Sunday, October 12, 2014

As many times as I’ve been able to, I’ve avoided looking at corpses - Horacio Quiroga looks at corpses

Lugones had a stove, which was extremely comforting to my winter debility.  We sat down once again and continued our pleasant chat concerning the insane.  (“The Pursued,” Decapitated Chicken, 25)

This is an example of Horacio Quiroga as a descendant of Poe.  Leopoldo Lugones was another Doomed Argentinean writer with a strong streak of Poe.  Maybe Quiroga was not influenced by Poe, but rather Lugones; how would I know.  Anyway, this is the kind of thing Quiroga eventually abandoned.

He never gives up on stories about how people die.  The two collections I read have examples from across his career.  In “Drifting,” a man is bit by a venomous snake.  He heroically tries to reach a doctor, but fails.  He is on the Paraná River, omnipresent in Quiroga, paddling:

The sky to the west opened into a golden screen, and the river, too, took on color.  A dusky freshness spilled from the mountain on the Paraguayan shore – in shadows now – a penetrating aroma of orange blossom and woodsy sweetness.  High overhead a pair of macaws glided silently toward Paraguay.  (DC, 72)

I believe those lines describe the moment the snake’s toxins reach the man’s brain.

“The Dead Man” has tripped and impaled himself on his machete.  He spends four pages dying:

What a nightmare!  But, of course, it’s just one of many days, ordinary as any other!  Excessive light, yellowish shadows, oven-still heat that raises sweat on the motionless horse next to the forbidden banana grove.  (DC, 124-5)

I remembered these kinds of stories as intensely concentrated on the dying man, but I note that this one occasionally shifts to the point of view of the horse, who watches the man die.  For the horse, there is a happy ending – she gets a banana.

The vision on the river suggests some sort of transcendence with death, a common idea in Quiroga’s earlier stories.  “The Dead Man” is more typical of later stories – “just one of many days.”  Meaning is found in life.  In “The Darkroom,” the narrator has photographed a corpse at a funeral.  After developing the photo (“the two of us alone in profoundly concentrated darkness”) he emerges into the dawn.

A few steps away were banana plants laden with flowers, and drops were falling to earth from their huge leaves heavy with moisture.  Farther away, a cross the bridge, the sunburned manioc was standing erect at last, now pearly with dew.  Still farther off, in the valley that went down to the river, a dim have enveloped the yerba plantation, and rose above the woods to mingle there below with the dense vapors that ascended from the tepid Paraná.

All this was very familiar to me, for it made up my real life.  And I walked here and there waiting calmly for daylight, so as to begin that life again.  (Exiles, 132)

Horacio Quiroga’s house in Misiones is now a museum.  Perhaps someday I will go see that scene for myself.  Earlier in the same story, the narrator says “As many times as I’ve been able to, I’ve avoided looking at corpses” (129), an amusing irony from the author of these corpse-filled stories.  Look, they say; look.


  1. Quiroga is as death obsessed a writer as you are likely to find. Roberto Bolano greatly admired his work. "Drifting" is a painfully vivid account of what it was like to die from snake bite in the Amazon basin in 1910, hours from any medical care. Quiroga's description of the impact of the bite is really brilliant. It hurt to see the victim's leg swell up to double size. The man perceived his only hope for surviving was by taking a five hour canoe ride to the nearest bigger town where medical help is available and where he has a friend. The beauty of the river is almost that of an hallucination. We see the man become increasingly unable to tell reality from his snake vermin induced perceptions. The riverine journey becomes a passage to another world. I don't know what dying from a snake bite feels like but now I can imagine it.

  2. This is my kind of stuff. I don't know how I haven't read any Quiroga yet. The beauty of book blogging is that this stuff is brought right to me, asking for attention.

  3. Drifting sounds like Jack London's To Build a Fire, one of my favourite stories. I know I have too many books but I'm looking at this and feeling very tempted...

  4. Yeah, a lot like "To Build a Fire," in spots oddly like "To Build a Fire."

  5. Your final comment about the visual suggestiveness of Quiroga's stories is illustrative of the "sensory" appeal of much of his work overall (even when it's "misguided" as in "The Decapitated Chicken"). Much of what intrigues me about the biographical tidbits about Quiroga I've read is that he appeared to be a hardcore freak/rugged individualist (take your pick) interested in writing popular fiction for sale to the leading magazines of his day. This freak/popular tension seems to inform many of the stories by him I've read (maybe another Poe-like similarity?). Anyway, thanks for these HQ posts--red meat to someone like me!

  6. Yes, and another similarity with London. I guess the stories didn't make Quiroga as rich as they made London