The Eternonaut is a seminal work of Latin American literature. It’s been translated from Spanish into Italian and French, but never (until now) English. This section is taken from the original version written by Hector German Oesterheld, illustrated by Francisco Solano López, and published as a weekly serial in the Buenos Aires newspaper Hora Cero from 1957–59. Despite its original episodic publication, The Eternonaut is a carefully mapped single narrative, framed with the insertion of Oesterheld himself as the comic writer at the beginning and end of the story. Its literariness is part of what has made this a lasting story, capturing the imagination of readers, writers, and artists for over fifty years.
Oesterheld, writing about the development of these characters, talks about the idea of heroism: “The true hero of The Eternonaut is the collective hero, humanity. Considering it now, though it was not my original intention, I feel strongly that the only real hero is the hero ‘en masse,’ never the individual hero, the hero alone.” The Eternonaut does what science fiction can do so well, asks hard questions about the world, and wonders what we can do to change things. At the end, the comic writer wonders, is telling the story enough? Perhaps not, but then again, it might be. Oesterheld uses the vehicle of the story to engage with many of the pressing global political issues of the time, but from a distinctly Argentinian point of view. There are references, overt and implicit, to the Cold War. But the perspective is unfamiliar to readers in the U.S. It isn’t the red-scare propaganda; neither is it anti-capitalism propaganda. Rather, it’s written from the point of view of the everyday person in a country indirectly threatened by the escalation of nuclear weaponry and the constant specter of world war. In the opening card-playing scene, after hearing about a cloud of radioactive dust moving south after U.S. nuclear weapons testing in the Pacific, the characters only briefly comment on the danger posed by U.S. militarism. They ironically call it a “hobby” and wonder when the U.S. will stop, then return to their card game. It’s a shockingly dismissive moment. As the story develops, the U.S. looms unseen in the north as a beacon of hope. At points, the protagonists hope for rescue from the U.S., first because they believe the country to be unaffected, and much later because they believe the U.S. to have more advanced technology.
As the story moves from bad to worse to catastrophic, the characters fight, and win, correspondingly escalating battles. The contrast between the oppressive hopelessness of the situation and the near-miraculous survival and triumph of the protagonists is pointed and political. That the worst brings out the best in humanity is perhaps trite, but it is an observation worth making over and over. When faced with unspeakable disaster, human ingenuity is our greatest asset. And, beyond all of that, treasuring the living Earth, our own diverse cultures, the complexity and beauty of life is only possible when faced with the alternative. In the vein of classic science fiction, this story posits an enemy so terribly unimaginably other in order to force the realization that we have much in common.
Osterheld’s political activities would eventually draw the attention of another, horrifyingly familiar opponent. Argentina in 1976 was at the beginning of the Dirty War, a period of especially cruel repressive measures taken by the military government in Argentina against its own people. Violent oppression, torture, and “disappearances” of left-wing activists and those who opposed the military government were common. In fact, Francisco Solano López fled Argentina for Spain for fear of being targeted by the government. In a series of events that seems too tragic to be believable, all four of Hector and Elsa Oesterheld’s daughters were assassinated or disappeared in 1976 and 1977. Two of them were pregnant. In late 1976 Oesterheld was also taken by the government, held and tortured for a period of months, before finally becoming one of the more than 30,000 disappeared. Oesterheld by this time was well-known throughout the country, and the Spanish-speaking world, as the creator of The Eternonaut.
This translation of the original version of The Eternonaut is only one version of this story. There are two other versions that Oesterheld worked on, a sequel with Solano López (1976) and a retelling, illustrated by Alberto Breccia (1969). The progeny of The Eternonaut don’t stop there. After Oesterheld’s disappearance in 1977, a series of other artists and writers worked on continuing the story over four more versions. Such is the lasting power of the characters introduced in The Eternonaut, and such are the expansive possibilities introduced in the original version.
El Eternauta © Héctor Germán Oesterheld and Francisco Solano López. By arrangement with the estates of the authors. Translation © 2012 by Erica Mena. All rights reserved.
Read Part II here