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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Don Segundo Sombra

Ricardo Güiraldes

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To purchase Don Segundo Sombra

Title: Don Segundo Sombra
Author: Ricardo Güiraldes
Genre: Novel
Written: 1926 (Eng. 1935)
Length: 199 pages
Original in: Spanish
Availability: Don Segundo Sombra - US
Don Segundo Sombra - US (Spanish)
Don Segundo Sombra - UK
Don Segundo Sombra - Canada
Don Segundo Sombra - France
Ich ritt mit den Gauchos - Deutschland
Don Segundo Sombra - Italia
Don Segundo Sombra - España
  • Spanish title: Don Segundo Sombra
  • Shadows on the Pampas
  • Translated by Harriet de Oniís
  • With an Introduction by Waldo David Frank
  • Also available in a translation by Patricia Owen Steiner (1995)

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit basic, but just what you'd expect from a classic of gaucho-life

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times Book Rev. . 6/1/1935 Fred T. Marsh
Sunday Times C 15/9/1935 John Beevers
TLS . 26/9/1935 R. A. Gallop

  From the Reviews:
  • "I doubt if Don Segundo Sombra is as important as Mr. Waldo Frank imagines in his introduction. (...) (O)utside these bright spots there is not a great deal to recommend it. (...) (A) good deal of pretension with very little matter." - John Beevers, Sunday Times

  • "The book has little plot. (...) Like Martín Fierro, the strength of the book lies in its portrayal of the gauchesco environment; and it contains memorable descriptions (....) The translation is well done." - Rodney Alexander Gallop, Times Literary Supplement

  • "The nationalists tell us that Don Segundo Sombra is the model of a national book; but if we compare it with the works of the gauchesque tradition, the first thing we notice is the differences. Don Segundo Sombra abounds in metaphors of a kind having nothing to do with country speech but a great deal to do with the metaphors of the then current literary circles of Montmartre. As for the fable, the story, it is easy to find in it the influence of Kipling's Kim, whose action is set in India and which was, in turn, written under the influence of Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn, the epic of the Mississippi. When I make this observation, I do not wish to lessen the value of Don Segundo Sombra; on the contrary, I want to emphasize the fact that, in order that we might have this book, it was necessary for Güiraldes to recall the poetic technique of the French circles of his time and the work of Kipling which he had read many years before; in other words, Kipling and Mark Twain and the metaphors of French poets were necessary for this Argentine book, for this book which, I repeat, is no less Argentine for having accepted such influences." - Jorge Luis Borges, 'The Argentine Writer and Tradition' (1951) (in Labyrinths (1962))

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Don Segundo Sombra is an Argentine classic of gaucho life. The narrator is an apparently orphaned youth whose family circumstances are veiled in a bit of mystery -- taken as a boy from "the woman I called mamma" and sent to town to live with his "so-called aunts". At fourteen he escapes the prison of school and his aunts' house, fleeing to take up the life he really wants -- that of the gaucho, the cowboys of the pampas.
       He shares a name with his guardian (and, as at it turns out, father), Fabio Cáceres, but goes essentially nameless for most of this narrative, presenting himself as an everyman of the pampas. He is lucky to befriend the legendary gaucho Don Segundo Sombra -- a super- rather than every-man, who is not huge but appears larger than life to Fabio, from the first and always, because of: "the sense of power flowing from his body". Don Segundo has both the wisdom and demeanor to see him through any situation -- a man whose "complete self-confidence" allows him to keep: "cool in the hottest emergency". Don Segundo becomes his mentor, and Fabio learns the many lessons of gaucho-life from him.
       The two most notable activities Fabio is involved in are the cattle drives across the pampas, and the breaking of young horses so they are fit to ride. The battle of man versus animal, and showing who is boss by taming these seemingly indomitable spirits, is repeated several times: man exerting control over nature (as only the gaucho himself, apparently is allowed to roam unfettered). Exhausting and dangerous, these are the activities Fabio lives for, as:

I'd rather live like a mountain lion in the wilds alone, than be a lapdog again under the incense-stinking skirts of those moustachioed old maids !
       But of course he does not live alone -- and chooses instead to be subservient to Don Segundo (i.e. willingly lets himself be broken and tamed by him), learning what he can from the wise, idealized figure.
       Cosmopolitan Ricardo Güiraldes -- who spent much of his life in Paris, and whose early work was praised by the likes of Valery Larbaud -- presents a romanticized vision of cowboy-life on the pampas and at Argentine ranches, but is also well aware that a little bit of this goes a long way and a third of the way through the novel he leaps ahead five years. All spent at Don Segundo's side -- "Five years, and we had not parted from each other a single day of the hard herder's life !" -- but mercifully without going into the mind-numbing boredom that is the hard herder's day-to-day life. Better, indeed, simply to sum up that Don Segundo had: "guided me with care toward all the wisdom of the pampa" than to go into too much detail ....
       The somewhat more mature Fabio isn't quite ready to strike it out on his own, but he is slowly being nudged to independence. Eventually an injury from which he must recover leaves him behind, and apart from Don Segundo, and he gets a first taste of standing on his own two feet (and he winds up fairly ashamed of his performance). Along the way are other adventures -- including gambling winnings and losses.
       All the while, Fabio remains an almost-loner, more comfortable out in the great outdoors than in what passes for civilization, as:
     All towns seemed alike to me, and all people pretty much alike, and my memory of those stuffy hurried places made me sick.
       But there's always Don Segundo to look up to -- a man whose enormous hand doesn't hold or offer: "pieces of gold but the real things in life". Money can't buy happiness, or many other things, but Don Segundo shows him what's truly important and valuable in life. So the life-lesson he learns, anyway. Conveniently, however, Fabio eventually finds himself inheriting a fortune (it turns out he wasn't quite as orphaned as he'd been led to believe), so he can set himself up nicely with his own ranch (and watch Don Segundo ride off into the sunset). (Yes, Don Segundo Sombra turns out to also be a rags-to-riches story, just in case that on-the-road life didn't sound quite as idyllic over the long term after all -- okay for someone like the larger than life hero of the novel, Don Segundo, who is just a passing paternal figure, but whose fate we aren't meant to follow too closely down the road, but not for the figure readers identify with, the protagonist.)
       Amusingly -- and true to character -- Fabio doesn't take to settling down quickly, even when he has a nice property of his own:
I scarcely looked at the principal dwelling house; my wild instincts were too alive. I spread my blankets outdoors and shunned confinement. I got up, like any gaucho, with the dawn and went to sleep with the chickens.
       Until he reaches that point of settling down, Fabio is glad the herding life does not leave him time to ponder life more closely, but ponder he occasionally does -- and he wonders about chance and fate and, most notably, what appears to be the absence of free will, disturbed to think that:
Then a man is not master even of his own person ? Any chance meeting may play the part of fate and shatter the very foundations of one's life ? Are we what we believe ourselves to be, or should we rather take what happens to us as clues to our real nature ?
       From an encounter with a girl when he first escaped to his new life to his gambling to the luck of how horses he rides fall, chance constantly determines smaller and larger events in his life -- the opportunity for sex, how much money he has, whether he is injured or not -- and the one big advantage of gaucho-life is that it keeps him from mulling all this over too much.
       The mindlessness of gaucho life -- the physical exertion and exhaustion that crowds out anything like thought -- offers some grandeur but is ultimately a romanticized world-view of man roaming free that was outdated even when Güiraldes wrote his story. A noxious machismo, with its silly notions of masculine pride and honor (and the inevitable clashes and injury that result) remains pervasive, and even the knowing warnings don't fall on very fertile ground. As someone (though not, it should be noted, either Fabio or Don Segundo) observes:
Pride is what kills us. When a man insults us, the best thing we could do would be to turn away. But no ! We're proud. We've got to talk louder than anyone else, and one word leads to another and at last all that's left is the knife.
       Women, of course, hardly figure in this world, beginning with Fabio's aunts -- detestable old crones he can't wait to leave behind him. Young Fabio encountered a girl before he set out on his first drive, and since: "Her young breasts rose in pride and enticement" he dragged her off and: "was able to do with her as I liked". After that only very occasionally does another woman cross his path, as this novel inhabits what's almost entirely a man's world.
       The way women are treated and presented, and the focus on man taming (and herding) beast (but with the gentle accompanying lesson of listen-and-learn-from-your-elder) makes pretty clear what Don Segundo Sombra is: an (adventure) book for boys, offering pure escapism. There are some more adult flights of fancy and words, but most of this is by the numbers. It also doesn't feel very authentic -- hence also Güiraldes skipping over the five years of the apprenticeship. This is gaucho-life as we (or he) would like to imagine it -- but ultimately this is also only gaucho-life as imagined, to be enjoyed in a child's bed at nighttime, or a treehouse retreat, or a hammock on the veranda, the maid perhaps bringing some cool lemonade to sip on (or perhaps some mate, if we're trying to get in the mood ...) while we lose ourselves in these pages. It is too clearly constructed -- a true fiction -- to feel real.
       Which isn't to say Don Segundo Sombra is a bad book. In fact, it's pretty good. Sure, the story and its arc are familiar (boy, did Borges have that right, about Güiraldes' borrowings -- this is far more Twain and Kipling than anything Argentine), but it's still pretty well done. The writing, too, is pretty decent -- even if the English can't quite capture Güiraldes' French-tinged Spanish flair.
       So, for example, for the admittedly near untranslatable: "No hay taba sin culo ni rodeo sin golpeados" we get the ... creative:
     But there's never a doughnut without a hole, nor a rodeo without falls.
       Still, Güiraldes impresses with his range -- from the colloquialisms of the common man to his vivid descriptions of wrestling with beasts to the occasional romanticized picture:
     The night closed in upon my flesh. And the stars fell into my eyes like silent, inward tears.
       He (and his translator ...) certainly try .....
       As just a literary-tinged boys' tale, Don Segundo Sombra might be skipable, but its place in Argentine literature and its continuing popularity make it worth a closer look. The edition I have is the Penguin Books paperback, published in 1948 (though the hardcover US and UK editions of this translation came out in 1935) -- and they proudly note that this volume (number 638 in the series) is (remarkably): "the first book to appear on our list by a Latin American author". It hasn't held on well in English -- this translation, in its various editions, seems to be long out of print, and a 1995 new translation barely seemed to cause a ripple -- but it remains an iconic work in Argentina. To get a picture of what Argentines still like to think of gaucho-life, Don Segundo Sombra -- with its eponymous hero, gauchismo personified -- remains essential reading.

- M.A.Orthofer, 22 May 2013

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Don Segundo Sombra: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Argentine author Ricardo Güiraldes lived 1886 to 1927.

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