Rating - 3: worth reading once (borrow it from a library)
Why are so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissue? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their made-up tales.This is a collection of short stories from Horacio Quiroga. I am told that Mr. Quiroga was a foundational figure for short stories in Latin American literature. I suspect he has some better stories out there.
-- Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions
The Vonnegut quote leads because very few of the stories manage to end without death. The rest might end in madness or foolishness, often leading to death. "The Dead Man" dispenses with the foreplay and drops the protagonist on a machete in the first page, following his thoughts as he bleeds out. This sets up a certain expectation which can be played with, because the usual happy ending becomes rather surprising. Once you have set up the capacity for the story to go in either direction, either direction can be a surprise, and this is a good sort of tension to have. (I mis-remembered the Vonnegut quote as attributing the murder rate to short stories, because killing off the character is a dramatic ending; maybe that is somewhere else in Breakfast of Champions.)
Quiroga is not a cheerful author. There is bonus cruelty to go with the foolishness, madness, and death. The longest story, "Anaconda," has the interesting set-up of making poisonous vipers the point-of-view characters, so we have villainous protagonists with the goal of wiping out some humans. Whichever way you consider a "happy ending," one side is going to suffer and die. And this collection does not even have the story I was seeking from the High Octane Nightmare Fuel page.
The collection starts weakly. Maybe "The Feather Pillow" would have affected me more if I used a feather pillow, but the allegory in the story is obvious and the title reveals too much. "Sunstroke" is just pretty weak.
Then you get to the longer, inscrutable "The Pursued," and you see that the author has a special touch. It is not fully developed here, and I don't think the story quite works with its mix of an unreliable narrator talking about someone else's madness in a way that never really arrives, but it is evocative. "The Decapitated Chicken" shows the author coming into his full capacity, and the rest of the collection bears it out, with some stories being better than others.
There are a dozen stories in the collection, and most of them really are short, 10 to 20 pages of easy reading. Quiroga seems to be at his best when killing someone quickly but lingeringly and painfully, perhaps an odd combination but developed well in the length of a short story.
One that especially lingers is "Juan Darién," which spends a lot of time on the torture of a boy when the villagers are somehow convinced that he is a tiger in human form. Of course, given the collection, the irrationality of it does not necessarily make it wrong, and even if they are right, that will not remove the juxtaposition of "ferocious beast" with "innocent victim suffering needlessly."
So it is that kind of collection. These will not brighten your day, unless you find suffering cathartic, but they are well-told.
The English (language) author most like Quiroga is Poe. You have probably guessed why. I was also reminded of Stephen King, not so much because of the content but because of the recurring setting. Almost everything King writes is in a sleepy New England town, and Quiroga's stories keep returning to the banks of the Paraná. Some of them are perhaps less compelling to our audience because we do not have the same worries about jungles, vipers, and tigers. Anaconda is notable for its distinction between vipers (poisonous snakes) and snakes (hunters that crush), where I have never heard an English author care much about the distinction.