Nacha Regules


Manuel Gálvez, Nacha Regules [Buenos Aires; 1919]

The first actual dud in the reading list I set for myself earlier this year, trying to work my way through the major novels of the 1910s.

Manuel Gálvez was perhaps the most distinguished Argentine man of letters in the generation before Borges, and his reputation has correspondingly suffered since Borges made Argentine literature synonymous with modernist experimentation and cosmopolitan thought. Gálvez was an essentially nineteenth-century novelist stuck in the early twentieth century: his novels, meant to range through the length and breadth of Argentine society, were supposedly patterned on those of Balzac, Galdós, or Zola but (at least on this showing) he has none of the dispassion and suspended judgment necessary to see life whole. His bourgeois morality and Eurocentric racism mean that he traffics in nothing but stereotypes from one end of the novel (an exciting and dangerous tango cabaret) to the other (a blind prophet decrying World War I).

If Nacha Regules is his Nana, he has to turn her into a paragon of noble suffering in order to make his readers okay with feeling sympathy for a prostitute; all the sex workers we meet throughout the novel are either good girls wronged (and white) or villains of depravity (and brown). Which is awful enough; but the cloying sentimentality of the plot, even while he makes gestures towards actually seeing things as they are (the hero, Monsalvat, correctly diagnoses social inequality as a structural issue, not about individual morality), was what really made me hate it.

There are bits and pieces that can be rescued; an adaptation that made Monsalvat into a person instead of a flame of righteousness and saw sex workers as people instead of stereotypes might actually be a decent work of art. But as it stands, it's a failure.

I read both the 1919 Spanish original and the 1921 English translation concurrently, a chapter at a time (they're both in the public domain so it was simple), which was a decent sort of training wheels for reading more proper literature directly in Spanish. It was amusing to note that even though Gálvez is prudishly reticent about the actual labor of sex work, the English (I should say U.S.) translation was bowdlerized even further, with all reference to potential outcomes of sex like pregnancy or venereal disease -- or even obvious facts like two people sharing a bed -- expurgated. I've been reading a lot of period translations, and now I'm wondering what else I've missed.

October 9, 2017