Often hailed as Argentina’s national epic and an elegy for a lost frontier past, Don Segundo Sombra is also regarded as the masterpiece of Ricardo Güiraldes (1886–1927). Completed and published just before his death, this novel brought Güiraldes the fame that he had so futilely sought throughout his literary career. It became an instant best seller primarily because it offers a romanticized account of gaucho life on the Argentine pampas as personified in its titular character, Don Segundo Sombra. In the process, it paints a rich portrait of the intimate details of gaucho life, such as their equipment, mannerisms, and speech—aspects that are even more apparent and richer in Spanish versions of the novel. In addition to such glorification, the novel offers somber commentaries on the racial and social strata within Argentine society, including prejudice and murderous violence, and even reveals the inherent ambiguity in the very term gaucho. Through Don Segundo’s mentoring of the narrator, Güiraldes creates an analogy that casts the gaucho lifestyle as reformative for the decadence of contemporary, urban Argentine society. The narrator, a character in the novel, eventually discovers his own identity. Part documentary, part romance, the novel celebrates a lifestyle that resembles in many ways the iconic figure of the North American cowboy and his value system. The similarities are numerous and striking, even to the final scene showing Don Segundo riding into the sunset.
The novel is retold retrospectively by its narrator and chronicles his maturation under Don Segundo Sombra’s tutelage. Don Segundo by sheer force of character rescues the youth as he teeters precariously on the edge of juvenile delinquency, becoming the boy’s padrino (godfather) and thereby legitimating the boy’s identity. The narrator, like almost everyone else in the story, is immediately and permanently impressed by the strength of Don Segundo’s character. Güiraldes constantly stresses to his readers that it is Don Segundo’s moral rather them physical stature that defines him as a paragon of virtue (though the author humanizes Don Segundo in many instances). So inspired by Don Segundo’s character is the narrator that he flees his shady existence to follow the gaucho literally and figuratively across the Argentine pampas. While doing so, the narrator grows to physical and moral manhood while experiencing the rich freedom of the gaucho life.
Güiraldes represents this lifestyle as embodying almost exclusively positive values—everything from stoicism and loyalty to poetic sensibility and spirituality. He does so through a stylistic that mirrors these values. Two chapters perhaps best illustrate how Güiraldes accomplishes this goal. As noted above, chapter 2 introduces the laconic gaucho who shows exceptional mercy to his would-be murderer and exerts a magnetic influence over those he meets. Later in chapter 21, Güiraldes illustrates how central morality is to the gaucho lifestyle when he has Don Segundo narrate a story about Misery and Poverty. Don Segundo explains that the story, which recounts the foibles of a blacksmith named Misery, is a tool he is giving the narrator to help others in times of desperation. So intent is he on illustrating the power of narrative to rearticulate its audience that when one of their horses breaks loose, he dismisses the interruption. So influential is the story that the narrator christens his saddle blanket Poverty and his sheepskin pad Misery and promptly falls asleep on them—thereby demonstrating the power of narrative to redefine individuals and the necessity of accepting one’s place with such privations as misery and poverty.
Despite the strength of such values, the novel ultimately must have the narrator (and, by extension, Güiraldes’ contemporary Argentine audience) leave this idyllic world. At the novel’s end, the narrator realizes how inextricable the gaucho is from this freedom: “. . . for Don Segundo trail and life were one and the same.” In contrast, the boy’s destiny lies within the confines of the city. However, Güiraldes argues that his urban audience, like the narrator, can and should continue to inhabit the moral high ground that they have vicariously explored in the novel. The audience can thereby revitalize the urban landscape with the vast freedom found on the pampas whereon the gauchos ride like the wind.
Previtali, Giovanni. Ricardo Güiraldes and Don Segundo Sombra: Life and Works. New York: Hispanic Institute in the United States, 1963.