Daggers wrapped in pink silk: Argentina’s magazine romance novels

For many historians, the 1930s were a blot on the Argentine Catholic politician Gustavo Adolfo Martínez Zuviría’s CV: during this time he publicly supported Spain’s Franco, published an anti-Semitic pamphlet postulating a Jewish cabal in New York (applauded by the Nazi press), and, as the military dictatorship’s chosen National Library Director and Minister of Public Instruction in the 1930s, advocated censorship and a strict religious education.

But Zuviría’s literary reputation may be more recuperable. In addition to these political activities and under the pen name Hugo Wast, he also wrote romantic fiction—becoming one of the best-selling authors in Argentine literary history, with more than three million copies in Spanish and further translations into 15 languages. Zuviría aimed to write for a wide public—according to biographer Juan Carlos Moreno, he always ensured his books were published in three versions, making them accessible to all budgets: “One deluxe and beautifully-bound; a second with good paper; a third, for a popular audience, very cheap.” He published short novelas and novels in installments in the pages of weekly magazines like ‘La Novela Semanal’ (which ran his novel ‘La Casa de Los Cuervos’ in three parts), and was read overwhelmingly by lower and middle class women. In his chaste stories his Catholic views on the woman’s role are present, but subtlely – like daggers wrapped in pink silk.

Today, magazine romances of the period like Zuviría’s are either ignored or are erroneously dismissed as “literature of the barrio, the pizzería, the milonguitas”. But in their role as both commentary on and engagement with the public, the stories are an intriguing source – both historians and writers seeking a socially-oriented modernism could do worse than give them another look.

Developing romance

The “romance” developed in Argentina in the mid-19th century, at the same time the nation itself was battling into existence. Like the nation, the novel followed the country/city split—one version projecting a national self-image as a land of gaucho and pampas (exemplified by Echeverria’s “El Matadero”), the other focusing on the city and social interactions. The romantic novel was an offshoot of the latter, turning specifically toward the relationships between men and women. Bartolomé Mitre’s ‘Soledad’, written at age 26 and eventually published in the Revista de Buenos Aires, was one of the genre’s first examples, capturing a tone future romances would copy. (“Eduardo made a gesture of impatience he could not hide, and which did not escape the penetrating view of his loving and jealous wife.”)

In the belle époque period Argentina developed its enormous system of publishing houses, and romance became a business. Novels began to be serialized in popular magazines; magazines also began to commission the shorter one-off romance story, or “novela rosa.” The format was convenient: a man might buy his wife a copy at a kiosco on his way home from work. It were also cheap: in 1920 a magazine cost around 10 centavos, compared to $1.50 or $2 for a book by an economic publisher.

Such professionalization was evident in the prose. Although many of the early romances seem like hodgepodges of whatever theme the author felt like putting his pen to, the magazine format spurred the development of a standardized style. Authors regarded the writing of magazine stories as a profession like law or medicine – and they had philosophical ideas about their own work.

A March 1920 copy of El Suplemento includes a section called ‘Nuestros Escritores’, with autobiographical statements by commissioned writers. To prove their sincerity and sentimental understanding, authors tended either to boast about their personal amorous experience, or, in the opposite direction, to claim a hermit-like existence lived completely through their stories. In both cases, the aim was connection with the reader. “For the reader to understand me in such a way as to consider me a best friend, that is glory,” wrote Richard Lavalle. Héctor Oliveira extended this idea to advocate an everyday language, saying that “a novel must provide more ideas than sensations, must sustain emotion – above all, emotion! To achieve this it is necessary to reduce language to artificial expressions, to the point of discarding from the lexicon any word unincorporated into the current language, plain and simple.”

That Oliveira is able to tell his readers he is writing in a “simple” way is itself of interest, and puts in question the image of a cynical, professional author churning out work for a mass audience. Readers were fully aware of the self-imposed formal bounds of the genre, and accepted them as the chessboard necessary for the game.

Dreaming within the structure

In the case of the serialized novela rosa, there were two structures: a highly-stylized, allusive baroque prose, and an ideal of Christian virtue.

‘La Equivocacion de Colette’, one of the many novelas rosas published by Colección Orquídea.

When publisher Colección Orquídea released a new series of romance novels, it included in the last pages of its second volume ‘Entre dos almas’ an ‘Amorous Dictionary’. The first two entries of the ‘A-D’ section, continued in subsequent volumes, reads thus: “ADEREZO (seasoning): The most beautiful seasoning a woman can have is simplicity. If virtue in dignity is maintained, love will concede its grace. BAILE (dancefloor): It is the battlefield of love and one of the many inventions of the devil. Here women often lose many things that men find.” The reference to “virtue” and the warning against potentially compromising situations reinforces the fact that the romance novel in its origins was highly Catholic. Sentimental effusions were contained within marriage, with the end of procreation; occasionally, monologues in the confessional were used to drive plot.

Although societal pressures are rarely overcome in these stories, the idea of fulfilled love was itself rather radical. Plots alluded to possibilities (even if thwarted) of barrier-crossing relationships and adultery within marriage. A structure was created within which the reader could dream.

The context? A lot of women in unhappy marriages. In 1902 José Ingenieros delivered his famous lectures at the Universidad de Buenos Aires on the psychology of the sentiment, in which he argued that society discourages passion. (The divorce law was discussed that year in the Ateneo, but divorce wasn’t legalized until 1987.) Critics today often argue that the romance developed the suffocating idea of woman as “mujer-ángel”, that in them the only feminine resources are wide eyes and soft trembling voices, and that women “don’t speak, don’t discuss, but only swear, imprecate, curse, and, above all, cry”. The very time and attention given to these actions, however, recognises that woman might have an inner life.

Modern views

It wasn’t until 1984, with the publication of Beatriz Sarlo’s groundbreaking ‘El Imperio de los Sentimientos: Narraciones de circulación 1917-1927′ that Argentina’s serialised romances were taken up seriously as texts worthy of scholarly attention. (In doing Sarlo helped introduce cultural studies to this country.) To Sarlo, however, the genre is ultimately an unfulfilled form without higher aspirations, free of the linguistic games, purposeful difficulty, and irony marking out true literature. “In my library there hardly remain examples of the sentimental novels I analyze,” she writes in the prologue to the 2000 reedition. “I sent those folletos to readers interested in knowing the literature firsthand – parting from them in the first place, because I am no collector, and in the second, because I thought and still think that I will not return to them.”

Where the critic hesitated, the writer leapt. A number of novels (and telenovelas) took the serialised romance as inspiration in the decades after it had ceased to be a popular form – Manuel Puig’s 1969 novel ‘Boquitas Pintadas’ being perhaps the most famous example. A complicated, violent romantic history unraveled in sixteen entries, each section imitates the techniques of folletin and radiotheatre, and is preceded by the tango lyrics of greats like Alfredo Le Pera. “And all of it, for what? Look, I’m going to die with this life that I have, nothing more than working in the house and grumbling about the kids,” one frustrated woman writes in a letter, never sent. Puig lovingly inserts references to products and program announcements, mirroring the way in which serialized stories were published alongside advertisements: in one scene a young girl imagines herself wearing ‘Empire Nocturne’ perfume, and prides herself on speaking like a radio announcer, S’s crisp.

The past few decades have seen Argentine literature turn inward, but in doing so it is in danger of ignoring the popular desires, rich possibilities of dialogue, and preexisting cliché expressions and slang in which Argentina is particularly rich—and which the language of the serialized romances captured. Zuviría used the structures of the serialized romance to embed his social views; today’s writers might draw on the same resources to make different points.