Thursday, October 15, 2015

three days of horror beneath the celestial lash - the esoteric cataclysms of Leopoldo Lugones

As far as I can tell, all of two books by Leopoldo Lugones are available in English.  One is the 2001 version of Strange Forces (1906) translated by Gilbert Alter-Gilbert, twelve short stories, half about mad scientists, half about nightmarish apocalypses, more or less.

The other is the 2008 Selected Writings in the Oxford Library of Latin America, translated by Sergio Waisman, which contains half of the stories from Strange Forces and thirty pages of newspaper writing and speeches, including the one from 1924 in which Lugones embraced fascism.  These writings were of mild historical interest.  Nowhere in the later book is the earlier translation even mentioned.  Honestly, I do not see the point of this book.  Did Waisman think Alter-Gilbert had botched his translation or something?

Alter-Gilbert does have a fondness for obscure English words.  My favorite new word was “fragor” (“a loud and sudden sound”), which translates the Spanish “fragor,” i.e., the same word.  The obscure Latinate words emphasize the resemblance of Lugones to Poe.

Lugones has a story titled “El Escuerzo” which Waisman “translates” as “El Escuerzo” and Alter-Gilbert as “The Bloat-Toad,” a superb title for a nightmare story. – “the toad began to inflate, to swell, to puff up by degrees, bulging, expanding, ballooning in a prodigious fashion, until it had tripled in size.”  How horrible.

The best Lugones stories feature neither mad scientists nor bloat-toads, but rather mythic apocalypses.  Sodom and Gomorrah get a story apiece, the latter describing in detail the city's destruction by a rain of super-heated copper pellets.  The stories finest moment is when the ruins of the city are invaded by lions:

Bald as mangy cats, their manes reduced to pitiful wisps of singed strands, their flanks seared unevenly, giving them the comic disproportion of half-clothed clowns wearing oversized masks, their tails standing on end and twitching, like those of rats in flight, their pustulous paws, dribbling blood – all this declared in the clearest terms their three days of horror beneath  the celestial lash…

“Origins of the Flood” mixes Genesis with Darwin.  Species rise and fall, with, at one point, the earth dominated by a species of intelligent mollusks that “lived, worked, and felt in a manner analogous to that of today’s humans” until the Flood, which did not involve rain but was rather “[a] progressive softening” which “endowed everything with the consistency of yeast.”   All of this is revealed by a spirit at a séance.  Perhaps the various chemicals and changes of state are meant to have an allegorical or alchemical meaning.

My favorite, though, is “The Horses of Abdera,” an expansion of an obscure myth associated with Hercules.  A city’s horses are so fine and well-trained that they develop intelligence and eventually rise up against the humans in an apocalyptic assault on the city.

Some time later, as it turned out, the beach was littered with dead fish which the tide had washed up, as had often happened in the past.  The horses glutted themselves on this gratuitous maritime bounty and, when they were sated, sauntered back to the suburban meadows with ominous slowness.

Etc., etc.  Weird, weird story.


  1. You make this guy sound so compelling I've had to go and buy a book - this is *not* good for the TBR! :)


  2. If it is any help, Lugones seemed second-rate compared to his friend Quiroga. Maybe that does not help.

    And third-rate compared to Borges. Maybe next year's Doom event will be devoted to Borges, as a healthful corrective.

    But I did think the apocalyptic stories escaped Lugones's debt to Poe and les contes cruels to become something more curious and original.

    Luckily, all of these books are short.

  3. Please note that I have had to move and retitle my blog:

  4. You could read endlessly about the Civil War and never run out of good books.

    1. Needles . . . What a concept!

    2. That should be "endless".

    3. Just reading Patriotic Gore and then the authors Wilson addresses, that would be a full load of reading for a long time.

    4. I will begin with McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom.