Saturday, October 11, 2014

Too gruesome - Hiracio Quiroga and Uruguayan Doom

The Argentinean Literature of Doom, 2014 edition, is in progress at Caravana de recuerdas.  Richard has included Uruguayan literature, too, this year, because it seems Uruguayan literature is comparably Doom-laden.  I tried a couple of short story collections by Uruguayan Hiracio Quiroga, who must be one of the Doomiest authors of all time, and that is just in his fiction.  The number of violent deaths in his actual life is nightmarish.

Quiroga settled and worked in the Misiones district of Argentina, right across the Paraná River from Paraguay and also bordering Brazil and Uruguay.  It was a frontier forest region, wild and dangerous.  Every story I read was set in Misiones, bar one, which was in a similar area just a bit north.  Quiroga was a dedicated regionalist.  In some of his early stories, Quiroga shows the clear marks of Edgar Allan Poe, who he presumably read in Baudelaire’s French version, but he shed that influence and became something more original.  He reminded me quite a bit of Jack London, actually, with the Misiones forests in place of the Yukon.  Jack London with more snakes.  Way, way, way more snakes.

The two short books I read, which I believe covers most of Quiroga in English, were The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories (pub. 1976, tr. Margaret Sayers Peden) and The Exiles and Other Stories (1987, tr. J. David Danielson), both published by University of Texas Press.  They include stories from a variety of Spanish-language collections, dates ranging from 1907 to 1935.

The volumes, curiously, although I assume by design, create two Quirogas.  The Decapitated Chicken has Quiroga the horror writer.  The title story – eh, I don’t even want to describe it.  By the end I was thinking, why would you even write this?  It is in the tradition of Heinrich von Kleist, of “The Earthquake in  Chile” (1807) but in particular a horrible Kleist shocker that was published by some mistake as “How Some Children Played at Slaughtering” in the first (1812) edition of Grimm’s Fairy Tales but was omitted in later editions because it was “too gruesome” (see note to the story in the Jack Zipes Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm).

Now no one knows what I am talking about.  “Too gruesome” describes many Quiroga stories.

The other Quiroga, the one in The Exiles and Other Stories, write about work.  Look at the titles: “The Contract Laborers,” “The Log-Fisherman,” “The Charcoal-Makers,” “A Workingman,” “The Orange-Distillers.”  Most of the rest are about labor, too, brutal, unforgiving labor, labor that kills.  There is as much death in this volume as in the other.  Maybe this is the horror volume.  Just try the scene in “Beasts in Collusion” where the two workers, one a peon, one skilled, are openly tortured (ants, etc.) by their monstrous boss, or for that matter the scene where with the help of a semi-tame puma – the one beast in the story who is not human – they get their revenge.

Quiroga makes fine Halloween reading.

I guess I need to write one more post with quotations and examples and so on, picked from stories that are not too gruesome.  I pulled the “literature of doom” line from an essay about Argentinean literature by Roberto Bolaño, and I originally assumed he was having his obscure joke, but no, it’s true, it’s true.  The more I get to know the region and its writers, the more I find it to be the most violent and strangest literary tradition I have ever seen.


  1. Great post! One of the things I most enjoyed about "The Decapitated Chicken," although I agree with you that it's almost too gruesome for its own good, is the way the husband and wife turn on each other to assign blame for the monstrous way their idiot kids turn out. Who's really the monster here? Quiroga seems to ask. The blood lust idiots or the parents who want to deny their own flesh and blood? I'm happy to recommend "Sunstroke," on the other hand, to readers who don't/shouldn't have to handle the queasier side of Quiroga. It's my favorite of the "Jack London with snakes" style Quiroga even though it doesn't have any snakes in it that I can recall.

  2. "The Decapitated Chicken" is like "The Feather Pillow," where the relationship between the man and woman somehow literally becomes a parasitic monster. Quiroga would have made a good Poe, if he'd kept that line up.

    "Sunstroke" has the advantage that Death is an actual character in it. And it is has jolly, helpful, dog-like dogs. Quiroga is quite good at writing from an animal's point of view, which perhaps reflects some of his ideas about humans.

  3. Now no one knows what I am talking about.

    Oh, I do, Tom, I do. Quiroga is one of the finest short-story writers I ever crossed paths with. You've met two of his incarnations; you need to meet the third one, Quiroga the children's literature writer; his Kipling-esque tales about talking animals are superb.

  4. I've got to pay more attention to these read-alongs.

    I'm currently reading the Brazilian novel HIS OWN MAN by Edgard Telles Ribeiro which could certainly quality for the Literature of Doom. It's the story of a Brazilian diplomat who becomes deeply involved in the right wing governments of Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Paraguay and Argentina. Throw in the shared objectives of the governments, add torture, renderings, assassinations, the CIA and the FBI and what have you got? Operation Condor. Living under that must impact that Literature of Doom. At least for the 20th C.

  5. Guy, yikes, what a story. The Literature of Doom event, by the way, stretches on for months, endlessly, inescapably. I might even find something else to read for it, if the right Aira novelina crosses my path, although I will not promise anything.

    Next year I should read Lugones; that is clear enough.

    Miguel, I am glad you know what I mean. Not describing one story by not describing another - that cannot be good literary criticism. The book - or a book - of animal stories is actually in English, I now see, but now a rarity. The Decapitated Chicken includes a long story called "Anaconda," in which the venomous snakes go to war with the humans. Is it from that book? Like stories with human protagonists, everyone ends up chopped to bits or with crushed heads.

  6. Yes, it's a good book--dire, though. Does the Lit of Doom include Brazil?

  7. As always, almost always, you've pigued my interest. I'll have to see if my library has Quiroga.

  8. Doom laden; gruesome; violent; horror; decapitation - must read this over the Christmas, sounds seasonal.

  9. Everywhere but the title; I spelled "Uruguayan" correctly everywhere but the dang title.

    Séamus - just remember, it's South America, so the seasons are reversed. If that is relevant.

    James - it's a shame that Quiroga now exists in English only in library books. A new expanded edition is in order.