February 13, 2009

The Short, Tragic Life and the Short, Tragic Stories of Horacio Quiroga

I'm not sure how I found out about Horacio Quiroga, or why, out of all the authors I've heard of but have never read, I chose to purchase and read his book The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories. I would like to say that I saw his name in one of the lists composed by Jorge Luis Borges, either "The Library of Babel" or "A Personal Library," but when I looked at them again I could not find his name there. I think I wanted to read his stories because I was getting tired of reading mostly American short stories, many of which resorted to PoMo tricks and devices, rather than attempt to tell a decent story.

Quiroga, who was born in the late 19th century in Uruguay, is seen as a predecessor to modern Latin American literature and went through what seem to be the typical writerly experiences of the period (briefly lived in Paris, founded a short-lived magazine, published some poems, experimented with drugs, and started a literary group). However, what seemed to shape his fiction more than anything is the succession of untimely deaths that surrounded him. When Quiroga was only two months old his father accidentally shot himself while returning from a hunting expedition. Appropriately enough, of the twelve stories in the collection four deal with sudden, senseless deaths; one of these stories, "The Dead Man" (1920), seems to be a sort of retelling or reimagining of the event, wherein a man is accidentally impaled on his own machete.

Quiroga's house in Misiones (reconstructed)

In 1903, while attempting to explain to his best friend, poet Federico Ferrando, how to operate a gun, Quiroga accidentally fired it and killed him. He was interrogated, put on trial, and eventually exonerated, then quickly left Uruguay for Buenos Aires. While there he met up with the writer Leopoldo Lugones and joined him on an expedition to Misiones, where he bought a tract of land and began work as a farmer, as well as teaching literature at a nearby college. In 1909 he married a former student, who soon grew despondent over their hard and lonely existence, and eventually poisoned herself with cyanide six years later (Quiroga's two children from that marriage also committed suicide later in their lives). In 1927 Quiroga married a woman thirty years his junior, who also hated life in Misiones, and eventually left him. In 1937 he was diagnosed with cancer and committed suicide by dosing himself with cyanide (Lugones also eventually killed himself with cyanide, exactly one year minus a day afterwards).

Stories of the Jungle (1918)

Death, or the spectre of it, appears in all of the stories in The Decapitated Chicken, which collects twelve works out of over 200 stories, spanning Quiroga's whole career. The earliest story in the book, "The Feather Pillow" (1907), is in my opinion the best and most disturbing of the collection - a sort of Gothic tale which draws on the common bed rest cure story and finally subverts it in a wonderfully horrifying way. In the similarly grisly title story, "The Decapitated Chicken" (1909), four simple-minded boys happen to witness the beheading of a chicken, which leads them to attempt the same process on their sister. Other stories, like "Sunstroke" (1908), "Drifting" (1912), and "A Slap in the Face" (1916), unfold in more predictable ways, but are so short that you don't really mind it. "In the Middle of the Night" (1919) and "The Son" (1935), on the other hand, are a bit too overwrought and sentimental.

Of all the stories in the book, "The Pursued" (1908) is the most distinctly modernist, falling somewhere between Melville's "Bartleby the Scrivener" and Kafka's "Description of a Struggle," it deals with madness, paranoia, and fraught human relationships, employing an existential and slightly comical tone. "The Incense Tree Roof" (1922) also points in a modernist direction, though significantly more comical and absurdist. The main image in this story is of a man who neglects everything around him so that he can repeatedly and pointlessly attempt to repair his leaky roof.

Quiroga at his Misiones home

The basic existential notion which comes up in all of these stories is that people cannot control their destiny, and in two of the stories, "Juan DariƩn" (1920) and "Anaconda" (1921), animals are subject to the same fate. These two were the least impressive stories in the collection, and reminded me a bit too much of certain anthropomorphic Rudyard Kipling stories. Both stories deal with the relationship between mankind and the natural world, and have allegorical overtones, which give them a certain unappealing moralistic hue.

Overall, Quiroga is well worth reading and perhaps, after I go through the hundred or so other writers I've heard of but have never read, I'll return to him.

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