The OF Blog: Borges Month: El "Martín Fierro" (1953)

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Borges Month: El "Martín Fierro" (1953)

Despite all of his discussions on European and North American writers, Jorge Luis Borges was, I suspect, more affected by the literary output of his native Argentina than by any other national or cultural entity.  Back near the beginning of this series of short review essays, I covered his 1930 biography/homage of the early 20th century Argentine poet Evaristo Carriego.  That biography was a bit "immature" in some of its approaches; more could have been said to tie the poet to his country, perhaps.  But in 1953, Borges published the second of what ended up being four main books on Argentine writers:  El Martín Fierro.  In this book culminates nearly three decades of references in Borges' writings to the famous gaucho epic written by José Hernández in the 1970s.

In preparation for writing this commentary, I re-read Martín Fierro for the fifth time since 2006.  I am an admirer of epic poems and I consider Hernández's work, published in two volumes between 1872 and 1879, to be one of the last of, if not the last, memorable epic poems produced.  Argentina, just like the US and to a lesser extent Canada, has had a national myth surrounding the cowboys (vaqueros), wide plains (the pampas), the Natives (indios), and those frontiersmen (gauchos) of the uncivilized frontier.  Unlike the two English-speaking countries, Argentina was fortunate enough to have a singularly talented poet to cast these dreams, aspirations, and crushed ambitions into a nearly-five thousand line poem.

Despite being a gringo (much better than being a gabacho, I should note), there is much to enjoy about Martín Fierro.  Hernández presents an honorable eponymous hero, but one who sometimes engages in some unsavory deeds.  Borges in his essays on this epic that appear in this collection discusses these disparate elements that make the gaucho Martín Fierro so fascinating.  Borges does an excellent job in discussing the poem's origins, its varying poetic metres, and its forms of address.  It is not the most technically elegant of epic poems.  If anything, it serves to illustrate the limitations as well as the advantages of this genre and Hernández's work, with its much more morally-gray titular character and its less frequent use of poetic metaphor to convey the wonders and the heartbreaks of the pampas that the gauchos experience, stands as a symbol for the seemingly final fading of epic poetry as a conventional means to convey high sentiments.

Borges manages to capture all of this succinctly.  His treatment of this famous work is that of a tribute to what Hernández has accomplished.  Borges wrote these essays with the intent of trying to persuade the youth, those to whom in 1953 Martín Fierro would be as distinct as F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is for us today, to reconsider the poem in ways outside of structured classroom learning.  Borges' passion for Hernández's magnum opus is evident throughout the text and if I hadn't already re-read Martín Fierro before reading Borges essays on it, they certainly would have made me eager to (re)read that excellent epic poem one more time.

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