Domingo Faustino Sarmiento wrote Facundo: Or, Civilization and Barbarism (1845) when the Spanish American novel was in its earliest stages: the Romance of Chivalry and other profane narrative genres had been proscribed by royal decree in the Iberian transatlantic viceroyalties as early as 1531.footnote1 With independence the novel could be practised freely, but unlike Brazil, which in Machado de Assis can boast a world-class novelist, Spanish America did not produce many novels of literary merit in the nineteenth century. Facundo is not strictly a novel, and yet many critics have accorded it a greater significance than they have to any other Spanish American narrative work of the period—including José Marmol’s Amalia (1851), arguably the first Argentine novel.

Facundo is the first treatment of the caudillo, the powerful landowner with his private army, as a vantage point from which to explore the predicaments of Spanish America. The celebrated novels about Latin American dictators—by Alejo Carpentier and Gabriel García Márquez and others—can trace their antecedents back to this pioneering book, whose importance in shaping views of Spanish American intellectual and literary history is hard to overestimate. Sociologists, historians, philosophers and creative writers considered it a seminal work. It has been read as a political pamphlet, a biography, a historical document, the testimony of an expatriate, a moral treatise, a rhetorical tour de force, and indeed, a novel. Its closest relative in Latin American literature is Euclides Da Cunha’s Os Sertões (1902), a variegated literary, moral and philosophical exploration of the Brazilian northeast in the form of a sociological treatise.

Facundo first appeared as a work of political propaganda, serialized in a newspaper over a two-month period. It was written in haste by an effervescent mind, with many false starts, postponements and reconsiderations. The tone with which Sarmiento contemplates a character or a theme is often inconsistent from one instalment to another. He even appears to correct himself from paragraph to paragraph. It is clear that his shifting concepts and categories can barely contain his subject matter, or keep up with the exuberance of his language. Sarmiento’s revisions continued after Facundo was published as a book. He wrote prefaces to explain its blemishes, made alterations, and added documents as appendices. When he was active in Argentine politics, he removed its most incendiary chapters. Those chapters, missing in the second and third editions (1851 and 1868), were reinstated in the fourth edition (1874), as he was leaving the presidency of Argentina.footnote2 In broad terms, the book is organized into three sections. The first four chapters examine the geography and sociology of rural Argentina and the psychology of the gaucho, the landless labourer and horseman, a social type whose idiosyncrasies must be understood, according to Sarmiento, in order to make sense of the current predicaments of Argentina. These chapters foreground the centrepiece of the book: Juan Facundo Quiroga’s biography as a vehicle to underscore the unhappy history of his nation. In the final two chapters, Sarmiento offers both his general ideas about the contemporary realities of Argentina and his hopes for the future.

Facundo lacks two elements normally associated with the nineteenth-century novel: a sustained plot and the vicissitudes of a love relationship.footnote3 To read Facundo as a novel, one might assume that Facundo Quiroga is either a historical figure who resembles a great literary character, or a fictional character based on a historical one. In Sarmiento’s narrative, the brutal and charismatic protagonist lives and dies by his instincts. Grafted around its loose plot, based on the rise and fall of the caudillo, there is material worthy of a novel, such as the depiction of Facundo’s leadership of gaucho hordes who terrorize the provincial cities of the pampas; and his assassination, which (against historical evidence of which early readers of Facundo would have been unaware) Sarmiento attributed to the orders of Juan Manuel Rosas, whom he represents as a more calculating rival with sufficient Machiavellian political vision to take over the country.footnote4 In this reading, the last two chapters serve as an epilogue to Facundo Quiroga’s dramatic death, examining the consequences of his life in the advent of tyranny.

Facundo is not like Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, a work of history whose literary merits outlasted the historical conventions of its time. Gibbon can be read as a work of history from the past, or as a work of literature in the present. Facundo’s fictional status on the other hand was problematic from the day it was published: to treat it strictly as a novel, or as a work of non-fiction, would be misleading. If, as Lamarque and Olsen have argued, ‘an utterance is fictive not by virtue of being made up, or in having a made-up content, but by virtue of its role or purpose’, Facundo is a work at cross-purposes.footnote5 Sarmiento wants his readers to take its historical, sociological and biographical content seriously, even though many of his utterances call for the suspension of disbelief required for most works of fiction. Those who have read Facundo as a novel have systematically avoided the tedious passages with information irrelevant to anyone not interested in the minutiae of Argentine politics; but those well informed about Argentina’s history cannot help but notice a myriad of inaccuracies and fabrications. While some critics have been troubled by Sarmiento’s inconsistencies, others have made a virtue of them. Sarmiento himself insisted on the fundamental truth of his work. As Sylvia Molloy has pointed out, ‘Sarmiento would have it both ways. Even as he praises the book’s inspired untidiness, he claims documentary status for it.’footnote6 Indeed, Sarmiento felt he had apprehended general truths, and even the basic facts: ‘In the most notable events to which I refer—which serve as the basis of my explanations—there is an irreproachable exactitude that will be corroborated by public documents.’