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Grazing Earth

By Elisa Taber.

The distorted awe with which Uruguayan author Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937) describes the Misiones jungle is akin only to the way Jesuit missionaries and Spanish explorers wrote about the Argentine province before him. The flora and fauna are so minutely detailed that they are rendered hyperrealist, like the landscape of a mythic past or a science fiction future. Alvar Nuñez Cabeza de Vaca sought the white king of the Guaraní people in the sixteenth century. The missionaries evangelized thousands of Guaraní souls and constructed eleven settlements in the seventeenth century. The eighteenth century initiated the decadence of the Spanish Empire. In 1903, when Quiroga accompanied Leopoldo Lugones to the Jesuit-Guaraní settlement of San Ignacio, the province has become a refugium peccatorum. They encountered houses, a school, church, and cemetery stripped to their scaffoldings and encircling a cross. This decaying sacred space physically represents the template of Quiroga’s stories—characters retrospectively narrate how their current state of decadence resulted from an unassailable conviction of erred kindness. I have attempted to extract the thread of sanity and life in his illusory universe, but it escapes my grasp because it retracts from life towards death and madness.

Quiroga is best known for his collection of children stories, Cuentos de la selva (Jungle Tales), which is part of the primary school syllabi in Argentina. His stories, like all myths and fairy tales, depict events of such unjustifiable violence that magic must intervene as an avenging force to re-establish justice. His teachers were Edgar Allen Poe, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Anton Chekhov, writers whose power lies in creating characters so real they appear animate independently of their creator. However, empathetic justice rests not in physical transformation but in a specific mental metamorphosis that allows an animal or “alienado mental” (mentally alienated)—Quiroga’s designation for the deceased or mad human being—to speak through the author. Borges famously said that Quiroga did badly what Kipling did well, their likeness is evidenced in their books with nearly the same title. I believe the Argentine critic was not suspect of the Uruguayan author’s craft or originality but his ethics. He offers prophecies that transcend what is humanely imaginable. These visions can be easily misconceived as ways of escaping the present by deforming the future.

His narratives offer a fatal critique of colonialism and capitalism but no alternative. He depicts a modern society that banishes those that want to live otherwise—the mad, criminal, or indigenous—to marginal zones. In reference to Ursula K Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, Raymond Williams claims, “a socially higher rather than a socially simplified form (…) is significantly only available in what is in effect a waste land.” His literature is dangerous, it hypnotizes, sometimes even crosses over to a kind of evil that justifies crime. However, he seeks kindness for those to whom society refuses it. Not prejudice veiled with kindness. He holds no prejudice, at least in the limited range of his existence. Quiroga was not a traveler but a prisoner of the place that defined who he became. It is hard to see him in his multiple portraits. In one he stands next to Ana María Cires, his first wife. She died by suicide six years after they married. He burned most of her photographs. Cires holds him and keeps her gaze impassive. His head is tilted down but his eyes are looking forth, imposing distance and holding the viewer in place, apart from them. He held some at an imprisoning proximity and others at a threatening distance imposed by his seclusion.

The frontier between nature and civilization mirrored the threshold between life and death. To control nature was to placate madness. In the end he gave in to both but took death in his own hands. Quiroga ingested cyanide after being diagnosed with gastric cancer in 1935. Alfonsina Storni dedicated a poem to him when she heard of his death. The first line is “Morir como tú, Horacio, en tus cabales,” (To die like you, Horacio, in your right mind,). She drowned at sea three years later. The affirmation of sanity in the face of death counters accusations of insanity he encountered throughout his life or proves that his approximations to madness prepared him to meet his end in a conscious rather than somnambulant state. Simone Weil completes her claim that flesh is the pretext of a false good necessary for sin stating, “I need God to take me by force, because, if death, doing away with the shield of the flesh, were to put me face to face with him, I should run away.” For Quiroga illusion does not intervene between life and madness or death. Characters enter a hallucinatory state after their will has been transgressed. Only the fatal repercussions of violence on the body and mind, not the delusions of the transgressor, interest him. What surprises most about Quiroga’s prose, both in his fiction and correspondence, is his pragmatism. When the narrator learns of a death or emerges from a hallucination, life continues without dwelling on what passed even if it might or will happen again. He felt God like Weil did, as a hunger and thirst, not a desire to be met.

His writing is simple and legible but perfect in ways that are hard to recognize at first. He untapped the potential of language, not as a poet—with meaning encrypted in words in that order—but as an oral storyteller—with meaning encrypted in narrative structure so it can be retold in other words. In “Decálogo del perfecto cuentista” (Decalogue of the Perfect Storyteller) he instructs the aspiring writer to describe an event with only the immediately evident words. He is always sparse. A never-ending sentence halts before something too harsh to say with an exclamation point or ellipsis. He insinuates the worst truths to the reader. His characters enter an illusory state. Silence is not a lie but a gesture of respect towards the humanity of the character.

Quiroga attempted to broaden, not veil, reality through the inclusion of posthumous or non-human narration. He did not distort what he witnessed but tried to see more by allotting intentionality to all events and turning stories into myths. In “El regreso de anaconda” (The Return of Anaconda), he describes a snake guarding a dying man from other animals then being shot by hunters but not before laying its eggs by the corpse. The anthropomorphized animal attempts and fails to make sense of its fatal attachment to man. The potential of imagination is untapped when it does not serve self-knowledge but other ways of being in the world. Life remains mysterious like a light pointed into a well illuminating the reflective surface of the water that conceals the depth and the floor. In Más allá (Beyond), his last book, he describes characters that reach the limit of self-mythologization. They can no longer attribute intentionality to their own actions. The endings of these narratives do not circle back to the catalyzing action but fade as the narrators enter states they do not return from. Quiroga’s last book is condemned to oblivion due to these open endings. This dilution of fiction until the unimaginable is reached. His characters are rid of their shields of flesh.

The stories that belong to his most renowned collections, Cuentos de amor, de locura y de muerte (Stories of Love, Madness, and Death) and Cuentos de la selva (Stories of the Jungle) have been translated into English and reordered into two collections published by University of Texas Press. Más allá (Beyond) remains untranslated and discredited. The eleven collected stories are set alternatingly in the jungle of Misiones and the city of Buenos Aires but in each one there is an undescribed third space entered before a gap of consciousness in the narration. “Más allá” (Beyond), the story the collection is titled after, and “Su Ausencia” (His Absence) are responses to Poe’s “Berenice” and Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. What does Quiroga offer? His own breed of religiosity. A kind of faith in life even when you are half absent, half present in the afterlife or among nonhuman lifeforms. Like someone talking about an ancient scroll that has gone missing and of which the plot to be recounted orally has been forgotten, I can only describe the hold these stories continue to have on me. The awe the jungle inspired in him, and the ethics embedded in the preservation of life within it, is transposed to the humanity of the alienated individual. These characters range from a conductor that simultaneously leads and stops a train from crashing, and a father that seeks and finds his dead son but hallucinates that it is a hallucination, to a girl who dies to be with her lover but then parts from him to move from limbo into the afterlife. Each sees reality briefly before transcending eternally to the side of madness or death.

Through this alternation between losing and regaining consciousness, Quiroga recognizes how he was half absent from life before dying by suicide. To broaden reality so it includes posthumous and nonhuman narration was a valid but dangerous feat. The author, like the Jesuits that inhabited his beloved Misiones, lived with a hunger and thirst for an absence. They believed their desire would be met in the afterlife. He knew he would never be satisfied. Más allá (Beyond) is an admission that he erroneously sought truth at the threshold of death instead of the hearth of life. In “Las moscas” (The Flies), the moribund narrator is haunted by a hum that he identifies as pertaining to the flies hovering above him moments before he becomes, not a corpse, but one of them.

From that same instant I acquire the clear and capital certainty that my life grazing earth awaits the instantaneity of a few seconds to extinguish itself entirely. This is the truth. Never has another more decisive materialized in my mind. All the others float, dance in a distant reverberation of another I, in a past that does not belong to me either. My only perception of existence, as blatant as a blow delivered in silence, is that I will die an instant from now. But, when? What are the seconds and instants during which this exasperated conscience of living still courses through a placid corpse?

The narrator expends his last thoughts dwelling on the threshold between life and death. In various instances in this book characters are described as bodies “al ras de suelo” (grazing earth), not quite here or elsewhere. Quiroga was a man who felt alienated everywhere, except on his deathbed. These eleven stories narrate the instant of consciousness between life and death, stripped both of a description of the afterlife and the retelling of a life. Más allá (Beyond) is a feat as brave as dying in your right mind.

Elisa Taber is a writer and anthropologist. She explores the interstice between translation and epistemology in the indigenous narratives of the Paraguayan, Bolivian, and Argentine Gran Chaco. Both her stories and translations are troubled into being, even when that trouble is a kind of joy.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 14th, 2019.