In the Basement

In 2002, shortly before his death, Roberto Bolaño – always sentimental – surveyed the three central tendencies of Argentine literature after Borges. One was commercial and frankly bad: this was the ‘fiefdom of Osvaldo Soriano’ who wrote nostalgic, high sales pabulum about men in bars discussing football. Another current began with Roberto Arlt, self-taught and ambitious, but paranoid and dark: ‘the literature of doom has to exist, but if nothing else exists, it’s the end of literature’. Then there was a ‘secret current’. In the great house of Argentine literature, Bolaño insisted, there was ‘a little box on a shelf in the basement. A little cardboard box, covered in dust. And if you open the box, what you find inside is hell.’ The high priest of this infernal tradition was Osvaldo Lamborghini, who was born in Necochea, near Buenos Aires, in 1940, and died of a heart attack in exile aged 45.

Who was Lamborghini to fill Bolaño, hardly one to shrink from darkness, with sufficient fear that he could barely stand to read him? For the novelist Alan Pauls, Lamborghini was a ‘damned myth’ even in life. His most famous pronouncement – ‘publish first, write later’ – indicated his antipathy to the book, which trapped writing between tombstone covers and required the approval of that most loathsome creature: an editor. Lamborghini’s three slim books were for a long time near unobtainable, circulating as xeroxes of xeroxes; his magazine work, consisting of poems and essays, even more scarce. In the 90s, a Spanish house (of all places) published a collection of his fiction in editions assembled by César Aira, his literary executor and most dedicated reader. Pauls – among Lamborghini’s sharpest readers – was not alone in expressing a certain discomfort: ‘was it right to pull the cursed from his hideout and sandwich him between two sumptuous slices of carboard, officializing with the Book’s bourgeois dignity the insults, the violence, the deformed phantoms that his congregation had learned to enjoy in zine-like subedits?’

The taciturn Lamborghini first became legend in the Argentine literary world with a short story titled ‘El fiord’. It was published by a half-invented publisher in 1969, in a booklet with an accompanying essay by psychoanalyst-writer Germán García. The story evokes a dizzying succession of brutalities and obscenities – rapes, incest, mutilations, beatings, whippings, murders and cannibalism, for starters – all taking place somewhere overlooking a picturesque fiord. Written in a mix of plebeian street talk, immigrant creole, Freudian lingo and movement-speech, the story was, in part, a harsh satire of Peronism, the governing movement of the working class, proscribed and persecuted after a 1955 coup yet still Argentina’s largest political organization. Lamborghini’s older brother, the poet Leónidas Lamborghini, showed the manuscript to the eminent Peronist writer Leopoldo Marechal, who famously remarked: ‘It’s perfect, like a sphere. A pity that it’s a sphere of shit’.

Characters in ‘El fiord’ include winking evocations of Perón, of collaborationist Peronist union leader Augusto Vandor, of the CGT (the main Argentine labour federation); refrains from the movement and allusions to its subcommittees and factions, including those with a fascist bent, abound. Yet confining ‘El fiord’ to allegory or critique would be short-changing Lamborghini’s genius. As critic Graciela Montaldo suggests, Lamborghini’s story captured the violent spirit of the Argentine sixties rather than its historical facts: a military dictatorship, Peronism persecuted and splitting into right and left, collaborationists and separatists, doctrinarians and innovators. It was a story of the ‘revolutionary threshold’. Hence its beginning, with childbirth, and its ending, in a demonstration:

And why, if at the end of the day the child turned out so miserable – with regards to size, understand – did she proffer such shrieks, rip her hair out by the handful and fling her ass against the tiger-striped mattress?

. . .

And, with that, we went out in demonstration.

The story had two critical antecedents. One was ‘The Slaughter Yard’, written by Esteban Echeverría in 1837 and considered a foundational story of Argentine literature. As César Aira would have it, Lamborghini’s entire oeuvre consisted of rewritings of ‘The Slaughter Yard’. In that story, a handsome bourgeois man travels through a Buenos Aires slum where butchers and other racialized proletarians are working. It is Lent; he is a Unitarian, a Buenos Aires resident disinterested in distributing the port’s income to the entire country. Noticing him, the barbarous poor – federalists, in favour of distribution – attack and ultimately rape him. Argentine literature, as David Viñas remarked a few years before ‘El fiord’ was published, began with a homosexual gang rape.

The other antecedent, contemporaneous with Echeverría, was Hilario Ascasubi’s poem, ‘La refalosa’. Named after a popular dance of the time – described by Echeverría as ‘the dance of throat-slitting’ – the poem describes the torture of a Unitarian gaucho by federalist forces in the language and rhythm of dance. Torture and rape have since been literary symbols in Argentina of political and socio-economic conflict. Lamborghini ­– influenced by psychoanalysis and part of Literal, a magazine that inaugurated a psychoanalytic literary left in Argentina and translated Lacan – took this to a new extremity. Pauls describes him, paradoxically, as a ‘literal’ writer: in his work, premises, archetypes, ideas accelerate into their own obscene impossibility.

No Lamborghini juvenilia exists, except for a poem found scribbled in a notebook. Lamborghini appeared ex nihilo. In 1973, he published Sebregondi retrocede, a poetry collection that his editor suggested he turn into prose, and was thus termed a ‘novel’. Poetry was the backbone of his writing, hence a famous pronouncement contained in that book: ‘Whereby poet, zap! Novelist’. According to Aira, the character of Sebregondi was based on an Italian uncle – who visited in Lamborghini’s youth and stepped back (hence the ‘retreat’) to take a family photograph – combined with Witold Gombrowicz and longtime editor of Sur magazine, José Bianco. Sebregondi was also Lamborghini’s attempt to engage with the canonical Martín Fierro, after whose second part (‘The Return’) Sebregondi’s fourth and final section is named.

Infamously, the book’s third section is an independent short story titled ‘El niño proletario’, which inverts the basic premise of ‘The Slaughter Yard’. Unusually conventional for Lamborghini, it focuses on Stroppani, a malnourished working-class boy who has suffered a traumatic upbringing. One day, three bourgeois classmates run into him outside school, and begin beating him. They slice his face and body with shards of broken glass and take turns raping and otherwise destroying him. Unlike Echeverría’s gallant bourgeois, who resisted the barbarous horde bravely until the end, Stroppani suffers in pathetic, submissive silence:

We towed the proletarian boy’s lax body towards the chosen location. We availed ourselves of a wire. Gustavo strangled him under the gem-like moonlight, pulling from the ends of the wire. The tongue was left drooping from the mouth as in all cases of strangulation.

The prose is crystalline and simple, but with an intensity that conveys the sheer pleasure of the torturers. Lamborghini’s inversion of Echeverría turned out to be prophetic as political violence escalated and a genocidal dictatorship seized power in 1976. Lamborghini fled to Barcelona from its programme of clandestine assassination, kidnapping and disappearance of leftists, students and workers. As he later wrote: ‘On March 24th, 1976, I, a crazy, homosexual, Marxist, drug addict and alcoholic became a crazy, homosexual, Marxist, drug addict and alcoholic.’

Lamborghini spent much of his exile writing poetry, and published a third and final book, Poemas, in 1980. It included his two most famous poems: ‘Die Verneinung’ – first published in the New York-based Cuban exile journal Escandalar – was a thousand-verse, four-part examination of Argentine literary history, Lamborghini’s own life, and his conception of poetry. The other, ‘Los Tadeys’, introduced a creature that would be the protagonist of Lamborghini’s literary opus, Tadeys, a novel which he wrote in three months in 1983. In his final years, Lamborghini wrote pornographic stories and began a sprawling multimedia project, Teatro proletario de cámara, in which pornography of every variety was juxtaposed with poetry and images of everyday life.

What are Tadeys? In the poem, the creatures appear indirectly. Yet in the novel the Tadey, also known as a tadeo, is a humanoid animal discovered in a cave system in the fictional Eastern European nation of La Comarca during the medieval era. They are distinguished from humans by their inferior intelligence, inability to speak, hairlessness and ugliness. They are also sex-obsessed – sodomites by day, heterosexual by night – and quickly become enraptured with humans. The Tadey also has delicious meat and high-quality leather, while their tears are distilled into the most potent alcoholic beverage in the world. Because of this, they are the bedrock of La Comarca’s economy, as well as central to its cultural imagination, rather like cows in nineteenth-century Argentina.

Aira found three folders of Tadeys material and published it in their idiosyncratic, non-chronological order. The first is a family narrative of rural-urban immigration of the humble Cab clan to the capital, Goms Lomes. It culminates with Lamborghini’s most famous set piece – the ‘barco de amujeramiento’ – where in a kind of biopolitical machine on steroids, male prisoners are subjected to a grotesque programme of force-feminization. The second and third sections of the novel deal with the contemporary governance of La Comarca and the history of the medieval discovery of Tadeys and their society. Throughout, sex and violence – which blur together with sometimes cartoonish excess – are a means of examining social power and domination. As Paul Preciado said of Lamborghini – whom he connects with the Marquis de Sade – in his pornography, sex is revealed as the ‘hidden grammar’ of politics. A footnote in Tadeys asks: ‘The state . . . was it a man [hombre] or a woman? By those days, the symbiotic and unambiguous answer was “it’s hunger [hambre] for all, an egalitarian mania that tempted the devil and had fallen into absolute dis-credit (indifference)”’.

In contrast to the rest of Lamborghini’s work – perfect and lazy, mysterious, almost brutally concise – Tadeys’ steampunk unfurling of the infinite myth of a faraway-land reads like some unfinished draft of a total novel; it is also a crude but inscrutable depiction of the violence that had consumed his homeland and forced him into exile. For Bolaño, Lamborghini’s masterpiece was ‘excruciating’. ‘Few books can be said to smell of blood, spilled guts, bodily fluids, unpardonable acts’, the Chilean wrote. Yet what Bolaño recoiled from, he was also drawn to recreate – the influence of Tadeys on 2666 is undeniable. So much for perfection – the real rarity is true perversion.

Read on: David Rock, ‘Racking Argentina’, NLR 17.