Sarah Coolidge at The Quarterly Conversation:
We might look at Argentine literature as a breaking down into two camps. On the one hand there’s Borges: sophisticated, yet playfully ironic, and drawn to labyrinthine twists and turns. On the other there’s Julio Cortázar: a blend of Edgar Allen Poe and the French surrealists, with a bent for jazz-inspired improvisation. These writers are the big two in Argentine literature, celebrated on an international level, and yet both describe Argentina as outsiders looking in, having left their homeland for Europe. But then this dichotomy is disrupted by a third figure, not as well-known outside of Argentina: Roberto Arlt. A contemporary of Borges, Arlt is firmly part of the Argentine canon, having detailed life in Buenos Aires with an intimacy that neither Borges nor Cortázar ever achieved.
The son of Austro-Hungarian immigrants, Arlt grew up in an impoverished barrio of Buenos Aires, living in close quarters with the kinds of sketchy characters that would later appear in his novels. His formal education ended when we was only eight years old, at which point he quit school and began working a series of odd jobs around the city. He was a true autodidact, reading voraciously throughout his youth, and he eventually found his own language for tackling profound themes—a crude and colloquial language peppered with inconsistencies and spelling mistakes. Compared to the polished prose of Borges, Arlt’s writing comes off as the work of an incessant inventor, a welder and dock worker from a rough neighborhood who assembled his vocabulary from novels, manuals on engineering, and street slang. Naturally, this made him an easy target for critics who dismissed him as a bad writer.