Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937) is not a name that I think most English-speaking readers know.
One part de Maupassant for fluidity; one part Kafka for the uncanny or Freud’s das Unheimliche; and one part Edgar Allan Poe for psychological horror and; the last portion belongs to him alone: his own inimitable narrative and plots; and what we have is a writer to admire, one who preceded all of the magic realist writers. Jorge Luis Borges, Alejo Carpentier, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Arturo Uslar Pietri – in Latin American literature; Massimo Bontempelli, among Italian writers; and Salman Rushdie, Toni Morrison, and Angela Carter in the English-speaking world – all owe a debt to Horacio Quiroga.
Quiroga is a writer primarily concerned with illusions and human foibles. In “The Dead Man,” a man determined to tame Nature slips by accident and falls on his machete, denying to the end that his workaholic intensity is for naught. He is dying and as he dies the reader sees through the protagonist’s eyes as the macroscopic winnows and narrows to the microscopic and then nothingness. In “A Slap in the Face,” a tyrannical boss mistakes a stoical worker’s silence for weakness until the worker turns on him, using the Boss Man’s own riding crop for revenge, in a scene worthy of “Cool Hand Luke.”
To generalize, Latin American writers are known for weaving political commentary into their narrative and, for good reason, given the histories of the various countries, but Quiroga is hardly political. His commentary, if any, is cautionary, and I’d argue, a warning about our disrespect for Nature. Quiroga is an ecological writer of paramount importance. That he spent most of his life in and out of the jungles of the Misiones in the northwest of Argentina informs many of his stories. The jungles, the rivers, and animal life figure large. Nature in all of its manifestations is wild, untamable, and should be respected. An excellent demonstration of this is his story “Juan Darién,” in which a tiger is raised as a boy but eventually rejects humanity because humans obsess about differences rather than focus on the common need for love and family. Read “Darién” and then find and read Borges’s “Blue Tigers.”
Several of his stories deal with the horrific and the perverse. “The Feather Pillow” is a vampiric story that involves a wasting disease of unknown etiology and a pillow. “Sunstroke” is told from a dog’s perspective about his master’s innate stupidity. I can’t even describe the unexpected outcome of the story, “The Decapitated Chicken,” which involves four insufferable, bratty children.
While dialogue is not prevalent in his work but keeping J.K. Rowling’s use of snakes in mind, sit back and read Quiroga’s “Anaconda,” which uses dialogue effectively and is a fascinating short story-novella about an alliance between non-venomous and venomous snakes against scientists in the jungle collecting snake venom to develop anti-venom serum for every species of venomous snake. Aside the pharmaceutical exploitation that Quiroga could never have imagined, he creates a remarkable metaphor for strength with his heroic Anaconda, which, incidentally, is female.
Quiroga published collections. His 1918 volume, Jungle Tales, or Cuentos de la selva in Spanish, remains popular children’s literature to this day. In “The Giant Tortoise,” a man saves a tortoise and when the man falls gravely ill it is the tortoise that carries the man on his shell to find him life-saving medicine. In “The Yabebiri Ford,” a man saves rays from the dangers of dynamite and they repay him by saving him from jaguars. For those who want to know about the two translators, Jeff Zorilla and Natalie Cortesi, who will make the complete Jungle Tales available to English readers for the first time, please visit their Kickstarter page.
The Margaret Sayers Peden translation that I have cites the out of print Exiles (1926, Los Desterrados in Spanish) and Stories of Love, Madness, and Death (1917, Cuentos de Amor, de Locura y de Muerte) as Quiroga highpoints. The introductory essay alludes to a “Manual of the Perfect Short Story Writer” that Quiroga wrote for aspiring writers, but I am unable to find it in book form; but it is available on the internet here.
In all the years I have been reading, it hasn’t been often find the lives of writers terribly interesting, but I have to say that in the few biographical details that I have read about Horacio Quiroga I am convinced that there has been no other writer who has had a more cursed life. His father died in an accident with a shotgun. Horacio’s stepfather, when he had become quite ill, killed himself. Horacio had been the one to discover the body. Quiroga’s first wife committed suicide, leaving him with two small children. When they had grown up, they too became suicides. Sadly, when Quiroga was suffering from intractable pain from advanced prostate cancer, he chose to end his life with cyanide, but not before leaving over two hundred short stories to posterity.