Horacios Quiroga’s “Cuentos de amor de locura y de muerte” (Stories of love, madness and death—how can you resist that combination?) had the privilege of being my Jammed Book, an honor previously bestowed upon Onetti’s “El astillero” in Nuevo Laredo. My Jammed books are the books I read while my computer is jammed for one reason or the other: my mouse freezes in place, my Internet browser crashes, the text I type refuses to appear, and my favorite, the ever-present hovering, all-seeing like the eye of Sauron hourglass (yeah, don’t tell me… I really need to get a new laptop). It’s nice to use Spanish books as my Jammed books, because they are small, light and fit easily into my ginormous Fred Meyer recycled plastic kitty cat bag.
Anyway, the problem with reading books in the office is that the reading sessions are somewhat fragmented, as I’m constantly having to put the book down during the magical moments in which my mouse can freely move across the screen again, only to pick the book up again when the screen inevitably freezes. I also had the same problem that I experienced while reading La casa verde: this book is so full of archaic jungle lingo that I’m constantly feeling lost and confused (and as my computer is jammed, wordreference.com is a no-no). Did you know that achucahdo is Quechua for “fever”? Or that “barigui” is guarani for small mosquito? That “catigua” is a kind of tree and “carpincho” is a kind a fish? Yeah, me neither. Fortunately my edition had a little vocabulary list at the back, which helped quite a bit.
Obscure vocabulary withstanding, over the past three weeks I’ve successfully managed to work my way through Quiroga’s book (a testament to my computer’s uselessness more than my reading ability). You can count this book as another in the series of Latin American novels dealing with the conflicts and anxieties caused by deep jungle habitats. Most of these short stories would make excellent Herzogian films, especially the one in which the sickly bride is convinced that something is sucking her blood at night in the ominous “The Feather Pillow” (a tale that puts the Poe in the Poe-esque), or the wonderfully titled opening story “The Decapitated Chicken” (how could Herzog not want to make a movie involving four mentally handicapped children, a jungle setting, a bloody murder and a headless chicken?).
Quiroga’s life is also decidedly Herzogian, as well as fun to summarize:
Lived in Paris before decided that the “bohemian” life was not for him
Accidentally shot his best friend, felt guilty about it for the rest of his life
Friends with Lugones, future fascist Argentinean poet, who encouraged him to start afresh in the jungle, where he ended up living for most of his life
Married three times; fond of girls 30+ years younger than him; first wife committed suicide by drinking mercury poison
Committed suicide by drinking cyanide
While reading this book it was impossible not to think of other man-versus-nature tales such as “Into the Wild” or “Aguirre Wrath of God.” In all these kinds of stories, it seems like the common theme is always man’s search for knowledge, truth of himself (in the case of the first) or material wealth (in the case of the second). Quiroga’s characters tend to fall more into the second category than the first, like the men who plan to start an orange fermentation business in order to make orange wine. Overall, nature is definitely an intense place in Quiroga’s world. It’s definitely hostile towards men while at the same time being indifferent. Quiroga intriguingly adapts this indifferent point of view in stories such as “The Dead Man,” in which a man falls on top of his machete in the opening sentence and spends the rest of the story dealing with his impending death, on in “Drifting,” in which a man steps on a poisonous snake and decides to ride a canoe five hours down river for help. There’s also “Sunstroke,” (these story titles remind me of NIN songs) which is narrated from the point of view of some dogs as they watch their owner struggle with the heat (while staying wisely in the shade themselves, of course). These were probably my favorite stories, the ones that used narrative voice in a way I’d never seen before—the only other narrated-by-a-dog story I can think of is that one by Dave Eggers. Quiroga also has another story called “Anaconda” which is narrated from the POV of guess what, but I think I’m going to have to reread that one.
Overall I enjoyed the shorter stories more than I did the longer ones because they were easier to absorb. I’d definitely like to read these again in English, just because it’s always a different reading experience, reading the translation. I find it terribly funny and more than a little ironic that I read all these life-and-death struggling with nature stories within the sterile confines of an office, my computer humming before me, my empty espresso cup on one side and my glass of water on the other. Anyway. I definitely look forward to not working again in an office for a while.