El Eternauta: The Library in the Sky

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I saw the frogman everywhere.

Always the same figure in the same pose, a diver’s mask pinched across his face, a rifle slung over his shoulder, advancing towards me.

I saw him in streetcorner graffiti, in stickers on lampposts, scrawls, doodles, flyposters–I was rarely out of his sight.

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El Eternauta grafitti via Flickr.

I was at a loose end, walking the city endlessly, waiting three days for a flight back home.

I would email my best friend when I got back to my bedroom at night. “I feel great,” I told her. “I think if I could walk fifteen miles every day, I’d be halfway sane.”

“Shouldn’t you walk thirty miles every day, then? And be fully sane?”

One day I came to an official hoarding with the frogman standing there. You could only see his eyes behind the mask, locked in a determined stare.

I looked around. Saw a sign. OESTERHELD.

Looked up. Saw the library in the sky.

 ~~~

2007 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the birth of El Eternauta – the science-fiction hero who is still one of Argentina’s most iconic comic characters.

At the outset of the 1950s comic, written by Héctor Oesterheld and illustrated by Francisco Solano López, a group of friends are playing cards at home in Buenos Aires when radioactive material begins to fall from the sky. 

Juan Salvo, the title character, rigs up the diving suit to venture out into the “snow”, discovering not the power plant accident they might have expected but an alien invasion of the city.

Juan forms the core of a small group of resistance fighters, including his friends Lucas and Polski, the scientist Favalli, and the historian Mosca. Gradually they uncover the extent of the invasion and devise ways to fight back, with Salvo all the while seeking to be reunited with his wife and child.

El Eternauta went through several versions and sequels en route to becoming the graffiti icon I encountered in the 21st century. In 1969, Oesterheld rewrote the original story, making it explicitly more political and antagonistic to dictatorships and US policy in South America. By the mid-1970s, he was writing the sequel from hiding, having joined a left-wing opposition group. He was disappeared by the Argentine regime at the end of the decade, believed to have died around the end of 1977.

And thirty years from that date, fifty years from the first publication of his most famous work, the National Library of Argentina commemorated him. 

Look, the National Library of Argentina is pretty weird. 

It’s a 1960s Brutalist mushroom, a half-dozen floors perched atop a squat concrete column in the posh, historic Buenos Aires suburb of Recoleta. Jorge Luis Borges himself was director of the library at the time of construction, although his eyesight was already failing and much of the project management fell to his deputy, José Edmundo Clemente.

When I saw the building over ten years ago, the path to its entrance at the base of the mushroom was lined with displays showing colourful characters from Oesterheld’s comics career. 

I was curious, had no idea how to pronounce the man’s name, nor who the frogman was or any of the other characters. I assumed the Eternauta was some kind of commando.

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I took the elevator upstairs and the exhibition clued me in: to the ways of the Eternauta, to the comic-book biography of Che which Oesterheld wrote, and to his other characters like war correspondent Ernie Pike, Wild West hero Sergeant Kirk, and the mysterious Mort Cinder.

What was really special was the item I picked up on my way out.

To commemorate Oesterheld and El Eternauta, the librarians had commissioned a special chapter of the comic, drawn in the original style and designed to fit between the events of the original story.

In this unique episode, the alien invaders capture Juan Salvo and his friends; they then use a time-travel device to bring them forward to 2007. The year they visit isn’t that which would follow a successful invasion: it’s our world, the one in which the invasion has not happened, and in which the exhibition is taking place.

The invaders try to demoralise our heroes by pointing out how ordinary the world will be even if the humans succeed. Looking over a table littered with Argentine classics, they use the library’s collection to criticise a culture they see as moribund, fractured, and fragile–full of squabbling opinions trapped between covers.

“Mankind, especially in this part of the world, doesn’t seem to learn anything from their experience,” the invader says. “This isn’t a coherent, homogenous culture, with a secure and predictable future, worthy of being defended[…]”

The scientist Favalli has a riposte, telling the invader that the library’s value lies precisely in the way it reflects human diversity, and that each individual has their own idea of how the world should be. His less bookish comrades chip in, offering their love of rival soccer teams as an example.

All this could get too pious and comfortable, except that the characters cannot sustain their moment as mouthpieces for a self-congratulatory celebration of library values. The demands of genre snap them back into place, and they resolve their plight with a solution worthy of the 1950s adventure comic from which they have emerged. 

First, one of the group makes a condemned man’s request for a final drink. Then a second man asks for a last cigarette. The invader, surprisingly, acquiesces to this – and, for his pains, is trounced when the men combine the items to create a Molotov cocktail.

A brief bit of gunplay later, our heroes are free, en route back to their own time and the pages of Oesterheld’s original text–pausing only to ponder the name of their creator, which they have noticed on their visit to the library of 2007.

Stories, as human artefacts and human creations, have always bled back and forth between the real world and fantasies, politics, histories, genres. To mention Argentina and libraries in the same space conjures Borges, but it should conjure more besides: the writers who were “disappeared” by a brutal regime, the characters who outlived their creators (as they so often do), and the librarians who traffic between the realms: fiction/nonfiction, stories/experience.

The Eternauta was watching me from what felt like every corner, though I hadn’t known his name. When I came to the library doors, I found the place where life, fact, and fiction meet–and just for a moment, I escaped my world…or the Eternauta escaped his.

El Eternauta has been translated into English by Erica Mena, and published by Fantagraphics.

 

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Matt Finch writes and makes fun things for people to do in public spaces. Find him at his website.
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