Quiroga, Kipling, and the Exotic Frontier:
A Comparative Study
San Francisco State University
Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937), Latin American master of the short story, was not hailed as such by the literary generation that succeeded him. Jorge Luis Borges (compatriot of Quiroga's adopted country, Argentina) summarily dismissed him by remarking that Quiroga merely "wrote stories that Poe or Kipling had already written better" (qtd. in Flores 17). In fact, Quiroga, without the disdain for literary apprenticeship that Borges appeared to demonstrate, did list both Poe and Kipling as two of four masters of the form, in a much-cited manifesto on the art of the story, the "Manual del Perfecto Cuentista" ["Guide for the Perfect Storyteller"]. In the very first of his "ten commandments," Quiroga speaks explicitly of discipleship: "Cree en el maestroPoe, Maupassant, Kipling, Chekhovcomo en Dios mismo" (qtd. in Lazo xxxiv) [Believe in the master ... as in God himself].1 But as Raimundo Lazo, editor of the 1968 Sepan Cuentos edition of Quiroga's stories and criticism, points out in his introduction, this faith is clearly meant by Quiroga to be "estímulo, no imitación" (qtd. in Lazo xiv) [a stimulus not an imitation].
Quiroga wrote over two hundred short stories varying widely in quality and content. He set his hand to a variety of "tales of effect,"2 from the pure horror of "The Feather Pillow" or re-told tales like "The Suicide Ships," which link him strongly with Poe, to psycho-dramas like "The Single Diamond" which are closer to Maupassant. But it is almost universally acknowledged that his best stories are set in Misiones, the tropical borderland of Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, which he had visited as a young man, and to which he continued to return for extended periods of time throughout his life.
A later generation of critics, from Latin America and beyond, have restored Quiroga to prominence as a key figure. His work is more than merely derivative of any of his acknowledged masters, and Borges was certainly unfair in the disparaging comparison with Kipling. Although both set fantastical tales of animals and men against a jungle backdrop, and Kipling's direct influence is traceable in a collection of Quiroga fables for children written in the style of the Jungle Books, this is not really representative. Most of Quiroga's stories of Misiones represent something quite his own, a combination of stylistic and thematic elements that individually may be teased out and traced, at least in part, to particular sources, but that together form his own literary universe, one that is compelling, and immediately recognizable to anyone with more than a passing familiarity with his work.
However, in light of the fascination both Quiroga and Kipling demonstrate for exploring the borderlands between civilization (the problematic and contradictory nature of which is not lost on them) and the ineffable lands beyond it, it is instructive to look at examples of their work in comparison. Kipling's relationship to the vast, dangerous and untamed landscapes in his imperial stories, and to the succession of rogues, misfits, adventurers and "natives" he finds within them, may seem, on the surface, to share some ground with Quiroga's Misiones stories, set in the ragged, violent, settler outposts of the impenetrable and ultimately unknowable Amazonian jungle. But the two authors' encounter with the "exotic," and their construction of its meaning, differs widely, and this inevitably takes the reader on two very different journeys. Along the way, s/he will confront questions of existential, imperial, and even ecological import, which will be explored in turn in this study.
It is worth pausing first to make a few brief comparisons with the other maestros identified by Quiroga, becauseas he plainly acknowledgesthey each provided him with their own particular stimulus. With Poe and Maupassant, he shares a morbid and tragic biography, whose events are, like theirs, generated at least in part by the pathological complexities of his own character. Like Poe his relations with women, particularly his two very young wives, were definitively destructive. In the case of his first wife, this is literally true: she took a fatal dose of poison six years into their marriage. Other incidents of violence had dogged his earlier life. In 1902, Quiroga had caused the death of a close friend in a shooting accident, which led to his self-imposed exile from Uruguay to Argentina. Like Maupassant, he was beset by degenerative disease and ultimately suicidal, though Quiroga was successful in his attempt, and Maupassant was not in his. Literarily, this trajectory at the very least may be seen as reinforcing the Latin American author's affinity for pathos and horror.
In terms of aesthetics, both Poe and Quiroga are ardent defenders of the short story form, and particularly the story of effect, while they ultimately differ greatly in style and manifest content. Quiroga describes the short story as "una novela depurada de ripios" (qtd. in Lazo xiv) [a novel purged of detritus]. Poe, of course, famously declared that the highest form of literary art is that which can be experienced in a single sitting. Both writers mention the necessity of an extraordinary level of intention and control in the form. Quiroga's fifth commandment states: "En un cuento bien logrado, las tres primeras líneas tienen casi la misma importancia que las tres últimas" (qtd. in Lazo xxxiv). [In the well-realized short story, the first three lines have almost the same importance as the last three]. And Poe says of the author: "If his very first sentence tend not to the out-bringing of his effect, then in his very first step he has committed a blunder" (566).
Critics have noted correctly that both authors are drawn to the scientific and rational as mainstays against the maelstrom of the tormented psyche and the horrifying presence of the supernatural. Margo Clantz has examined Quiroga's debt to Poe, above all in his early stories, particularly his second collection, El Crimen de Otros, published in 1904 (Flores 93-118). She argues that he is explicitly experimenting with duplicating Poe's effects in these stories: "Quiroga works deliberately to learn Poe's methods in literary practice itself" (97). But there is little of Poe's prolix romanticism in Quiroga's best work, which is characterized by deadpan, almost clinical depictions of madness and death, his two most constant themes. And as we will see, Poe's overall influence attenuates after Quiroga's seminal move in 1910 to San Ignacio, an outpost in the northern jungle. Here he finds his primary subject, one which has no direct equivalent in the experience or the imaginations of any of his maestros.
Poe undoubtedly also contributes something to the atmosphere of dread which inhabits many of Quiroga's stories, early and late, but not the naturalism of his domestic settingsthis is more likely Maupassant's gift. Quiroga's few good stories of desperate marriages full of spite and vengefulness, missed romantic chances, and other forms of bourgeois despair, probably owe somethingpossibly too muchto Maupassant. Finally, Chekhov is certainly the master of the detached, subtly ironic narrative voice, and Quiroga's application of this voice in his stories of survival and death on the jungle frontier is one of his signature touches.
In making the reference to Kipling, Borges may have been dismissively referring to Quiroga's Cuentos de la Selva, vivid little fables for children which recall the Just So Stories or The Jungle Books. But there is another possibility for more fruitful comparison. The collection Los Desterrados [The Exiles], alone among the eleven anthologies published in Quiroga's lifetime, is a group of interrelated stories, unified in tone, setting and subject matter. All these stories are set in a fictionalized San Ignacio and environs. The "master" here may well have been Kipling: Quiroga strikes a reportorial, or raconteurial tone in a number of the tales, found intermittently in his frontier stories, which reminds one immediately of the British chronicler of the outposts of empire. Lazo calls this collection "the only one to achieve artistic unity" (133), and American translator and scholar J. David Danielson informs us that many regard it as the author's best work (155).
The Desterrados stories are almost all drawn directly from Quiroga's experience as a landholder in Misiones. Several are portraits of fellow inhabitants, whose models were identified by the Quiroga scholar Emir Rodríguez Monegal, when he visited the author's former homestead in 1949 (Flores 233-243). Some are descriptions of Quiroga's own homesteading or entrepreneurial activities, displaced onto other his characters.
Los Desterrados is divided into two parts: the first part is called "El ambiente" (the "environment," or "surroundings") and the second "Los tipos" (loosely taken to mean "the characters"). The first section consists of one story only: "The Return of Anaconda," an animal fable which is actually the sequel to an earlier tale. This story takes Kipling's conceit of the jungle as the location of moral instruction and deals with it in an interesting way, which I will examine below. The second section has seven tales, and these, with one exception, are "colorful" reportorial narratives of the eccentric residents of the settlement. The exception, "The Dead Man" represents one of Quiroga's unique achievements, and I will also consider it more at length further on. The rest of the tales of the "tipos" will be looked at collectively.
It is not an easy task to choose a particular selection of Kipling's tales to compare to this work. However prolific Quiroga may seemlike Kipling he also wrote in other genres, including poetry, novels, plays and criticismKipling's output was vaster by far. And tales of Kipling's exotic frontiercolonial Indiaare to be found throughout his 38-volume collected works. I have looked at a selection of the India stories from The Portable Kipling, Plain Tales from the Hills, which is the first volume in the Outward Bound series of Kipling's works, and The Phantom 'Rickshaw and Other Stories, the fifth. (Two of the Portable's nine selections are from Plain Tales, two from Phantom 'Rickshaw, and two from The Jungle Books.)
All of these stories, with the exception of the Jungle Book selections, were written while Kipling was living in India. They are early stories; at 17, Kipling returned to the colony, where he had spent the first six years of his life. He remained there for another seven years, working mostly as a correspondent and editor for Anglo-Indian newspapers, after which he left again, and never returned to India for any extended period. The stories he wrote during his stay gave him an early fame the scope of which Quiroga did not share at even the highest point in his career. Kipling, born thirteen years earlier than Quiroga, was also more precocious than the latter, who in his twenties was still mired in a derivative Modernism. At the same time, it has been argued that Kipling's work in the short story form never showed any consistent development, that his best and worst stories are scattered almost randomly throughout his huge production (Mallett viii). However, the inspiration Quiroga received from his contact with the jungle frontier, unmatched by any other subject, is certainly comparable to that which India as subject offered Kipling.
It is necessary to confess at this point, before making any in-depth comparisons, that I frankly found it more difficult to spend time with Kipling than with Quiroga.3 While attempts have been made to resurrect Kipling the artist from the critical death that his jingoistic politics brought him decades before his actual death in 1936, they have not been particularly successful, and with good reason. They are all attempts to sever the politics from the art, and there are few authors I can think of for whom this is less possible. Eliot Gilbert's argument that if D.H. Lawrence and T.S. Eliot can be seen as transcending reductive ideology in their art, then why not Kipling? (The Good Kipling 7) falls apart on the first reading of even the best of Kipling's work, in the short story form at least. One has to turn aside every other phrase, one simply has to ignore or argue away too much. Even post-colonialist efforts such as Zohreh Sullivan's (in her 1993 study Narratives of Empire) to apply Homi Bhabha's ideas of colonial ambivalence and mestizaje to Kipling's thought are not really a vindication. The fact that Kipling exhibits contradictory attitudes towards his subject matter does not necessarily make him a more sophisticated thinker or a better writer; it is not contradiction but a mastery of complex thought that we look for in assessing the quality of a work.
It is still, unfortunately, more enjoyable in many ways to read Kipling's critics, pro or con, than to read any large amount of Kipling himself. After trying to keep an open mind through a number of attempts at his reconstruction, I could only ponder that such dedicated efforts to extract artistic merit from work so compromised by a reductionistic world-view are rarely made in the case of socialist realist authors, and wonder why. Irving Howe argued in 1982 that as imperialism faded into history, it was possible to take up Kipling and find his ideas less threatening, making a pure enjoyment of "the vibrancy of his language, the richness of his imaginings" possible (Portable Kipling xviii). His assessment was premature. If Anglo-American imperialist attitudes ever do truly lose their grip on the daily lives of millions of souls, then perhaps we may try again.
But it is in fact difficult to argue for exceptional excellence of style in the case of Kipling. This issue will recur on closer examination, but take one example from "The Phantom 'Rickshaw," one of his stories of the supernatural. On encountering the lovelorn ghost that will pursue him to distraction, Kipling's narrator is made to inform us: "From the horrible to the commonplace is but a step" (13). While this could be a summation of Quiroga's (but not Poe's) idea of effect, Quiroga never feels it necessary to explain this to his reader in the middle of a tale. Even the richest imaginings of Kipling are often brought low by thudding moments such as these.
However, I have reminded myself that it is not my admiration, but Quiroga's that is the genesis of this study, and I will try to do justice to it.4 I have said that the concerns raised by reading these two authors in comparison were existential, imperial and ecological. Let us begin with the existential.
While Quiroga could not anticipate Hemingway, the latter's dictum that "every true story ends in death" has a zealous practitioner in him. Death is the terminus of the great majority of his best stories. In the most accomplished ones, "Adrift" or "The Dead Man," Quiroga becomes the chronicler par excellence of the experience of unnatural death (from snakebite in the former, a freak accident with a machete in the latter). He examines the process from inside the mind of his protagonist and opens it out, temporalizing it, presenting dying with a level of detail that involves the utmost economy of description (another of Quiroga's aesthetic precepts for storytelling) and yet gives the reader an "agonistic" experience, in the literal sense of both contest and suffering (Flores 273). These stories explore what one recent scholar has called "the eschatological frontier" (Zuñiga Noriega 109), and Quiroga spends more time on this border, and penetrates it more deeply, than any of his literary mentors, with the possible exception of Poe in "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar."
In "The Dead Man," an unidentified homesteader is weeding his banana grove with a machete. He pauses to take a rest, stumbles as he crosses a barbed wire fence, and impales himself. Within fifteen minutes (the passing time is subtly but relentlessly noted in the narrative) he is dead. His horse, wishing to enter the field he has left to graze, but not daring while the man is alive, does so at the moment his death is confirmed. This constitutes the sum total of the story's action.
The tone is extraordinarily concise, even for Quiroga, whose seventh storytelling commandment is "No adjetives sin necesidad" (qtd. in Lazo xxxiv) [No unnecessary adjectives]. There are moments of clipped and quiet irony: after falling on his machete, the protagonist "ya estaba tendido en la gramilla, acostado sobre el lado derecho, tal como el quería" (66) [was now stretched out on the grass, on his right side, just as he had wished]. His posture is "como hubiera deseado estar.... Sólo que tras el antebrazo, e inmediatamente por debajo del cinto, surgían de su camisa el puño del machete; pero el resto no se veía" (ibid.) [as he would have desired it to be. ... Except that behind his forearm, and just under his belt, the handle and half the blade of the machete protruded from his shirt. The rest could not be seen]. From the very beginning, as José Etcheverry notes (qtd. in Flores 270) the man and his machete are described as a team: "El hombre y su machete acababan de limpiar la quinta calle del bananal. Faltábanles aún dos calles" (Los Desterrados 66) [The man and his machete had just finished weeding the fifth row of the banana grove. They had two rows left (emphasis added)]. Thus their extreme closeness after the man's fall is another level of bleak irony. The man clinically calculates the length of the blade that must be inside his chest, and "adquirió, fría, matemática e inexorable, la seguridad de que acababa de llegar al término de su existencia" (67) [acquired the cold, mathematical, inexorable certainty that he had just arrived at the end of his existence].
There follow two paragraphs of narrative digression, which will not recur in this short tale. They are a lyrical description of the romance with which "we" (the narrator adopts the first person plural) imagine the inevitability of death when we think of it as remote: "solemos dejarnos llevar placenteramente por la imaginación a ese momento, supremo entre todos, en que lanzamos el último suspiro" (67) [how pleasurably we tend to let ourselves be carried by our imagination to that moment, supreme among all, in which we breathe our last breath]. There is irony here, but also the convincing possibility that death is in a sense desirable, a culmination and a communion.
The point of view then returns abruptly to the protagonist, for whom death is imminent, and follows him as his consciousness slowly dissolves. He does not pass through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's famous five stages, but he alternates between denial and acquiescence, mainly because he cannot accept that he is undergoing an irreversible transition, when nothing in the world around him reflects the change:
"Es ése o no un natural mediodía de los tantos en Misiones, en su monte, en su potrero, en su bananal ralo? ¡Sin duda! Gramilla corta, conos de hormigas, silencio, sol a plomo...
Nada, nada ha cambiado. Solo él es distinto. (69)
Was this or not a normal midday like so many in Misiones, in his scrub land, his pasture, his sparse banana grove? Of course! The short grass, anthills, silence, the sun straight overhead...
Nothing, nothing has changed. Only he is different.
The clarity of the man's vision is stressed as he reviews all the familiar things around him and takes an inventory of the environment that he has created with his labor, of which he is evidently proud. He listens for the habitual approach of his wife and children, bringing his lunch. Rather than accepting his death as he did at the beginning, he ends by rejecting it, because the world remains too perfectly as he had known it, as he had created it. He sees himself merely napping "exactamente como todos los días" [exactly as he does every day] at this hour, in this place. In his last conscious thought he returns to his initial hope of "descansando, porque está muy cansado" (71) [resting, because he is very tired]. But the world is ultimately indifferent to the effort his consciousness makes to persist, and in his languidity is his final submission. As the voices of the man's approaching family are heard, the horse, who has been waiting anxiously to graze, fearing the living man's presence, "vuelve un largo, largo rato las orejas inmóviles al bulto [turns his still ears for a long, long time towards the heap] that the dead man's body has become, and finally, "tranquilizado al fin, se decide a pasar entre el poste y el hombreque ya ha descansado" (71) [reassured at last, decides to pass between the fencepost and the lying manwho is now at rest].
This is a very personal vision, and there is nothing discernible of Kipling here. Also, in contradistinction to Poe, the horrific effect lies in the heavily emphasized normality of the situation, its commonplace character. The man does not have an exceptional life for his surroundings, nor is he in an exceptional circumstance in this instance. He has been doing exactly what he has done every day for the last decadewhy should his unvarying actions result, in this case, in his death? This normalcy implicates the reader in the effect, for if nothing is less exotic to us than our own daily lives, then the death that can emerge out of these quotidian circumstances cannot be exoticized either.
Many of the Misiones stories foreground a particular death that, while generally surprising to the victim, is ultimately made to seem inevitable by the context. There are so many ways this forbidding environment can produce death: snakebite, fever, poisonous insects, sunstroke, exposure, drowning, to name a few that Quiroga describes. When we look at the ecological concerns we will see, however, that nature is not strictly portrayed as hostile. Rather, nature is indifferent. Humans also find their own ways to exterminate themselves: alcohol, explosions, gunshots, knives. No matter what the initiating circumstance, the victim's experience, when it is explored at length, is frequently a process of resistance and resignation, and finally rest. "Adrift," from the collection Stories of Love Madness and Death, or "The Immigrants" from The Savage, are fine examples of this type. The reader is left to hold the irony of the specific incident: i.e., the "Dead Man" narrator seeking to rest for a few moments and resting foreverbut the protagonist is released from all ironies, from all the arduousness of existence. Death, in these stories, is the only possible place for resolution in human affairs. And the frontiers of life and death, far from being absolute, are porous, interpenetrable. Death is really the ground upon which life briefly and unsuccessfully takes place.
In "The Dead Man," and one or two other stories, such as "The Wilderness" or "The Son" it becomes clear that Quiroga is engaging in a kind of personal eschatology, taking the concrete circumstances of his own life in Misiones and constructing out of them a fantasy of his death or, in the case of "The Son," one of his children's. The romance his narrator describes deriving from this fantasy in "The Dead Man," is a curious achievement of mastery over the horror of death by the passive and languid enjoyment of its contemplation: "dejarnos llevar por la imaginación a ese momento" (emphasis added, 67) [we let ourselves be carried by our imagination to that moment].
Death is also a frequent presence in Kipling's tales. But it is a more varied and diffuse presence, more often implied than described, happening offstage, as a backdrop, consequence or pretext of a story's action, but not the action itself. In Kipling's highly Other-ed imperial world, it is as if death represents the ultimate failure of mastery over the Other. This mastery is of course, in his view and Freud's, the impossible and necessary project of civilization (Portable Kipling ix). Natives in the India stories must succumb to death regularly, submissively, whether contemptibly or nobly, but for a member of the conquering race, death is a tragic mistake. And the tragic flaw which causes it is an unpardonable lapse of control.
"The Strange Ride of Morrowbie Jukes," written when Kipling was 19, and apparently "suffering from weeks of insomnia, stomach cramps, and depression" (Sullivan 71), is a remarkable exception in Kipling's treatment of death, not in its thematic significance, but because death is foregrounded here, and in a particularly interesting way. The story has received much critical attention and been anthologized widely. It is also a tale which Quiroga might well have admired, for the sheer vividness of scene and command of horrific effects that Kipling displays.
The narrator is an English engineer, who, suffering from fever and in a fit of anger after being unable to stop a pack of dogs from disturbing his camp, rides out at night into the Indian desert and heedlessly stumbles into a large sand pit from which he cannot escape. The pit, it turns out, is the home of more than sixty people, Hindu "undead" who have been banished there because they failed to die after suffering illnesses or coma from which they were not supposed to recover. The inhabitants are filthy, fetid and near starvation. Trapped with them, Jukes' racial authority and colonial moral code begin to disintegrate. He is mocked and betrayed by the living dead, and particularly by a former civil servant and Brahmin, Gunga Dass, the only one who is capable of speaking to him. They form a relationship of necessity, filled with mutual hatred and distrust, based on the fact that both have an equally strong desire to escape.
This is clearly an infernal vision. It is an anti-social nightmare, as Jukes reports: "in the accursed settlement there was no law save that of the strongest. ... [T]he living dead had thrown out every canon of the world which had cast them out, and I had to depend for my own life on my strength and vigilance alone" (235). The fact that Gunga Dass considers himself Jukes' equal in this place torments him, threatening the foundations of his identity. Later on, after Jukes' horse is killed for food, Dass mocks him with the ultimate horror: "We are now Republic, Mister Jukes. You are entitled to your fair share of the beast" (239). In the same passage, he brokenly quotes Jeremy Bentham: "greatest good of greatest number is political maxim" to justify the slaughter. It becomes very clear that hell is a place of anarchy, "a Republic of beasts penned at the bottom of a pit, to eat and fight and sleep till we died" (239). There may be no better expression in all of Kipling of what he feared the civilizing project was up against.
But this is an inferno into which the Englishman has stumbled through his own inexperience and error, the suspension of his rationality. The error is ultimately corrected by a loyal servant (his "dog-boy," one instance of many where Kipling applies irony with a trowel and still misses the full consequences of his own effects) who tracks Jukes and throws him a rope, extricating him at his moment of greatest weakness.
Jukes' identity and authority never fully disintegrate. Through him, the reader discovers what it is like to be in Kipling's idea of hell, but not to be dead, that is to have one's identity completely erased, simply not to be. The personal annihilation that Quiroga explores, the process of un-becoming, the final passivity before the inevitability of extinction is unthinkable in the context of the necessary imperial project.
The existential and the imperial are intertwined in Kipling in a way which has no direct correspondence in Quiroga. Fully confronting one's existence means assuming, at whatever personal cost (and, in Kipling's world-view, no personal benefit is necessarily imparted to those in the dominant position) one's proper role in the race-play of civilization. This, as he acknowledges in story after story, is something that humans are almost invariably incapable of doing.
"The Man Who Would Be King," written at 23, is probably Kipling's most enduring imperial story. It is without a doubt the most ambitious, in the sense of both the author's attempted reach, and his protagonists'. As most readers will be aware, it is the tale of two English rogues, Daniel Dravot and Peachy Carnahan, who after being discharged from the army travel about India in various guises, practicing a variety of con games, thuggery and near escapes. They decide that India does not offer enough scope for their ambitions, so they will invade and conquer a country for themselves, remote "Kafiristan," (the "dog-boy" brand of irony again), using the techniques conveniently imparted to them during their military service, and their natural confidence in British superiority. Through a series of chances and mischances, they succeed to such an extent that Dravot is taken for a god, and begins to take his role as sovereign seriously. But he is finally unmasked, and summarily killed, and Peachy is severely tortured and then released, returning to India broken in mind and body. He shows the narrator Dravot's severed head, still wearing a tarnished crown, when he comes back to tell the tale and die.
Many have seen this story as evidence of "the good Kipling," in Hemingway's phrase, because it so vividly demonstrates the utter failure of an imperial project, compellingly portraying the garish violence, absurdity and hubris that accompany conquest. But what is often overlooked is that Dravot and Carnahan are lumpen. Their distinctive forms of speech, complete with dropped final consonants, many oaths, and colorful colloquialisms, are used here, as Kipling uses them even more broadly in his Barrack Room Ballads, to hammer home class status for tragi-comic effect (see Orwell in Kipling and His Critics 79-80). This means that their adventure, from the start, is an underclass parodyreally a burlesqueof empire-building. Their faulty knowledge of Freemasonry takes the place, in their upside down world, of Divine Law. There is no question of their succeeding: if the best men can barely fulfill the task, the worst are bound to fail. However interesting he makes their journey, and however awesome their rise, Kipling sets these men up to fall just as farliterally, in Dravot's casein the end. This is entirely consistent with his philosophy of existence; it is not a splendid digression from, but rather a fulfillment of, his most essential vision.
Kipling's moral logic does allow Dravot to become fully transformed by facing the inevitability of his death. He roars "D'you suppose I can't die like a gentleman?" (94) as he is being "prodded ... like an ox" towards the rope bridge he ordered built, which will be cut, and the chasm into which his body will plunge. He asks Peachey's forgiveness, he retains control of his dignity, he acquires by right comportment the nobility he had tried to assume by deception. Nothing in his life becomes him like the leaving of it. This is the existential encounter as high romance.
What emerges most vividly in this tale is Kipling's idea of the exotic frontier, of a place truly beyond the pale. It is not geographically defined, nor strictly confined to India, though it is Oriental. It is all "the dark places of the Earth, full of unimaginable cruelty, touching the Railway and the Telegraph on one side, and, on the other, the days of Haroun al-Raschid" (44). In this sentence, Kipling's narrator is referring to the Native States, but it is clear as he describes the transformations he himself undergoes when in these places, "passing through many stages of life," that they, beyond being a fantasized Orient, are the psychic stage for existential encounters, locations of any geography and of slippery and unstable temporality. The Kafiristan that Dravot and Carnahan must enter by stealth and murder, first passing through Afghanistan, never conquered by the British, is even more exotic; it is a frontier beyond the Northwest Frontier, the last frontier of civilization. In this land they are (albeit briefly) transformed into kings and gods, and the inhabitants into "white peoplesons of Alexandernot like common black Mohammedans" (78), the citizens of an imagined empire which will rival England's, in the unlimited fantasizing unleashed by the chimerical power of crossing the ultimate boundary. Kipling's exotic spaces have all the raw power of projection; they are examples of the mind's astonishing ability to colonize "empty" space and time, whatever violence is done to history, or to lived human experience in the process.
Perhaps Quiroga was capable of reading Kipling in the way Howe suggested, without implication in the project of empire, with which the conscious Anglo-American reader must still contend. The peculiar combination of condescension, bafflement and admiration that distinguishes the imperial gaze is absent from Quiroga's work. His depictions of the Misiones "types" are not colored by their relationship to an imperial project, or to a linguistic "worlding" enterprise. While the setting would have been exotic to most of his readers, there is little exoticizing going on in his portrayal of it, or of the characters within it. The Misiones "exiles" are European and Latin American, mestizo, black and white, peons and landowners. Those who come to grief do so in similar ways; there is a general egalitarianism of death. Those who survive are neither the high nor the low, the deserving or the undeserving, because such designations belong only to the world they have left behind. Among them, the ones who held some kind of professional status in that world are often referred to as "ex-men," a term suggestive of the death of a societally-sanctioned existence that Quiroga's exiles experience.
The title story of Los Desterrados begins with an explicitness, a hearty reportorial style, that seems straight out of early Kipling:
Misiones, como toda región de frontera, es rica en tipos pintorescos. Suelen serlo extraordinariamente, aquellos que a semejanza de las bolas de billar, han nacido con efecto. Tocan normalmente banda, y emprenden los rumbos más inesperados. (33)
Misiones, like all frontier regions, is rich in picturesque types. They seem to be extraordinarily so, of that kind who are born with spin, like billiard balls. They hit the bank straight on, and take off in the most unexpected directions.
In the next sentence three of the "types" are introduced:
Así Juan Brown, que habiendo ido por solo unas horas a mirar las ruinas, se quedó 25 años allá; el doctor Else, a quien la destilación de naranjas llevó a confundir a su hija con una rata; el químico Rivet, que se extinguió como una lámpara, demasiado repleto de alcohol carburado. (33)
Thus Juan Brown, who, having gone for only a few hours to see the ruins, ended up staying for twenty-five years; Doctor Else, who because of a distillation of oranges was led to mistake his daughter for a rat; the chemist Rivet, who went out like a lamp, over-full of carburated alcohol.
In the following paragraph, Quiroga makes reference to the larger context: "En los tiempos heroicos del obraje y la yerba mate, el Alto Paraná sirvió de campo de acción a algunos tipos riquísimos de color, dos o tres de los cuales alcanzamos a conocer nosotros, treinta años después" (33). [In the heroic times of the logging camps and the maté plantations, the Upper Paraná served as the field of action for several richly colorful characters, two or three of whom we ourselves came to know, thirty years afterward]. That is to say, the time of attempted conquest here is already long past. The characters are its remnants, either still haplessly trying to make commercial enterprises work, or subsiding into alcoholic delirium. As "ex-men" they no longer have nor desire any identity outside this context, and within it their lives have become ritualized performances molded by the relentless environment that they are incapable of leaving or changing.
Quiroga's "picturesque types" all seem to lead intolerable lives by bourgeois standards, and yet they are not portrayed as consumed by despair or inertia. Whether they are terminally stoic like the Argentinean creole Juan Brown, or gruff and contemptuous like the Belgian Van-Houten, or jovially optimistic, like the titular exiles, the Brazilians João Pedro and Tirafogo, they are all dismissive of even the most horrifying reversals, imperturbable to a fault. If and when they self-destruct, they do so in full pursuit of their own desires, without hesitation or remorse. While Quiroga continually subjects his characters to relentless physical suffering and/or death, there is no sense that he is punishing them for their faults by doing so, á la Kipling. He scatters details of his own personal experience among his protagonists, such as the practice of photography, or attempting to manufacture charcoal, or make liquor from oranges. He does this for verisimilitude, but this intimacy of experience also creates a level of identification with these characters that prevents them from being over-objectified.
There is room here, as there is in Kipling's borderlands, for extraordinary transformations and reversals of fortune. Some of these are presented in simple comic asides, like the native cacique who works silently as a peon in a logging camp, thought by all to be incapable of "Christian language" until one day he casually mentions, in perfect Spanish, that he attended the premiere of La Traviata in Montevideo. Some are the tragic results of madness: Dr. Else, during an alcoholic hallucination, shoots his timid daughter dead, when she appears to him as a giant rat. On the frontier one may pass unimpeded "through many stages of life," societal constraints are removed, although physical suffering is universal, and death is always waiting, however much effort one expends to keep it at bay.
Next to the power and beauty of nature, what Quiroga seems most to privilege in the Misiones stories is work. His descriptions of physical labor are detailed and intimate. The least interesting life, he tells the reader, contains at least two or three "epopeyas de trabajo," that is, epics or great feats of labor. Here is one such description, of the laborer Tirafogo:
En el período de las plantaciones reconocíasele desde lejos por sus hábitos para carpir mandioca. Este trabajo, a pleno sol de verano, y en hondonadas a veces donde no llega un soplo de aire, se lleva a cabo en las primeras horas de la mañana y en las últimas de la tarde. Desde las once a las dos el paisaje se calcina solitario en un vaho de fuego.
Estas eran las horas que elegía Tirafogo para carpir descalzo la mandioca. Quitábase la camisa, arremangábase el calzoncillo por encima de la rodilla, y sin más protección que la de su sombrero orlado entre paño y cinta de puchos de chala, se doblaba a carpir concienzudamente su mandioca, con la espalda lumbrante de sudor y reflejos. (39)
During the planting season, he was recognized from afar for his habits when it came to hoeing manioc. In the full heat of summer, and at times down in the hollows where not a breath of wind will reach, this work is typically done in the first hours of the morning and the last of the afternoon. From eleven to two, the empty landscape burns up in a fiery haze.
These were the hours that a barefoot Tirafogo chose to hoe the manioc. He took off his shirt, rolled his pants up above the knee, and with no other protection than his hat, trimmed with cornstalk cigarettes stuck between cloth and hatband, he bent conscientiously to hoe his manioc, his back shining with sweat and reflected light. (Translation by Danielson, with slight alterations.)
This is one of many instances where the most difficult or tedious labor is described with admiration and understated lyricism. While various scholars have pointed out that Quiroga is not a socialist, nor does he seemingly have an interest in any form of organized politics, his descriptions of work and of laborers are always informed by what one can only describe as sympathy. One of his best stories, "The Contract Workers," describes the plight of laborers in the logging camps in clinical and relentless detail, and there are notable stories like "The Wild Beasts in Collusion," or "A Slap in the Face" that recount remorseless acts of revenge by abused workers.
Again, however, Quiroga is revealed to be more concerned in his art with existential matters than with social or politicalor spiritualones. Labor, like death, is seen as a primary condition of existence, its rationale is intrinsic and fundamental, rather than resulting solely from human evil or systemic oppression.
In fact, Misiones is never presented as the site of an imperial enterprise like Kipling's India. The type of conquest that Quiroga is most concerned with is, like Kipling's, also necessary and impossible, but it is happening at a different level. It is the conquest of nature.
"The Return of Anaconda," the fable which begins the Desterrados collection, is not just a tale of the Misiones surroundings, but of the environment in the modern sense. Kipling's Jungle Book stories, while displaying the romance of their Edenic natural setting (Orel 77), are really about the moral instruction of a boy, Mowgli, raised with animals, who must learn from them how to be a man. One of Quiroga's earlier fables, "Juan Darien," is a nice reversal of this conceit: it is about a tiger cub, transformed into a man, who becomes so disgusted with the cruelty and indignity of the humans among whom he lives that he opts to turn his back on them forever, and reverts to being a tiger. But Anaconda's journey takes her out of Kipling's territory altogether.
Anaconda, a giant boa constrictor, who in her youth participated in an uprising of snakes against men (the subject of an earlier story as mentioned previously) is now seen at thirty years old and at the height of her power. However, she is threatened by the encroaching presence of man:
Un hombre, primero, con su miserable ansia de ver, tocar y cortar había emergido tras del cabo de arena con su larga piragua. Luego otros hombres, con otros más, cada vez más frecuentes. Y todos ellos sucios de olor, sucios de machetes y quemazones incesantes. Y siempre remontando el río desde el Sur. (11)
First one man, with his miserable urging to see, touch and cut, had emerged beyond the sand spit with his long canoe. Then more men, with still others, more frequently all the time. And all of them filthy smelling, filthy with machetes and constant brush burnings. And always heading up the river, from the south.
The boa calls on the other animals to help barricade the river so that men will no longer be able to travel up it. The narrator remarks: "Muy poco costó a Anaconda convencer a los animales. El hombre ha sido, es, y será el más cruel enemigo de la selva" (12) [It took little for Anaconda to convince the animals. Man has been, is and will always be the cruelest enemy of the jungle]. Quiroga is still walking in tandem with the Kipling of The Jungle Books here; both recognized the deficiencies of humanity in the ugliness of its attitudes toward the natural world.
In this fable, Quiroga makes explicit the love for the jungle environment that has been implied in all his Misiones tales. His stories do not generally indulge in description for description's sake; that would violate his maxim on concision. But the jungle's ineffable presence is always felt. The qualities of light are described, the heat, the force of storms, the sound of rain on leaves. In "The Return of Anaconda," such description is more frequent and more extended. When a two-month drought breaks, the fantastical extremes of the climate come to the fore:
Diez noches y diez días continuos el diluvio cernióse sobre la selva flotando en vapores; y lo que fuera páramo de insoportable luz, tendíase ahora hasta el horizonte en sedante napa líquida. La flora acuática rebrotaba en planísimas balsas verdes que a simple vista se veía dilatar sobre el agua hasta lograr contacto con sus hermanas. (17)
For ten nights and ten days the downpour loomed over the forest floating in mist; and what had been a wasteland of unbearable light was now a soothing liquid skin, stretching to the horizon. The water flowers sprang up as flat green rafts, appearing everywhere, expanding across the water until they touched their sisters.
The giant boa travels down the flooding river on an uprooted cedar tree, to witness the conquest she hopes the flood will bring, blocking the Paraná with so much plant life that it will be impassable. As her raft arrives in the Misiones area, it unexpectedly runs against "a floating island" on which she discovers a straw hut under which a man is lying, "pero enseñaba una larga herida en la garganta, y estaba muriendo" (21) [But he displayed a large wound in the throat, and he was dying].
With this trope, the fable, like the river, breaks from any expected channels. The journey downstream becomes increasingly complex metaphorically, as the jungle is transformed by the flood, and the snake guards the ebbing life of the man from other beasts, for reasons that she cannot explain. The flood is finally absorbed in the vast landscape, the man dies without any discernible change in his posture, or further explanation of his situation, the river is not blocked, the re-conquest is abandoned, and Anaconda realizes that she herself is dying.
In an extraordinary final turn, the boa decides that the decomposing corpse of the man is the best place to deposit the eggs she must lay before she dies. As she does so a "victorious" boat ascends the river, and the passengers spot her. Guessing that she has killed the inhabitant of the hut, whom they cannot see, they shoot her. Her failing consciousness is described in much the same way as the protagonist of "The Dead Man," as a strange sense of painless fatigue pervades her thoughts: "Inmensos y azulados ahora, sus huevos desbordaban del cobertizo y cubrían la balsa entera" (30). Her "immense blue" eggs, viable, undamaged by her death, unnoticed by the passengers, now "spill out," covering not just the man but the entire raft. The last thing she sees "transparentándose sobre ella, la cara sonriente del mensú" [hovering above her, is the smiling face of the dead laborer].
This is a supple and elusive piece of work. The notion of victory has become entirely ambiguous. Far from being a location of moral instruction, whose Law is comprehensible and may be learned by Man if he receives proper guidance, Quiroga's jungle in this fable is a place of enormous and continual struggle, a constant exchange of life and death, by both animals and humans, that none of its inhabitants fully understands. It is the site of recurrent failures of comprehension, a place at whose borders human civilization is held in check, always attempting to advance but never really obtaining a solid advantage. Animals and men are both subjected to the overall environment, whose precepts are inscrutable and mute. For Quiroga, the jungle's power is that however intimately it comes to be known, it cannot be fully penetrated and colonized, even in fantasy. Exoticism, as it exists in Kipling, is really about this type of imaginative conquest. In The Jungle Books, Kipling constructs a vivid and engaging primeval landscape within which the concerns that haunt him with their lack of resolution in other settings can be mastered. All the nails are hammered into place, and unconstructed nature is sealed out. But the ironic interdependence that Quiroga discovers between animals, humans, and the environment, the admixture of mortality and persistence which characterize his vision, are the product of a different type of imagination, one which abdicates conquest, one which "lets itself" be carried, away, rather than towards, its own constructive efforts, and not to an imposed resolution of impenetrable mysteries.
While I am unprepared to do more than raise the issue here, if one holds that there is validity to the concept of écriture feminine, then Quiroga's work may be an example. His willingness to protagonize a female consciousness in such a significantly positioned tale as "The Return of Anaconda" is perhaps significant. The omnipresence of water, not just in this, but in many of the Misiones stories, with its uncontrollable, transformative and life-giving capability, its power of flow, is also suggestive.
In any case, Quiroga, far from being derivative of Anglo-American or European masters, can be seen as a precursor of some of the trends that have been valiantly attempting to rescue the fictional prose narrative from irrelevancy since the mid-twentieth century. He anticipates the existentialist fiction of the mid-century, the surrealism of Cortázar, and the best of magic realism. His literary relationship to the natural world is still ahead of the times, and it remains to be seen whether his nuanced understanding of that particular and often-unexamined relationship, intimate, fatal and sustaining, will obtain the currency it deserves.
||All translations mine except where noted.|
||This is the phrase Poe uses in his review of Hawthorne's Twice-Told Tales, in which he presents his aesthetics of the short story, but I am unaware whether he coined it or not.|
||I regret not being able to hold myself to the standard demanded by Shamsul Islam, of Panjab University, who says, in his 1975 study Kipling's Law (5): "an investigation of Kipling's ideas must be based on a close study of his works in their totality, and not on a few isolated pieces used as crutches for projecting one's preconceived notions about him" (5). With apologies, a "close study of his works in their totality" would conceivably have required more years than are likely to remain to me on this planet.|
||I refer readers to George Orwell's trenchant essay, in the collection Kipling and His Critics, which in 1942 conveyed everything I could ever imagine wanting to say about Kipling, and makes me doubt that anything significant has been added to the debate since then.|
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