El Juguete Rabioso, by Argentine author Roberto Arlt, is a portrait of lower-class life in 1920s Buenos Aires. It is a story of the difficult adjustment of the influx of European immigrants, the world of crime and poverty into which their children were hurled, and the difficult path to social mobility in a society where color, accent, and last name are the most defining factors in one"s life. I wrote this paper for a Latin American history class, and I think it summarizes and explores the book pretty well. The plot of the book follows a young juvenile deliquent, Silvio Astier, who has a keen interest in science and steals in order to support his literary habit. Silvio attempts work in several places, but is ultimately unable to find a decent, honest living.

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Class: History 3661 Latin American Civilization II (Columbia University)
Grade: A
Date handed in: Feb. 18, 2003

Porteño Struggles: Immigration and Stratification in Roberto Arlt’s Buenos Aires

The explosion of cultural diversity in early 20th-century Buenos Aires and its resultant impact on the city's social strata is one of the guiding themes of Roberto Arlt's novel Mad Toy. The exploration of ethnic and national stereotypes in the popular imagination and the narrator's own mind adds detail to Arlt's vivid sketch of the Argentine capital, while the representations of class structure help to highlight some of the novel's ideas on social and economic justice. The author draws upon a variety of techniques in order to allow his readers to identify with the characters that he presents. Each anecdote within the novel reveals another aspect of porteño life, furthering the reader's understanding of quotidian existence in the city. Mad Toy, easily seen as a broad survey of Buenos Aires during the era in which it was written, chronicles the attempts of Silvio Drodman Astier to reconcile his recurring failures with childhood dreams of greatness.

In his journey through the city's night and day, Silvio encounters nearly every element of the eclectic mix that was Buenos Aires at the beginning of the 20th century. Beginning with an Andalusian cobbler and encompassing all classes and ethnicities, Mad Toy is a veritable almanac of the city's inhabitants. Arlt uses several devices, most notably language, to illuminate the social differences present in Buenos Aires' vast cultural mix and point out some of the most egregious injustices that were taking place at the time.

In the presentation of different varieties of immigrants, Arlt seldom requires more than one character to summarize an entire group; characterizations are formed without verbose description or lengthy treatises on the history of the particular group that is being depicted. These characterizations are fairly formulaic: the character enters, background information is presented, an expository anecdote is told, and the reader is left to draw his own conclusions about the group in question, usually finding himself more confused about the stereotype than when he began. Among the best examples of this device is Rebeca Naidath, whose German Jewish background is identified immediately upon her entrance in Silvio's home, her nationality implied by her use of the word "frau" instead of "señora" when she addressees Silvio's mother, and her religion by the narrator's explicit statement that "La señora Rebeca pertenecía al rito judío" (Rebeca was a member of the Jewish sect) (86). After acting out her role to advance the story (notifying Silvio of an opening at the Escuela Militar de Aviación), Rebeca launches into a tirade against her abusive husband, Josías, and the reader is informed of the sundry eccentricities that shape the couple's daily existence. This is typical of the descriptions Arlt provides of his characters: judgmental, personal, and firmly grounded in popular legend.

Nonetheless, characters such as the Naidaths represent more than a mere catalogue of Buenos Aires stereotypes; Arlt presents both popular conception and his own commentary on the city's increasingly mixed population. Silvio's differentiation between the husband and the wife provides invaluable insight into Arlt's presentation of ethnicity in the novel: Rebeca is a stereotypical small, avaricious Jewish woman, going so far as to refuse to serve plums Silvio's younger sister, suggesting that the girl can buy all the plums she wants in the market (88), whereas Josías is her polar opposite, described as "un hebreo más generoso que un etman del siglo de Sobiesky" (A Hebrew more generous than an etman from the time of Sobiesky) (87). This deep rift between the two suggests more wide-reaching differences within the group as a whole, effectively destroying the stereotype, or at least forcing the reader to consider the validity of such caricatures.

In addition to physical and behavioral classifications, Arlt makes heavy use of porteño slang, or lunfardo, in his work in order to imbue it with an authentic character. The Ediciones Colihue printing makes use of nearly 140 footnotes just to define some of the more obscure terms. Much of this slang is derived from Italian, a point accentuated by Arlt's portrayal of the Old Country bookstore owner who employs the narrator in the second act. Mad Toy's characters are defined by their peculiarities in speech, so the Italians are given native expletives such as "strunsso" and "bagazza" (71). Most curious of all, perhaps, are the deformed Italian idioms of the old man of the house, dubbed "Dío Fetente" by the narrator. Dío Fetente, whose name is a Calabresian epithet, attempts to alleviate somewhat Silvio's shame in carrying a basket and being poor, but his own pathetic state only seems to depress the protagonist more; Dío Fetente is the confirmation of Silvio's worst fears about his own potential, and the continual humiliation and dehumanization of Silvio as a member of the working class only emphasizes the chasm between the dream and the reality.

Arlt also uses dialogue to create contrast between classes. He writes the dialogue of street urchins and members of the lower classes in dialect, riddled with grammatical errors, slang, and foul language. Quintessentially Argentine linguistic stamps such as the oft-used interjection "che" and the voseo form reinforce their social status in the mind of the reader, demonstrating the exceptional importance of language in the society. These poor, "authentic" Argentines are perhaps the most socially static of Arlt's characters; while the immigrants who have recently arrived in the New World have some potential for social advancement, the former characters seem nearly assured of an existence on the lowest rung of the social hierarchy.

On the other side of the spectrum, Silvio also interacts with the Buenos Aires elite, whose methods of communications are so wildly different that they seem to be speaking a separate language—and in some cases, such as that of the wealthy Frenchwoman who offers Silvio a kiss in lieu of a tip (80), they are. These interactions are particularly notable for Silvio's lines as well; he seems to effortlessly drop his street patois to adopt a manner of speech more befitting his aspirations when he converses with those he wishes to impress, such as the Army officers of the Escuela Militar de Aviación. Silvio morphs into antithesis of the streetwise youth who robs libraries and fast-talks gullible marks that he portrays at the beginning of the novel, becoming a hard-working, ambitious young man. The upper classes are recognized by their use of formal speech and elimination of any type of colloquialisms, a more distant manner of speaking that Silvio attempts to take on. Arlt uses this type of speech not only to convey the magnitude of the schism between rich and poor, but to use Silvio to espouse his own ideas. This is most noticeable in the cathartic final conversation between Silvio and the forewarned intended robbery victim, Arsenio Vitri. Arlt makes use of this moment in order to strengthen the main theme of the novel, the idea that "la Vida es linda" ("Life is beautiful") and "Dios es la alegría de vivir" ("God is the joy of living") (143).

The end result of the novel's extensive and varied use of jargon is a sort of pecking order based on language. Recently arrived immigrant families such as Silvio's end up on the bottom, socially inferior to members of more established groups such as the (presumably) Italian engineer with whom Silvio shares the last moments of the novel. Moreover, language demonstrates the relationship between nationality and class on the most basic level; the characters with little money are more often than not those with a poor grasp of Spanish. The people belonging to this group are not only the Italian, Jewish, German, and other types of immigrants new to the country's customs and language, but also the most genuine of the Argentine laboring classes.

Part of Silvio's uniqueness lies in his ability to transcend his social status and reach for a higher goal. Silvio's simple capability for erudite speech allows him this advantage, and as the reader learns, this ability is one of the most important aspects of class relationships at the time; the ability to speak eloquently and discuss the popular philosophical or scientific themes of the time. Silvio's erstwhile burglary accomplice Lucio, always thought to be the "majadero" (fool) (40) of their gang, describes their friend Enrique's fall as "La struggle for life, che…unos se regeneran, otros caen…¡así es la vida!" ("The struggle for life, man...some get up, some fall, that's life!") (116). This mantra, which has become Lucio's slogan and explanation for every type of social or personal phenomenon, is an apt summarization of the events of the book, but it also reveals the simplicity with which the endemic social problems of Buenos Aires, such as crime and unemployment, could be dismissed by members of the lower class who saw themselves as on the way up. Lucio's repetition of a scientific justification for social ills, resembling the philosophy of social Darwinism popular in the United States and a common theme in the social discourse at the time, is an underhanded way of exposing the philosophy to criticism, as well as showing the flaws in such a manner of thinking.

Mad Toy addresses urban Argentina's social problems by simply offering a realistic view of social differences. Arlt's commentary is subtle, rarely taking the time to overtly address the specific issue at hand or offer a word one way or the other, yet he clearly intends to make the reader, especially the native Argentine, consider his social reality, especially differences of class and ethnicity. Arlt's portraits of the new social groups of Buenos Aires, reminiscent of the 18th-century Cuadros de Castas in New Spain, are part of an endeavor to reclassify shifting ethnic boundaries and identify the new components of Buenos Aires' population.

Arlt's methods for performing this vivisection of porteño society are interesting and worthy of attention. By using the appropriate dialect for each one of his characters, the author gives the novel with an unmistakably Argentine feel. The routine and extensive employment of lunfardo creates a sense of authenticity in the novel; the dialogue is always logical, even in instances the plot may not seem to be. A shift between the eloquent style of the, the feverish thoughts racing around Silvio's mind, Arlt keeps the novel interesting while at the same time making it accurate. Mad Toy helps to further the understanding of this society through a variety of devices, many of them vastly helpful to the labor of gaining greater insight into early 20th-century Buenos Aires.

Works Cited:

Arlt, Roberto. El Juguete Rabioso, Buenos Aires, Argentina, A.B.R.N. Producciones Gráficas S.R.L., 1996.

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