Horacio Quiroga

25/07/2020

The Haplessness of Existence

In the Uruguayan writer Horacia Quiroga’s short story The Son, a man searches for the 13-year old boy of the title who has gone missing. There is nothing else in this widowed father’s life and he watches the boy with constant attention and devotion. One day the boy wanders off and hasn’t returned before the designated time and the father is distraught. We have been warned that the father has raised his son well but “to achieve it he has had to resist his heart as well as his moral torments, because this father, a man with a weak stomach and poor sight, has suffered for some time from hallucinations.” Nevertheless, when late in the story he comes across the boy we are inclined to share the father's happiness rather than fear for the boy's life as we feel that Quiroga has not insisted on the worst of all possible worlds. But he has. It turns out the father’s happiness is hallucinatory, “because the father walks alone, he has found no one, and his arm is resting upon empty air. Because behind, at the foot of a fence post, with his legs higher than his body, caught in a wire fence post, his beloved son, dead since ten o’clock in the morning, lies in the sun.” Here the story ends and, like many another Quiroga tale, any hope has been ceremoniously dashed. Imagine a combination of Poe and Schopenhauer and we have the beginnings of the Quiroga worldview.

But then Quiroga’s life was hell; an exaggeration in most circumstances but almost an understatement when narrating this late/ 19th early 20th-century Uruguyan’s life. (He was born in 1878 in Salto.) As a very young child, his father was accidentally shot dead after a rifle went off during a family outing; a year later, his ill stepfather shot himself; then when Quiroga was in his early twenties he shot one of his best friends dead in another moment of misfortune; years later, Quiroga’s first wife killed herself with poison and in his late fifties Quiroga followed suit by taking cyanide after becoming aware he was dying of incurable cancer. One offers the life in a series of semi-colons all the better to emphasise the unending sense of tragedy, and while it is always problematic drawing links between a writer’s life and their work, Quiroga’s suggest that if we must talk about the death of the author, this oughtn’t to be Roland Barthes’ belief (in the late sixties) that the author as a privileged site of meaning should be consigned to burial, but that it is an existential condition of a writer whose life was so filled with misery, that it was more the writer as the living dead. If Barthes insisted that it was language which made the work, that a writer was moving morphemes and phonemes around the page, abiding by generic constraints and literary convention, then that needn’t deny at the same time how some writers might move those small units of language around to produce a work. “In France, Mallarme was doubtless the first to see and foresee in its full extent the necessity of substituting language itself for the man who hitherto was supposed to own it; for Mallarme, as for us, it is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality — never to be confused with the castrating objectivity of the realistic novelist — that point where language alone acts, “performs,” and not “oneself”: Mallarme’s entire poetics consists in suppressing the author for the sake of the writing.” ('The Death of the Author') So Barthes claims, and yet here we are resurrecting the writer, refusing to distinguish between the work and the person who created it and not least because the phonemes and morphemes, can be utilised to suggest the most pessimistic of visions.

The problem, finally, isn’t to suggest that meaning comes from the writer, but the problem arises when the writer’s life, his or her comments, in interviews, journals and diaries, their nationality and their class, become the privileged mode of meaning, that any other perspective on the material gets viewed as secondary or irrelevant. It is still perfectly valid to situate Quiroga within the context of his time and place, the misery of his life and the possible stupidity of his decisions, as long as this needn’t negate numerous other ways of looking at the material. Barthes was writing during a period of structuralist (and in turn post-structuralist) analysis that wished to undermine the privileged status of the subject for the manifold ways in which man could be read, and, too, how literature could be analysed. Our interest in Quiroga’s life is evident only as so far as we can say something about the work, to locate a pessimism in the material that Poe narrativised and Schopenhauer gave philosophical justification to in works like The World as Will and Idea and in his Essays and Aphorisms. Yet we also want to see that this pessimism works through an interest in the tale, a chiefly 19th-century form distinguishable from its precursors like the fable, the parable and the fairy tale but narratively still more consistent with them than with the modern story that so often hinges on a moment of insignificance given meaning through the sensibility of the narrator. John Fletcher and Malcolm Bradbury are talking chiefly about the novel but modern stories by Chekov, Joyce, Sarraute, up to those by Carver, Kelman and Bolano can be viewed similarly when Fletcher and Bradbury say “the Modernist phenomenon of what might be called ‘narrative introversion’ needs to be carefully distinguished from something familiar in the entire history of fiction and somewhat analogous, the mode of self-conscious narration.” Fletcher and Bradbury acknowledge how earlier fiction wasn’t afraid of self-consciousness (Tristram Shandy) but still saw that the narration was the thing, but what one often finds in much modern fiction is that narration can never quite be the thing. A book can never quite be finished. “…Like Musil’s novel…The Man Without Qualities…it can never be complete, because incompleteness is, as in much modern fiction, its real form…stands unfinished.” Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930) So too Kafka’s The Trial and Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, books that remain incomplete as the former insisted his work be destroyed when he died and the latter was still scribbling away making changes as the book was going to press. Perhaps all books are never finished because they are abandoned rather than completed (as Leonardo da Vinci proposed of art) and/or because they await a reader to complete them. This latter assumption is surely more true in literature than in painting or cinema, if we accept that in language we have the signifier and the signified: that is a word as a symbol on the page awaiting an image in our mind. The writer may go to great lengths to create that image in our mind with details that won’t only include a street, a car and a man, but where he or she insists on mentioning a tall man with greying hair crouched at the wheel of his Aston Martin as he turns down Fleet Street. The detail doesn’t obviate the space between the signifier and the signified: it still needs the reader to complete the image.  

We can perhaps see how interpretations that privilege the writer, that link the content of the tale to the existence of the writer’s life, can seem inadequate for various reasons, but one of the most obvious is that instead of reading the story in all its manifest imaginativeness, we see in it aspects of the writer’s life and feelings. We turn our imaginative relationship with the signifier into a simplified one with the writer’s existence. As Barthes says, “the author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews, and even in the awareness of literary men, anxious to unite, by their private journals, their person and their work; the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions…” (‘The Death of the Author’) In this sense, modernism exacerbated the problem rather than abolished it, since how often do we read into Kafka or Proust’s work the nature of their life? While one could see someone reading Balzac’s Cousin Bette or Eliot’s Silas Marner with no knowledge or interest in the writer’s private existence, that seems much less likely when the book is written with the story contained by a very singular being that appears to be writing out of that existence rather than just telling a story. The self-consciousness in Kafka and Proust isn’t only self-reflexivity concerning the narrative, but self- consciousness as a consciousness of self. 

In this sense, for all the appalling events that made up Quiroga’s life and are indeed stories in their own right, Quiroga’s work can be read easily enough without knowing or caring to find out very much about the author’s biography. Quiroga very much saw his stories as finished works, in no need of a particularly strong authorial or theoretical apparatus to make sense of them. Indeed, he created a set of rules for how short stories should be written, including, George P. Schade notes in his introduction to a collection of Quiroga's stories, that one shouldn’t “start to write without knowing from the first word where you are going. In a story that comes off well, the first three lines are as important as the last three.” He also suggests “tell the tale as if the story’s only interest lay in the small surroundings of your characters, of which you might have been one.” (The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories) We can say this is one of the advantages of the tale; the writer needn’t take personal responsibility for the telling, however paradoxical it may seem that Quiroga still found the need to offer a small manifesto. Though both Kafka and Quiroga wrote stories about animals, while Kafka pushed beyond anthropomorphic limits, Quiroga in stories like ‘Anaconda' and ‘Juan Darien’ stayed close to earlier models like the fable while very much incorporating it into the tale that was mastered in the 19th century by Poe, Maupassant and Twain. In ‘Anaconda’ various snakes gather together to take on the humans who are capturing them and using the venom from their glands to immunise other animals, and in turn themselves from the snakes' deadly bite. Quiroga inverts the snake as a threat (he shows them as lethal in other stories) and by the end of the tale only the titular one has survived, slithering back off into nature after a year forced to live with the humans. Before his capture, Anaconda had just witnessed a terrible event that must have made living with the human all the more awful. “Not one [except for Anaconda] was left. Triumphant for the day, the men sat down and contemplated the total massacre of the species. [The dog] Daboy, panting at their feet, showed some signs of poison in spite of being powerfully immunized. He had been bitten sixty-four times.” 

The story offers the sort of ‘familiar’ defamiliarization evident in numerous fables that view events from the perspective of the animal world rather than the human one. As they plan their battle with the humans, so Quiroga gives them many of the features of the human form psychologically. Snakes too can be vain and hierarchical. “As vipers are known to be very vain on the question of beauty, Coralina was quite happy about the absence of her sister Frontal, whose triple black and white rings upon a purple background place this coral viper on the highest scale of ophitic beauty.” Quiroga informs us that at the Congress where the snakes would gather, several species were missing. “When we said the congress was complete, we were referring to the great majority of the species and especially those that can be called royal because of their importance.” Here Quiroga familiarises the unfamiliar rather than defamiliarises the familiar. It doesn’t take much to comprehend the reversal, while the sort of defamiliarisation so promoted by Victor Shklovsky must create a sort of perceptual shock or surprise. Shklovsky notes that Tolstoy “describes an object as if for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time”, evident when Tolstoy in the story ‘Shame’ describes a horse’s flogging. “Just why precisely this stupid, savage means of causing pain and not any other — why not prick the shoulders or any part of the body with needles, squeeze the hands of the feet in a vise, or anything like that?” Though Tolstoy would still generally be a 19th-century writer of the tale (as we find in ‘The Forged Coupon’ to ‘The Penitent Sinner’), he opens up the perceptual significance, in Shklovsky’s account, that few writers more than Kafka emphasised in the 20th. Even in the very beautiful and moving ‘Juan Darien’, a story that might remind readers of Kafka’s ‘A Report to an Academy’, the purpose is to generate not so much quizzicality around cruelty (as Tolstoy’s example offers) but an assertive realisation that makes us in no doubt that what the humans are doing to the title character is horribly ironic. There the villagers are trying to prove that a young man, who was turned by a woman’s love from a tiger into a human being, isn’t really human, and all the while proving their own undeserving status of the term human as they try and force him into admitting his former animal self. “In the plaza they had erected a huge fireworks display with wheels and crows and Bengal lights. They tied Juan Darien to the top and set a match to one edge. A fiery thread raced up and down, lighting the entire display. And on high, amidst the fixed stars and the gigantic many-colored wheels, one could see the sacrifice of Juan Darien.” The story is brutal in its depiction and vengeful in its conclusion. Before the end of it, Juan Darien grasps by the mouth the animal trainer who persecuted him and hangs him between two bamboos and sets a fire below him. Juan can kill him with the force of the tiger and the ingenious cruelty of man. “From his previous existence the tiger had retained three things: a vivid memory of the past, the ability to use its hands (which it used like a man), and a language.” Thus he can get revenge with the terrible skills of two different species. 

Yet what the story doesn’t especially do is defamiliarise as Shklovsky proposes Tolstoy does and that Kafka pushed still further. In ‘Juan Darien’ and ‘Anaconda’, the stories still function allegorically. It is not the tiger-ness of the tiger nor the snakiness of the snakes that chiefly interests Quiroga, but the cruelty of life with the human less the most advanced species as the one capable of doling out the most pain. They tell us that we are not alone in the universe and that other species have a right to life just as much as the human does. Near the end of 'Juan Darien', the title character says when returning to his human mother’s grave as a tiger, “only you among all humans recognised the sacred right to life that belongs to every being in the Universe. Only you recognised that man and tiger are different only in their hearts.” 'Juan Darien' is a very fine moral tale about human cruelty and superiority, and if we have used the word cruel several times it is to point up how numerous other words synonymous with it carry the connotations Quiroga is determined to problematise. Words like savage, inhuman and beastly are usually words utilised towards humans who have done terrible things as humans. It hardly seems fair then to pass off that human fact as either metaphor or a primitive state extant from our earlier evolutionary life. Though there is plenty evidence of animal cruelty towards other animals, the human has developed numerous and very elaborate ways to hurt every known species as well as its own. When ‘Juan Darien’ gets his revenge he isn’t acting inhumanely but very humanely indeed as Quiroga makes clear what human skills he still possesses before informing us how he killed the animal tamer. It is a similar point in some ways that Tolstoy makes when he describes the other forms of abuse the human could have applied to the horse other than just whipping him. 

However, one reason we might be inclined to see ‘Anaconda’ and ‘Juan Darien’ as moral tales is because the emphasis isn’t on defamiliarisation but familiarisation: the writer wants us to see just enough of animal life to make a clear point about it; that humans may find themselves at the top of the food chain but that position shouldn’t be taken for granted and certainly not abused. Tolstoy and to a far greater degree Kafka were interested in what it means to be a creature other than human, what we could call the phenomenology of the species, evident in Wittgenstein’s famous remark that if “a lion could talk we would not understand him”. (Philosophical Investigations) It is a remark Bridgette W Gunnels quotes in her essay ‘Blurring Boundaries Between Animal and Human Rights in ‘Juan Darien’ by Horacia Quiroga’. She explores chiefly the ethical rather than the defamiliarising aspect of his work. In another essay on Quiroga, Gunnels says, “humans have been the destroyer of the environment in their search for quick wealth. The use of technology embodied in the tools and fire that are used to destroy the forest, are also sources of fear for the animal.” ('An Ecocritical Approach to Horacio Quiroga's "Anaconda" and "Regreso de Anaconda"') Yet perhaps we can distinguish between the non-human animal as an ethical object and as a phenomenological question, seeing differences between Jeremy Bentham, Mary Midgeley and Peter Singer on one side, and Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Gilles Deleuze and Feliz Guattari on the other. The moral and the phenomenological aren’t simply distinct, of course, and are often usefully combined. The more perceptual reality we can give to an animal as we try to get behind its perceptual framework, the more unusual it will look when it is in front of our eyes as a tasty dish. Jeremy Bentham notes, as Gunnels observes, that “the question is not, can they reason? nor, can they talk, but, can they suffer?” ('Blurring Boundaries Between Animal and Human')That may be reason enough to go vegetarian or vegan, but it leaves us in the realm of familiarisation. Nobody will doubt that an animal can suffer but that is a very low level of consciousness that we may be attributing to creatures and that may still allow for their murder. How often do we hear that we must put them out of their misery as quickly as possible, to minimise their suffering? Thus, Singer says that an argument could be made for killing what he calls animals that seem to have no self-consciounsess. “Even when the animal killed would have lived pleasantly it is at least arguable that no wrong is done if the animal killed will, as a result of the killing, be replaced by another animal living an equally pleasant life…thus it is possible to regard non-self-conscious animals as interchangeable with each other in a way that self-conscious beings are not.” (Practical Ethics) Midgeley argues at various points with Singer’s position but the purpose is again chiefly an ‘impersonal’ one as she insists on acknowledging not abstract arguments that philosophers have a habit of making but concrete claims showing research that animals are far more evolved than philosophy is willing to acknowledge. Taking Stuart Hampshire to task, Midgeley says, after Hampshire insists it would be senseless to attribute memory to an animal because it wouldn’t have any notion of the order of past events, that Hampshire is clearly not interested in “the very large literature of careful discussion by zoologists and psychologists about the different kinds of understanding and conceptual grasp which different sorts of animals display.” (Animals and Why They Matter

Both Singer and Midgley are interested in how we should live with non-human animals, what respect they deserve and the status they demand, rather than precisely how they might think and feel, an approach that would take us to the limit of our consciousness without falling into anthropomorphism. Such an approach, quite distinct from Singer's and Midgley's, can only be very speculative,with Derrida addressing comments made by Heidegger in Being and Time by saying, “perhaps the animal is sad, perhaps it appears sad, because it indeed has a world, in the sense in which Heidegger speaks of a world as a world of spirit, and because there is an openness of this world for it, but an openness without openness, a having (world) without having it.” In this interview with Nancy he adds, “whence the impression of sadness - for man or in relation to man, in the society of man. And of a sadness determined in its phenomenology, as if the animal remained a man enshrouded, suffering, deprived on account of having access neither to the world of man that he nonetheless senses, nor to truth, speech, death or the Being of being as such” (‘Eating Well’) Deleuze and Guattari reckon understanding an animal needn’t have anything to do with anthropomorphizing it but becoming- animal one-self. How to do so? They give examples of “[Vladimir] Slepian [who] bases his attempt to become-dog on the idea of tying shoes to his hands using his mouth muzzle. Philippe Gavi cites the performance of Lolito, an eater of bottles, earthenware, porcelains, iron and even bicycles,” someone who declares: “I consider myself half-animal, half man. More animal than man. I love animals, dogs especially, I feel a bond with them. My teeth have adapted; in fact when I don’t eat glass or iron, my jaw aches like a young dog’s that craves to chew a bone.” (A Thousand Plateaus) Deleuze and Guatarri say that if we interpret the word ‘like’ 'metaphorically' then we have understood nothing of becoming. “When Lolito eats iron, it is totally different: he makes his jaw enter into composition with the iron in such a way that he himself becomes the jaw of a molecular dog.” For both Derrida and Deleuze, we see a phenomenological and even biological relationship with the animal over an ethical one. It isn’t a question of how one should treat animals, but how do we resemble them or not. What is lacking in an animal’s world that seems to be pertinent in our own, which might, in turn, make us wonder what is lacking in ours? How does one’s jaw ache with the desire for a bone? Lolito offers an apparent answer. Stories such as ‘Juan Darien’ and ‘Anaconda’ don’t quite do this; they remain in a tradition of animal ethics rather than animal phenomenology, and why we might see Quiroga as a writer still closer to Poe, Maupassant, Kipling and others that he admired, rather than to Tolstoy and to Kafka. He familiarises and might seem to moralise, evident when the narrator in ‘Anaconda' says, “man and devastation have been synonymous from time immemorial throughout the entire kingdom of the Animals.” One uses moralising here without seeing it as categorial pejorative; more to distinguish it from the defamiliarising perceptual focus of Kafka and Tolstoy, aware that the Russian would have a moralising purpose too.

What matters in Quiroga much more than a moral definitiveness is his pessimism, a world view that the biographical couldn’t deny, one which suggests while humans are capable of doing terrible to things to animals, human also do terrible things to other humans and, more importantly, life does terrible things to us all. This might seem an odd claim and hardly useful to political amelioration, animal rights and a sense of justice but this is the Schopenhauerian side to Quiroga. Interestingly Midgley quotes the German philosopher in defence of animal rights: “boundless compassion for all living beings is the firmest and surest guarantee of pure moral conduct, and needs no casuistry…Tastes differ, but I know of no finer prayer from the one which ends old Indian dramas…It runs, may all living beings remain free from pain.” (Animals and Why They Matter) Midgley uses this argument in defence of animal rights that needn’t at all be based on degrees of sentience, as she argues against Kant’s insistence that justice needs to be formulated around rational beings. But at the same time, Schopenhauer’s position more generally is that this absence of pain is obviously an impossibility. All creatures suffer and the best one can hope for is to minimise the unnecessary. As Schopenhauer says, “each individual misfortune, to be sure, seems an exceptional occurrence; but misfortune in general is the rule.” (Essays and Aphorisms

Schopenhauer later adds, “history shows us the life of nations and finds nothing to narrate but wars and tumults; the peaceful years appear only as occasional brief pauses and interludes. It is just the same way the life of the individual is a constant struggle…he discovers adversaries everywhere, lives in continual conflict and dies with sword in hand.” Quiroga would be hard-pressed to disagree given his biographical circumstances but the stories consistently indicate that misery isn’t a state to be overcome but a reality that ought to be accepted. Both 'Drifting ‘and ‘The Dead Man’ could be respectively described thus: a man gets bitten by a snake and his demise is slow but inevitable; a man falls and the machete in his hand embeds itself in his chest and he dies. Both are stories no more than five pages long and rather than telling stories full of suspense as both men try and save themselves, the stories chiefly focus on the inevitability of their end. In ‘Drifting’, the main character tries to get help. Five hours from the nearest town, he hopes to make it in time to save his life but Quiroga focuses on the failure of his body rather than the success of his mission. “The shooting pains were settling into continuous lightning-like flashes that now reached his groin. The atrocious dryness in his throat that his breath seemed to heat to the boiling point increased by the second. When he tried to stand upright, a fulminating surge of vomit gripped him for half a minute, his head leaning against the wooden wheel.” 

In time the pain seems to subside as he starts to feel almost well and he realises he could be in Tacuru-Pacu within three hours. But by the end of the story this proves illusory as the pain subsides only because of the shock he is in and ends with the narrator telling us he has stopped breathing. In ‘The Dead Man’, after the machete lands in his gut, the central character lies for the rest of the story on the ground unable to move, thinking about the work he has done to make the land his own and there he is “uprooted, brusquely, naturally because of a slippery piece of bark and a machete in the belly. Two minutes: he is dying.” The story is seen both from the man’s point of view, the perceptions of his family upon him generally and, finally, from the perspective of his horse who, seeing the man floored nearby, doesn’t enter the banana grove. The horse turns its head and views a heap on the ground that by the end of the story is at rest. In neither story does Quiroga try and animate the tales with suspense or modulation. Even if ‘Drifting’ seems to suggest a narrative of agency as the man gets into the boat and hopes to paddle to the town, the emphasis rests on the hopelessness of such an attempt and the irony of him feeling better when he has instead got worse. Like ‘The Son’, the best it can offer is false hope as the delusional imposes itself on the terrible to provide respite from a reality that is unequivocal. The son is dead and the central character in ‘Drifting’ too. In ‘The Dead Man’ he appears to hear his young son calling “Pah-pah” but this won’t be his wife and children nearby but another moment of subjectivity before the subject fades away completely.  

None of these three stories can be seen as unjust tales, nothing in them indicates a negative intention on the part of others even if there is a moment in ‘Drifting’ that suggests the central character wishes to elicit the help of an acquaintance Alves to help him, someone he’d fallen out with in the past. Yet there is no indication that Alves is around and withdrawing his aid. Perhaps someone might claim the stories reflect the stubborn need for a man to do his own thing in a climate that harshly undermines his sense of control. If the men in each had adjusted to the times they wouldn’t be living in the middle of nowhere but the middle of somewhere, the sort of town the central character in 'Drifting' tries to reach. Someone might say the stories are tales of autobiographical guilt. After all ,his first wife, “unable to endure the hardships of life in the jungle of misiones where Quiroga insisted on living, committed suicide by taking a fatal dose of poison, leaving the widower with two small children to raise.” (The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories). 'The Son' was published after her death and we can recall that in the story he is also a widower. 'Adrift' and 'The Dead Man' were published after her suicide too but our purpose isn’t to draw out the cause and effect of a writer’s life and his work, which is often a questionable approach to criticism as we've already proposed, and would anyway require rather more biographical specificity than we care to offer here, but to say something about the world-view of a writer who assumes not only that we don’t live in the best of all possible worlds but that we don’t even live in a possible world that could become then the best. 

An optimist may live in a world that is as good as it can be and align themselves to an aristocratic or neo-liberal mindset, one that suggests either that we need to acknowledge the divine right of kings, where the poor can eat cake, or the divine right of capital, with trickle-down its liquid equivalent. The properly right-wing novel seems rare (with Atlas Shrugged and The Camp of Saints often mentioned, and Ernst Junger was a brilliant writer who possessed an aristocratic mindset allied to a militaristic purpose) but the liberal or left-leaning novel is frequent: from Steinbeck’s Cannery Row to The Jungle by Sinclair Lewis, from Dickens’ Hard Times to Zola’s Nana. Yet Quiroga possessed a pessimism so strong that it couldn’t be allied simply to a political position. If there is no clear villain but only the indifference of nature where is the hope for a better world? Even in a story like 'Juan Darien' that manages to make the villagers villainous, Quiroga allows for a conclusion that is hopelessly vengeful rather than hopefully retributive, seeing humanity as a lost cause rather than a worthy one: the tiger returns to the jungle with the other beast and will have no more to do with the human race.  

Perhaps one of the central tenets of pessimism is futility. As Schopenhauer says, “we shall do best to think of life as a desengano, as a process of disillusionment: since this is, clearly enough, what everything that happens to us is calculated to produce.” (Essays and Aphorisms) “So far is character from being the work of reasoned choice and consideration that in any action the intellect has nothing to do but to present motives to the will. Thereafter it looks on as a mere spectator and witness at the course which life takes, in accordance with the influence of motive on the given character.” (The Will to Live: Selected Writings) Quiroga’s stories rarely contradict such claims and when they do, in the superb ‘In the Middle of the Night’ the Schopenhauerian will to survive is paramount. In 'The Incense Tree Roof', meanwhile, the central character Orgaz is chief of the Bureau of Records in Misiones, a job he pays less attention to than the leaks in his roof that he tries to repair. Receiving a visit from an inspector, the man tells Orgaz to sort out the chaotic mess his records are in and deliver them to him in town a couple of days later. He manages to get the records in order just in time but misses a boat for Posadas and has to get there by horseback. Quiroga builds a lot of conventional tension into the scenario and shows Orgaz working all the hours God has given him, which is precisely the number given by the inspector. As Quiroga details the determined attempts of Orgaz to reach the inspector in time, so we see him riding furiously, before he finds a river rising and impossible to cross. What to do but get in a leaky boat that will take him to the other side, though the owner has no interest in doing so in a hurry. Orgaz takes an oar as the weather turns even nastier. “He was soaked and his body ached abominably, but this was nothing compared to how sleepy he was. If only he could sleep, sleep…if only for an instant.” However, by the end of the story all his efforts will be in vain; not because he fails to catch up with the inspector but because the inspector doesn’t much care that he has done so. As our dishevelled wreck puts the books on the table and announces to the inspector “as you requested? In order,” so the inspector looks at Orgaz and insists, “but I told you that just to have something to say! You’ve been a fool, man! Why did you go to all that trouble?” The story doesn’t end pessimistically as so many other Quiroga tales do, but it does end futilely. The story concludes nine years later, with the narrator saying, “I do not know what the page of his record books held in that moment or what there was in his [Orgaz’s] biscuit tin. But I wouldn’t for anything in the world have wanted to be the inspector who deprived Orgaz of the satisfaction he had won that night.”  

Yet though Orgaz’s mission proves pointless, within it we have the story that indicates a force of will which engages us, one that suggests not only Orgaz but we as readers want him to succeed, want him to reach his destination in time. Quiroga’s point is to tell us that it really doesn’t matter, as if echoing Schopenhauer’s claim that “Predestination and fatalism do not differ in the main. They differ only in this, that with Predestination the given character and external determination of human action proceed from a rational Being and with fatalism from an irrational one. But in either case, the result is the same: that happens which must happen.” (The Will to Live) Yet surely there would have been a great difference if the inspector wished to see the books; might he not have sacked Orgaz if they hadn’t been sorted out? But as the inspector says, he had no interest in the books. His job was to chastise Orgaz and Orgaz just needed to ignore him. The effort has been futile but in most other stories it wouldn’t have been. Schopenhauer sees the difference between fatalism and predestination as the superstitious nature of the former versus the rationality of the latter. What will be will be not because of the Gods but because of the givens in the situation itself. 'In The Incense Tree Roof', Quiroga gives the impression that the story is about whether or not Orgaz will reach his destination when what matters is really whether or not anybody cares about the register. Orgaz thinks it is of little importance until he believes the inspector thinks it is and thus takes it seriously only to find that the inspector doesn’t care at all. He might think during the journey that the Gods are against him, as the weather proves treacherous, but that will be the meteorological that Orgaz turns into pathetic fallacy. The point of Quiroga’s story is that things couldn’t have been otherwise and Orgaz’s efforts are for nothing. The irony of the story though rests not in Orgaz’s failure to reach the inspector but his failure to read him: to see that he cared about his job even less than Orgaz cared about his own. 

Yet in 'The Middle of the Night' appears quite different. Here a man who wishes to master the Parana river in a canoe realises that the river at low tide is quite different from when the waters are swollen. He meets a couple of what he assumes are foreigners, “their air of satisfaction and well-being was typical of that class, qualities assured at the expense of the work of others.” They own a store by the river and again all our narrator sees is “excellent types, my bourgeois, happy and clean - after all, they did no hard work.” But then they tell him a story about their lives, the river and its potentially deadly force. Having exhausted their capital they managed to survive by purchasing an old boat and buying and selling goods on a small scale. One day, just before Christmas they were determined to buy various produce that they could sell on and around Christmas Day. On their return trip, however, the river is swollen and the water is rising but they are determined to make it to the city and sell the goods. Along the way, the husband gets bitten by a sting-ray on his Achilles and the agonising pain leaves only his wife in charge of the small boat as she determines to travel a great distance a man who can cure her husband: a German naturalist working for the Paris museum. Through the night she rowed, “her hands staining the oar grip with blood and blisters” before finally arriving at her destination and helping save her husband’s life. In 'The Incense Tree Roof' and in 'The Middle of the Night' are ostensibly very different since all the wife’s efforts lead to a healthy husband and a prosperous future. But again, the central character reads others erroneously: our narrator sees a lazy bourgeois couple; he comes to see that the woman has in the past managed a properly remarkable feat. But what links them together for our interests is the will, that whatever the outcome it seems weak next to the will that underpins our actions and has little to do with outcomes. The husband lived and the wife succeeded in reaching the village, but anybody who reckons the important thing is the happy ending misses the point and purpose of Quiroga’s work which is the final pessimism behind a will that has no point or purpose beyond its survival. We might wonder if Quiroga would have been inclined to agree with Schopenhauer that after a life which included his own father’s death in a hunting accident, coming across the body of his stepfather after he’d taken his own life, on witnessing over nine days the excruciating death of his first wife after a self-administered poisoning, and deciding to take his own life with cyanide on realising he had inoperable cancer, death was peace itself. As the German philosopher proposed: “in general the moment of death may be like the moment of awakening from a heavy dream that has oppressed us like a nightmare.” (The World as Will and Idea) Few writers more than Quiroga suggests a life that also resembled a nightmare and why like Poe he remains one of the go-to figures if we want to understand how, from a certain point of view and a given set of circumstances, life can be terrible indeed. 

© Tony McKibbin

Tony McKibbin Tony McKibbin

Horacio Quiroga

The Haplessness of Existence

In the Uruguayan writer Horacia Quiroga's short story The Son, a man searches for the 13-year old boy of the title who has gone missing. There is nothing else in this widowed father's life and he watches the boy with constant attention and devotion. One day the boy wanders off and hasn't returned before the designated time and the father is distraught. We have been warned that the father has raised his son well but "to achieve it he has had to resist his heart as well as his moral torments, because this father, a man with a weak stomach and poor sight, has suffered for some time from hallucinations." Nevertheless, when late in the story he comes across the boy we are inclined to share the father's happiness rather than fear for the boy's life as we feel that Quiroga has not insisted on the worst of all possible worlds. But he has. It turns out the father's happiness is hallucinatory, "because the father walks alone, he has found no one, and his arm is resting upon empty air. Because behind, at the foot of a fence post, with his legs higher than his body, caught in a wire fence post, his beloved son, dead since ten o'clock in the morning, lies in the sun." Here the story ends and, like many another Quiroga tale, any hope has been ceremoniously dashed. Imagine a combination of Poe and Schopenhauer and we have the beginnings of the Quiroga worldview.

But then Quiroga's life was hell; an exaggeration in most circumstances but almost an understatement when narrating this late/ 19th early 20th-century Uruguyan's life. (He was born in 1878 in Salto.) As a very young child, his father was accidentally shot dead after a rifle went off during a family outing; a year later, his ill stepfather shot himself; then when Quiroga was in his early twenties he shot one of his best friends dead in another moment of misfortune; years later, Quiroga's first wife killed herself with poison and in his late fifties Quiroga followed suit by taking cyanide after becoming aware he was dying of incurable cancer. One offers the life in a series of semi-colons all the better to emphasise the unending sense of tragedy, and while it is always problematic drawing links between a writer's life and their work, Quiroga's suggest that if we must talk about the death of the author, this oughtn't to be Roland Barthes' belief (in the late sixties) that the author as a privileged site of meaning should be consigned to burial, but that it is an existential condition of a writer whose life was so filled with misery, that it was more the writer as the living dead. If Barthes insisted that it was language which made the work, that a writer was moving morphemes and phonemes around the page, abiding by generic constraints and literary convention, then that needn't deny at the same time how some writers might move those small units of language around to produce a work. "In France, Mallarme was doubtless the first to see and foresee in its full extent the necessity of substituting language itself for the man who hitherto was supposed to own it; for Mallarme, as for us, it is language which speaks, not the author: to write is to reach, through a preexisting impersonality never to be confused with the castrating objectivity of the realistic novelist that point where language alone acts, "performs," and not "oneself": Mallarme's entire poetics consists in suppressing the author for the sake of the writing." ('The Death of the Author') So Barthes claims, and yet here we are resurrecting the writer, refusing to distinguish between the work and the person who created it and not least because the phonemes and morphemes, can be utilised to suggest the most pessimistic of visions.

The problem, finally, isn't to suggest that meaning comes from the writer, but the problem arises when the writer's life, his or her comments, in interviews, journals and diaries, their nationality and their class, become the privileged mode of meaning, that any other perspective on the material gets viewed as secondary or irrelevant. It is still perfectly valid to situate Quiroga within the context of his time and place, the misery of his life and the possible stupidity of his decisions, as long as this needn't negate numerous other ways of looking at the material. Barthes was writing during a period of structuralist (and in turn post-structuralist) analysis that wished to undermine the privileged status of the subject for the manifold ways in which man could be read, and, too, how literature could be analysed. Our interest in Quiroga's life is evident only as so far as we can say something about the work, to locate a pessimism in the material that Poe narrativised and Schopenhauer gave philosophical justification to in works like The World as Will and Idea and in his Essays and Aphorisms. Yet we also want to see that this pessimism works through an interest in the tale, a chiefly 19th-century form distinguishable from its precursors like the fable, the parable and the fairy tale but narratively still more consistent with them than with the modern story that so often hinges on a moment of insignificance given meaning through the sensibility of the narrator. John Fletcher and Malcolm Bradbury are talking chiefly about the novel but modern stories by Chekov, Joyce, Sarraute, up to those by Carver, Kelman and Bolano can be viewed similarly when Fletcher and Bradbury say "the Modernist phenomenon of what might be called 'narrative introversion' needs to be carefully distinguished from something familiar in the entire history of fiction and somewhat analogous, the mode of self-conscious narration." Fletcher and Bradbury acknowledge how earlier fiction wasn't afraid of self-consciousness (Tristram Shandy) but still saw that the narration was the thing, but what one often finds in much modern fiction is that narration can never quite be the thing. A book can never quite be finished. "...Like Musil's novel...The Man Without Qualities...it can never be complete, because incompleteness is, as in much modern fiction, its real form...stands unfinished." Modernism: A Guide to European Literature 1890-1930) So too Kafka's The Trial and Proust's Remembrance of Things Past, books that remain incomplete as the former insisted his work be destroyed when he died and the latter was still scribbling away making changes as the book was going to press. Perhaps all books are never finished because they are abandoned rather than completed (as Leonardo da Vinci proposed of art) and/or because they await a reader to complete them. This latter assumption is surely more true in literature than in painting or cinema, if we accept that in language we have the signifier and the signified: that is a word as a symbol on the page awaiting an image in our mind. The writer may go to great lengths to create that image in our mind with details that won't only include a street, a car and a man, but where he or she insists on mentioning a tall man with greying hair crouched at the wheel of his Aston Martin as he turns down Fleet Street. The detail doesn't obviate the space between the signifier and the signified: it still needs the reader to complete the image.

We can perhaps see how interpretations that privilege the writer, that link the content of the tale to the existence of the writer's life, can seem inadequate for various reasons, but one of the most obvious is that instead of reading the story in all its manifest imaginativeness, we see in it aspects of the writer's life and feelings. We turn our imaginative relationship with the signifier into a simplified one with the writer's existence. As Barthes says, "the author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies of writers, in magazine interviews, and even in the awareness of literary men, anxious to unite, by their private journals, their person and their work; the image of literature to be found in contemporary culture is tyrannically centered on the author, his person, his history, his tastes, his passions..." ('The Death of the Author') In this sense, modernism exacerbated the problem rather than abolished it, since how often do we read into Kafka or Proust's work the nature of their life? While one could see someone reading Balzac's Cousin Bette or Eliot's Silas Marner with no knowledge or interest in the writer's private existence, that seems much less likely when the book is written with the story contained by a very singular being that appears to be writing out of that existence rather than just telling a story. The self-consciousness in Kafka and Proust isn't only self-reflexivity concerning the narrative, but self- consciousness as a consciousness of self.

In this sense, for all the appalling events that made up Quiroga's life and are indeed stories in their own right, Quiroga's work can be read easily enough without knowing or caring to find out very much about the author's biography. Quiroga very much saw his stories as finished works, in no need of a particularly strong authorial or theoretical apparatus to make sense of them. Indeed, he created a set of rules for how short stories should be written, including, George P. Schade notes in his introduction to a collection of Quiroga's stories, that one shouldn't "start to write without knowing from the first word where you are going. In a story that comes off well, the first three lines are as important as the last three." He also suggests "tell the tale as if the story's only interest lay in the small surroundings of your characters, of which you might have been one." (The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories) We can say this is one of the advantages of the tale; the writer needn't take personal responsibility for the telling, however paradoxical it may seem that Quiroga still found the need to offer a small manifesto. Though both Kafka and Quiroga wrote stories about animals, while Kafka pushed beyond anthropomorphic limits, Quiroga in stories like 'Anaconda' and 'Juan Darien' stayed close to earlier models like the fable while very much incorporating it into the tale that was mastered in the 19th century by Poe, Maupassant and Twain. In 'Anaconda' various snakes gather together to take on the humans who are capturing them and using the venom from their glands to immunise other animals, and in turn themselves from the snakes' deadly bite. Quiroga inverts the snake as a threat (he shows them as lethal in other stories) and by the end of the tale only the titular one has survived, slithering back off into nature after a year forced to live with the humans. Before his capture, Anaconda had just witnessed a terrible event that must have made living with the human all the more awful. "Not one [except for Anaconda] was left. Triumphant for the day, the men sat down and contemplated the total massacre of the species. [The dog] Daboy, panting at their feet, showed some signs of poison in spite of being powerfully immunized. He had been bitten sixty-four times."

The story offers the sort of 'familiar' defamiliarization evident in numerous fables that view events from the perspective of the animal world rather than the human one. As they plan their battle with the humans, so Quiroga gives them many of the features of the human form psychologically. Snakes too can be vain and hierarchical. "As vipers are known to be very vain on the question of beauty, Coralina was quite happy about the absence of her sister Frontal, whose triple black and white rings upon a purple background place this coral viper on the highest scale of ophitic beauty." Quiroga informs us that at the Congress where the snakes would gather, several species were missing. "When we said the congress was complete, we were referring to the great majority of the species and especially those that can be called royal because of their importance." Here Quiroga familiarises the unfamiliar rather than defamiliarises the familiar. It doesn't take much to comprehend the reversal, while the sort of defamiliarisation so promoted by Victor Shklovsky must create a sort of perceptual shock or surprise. Shklovsky notes that Tolstoy "describes an object as if for the first time, an event as if it were happening for the first time", evident when Tolstoy in the story 'Shame' describes a horse's flogging. "Just why precisely this stupid, savage means of causing pain and not any other why not prick the shoulders or any part of the body with needles, squeeze the hands of the feet in a vise, or anything like that?" Though Tolstoy would still generally be a 19th-century writer of the tale (as we find in 'The Forged Coupon' to 'The Penitent Sinner'), he opens up the perceptual significance, in Shklovsky's account, that few writers more than Kafka emphasised in the 20th. Even in the very beautiful and moving 'Juan Darien', a story that might remind readers of Kafka's 'A Report to an Academy', the purpose is to generate not so much quizzicality around cruelty (as Tolstoy's example offers) but an assertive realisation that makes us in no doubt that what the humans are doing to the title character is horribly ironic. There the villagers are trying to prove that a young man, who was turned by a woman's love from a tiger into a human being, isn't really human, and all the while proving their own undeserving status of the term human as they try and force him into admitting his former animal self. "In the plaza they had erected a huge fireworks display with wheels and crows and Bengal lights. They tied Juan Darien to the top and set a match to one edge. A fiery thread raced up and down, lighting the entire display. And on high, amidst the fixed stars and the gigantic many-colored wheels, one could see the sacrifice of Juan Darien." The story is brutal in its depiction and vengeful in its conclusion. Before the end of it, Juan Darien grasps by the mouth the animal trainer who persecuted him and hangs him between two bamboos and sets a fire below him. Juan can kill him with the force of the tiger and the ingenious cruelty of man. "From his previous existence the tiger had retained three things: a vivid memory of the past, the ability to use its hands (which it used like a man), and a language." Thus he can get revenge with the terrible skills of two different species.

Yet what the story doesn't especially do is defamiliarise as Shklovsky proposes Tolstoy does and that Kafka pushed still further. In 'Juan Darien' and 'Anaconda', the stories still function allegorically. It is not the tiger-ness of the tiger nor the snakiness of the snakes that chiefly interests Quiroga, but the cruelty of life with the human less the most advanced species as the one capable of doling out the most pain. They tell us that we are not alone in the universe and that other species have a right to life just as much as the human does. Near the end of 'Juan Darien', the title character says when returning to his human mother's grave as a tiger, "only you among all humans recognised the sacred right to life that belongs to every being in the Universe. Only you recognised that man and tiger are different only in their hearts." 'Juan Darien' is a very fine moral tale about human cruelty and superiority, and if we have used the word cruel several times it is to point up how numerous other words synonymous with it carry the connotations Quiroga is determined to problematise. Words like savage, inhuman and beastly are usually words utilised towards humans who have done terrible things as humans. It hardly seems fair then to pass off that human fact as either metaphor or a primitive state extant from our earlier evolutionary life. Though there is plenty evidence of animal cruelty towards other animals, the human has developed numerous and very elaborate ways to hurt every known species as well as its own. When 'Juan Darien' gets his revenge he isn't acting inhumanely but very humanely indeed as Quiroga makes clear what human skills he still possesses before informing us how he killed the animal tamer. It is a similar point in some ways that Tolstoy makes when he describes the other forms of abuse the human could have applied to the horse other than just whipping him.

However, one reason we might be inclined to see 'Anaconda' and 'Juan Darien' as moral tales is because the emphasis isn't on defamiliarisation but familiarisation: the writer wants us to see just enough of animal life to make a clear point about it; that humans may find themselves at the top of the food chain but that position shouldn't be taken for granted and certainly not abused. Tolstoy and to a far greater degree Kafka were interested in what it means to be a creature other than human, what we could call the phenomenology of the species, evident in Wittgenstein's famous remark that if "a lion could talk we would not understand him". (Philosophical Investigations) It is a remark Bridgette W Gunnels quotes in her essay 'Blurring Boundaries Between Animal and Human Rights in 'Juan Darien' by Horacia Quiroga'. She explores chiefly the ethical rather than the defamiliarising aspect of his work. In another essay on Quiroga, Gunnels says, "humans have been the destroyer of the environment in their search for quick wealth. The use of technology embodied in the tools and fire that are used to destroy the forest, are also sources of fear for the animal." ('An Ecocritical Approach to Horacio Quiroga's Anaconda and Regreso de Anaconda') Yet perhaps we can distinguish between the non-human animal as an ethical object and as a phenomenological question, seeing differences between Jeremy Bentham, Mary Midgeley and Peter Singer on one side, and Jacques Derrida, Jean-Luc Nancy, Gilles Deleuze and Feliz Guattari on the other. The moral and the phenomenological aren't simply distinct, of course, and are often usefully combined. The more perceptual reality we can give to an animal as we try to get behind its perceptual framework, the more unusual it will look when it is in front of our eyes as a tasty dish. Jeremy Bentham notes, as Gunnels observes, that "the question is not, can they reason? nor, can they talk, but, can they suffer?" ('Blurring Boundaries Between Animal and Human')That may be reason enough to go vegetarian or vegan, but it leaves us in the realm of familiarisation. Nobody will doubt that an animal can suffer but that is a very low level of consciousness that we may be attributing to creatures and that may still allow for their murder. How often do we hear that we must put them out of their misery as quickly as possible, to minimise their suffering? Thus, Singer says that an argument could be made for killing what he calls animals that seem to have no self-consciounsess. "Even when the animal killed would have lived pleasantly it is at least arguable that no wrong is done if the animal killed will, as a result of the killing, be replaced by another animal living an equally pleasant life...thus it is possible to regard non-self-conscious animals as interchangeable with each other in a way that self-conscious beings are not." (Practical Ethics) Midgeley argues at various points with Singer's position but the purpose is again chiefly an 'impersonal' one as she insists on acknowledging not abstract arguments that philosophers have a habit of making but concrete claims showing research that animals are far more evolved than philosophy is willing to acknowledge. Taking Stuart Hampshire to task, Midgeley says, after Hampshire insists it would be senseless to attribute memory to an animal because it wouldn't have any notion of the order of past events, that Hampshire is clearly not interested in "the very large literature of careful discussion by zoologists and psychologists about the different kinds of understanding and conceptual grasp which different sorts of animals display." (Animals and Why They Matter)

Both Singer and Midgley are interested in how we should live with non-human animals, what respect they deserve and the status they demand, rather than precisely how they might think and feel, an approach that would take us to the limit of our consciousness without falling into anthropomorphism. Such an approach, quite distinct from Singer's and Midgley's, can only be very speculative,with Derrida addressing comments made by Heidegger in Being and Time by saying, "perhaps the animal is sad, perhaps it appears sad, because it indeed has a world, in the sense in which Heidegger speaks of a world as a world of spirit, and because there is an openness of this world for it, but an openness without openness, a having (world) without having it." In this interview with Nancy he adds, "whence the impression of sadness - for man or in relation to man, in the society of man. And of a sadness determined in its phenomenology, as if the animal remained a man enshrouded, suffering, deprived on account of having access neither to the world of man that he nonetheless senses, nor to truth, speech, death or the Being of being as such" ('Eating Well') Deleuze and Guattari reckon understanding an animal needn't have anything to do with anthropomorphizing it but becoming- animal one-self. How to do so? They give examples of "[Vladimir] Slepian [who] bases his attempt to become-dog on the idea of tying shoes to his hands using his mouth muzzle. Philippe Gavi cites the performance of Lolito, an eater of bottles, earthenware, porcelains, iron and even bicycles," someone who declares: "I consider myself half-animal, half man. More animal than man. I love animals, dogs especially, I feel a bond with them. My teeth have adapted; in fact when I don't eat glass or iron, my jaw aches like a young dog's that craves to chew a bone." (A Thousand Plateaus) Deleuze and Guatarri say that if we interpret the word 'like' 'metaphorically' then we have understood nothing of becoming. "When Lolito eats iron, it is totally different: he makes his jaw enter into composition with the iron in such a way that he himself becomes the jaw of a molecular dog." For both Derrida and Deleuze, we see a phenomenological and even biological relationship with the animal over an ethical one. It isn't a question of how one should treat animals, but how do we resemble them or not. What is lacking in an animal's world that seems to be pertinent in our own, which might, in turn, make us wonder what is lacking in ours? How does one's jaw ache with the desire for a bone? Lolito offers an apparent answer. Stories such as 'Juan Darien' and 'Anaconda' don't quite do this; they remain in a tradition of animal ethics rather than animal phenomenology, and why we might see Quiroga as a writer still closer to Poe, Maupassant, Kipling and others that he admired, rather than to Tolstoy and to Kafka. He familiarises and might seem to moralise, evident when the narrator in 'Anaconda' says, "man and devastation have been synonymous from time immemorial throughout the entire kingdom of the Animals." One uses moralising here without seeing it as categorial pejorative; more to distinguish it from the defamiliarising perceptual focus of Kafka and Tolstoy, aware that the Russian would have a moralising purpose too.

What matters in Quiroga much more than a moral definitiveness is his pessimism, a world view that the biographical couldn't deny, one which suggests while humans are capable of doing terrible to things to animals, human also do terrible things to other humans and, more importantly, life does terrible things to us all. This might seem an odd claim and hardly useful to political amelioration, animal rights and a sense of justice but this is the Schopenhauerian side to Quiroga. Interestingly Midgley quotes the German philosopher in defence of animal rights: "boundless compassion for all living beings is the firmest and surest guarantee of pure moral conduct, and needs no casuistry...Tastes differ, but I know of no finer prayer from the one which ends old Indian dramas...It runs, may all living beings remain free from pain." (Animals and Why They Matter) Midgley uses this argument in defence of animal rights that needn't at all be based on degrees of sentience, as she argues against Kant's insistence that justice needs to be formulated around rational beings. But at the same time, Schopenhauer's position more generally is that this absence of pain is obviously an impossibility. All creatures suffer and the best one can hope for is to minimise the unnecessary. As Schopenhauer says, "each individual misfortune, to be sure, seems an exceptional occurrence; but misfortune in general is the rule." (Essays and Aphorisms)

Schopenhauer later adds, "history shows us the life of nations and finds nothing to narrate but wars and tumults; the peaceful years appear only as occasional brief pauses and interludes. It is just the same way the life of the individual is a constant struggle...he discovers adversaries everywhere, lives in continual conflict and dies with sword in hand." Quiroga would be hard-pressed to disagree given his biographical circumstances but the stories consistently indicate that misery isn't a state to be overcome but a reality that ought to be accepted. Both 'Drifting 'and 'The Dead Man' could be respectively described thus: a man gets bitten by a snake and his demise is slow but inevitable; a man falls and the machete in his hand embeds itself in his chest and he dies. Both are stories no more than five pages long and rather than telling stories full of suspense as both men try and save themselves, the stories chiefly focus on the inevitability of their end. In 'Drifting', the main character tries to get help. Five hours from the nearest town, he hopes to make it in time to save his life but Quiroga focuses on the failure of his body rather than the success of his mission. "The shooting pains were settling into continuous lightning-like flashes that now reached his groin. The atrocious dryness in his throat that his breath seemed to heat to the boiling point increased by the second. When he tried to stand upright, a fulminating surge of vomit gripped him for half a minute, his head leaning against the wooden wheel."

In time the pain seems to subside as he starts to feel almost well and he realises he could be in Tacuru-Pacu within three hours. But by the end of the story this proves illusory as the pain subsides only because of the shock he is in and ends with the narrator telling us he has stopped breathing. In 'The Dead Man', after the machete lands in his gut, the central character lies for the rest of the story on the ground unable to move, thinking about the work he has done to make the land his own and there he is "uprooted, brusquely, naturally because of a slippery piece of bark and a machete in the belly. Two minutes: he is dying." The story is seen both from the man's point of view, the perceptions of his family upon him generally and, finally, from the perspective of his horse who, seeing the man floored nearby, doesn't enter the banana grove. The horse turns its head and views a heap on the ground that by the end of the story is at rest. In neither story does Quiroga try and animate the tales with suspense or modulation. Even if 'Drifting' seems to suggest a narrative of agency as the man gets into the boat and hopes to paddle to the town, the emphasis rests on the hopelessness of such an attempt and the irony of him feeling better when he has instead got worse. Like 'The Son', the best it can offer is false hope as the delusional imposes itself on the terrible to provide respite from a reality that is unequivocal. The son is dead and the central character in 'Drifting' too. In 'The Dead Man' he appears to hear his young son calling "Pah-pah" but this won't be his wife and children nearby but another moment of subjectivity before the subject fades away completely.

None of these three stories can be seen as unjust tales, nothing in them indicates a negative intention on the part of others even if there is a moment in 'Drifting' that suggests the central character wishes to elicit the help of an acquaintance Alves to help him, someone he'd fallen out with in the past. Yet there is no indication that Alves is around and withdrawing his aid. Perhaps someone might claim the stories reflect the stubborn need for a man to do his own thing in a climate that harshly undermines his sense of control. If the men in each had adjusted to the times they wouldn't be living in the middle of nowhere but the middle of somewhere, the sort of town the central character in 'Drifting' tries to reach. Someone might say the stories are tales of autobiographical guilt. After all ,his first wife, "unable to endure the hardships of life in the jungle of misiones where Quiroga insisted on living, committed suicide by taking a fatal dose of poison, leaving the widower with two small children to raise." (The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories). 'The Son' was published after her death and we can recall that in the story he is also a widower. 'Adrift' and 'The Dead Man' were published after her suicide too but our purpose isn't to draw out the cause and effect of a writer's life and his work, which is often a questionable approach to criticism as we've already proposed, and would anyway require rather more biographical specificity than we care to offer here, but to say something about the world-view of a writer who assumes not only that we don't live in the best of all possible worlds but that we don't even live in a possible world that could become then the best.

An optimist may live in a world that is as good as it can be and align themselves to an aristocratic or neo-liberal mindset, one that suggests either that we need to acknowledge the divine right of kings, where the poor can eat cake, or the divine right of capital, with trickle-down its liquid equivalent. The properly right-wing novel seems rare (with Atlas Shrugged and The Camp of Saints often mentioned, and Ernst Junger was a brilliant writer who possessed an aristocratic mindset allied to a militaristic purpose) but the liberal or left-leaning novel is frequent: from Steinbeck's Cannery Row to The Jungle by Sinclair Lewis, from Dickens' Hard Times to Zola's Nana. Yet Quiroga possessed a pessimism so strong that it couldn't be allied simply to a political position. If there is no clear villain but only the indifference of nature where is the hope for a better world? Even in a story like 'Juan Darien' that manages to make the villagers villainous, Quiroga allows for a conclusion that is hopelessly vengeful rather than hopefully retributive, seeing humanity as a lost cause rather than a worthy one: the tiger returns to the jungle with the other beast and will have no more to do with the human race.

Perhaps one of the central tenets of pessimism is futility. As Schopenhauer says, "we shall do best to think of life as a desengano, as a process of disillusionment: since this is, clearly enough, what everything that happens to us is calculated to produce." (Essays and Aphorisms) "So far is character from being the work of reasoned choice and consideration that in any action the intellect has nothing to do but to present motives to the will. Thereafter it looks on as a mere spectator and witness at the course which life takes, in accordance with the influence of motive on the given character." (The Will to Live: Selected Writings) Quiroga's stories rarely contradict such claims and when they do, in the superb 'In the Middle of the Night' the Schopenhauerian will to survive is paramount. In 'The Incense Tree Roof', meanwhile, the central character Orgaz is chief of the Bureau of Records in Misiones, a job he pays less attention to than the leaks in his roof that he tries to repair. Receiving a visit from an inspector, the man tells Orgaz to sort out the chaotic mess his records are in and deliver them to him in town a couple of days later. He manages to get the records in order just in time but misses a boat for Posadas and has to get there by horseback. Quiroga builds a lot of conventional tension into the scenario and shows Orgaz working all the hours God has given him, which is precisely the number given by the inspector. As Quiroga details the determined attempts of Orgaz to reach the inspector in time, so we see him riding furiously, before he finds a river rising and impossible to cross. What to do but get in a leaky boat that will take him to the other side, though the owner has no interest in doing so in a hurry. Orgaz takes an oar as the weather turns even nastier. "He was soaked and his body ached abominably, but this was nothing compared to how sleepy he was. If only he could sleep, sleep...if only for an instant." However, by the end of the story all his efforts will be in vain; not because he fails to catch up with the inspector but because the inspector doesn't much care that he has done so. As our dishevelled wreck puts the books on the table and announces to the inspector "as you requested? In order," so the inspector looks at Orgaz and insists, "but I told you that just to have something to say! You've been a fool, man! Why did you go to all that trouble?" The story doesn't end pessimistically as so many other Quiroga tales do, but it does end futilely. The story concludes nine years later, with the narrator saying, "I do not know what the page of his record books held in that moment or what there was in his [Orgaz's] biscuit tin. But I wouldn't for anything in the world have wanted to be the inspector who deprived Orgaz of the satisfaction he had won that night."

Yet though Orgaz's mission proves pointless, within it we have the story that indicates a force of will which engages us, one that suggests not only Orgaz but we as readers want him to succeed, want him to reach his destination in time. Quiroga's point is to tell us that it really doesn't matter, as if echoing Schopenhauer's claim that "Predestination and fatalism do not differ in the main. They differ only in this, that with Predestination the given character and external determination of human action proceed from a rational Being and with fatalism from an irrational one. But in either case, the result is the same: that happens which must happen." (The Will to Live) Yet surely there would have been a great difference if the inspector wished to see the books; might he not have sacked Orgaz if they hadn't been sorted out? But as the inspector says, he had no interest in the books. His job was to chastise Orgaz and Orgaz just needed to ignore him. The effort has been futile but in most other stories it wouldn't have been. Schopenhauer sees the difference between fatalism and predestination as the superstitious nature of the former versus the rationality of the latter. What will be will be not because of the Gods but because of the givens in the situation itself. 'In The Incense Tree Roof', Quiroga gives the impression that the story is about whether or not Orgaz will reach his destination when what matters is really whether or not anybody cares about the register. Orgaz thinks it is of little importance until he believes the inspector thinks it is and thus takes it seriously only to find that the inspector doesn't care at all. He might think during the journey that the Gods are against him, as the weather proves treacherous, but that will be the meteorological that Orgaz turns into pathetic fallacy. The point of Quiroga's story is that things couldn't have been otherwise and Orgaz's efforts are for nothing. The irony of the story though rests not in Orgaz's failure to reach the inspector but his failure to read him: to see that he cared about his job even less than Orgaz cared about his own.

Yet in 'The Middle of the Night' appears quite different. Here a man who wishes to master the Parana river in a canoe realises that the river at low tide is quite different from when the waters are swollen. He meets a couple of what he assumes are foreigners, "their air of satisfaction and well-being was typical of that class, qualities assured at the expense of the work of others." They own a store by the river and again all our narrator sees is "excellent types, my bourgeois, happy and clean - after all, they did no hard work." But then they tell him a story about their lives, the river and its potentially deadly force. Having exhausted their capital they managed to survive by purchasing an old boat and buying and selling goods on a small scale. One day, just before Christmas they were determined to buy various produce that they could sell on and around Christmas Day. On their return trip, however, the river is swollen and the water is rising but they are determined to make it to the city and sell the goods. Along the way, the husband gets bitten by a sting-ray on his Achilles and the agonising pain leaves only his wife in charge of the small boat as she determines to travel a great distance a man who can cure her husband: a German naturalist working for the Paris museum. Through the night she rowed, "her hands staining the oar grip with blood and blisters" before finally arriving at her destination and helping save her husband's life. In 'The Incense Tree Roof' and in 'The Middle of the Night' are ostensibly very different since all the wife's efforts lead to a healthy husband and a prosperous future. But again, the central character reads others erroneously: our narrator sees a lazy bourgeois couple; he comes to see that the woman has in the past managed a properly remarkable feat. But what links them together for our interests is the will, that whatever the outcome it seems weak next to the will that underpins our actions and has little to do with outcomes. The husband lived and the wife succeeded in reaching the village, but anybody who reckons the important thing is the happy ending misses the point and purpose of Quiroga's work which is the final pessimism behind a will that has no point or purpose beyond its survival. We might wonder if Quiroga would have been inclined to agree with Schopenhauer that after a life which included his own father's death in a hunting accident, coming across the body of his stepfather after he'd taken his own life, on witnessing over nine days the excruciating death of his first wife after a self-administered poisoning, and deciding to take his own life with cyanide on realising he had inoperable cancer, death was peace itself. As the German philosopher proposed: "in general the moment of death may be like the moment of awakening from a heavy dream that has oppressed us like a nightmare." (The World as Will and Idea) Few writers more than Quiroga suggests a life that also resembled a nightmare and why like Poe he remains one of the go-to figures if we want to understand how, from a certain point of view and a given set of circumstances, life can be terrible indeed.


© Tony McKibbin