Friday, 20 June 2014

Book Review: The Decapitated Chicken by Horacio Quiroga week I’m turning my attention to the southern hemisphere and to a master of short fiction who is often referred to as the “Latin-American Edgar Allan Poe”: Horacio Quiroga. At first I intended to review his Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte, but to my great regret I found out that this original short story collection has never been translated into English, at least not in its entirety. Considering the fame that the author again enjoys in South America almost eighty years after his tragic death, it seems quite strange to me that only so few of his short stories are available in English translation. A dozen of them has been brought together in the anthology The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories by Horacio Quiroga which I’m reviewing today.

Horacio Quiroga, in full Horacio Silvestre Quiroga Forteza, was born in Salto, Uruguay, in December 1878. Towards the end of the nineteenth century he began writing for papers and literary journals and already in 1901 he compiled the best stories and poems in his first book, Los arrecifes de coral (Coral Reefes). His private life was shadowed by dramatic blows of fate and recurring financial problems. To earn his living he ran plantations in the jungle that he loved, worked as a Castillian teacher and later as an employee of the Uruguayan consulate in Buenos Aires, while he continued to write prolifically. With The Feather Pillow (El almohadón de pluma) published in 1907 Horacio Quiroga achieved mastery and first fame as a short story writer. Along with several short story collections – most famous among them Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte (1917; Stories of Love of Madness and of Death), Cuentos de la selva (1918; Jungle Tales) for children and Los desterrados (1926; Exiles) – he wrote two novels and a play which weren’t successful, though. At the age of fifty-eight Horacio Quiroga was diagnosed with incurable prostate cancer and committed suicide in the hospital in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in February 1937.

The scenery of The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories is the author’s South America, above all the Argentine provinces Chaco and Misiones on the river Paraná, but also Buenos Aires. The opening story is The Feather Pillow (El almohadón de pluma: 1907) which revolves around a mysterious illness draining life from a young married woman in her new home. In Sunstroke (La insolación: 1908) a puppy watches the unreasonable behaviour of its master under the burning sun of Argentinean summer. The Pursued (Los perseguidos: 1908) are two young men who meet in Buenos Aires. One had suffered paranoid episodes after typhoid fever, but had learnt to keep his fear and imagination under control, while the other is so highly sensitive and excitable that he on his part feels pursued by his new paranoid friend. The title story of the English-language anthology (which is not a translation of the original collection under the title of the same story), The Decapitated Chicken (La gallina degollada: 1909), is about the married couple Mazzini-Ferraz and their four mentally handicapped sons. After several years a girl is born to them and they neglect the boys leaving them in the care of their servants. The boys use to pass their days seated on a bench in the patio with the eyes fixed on the bricks of the enclosure before them. When they watch a servant in the kitchen behead a chicken for dinner, the vivid red of the blood fascinates them and drives them to commit a horrible deed. In the following story, Drifting (A la deriva: 1912), a man is bitten by a venomous snake and takes the canoe to seek help in town five hours down the river. A Slap in the Face (Una bofetada: 1916) of a seemingly meek indigenous worker is the final act to make him plan his cruel revenge on the tyrannical boss. The protagonist of In the Middle of the Night (En la noche: 1919) is a woman rowing tirelessly, but in vain against the current of the Paraná. Juan Darién (1920) is a tiger who is raised as if he were a boy and who eventually turns his back on human society in disgust. In The Dead Man (El hombre muerto: 1920) the hard-working protagonist has a fatal accident with a machete and refuses to accept that all his efforts have been wasted. Anaconda (1921) is a short novellette about a union between venomous and other snakes living in the jungle who want to protect their habitat from human destruction. The Incense Tree Roof (El techo de incienso: 1922) is about the rather chaotic chief of the local Registrar’s Office who needs to bring in order the registries of four years after an inspection. In the closing story The Son (El hijo: 1935) a man lies dying in the jungle fully aware that his two sons are too young to survive there on their own.

The atmosphere of The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories is more or less bleak and disgusting in the tradition of Edgar Allan Poe. The strong impression that the work of the latter and also of Guy de Maupassant and Rudyard Kipling left on Horacio Quiroga is obvious in his writings although they are salted with a distinctly South American touch and certain aspects like mysterious and recurring tragedy or detailed description of sensory perception which foreshadow the magical realism of Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez and other writers of this literary movement. Among the twelve short stories in the present anthology there are at least three children’s stories, namely Sunstroke, Juan Darién and the short novellette Anaconda, which are all set in the jungle with animal protagonists, namely a puppy, a tiger and a snake, and which are written in a colloquial language reminding of fairy tales and fables. There he criticises the unreasonable and destructive behaviour of men, notably in the jungle. However, the narrative domain of Horacio Quiroga is the morbid, the cruel and the perverse, a fact that mirrors the author’s own life marked by so many tragic incidents that reading his biography almost makes think of the old-testamentary Book of Job. In his best stories he doesn’t even need to be explicit about the horrible facts, but mere insinuations suffice to make the flesh creep. In the chronologically arranged collection the development of the writer becomes very obvious. I read all stories in Spanish although some of the – luckily not too numerous – South American expressions were a bit of a challenge. The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories isn’t based on any of the original compilations edited by Horacio Quiroga himself (without identifiable order), I had to search for the individual stories. In the end I managed to lay hands on a most beautiful Spanish-language edition (out of stock, lamentably) which I don’t want to leave unmentioned, namely Horacio Quiroga: Cuentos, third edition 2004, published by Biblioteca Ayacucho in Caracas, Venezuela. It contains all the twelve short stories from the reviewed English-language anthology and many more, plus a very interesting introduction by Emir Rodríguez Monegal.

The original Spanish versions of Horacio Quiroga’s short stories are all in the public domain. Only one title by this author can be found on the Project Gutenberg site, but many more are available on Spanish sites providing free e-books. 

On the whole, The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories by Horacio Quiroga was a very fascinating, though sometimes unpleasant read for me since I’m not a huge fan of horror and cruelty in literature. However, not all stories are creepy and in small doses I can bear with it. In brief, it definitely was worthwhile reading those almost secret gems of Latin-American literature. My verdict: recommended to those who like the genre.

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