Facundo is writer and statesman Domingo Faustino Sarmiento’s most famous work, and a fascinating example of imaginative nonfiction. It is considered one of the premier works of Latin American literature and is read and studied widely there.
While in exile, the idealistic intellectual Sarmiento wrote the dialectic work with celerity and published it in Chile’s newspaper El Progreso serially from May 12 – June 21, 1845. The work is technically the second in a trilogy; the first is a biography on the Argentinian friar and caudillo general Fray Felix Aldao and the third concerns gaucho leader and erstwhile ally of Facundo, El Chacho.
With Facundo Sarmiento sought to galvanize people against the dictator Juan Manuel de Rosas. He wanted to set out the conditions for the man’s rise to power and exactly what was wrong with the country of Argentina. He hoped his work would also inspire those fighting against Rosas and elevate his own name as a freedom fighter and intellectual.
The work is ostensibly a biography, but at the time the genre was more fungible and offered authors the opportunity to interject personal views and to deviate from a traditional linear narrative. Sarmiento was keen to make his work of fact as thrilling as one of fiction. Facundo is seen by many critics as the beginning of Argentinian fiction while others prefer to analyze it as biography. It is certainly a hybrid and offers many telling insights into Sarmiento himself. Spanish critic and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno wrote, "I never took Facundo by Sarmiento as a historical work, nor do I think it can be very valued in that regard. I always thought of it as a literary work, as a historical novel," and González Echevarría described it as at once an "essay, biography, autobiography, novel, epic, memoir, confession, political pamphlet, diatribe, scientific treatise, [and] travelogue."
The citation in the “Author’s Notice” (translated as “ideas cannot be killed”) is a bit perplexing, as the quote is attributed to the French intellectual Hippolyte Fortoul but there is no actual record of his having said it. It may derive from Diderot to an extent, but this manipulation is Borgesian and intentional.
For a second edition in 1851, Sarmiento removed the last two chapters on the advice of Valentín Alsina, an exiled Argentinian lawyer and politician, but replaced them by 1874.
In terms of reception, it was quite mixed. Some Argentinian émigrés found it delightful while others were suspicious of its style and content. It became incredibly popular, however, and became known as the Don Quixote of Latin America. Borges himself deemed Facundo the “most memorable character of [Argentine] literature.”
There were translations made of the work into Italian, French, and English. The first English translation was done by Mary Mann in 1868 and is highly esteemed.