Born the son of poor immigrants, the Argentinian writer Roberto Arlt (1900-1942) grew up with little formal education, but managed despite poverty and inauspicious beginnings to write much-read journalism, and a number of successful plays and novels.
The best-known of the novels - in the Spanish-speaking world, at least - are The Mad Toy (1926) and The Seven Madmen (1929). Colm Tóibín’s foreword to this new paperback edition of The Mad Toy compares Arlt to his near-contemporary James Joyce (1882-1941.)
Much as Ulysses evokes the streets and landmarks of a vanished Dublin, most of Arlt’s fragmented novel takes place in the streets of his native Buenos Aires.
If Arlt had been born into a class which allowed him the privilege of a university education, he might never have created his fleeting but memorable characters, the shop-keepers, gossipy housewives, chancers, wide boys and salesmen that populate The Mad Toy.
Arlt is regarded as the one of the first of the Argentinian modernists. and the intense self-reflection indulged in by the novel’s protagonist Silvio Astier must have seemed refreshing and grave when the book first appeared.
One is reminded of the unhinged protagonists of another near-contemporary, the Norwegian novelist Knut Hamsun (1859-1952) specifically in his novels, Mysteries and Hunger. Like the young man in Mysteries, Silvio ishaunted by a girl who seems to have departed the scene and whom he remembers at troubled moments.
In the first chapter, Silvio forms a club with two other young fellows, through which they plan madcap crimes, including a raid on a public library. The guys steal a load of light bulbs - simply because they discover them - as well as some of the library’s collection of books which one is not sure they actually read. However, the young Silvio, like the young Arlt has literary pretensions and does appear to read voraciously.
Were he alive, one could imagine French film director François Truffaut, who also had a particularly troubled childhood, making a film based on The Mad Toy, along the lines of Les Quatre Cent Coups (400 Blows) or Tirez le Pianiste (Shoot the Pianist.)
Silvio’s experience as a 15-year old boy employed in a bookshop is pitiful in the extreme, working for a married couple who hate each others’ guts. The tight-fisted pair give him bed and board, but existence in a stable would have been more comfortable. Given that Arlt worked in such a bookshop in Buenos Aires, it is possible that these passages are based on real-life experiences. But do not forget that Arlt was writer of daring, adventurous fiction.
Later, Silvio moves on to another soul-destryoing job, as a door-to-door salesman selling reams of paper to customers who continually haggle, cheat and complain. A clever young fellow, he longs for fame as an inventor and there is some curiosity from the army about some of his inventions. But his hopes are all rather unrealistic, even megalomaniac and they come to nothing.
Silvio's sadness overwhelms him at times:. "An image of my mother came to me again, her face relaxed into wrinkles of suffering; I thought of my sister, who would never complain and who grew pale in a life bent over her textbooks, and my soul fell from my hands.” (Arlt's two sisters died of tuberculosis, one in infancy.)
Frustration too can seize Silvio with an intensely at times. “I walked around in an abstracted mood, without knowing where I was going. Sometimes anger struck at my veins, I wanted to shout, to fight the frightening deaf city…” Yet in the end Silvio is a born survivor, despite dreadful economic circumstances, and dangerously impulsive behaviour.