.
- ^Cynically, the dictator Rosas demanded that he be called the "Restorer of the Laws".
- ^Rosas' late wife: behind the scenes she had played a powerful role in politics.
- ^It is mentioned that the Englishman is himself the owner of a slaughter yard. For the favourable opinion Rosas enjoyed among English residents of Buenos Aires see Hudson, 126.
- ^That is, a leather saddle of the general type normal in Europe or North America; locals used the recado, a type of sheepskin saddle.
- ^The Spanish word verga can mean "rod" but also "cock".
- ^Brown and Johnson obtained results for the 56 top-rated faculties. (They mistakenly classified El matadero as a novel instead of a short story, but it would have scored top in either category.)
- ^Rosas kept papal jurisdiction out of Argentina and appointed the clergy himself: he expected it to serve the Federalist cause. In fact, the clergy willingly supported the Rosas regime, except for the Jesuits, whom he later expelled for that reason (Lynch, 84-85).
- ^Men were obliged to wear red silk badges with the inscription: "Long live the Argentine Confederation. Death to the Savage Unitarians". (Lynch, 83).
- ^The difference is surprisingly small.