The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories
The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories
THE LITERARY WORK
Featured here are two short stories, “Drifting” (“A la deriva”) and “The Dead Man” (“EI Hombre muerto”), set in Misiones, a tropic rural region of northeastern Argentina in the early 1900s; first published in Spanish in 1912 and 1920, respectively; anthologized in English in The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories in 1976.
The protagonists of “Drifting” and “The Dead Man” are wounded in sudden, fatal accidents, and in their final moments are forced to confront death.
Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937) was born in Salto, Uruguay, to an Uruguayan mother and an Argentine father. In 1901 Quiroga published his first book, Coral Reefs, and went on to publish more than 200 stories throughout his career. The writer divided his adult life between the tropical jungle area of Misiones in northeastern Argentina—near the River Plate region where Brazil, Uruguay, and Paraguay meet—and the urban center of Buenos Aires, Argentina. Many of his short stories are set in the tropical borderlands of Misiones, where he lived and wrote for many years. Not only is Quiroga considered a master of the Latin American short story, but throughout his career he wrote renowned technical and instructional essays about the short story as a genre; his most famous is the “Decalogue of the Perfect Short Story Writer.” Recurring throughout his stories is the issue of human mortality, often, as in “Drifting” and “The Dead Man,” in relation to the Misiones environment to which he felt so closely bound.
Argentina in the early twentieth century
In 1903 Quiroga traveled on a photographic expedition to the frontier zones of Misiones, a virgin territory populated by natives and immigrant colonos (farmer colonists). A large number of European immigrants had entered Argentina in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of whom settled in these rural agricultural areas, working as colonos, tenant farmers, and rural laborers. This colonization of rural frontier lands is an important backdrop to the two short stories addressed here. In “The Dead Man” the dying man is a colono who cleared the land “that was a thicket when he came, and virgin bush before that” (Quiroga, “The Dead Man,” in The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories, p. 125). In “Drifting” the dying protagonist remembers his former employer, who had made his living exporting and selling timber—thus contributing to the beginnings of deforestation.
Argentina enjoyed economic success in the period between 1880 and 1914, largely because it was exporting agricultural goods to the industrializing and rapidly growing northern European and North American markets. Two principal exports, meat and grain, flourished on the immensely fertile Argentine grassland called the pampas. The export economy’s further development was stifled, however, by a lack of capital and labor, and Argentina was forced to seek aid from its largest importer, England: “Virtually the entire infrastructure of the export sector was financed by the British,” most notably the train network that funneled exports to major port cities such as Buenos Aires (Skidmore and Smith, p. 72).
The labor needed to fuel the export industry also came from Europe, especially from southern Europe. By 1914, 30 percent of Argentines were foreign born: over 3 million immigrants entered in the latter half of the nineteenth century and in the early twentieth, increasing the population from 1.7 million in 1869 to nearly 8 million in 1914. Many of these newly arrived laborers went to work as colonos.
The rapid growth of the import-export sector brought riches to the pampas and Buenos Aires, but for the most part the nation’s interior remained underdeveloped. The only exceptions were the wine-and sugar-producing provinces of Mendoza, Tucuman, and Cordoba, all of which avoided the rampant social and economic decay suffered by the rest of the interior. Along with massive immigration, such economic inequities fueled cultural tensions and blurred attempts to define national identity, a struggle that preoccupied many young South American writers and intellectuals of the time.
The two short stories, “Drifting” and “The Dead Man,” are set in the Misiones frontier region off the River Parana, where Quiroga resided and wrote for many years. Bounded by Brazil and Paraguay, Misiones is a subtropical region, home to a population of about 40,500 (1914) around the time of the short stories. Its beauty left travelers of the era awestruck, particularly its breathtaking Iguazu Falls. The travelers described thick groves of flowers and fruit as well as palm trees, noting also the numerous streams and the mountain range of Iman dividing the region from southwest to northeast. Called a hothouse by day, relieved by cool, refreshing nights, the area yielded a mix of wild and domesticated products: sugar cane, wheat, maize, tobacco, pine and rosewood, oranges, bananas, pineapples, guavas, ground nuts, and especially mate, or Paraguayan tea. The chief means of communication was the Parana River; there were few roads. Several towns existed, chief among them the capital Posadas, to which the Argentine Railway had a line.
Impressed by the rugged beauty of Misiones, Quiroga purchased a ranch there in 1906, where he lived with his wife from 1910 to 1916, and he often returned to the region throughout his life. “Quiroga was enthralled with what he found in Misiones: the broad expanse of the Parana River, the tropical forest, the exotic animals (including deadly serpents). He became an integral part of this land and its people, its mighty rivers and treacherous jungle” (Schade in Sole and Abreu, p. 552).
Misiones—named for the Jesuit missions established during Spanish rule—was disputed territory in the early nineteenth century. Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil all struggled for control of the area. The region became a province of Argentina in the mid-nineteenth century. At the time yerba mate (from a native evergreen tree, Ilex paraguariensis, whose dried leaves are used to prepare tea) was the principal crop in Misiones, whose inhabitants also began to raise sugar in the 1860s following the Paraguay War. Initial projects for the exploitation of wood began in the 1860s as well, when immigrants from neighboring countries and from Europe started to arrive in large numbers. Their arrival initiated a period of official, government-planned colonization.
In 1876 Argentina resolved border disputes with Paraguay, returning to that nation control of the lands to the west of the River Parana, in the Tacurú-Pucú zone mentioned in “Drifting.” These negotiations established the Parana River as the definitive border between the two countries. At the time, the zone was largely populated by Argentine colonos harvesting yerba mate. Having secured the more remote regions of the Upper Parana from resident indigenous groups, new settlers now took control of the coast along the Parana River in order to exploit yerba mate and to develop commercial trade. As late as the 1880s Misiones territory was still being disputed between Argentina and its eastern neighbor, Brazil. United States President Grover Cleveland stepped in to help establish the border and in 1895 the lines between Brazil and Argentina were demarcated, finally designating as part of Argentina the Misiones frontier lands that Quiroga would visit and describe only a few years later.
At the turn of the century, the region’s principal industries continued to be yerba mate and wood. Buenos Aires was becoming a large city
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and needed Misiones wood for construction. An 1882 Act of the National Congress allowed Misiones land plots to be sold at two pesos per hectare. By the late 1890s there were few plots left, such was the absorption of lots by arriving colonos from neighboring countries and from Europe. Official colonization soon ended, but not before the creation of a number of planned colonies by local leader Juan Jose Lanusse, who distributed animals and tools to European families arriving at the Hotel de Inmigrantes (Immigrants Hotel). By 1901 more than 650 new families were living in just one of the Lanusse agricultural colonies.
In 1883 the first foreign expedition, organized by a German scientific commission searching for lands suitable for immigration, arrived at the Cataratas de lguazu, waterfalls which are not far from where the Iguazú meets the Parana. Cascading along a 2.5 mile crescent-shaped bluff, about 275 separate falls roar down 270 feet and can be heard miles away. (By comparison, Niagara Falls has a height of about 150 feet.) When visiting at the turn of the century, U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s wife was so impressed with the falls that she uttered the now famous phrase: “Poor Niagara!” The tguazú Falls are commonly heralded as one of the wonders of the natural world.
In these early years of the century, Misiones began to be “modernized”—or cleared and developed for capitalist commercial extraction—at an accelerated pace. What was once virgin jungle now saw the appearance of railroad lines, new ports, large navigation companies, schools, and a first newspaper (founded in 1908). In 1908 Adan Luchessi, who organized the exploitation of newly discovered virgin mate by local indigenous workers, gave the name Puerto Esperanza to a popular locale used for the loading of yerba mate and wood;Puerto Esperanza appears in “Drifting” as the place in which the protagonist’s ex-employer sells his timber.
Growing tensions between implacable nature and an encroaching civilization are a recurring theme in Quiroga’s tales, including the two stories examined here. Other characteristics of life in Misiones find their way into these short stories as well. The two protagonists appear to be farmers, or colonos, making their living off the land: one of them grows bananas and the other sugar. “The Dead Man” depicts a possibly immigrant, landowning colono (a banana planter), and makes reference to a new port on the River Parana. The banana planter has lived in his cleared plot of Misiones bushland, which “he himself spaded up during five consecutive months… the work of his hands alone,” for only 10 years (“The Dead Man,” p. 123). In “Drifting,” the protagonist has a small ranch and a sugar-cane press. This story refers to the ominous Parana River, the Iguazú River, and the proximity of Brazil and Paraguay. Both of these stories attest to a clash between civilization and nature that is far from harmonious; death takes the two protagonists by surprise in these unforgiving natural settings.
The cuento in Quiroga’s day
One of Quiroga’s many contributions to Latin American literature was his role in developing the short story as a legitimate and respected Latin American genre. In his famous essay “La crisis del cuento nacional” (The Crisis of the Argentine Short Story), Qui-roga wrote that the artistic production of the short story had become decadent, due to the demands of the media and to the publications and journals that solicited and published short stories. Quiroga complained that for years these daily publications and newspapers had been stubbornly soliciting short novels rather than short stories. He lamented that because of the demands of these publications, which desired to fill space with the more prestigious short novel, many writers needlessly and recklessly elongated entries that were meant to be short stories.
According to Quiroga, this elongation and expansion of a short story serves only to weaken it, because a good short story is one that is efficient, brief, and devoid of relleno, or superfluous “stuffing.” Quiroga goes so far as to insist, perhaps facetiously, that a good short story must not exceed 1,250 words. Quiroga proposed that a good cuento (short story) writer should be exact, have precise discipline, and never use one unnecessary word. The short story writer should be able to suggest more than is written, winding precisely chosen words into an energetically brief yet intense tale aimed like an arrow to create the desired impression—which, in his case, was often horror.
Quiroga’s contribution to Latin American literature thus included not only his many masterful stories, but also theories on the narrative form that were widely read and had a direct impact on many writers of his day.
Nine of the 12 tales that comprise The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories are set in the rural, tropical frontier lands near the river border of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. They share common themes: man’s struggle to survive in an imposing, ominous natural environment (Quiroga consistently depicts nature as an aggressive force), as well as madness, monstrosity, and death. The two celebrated stories “The Dead Man” and “Drifting” take place in the jungle regions of the Upper Parana River and depict man as the weaker party in his confrontation with an untamable and deadly nature.
“Drifting” opens with a simple phrase: “the man stepped on something soft and yielding and immediately felt the bite on his foot” (Quiroga, “Drifting,” in The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories, p. 69). The narrator reveals that the man has been bitten by a yararacusú snake, which the man kills with his machete. Immediately he feels a sharp pain in his leg, so he follows the trail back to his small ranch. The victim, Paulino, throws his arms over the wheel of a sugar-cane press and calls to his wife, Dorotea. Paulino asks Dorotea to bring him some rum, but his mouth is so numb by now that the rum tastes like water when he drinks it. At this point he makes a somber realization: “Well, this is getting bad” (“Drifting,” p.70). Paulino does not want to die, and, after climbing into his canoe, he rides down the Parana River in hope of making it to Tacuru-Pacú in time for help. He stops on the river’s neighboring Brazilian shore, crawls out of the canoe, and calls for his friend Alves to help. He soon realizes, however, that there is no help in sight. He returns to his canoe and continues floating down the Parana, in a setting the narrator describes as “funereal,” “black,” “lugubrious,” “menacing,” and “sombre” (“Drifting,” p. 71). Slowly the weakening Paulino begins to feel better, and he remembers his friends and his former employer, Mr. Dougald, wondering if he will see Mr. Dougald in town. Then he notices a pair of birds flying overhead towards Paraguay, and remembers the man who bought Mr. Dougald’s timber in Port Esperanza. Suddenly Paulino stops breathing altogether and dies.
“The Dead Man” concerns a colono who lives in the frontier land near the Iguazu River border of Argentina/Brazil/Paraguay. He owns a sugarcane press, and has in the past labored for the (presumably) British Mr. Dougald, who runs a timber business and directs the goods to port for sale—most likely to Uruguay’s industrializing and growing urban centers. Having just finished clearing his banana grove, this colono slips and lands on his machete as he attempts to cross a wire fence. The entire account is told in the third-person and speaks of the man’s resistance and stupefaction as he realizes he is dying. The man lies on his side, dying slowly and pondering his death, while everyday routines continue around him. He watches his banana grove, thinks of the new port and of the Parana River nearby, and remembers how he had cleared his plot in this Misiones bushland with his own hands: “How many times, at mid-day like this, on his way to the house, has he crossed this clearing that was a thicket when he came, and virgin bush before that?” (“The Dead Man,” p. 125).
EXCERPTS FROM QUIROGA’S “DECALOGUE OF THE PERFECT SHORT-STORY WRITER”
Highly respected for his writing technique, Horacio Qtfifoga I I wrote instructional essays about his preferred genre, the short story, at the request of aspiring writers. His “Decalogo del Perfecto Cuentista,” published in Babel, an artistic and critical journal appearing in Buenos Aires in July 1927, includes the following advice:
- Believe in a master—Poe, Maupassant, Kipling, Chejw [Chekhov]—as you would in God. ...
- Have blind faith not in your capacity to succeed, but in the ardor with which you desire to. Love your art as you would your girlfriend, giving to it your whole heart. . . .
- Take your characters by the hand and lead them firmly uniti the end, looking at nothing but the path you have traced. Do not distract yourself by looking at that which they can not, or care not to, observe. Do not abuse the reader. . . .
(Quiroga, Todos los Cuentos, pp. 1194-95; trans. O. Trevino)
The protagonist cannot believe that after so many years of toiling he could be dying in this way, by his own machete. Unable to come to grips with the fact that he is dying, “The man resists—such an unforeseen horror! And he thinks: it’s a nightmare: that’s what it is!” (“The Dead Man,” p. 122). He thinks of his banana grove, hears a boy whistling as he walks, listens to his son calling out to him, and dies. The final words, which state that the fallen man “has rested now,” carry double meaning if the reader considers that the dead man, who “was always tired” can now finally rest from the brutal work of clearing his grove (“The Dead Man,” p. 125).
Horacio Quiroga played an important role in developing the literary movement known as “regionalism,” which attempted to define Latin America by describing its unique regional traits, nature, and character types. Many of Horacio Quiroga’s short stories speak of the duel between man and nature, focusing primarily on the horrors and tragedies associated with man’s attempts to tame nature, always depicted as a wild force. This theme of the struggle against an ominous environment became prevalent in the regionalist movement of early twentieth-century Latin American fiction.
Modernism in Spanish America was primarily a poetic movement, and without question the Nicaraguan poet Ruben Dario was its leader. In fact, modernism was recognized as a new artistic movement upon the 1888 publication of Dario’s Azul (Blue) in Santiago de Chile. Dario himself coined the term modernismo to describe this new literary current, considered by many to be Spanish America’s first important contribution to world literature. His poetry was highly literary and technically innovative, filled with allusions to antiquity and mythology, and usually centered around themes of loss and poetic and spiritual crisis. His impact on Latin American literature has been enormous. As Jorge Luis Borges wrote,
Dario renovated everything: subject matter, vocabulary, meter, the magic of certain words, the poet’s sensibility and that of the reader. Its flavor has not ceased and never will cease. Those of us who at some point rejected him now understand that we are his followers. We can call him the liberator.
(Borges in Garcia Pinto, p. 251)
Many young writers at the turn of the century, including Quiroga, noted a changing social reality, a historic transition: the replacement of traditional Latin American society and lifestyles (tied to the rural oligarchy and nature) by the modern bourgeoisie (tied to industry and the city). It has been argued (by Leonida Morales) that the theme of ominous nature so prevalent in Latin American regionalist fiction was a result of contemporary development and industrialization. In the early twentieth century, industry led to both urbanization and a new bourgeoisie (including writers) who abandoned their reclusive way of life and took to the streets. As nature began its historical retreat, regionalist writers sought to capture the changes taking place around them. The Spanish American War (1898) and increasing North American intervention in Latin America also contributed to the interest in defining Latin American national identity by way of its landscape and environment. In short, Quiroga’s cuentos misioneros are affected by what the country was experiencing: a revolutionary ruptura brought on by its own explosive economic development and international integration.
Regionalist literature often focused on the theme of a potentially dangerous nature in all its forms. Many regionalists set their literary works in rural zones, depicting “types” that were considered more authentically representative of Latin America (such as rural peasants, the Indian) than characters one might find in other types of literature. Regionalist fiction also tended to pit man against an aggressive nature as part of the tension between civilizacion and barbarie (civilization and barbarism). The outcome of this battle was often death, as is the case in many of Quiroga’s works.
Spanish American regionalism was preceded by the modernist movement, which promoted the project of conquering rural savage space, of carrying civilization into the outback. A transitional figure between the two literary movements (modernism and regionalism), Quiroga pointed to the failure of this project. Its promoters, in his view, could only expect to be beaten down by nature, which absorbed those who tried to dominate it. The attempt to Euro-peanize the countryside was unwise. Quiroga, in short, found fault with the belief that nature, whether environmental or human, could be tamed. While “The Dead Man” and “Drifting” deal with a threatening environment, the collection’s title story, “The Decapitated Chicken,” about four “idiot” brothers and the revenge they exact on their normal sister, concerns the overpowering drives of human nature: “From the moment of the first poisonous quarrel Mazzini and Berta [the parents] had lost respect for one another, and if there is anything to which man feels himself drawn with cruel fulfillment it is, once begun, the complete humiliation of another person” (Quiroga, “The Decapitated Chicken,” in The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories, p. 61).
Lasting in Spanish America from roughly 1888 to 1911, modernism began to seem artificial to younger writers, who, like Quiroga, turned to a more brutal reality that grew out of the environment and its people as subjects for their prose. Quiroga met Nicaragua’s great modernist, Ruben Dario, in Paris in 1900, and actually began his career by writing modernist works, such as the poetry collection Los Arrecifes de Cora (1901); he also participated in the modernist literary circles of Montevideo, Uruguay. After his move to Buenos Aires and visits to the northeastern Argentine frontier lands, however, Quiroga began writing in the regionalist style that he helped introduce to Latin America. Set in the ominous jungles of Misiones, his short stories introduced new themes in literature to a Latin American reading public that was still mostly accustomed to modernist works.
Quiroga and violence
Probably the most dramatic aspects of Quiroga’s fiction are its violence, fatalism, and unrelenting concern with death. In story after story man confronts a fierce, implacable nature, and usually meets his death as a result. The two stories featured here focus on two men’s last moments, after they have been absurdly and mortally wounded. In the title story referred to earlier, “The Decapitated Chicken,” the four “idiot” sons one day mimic the killing of a chicken by decapitating their sister; the tale ends with the horrified parents approaching “a sea of blood on the floor” of the kitchen (“The Decapitated Chicken,” p. 66). Almost every story in the collection includes one tragic event or death.
Quiroga’s own life was filled with tragic accidents and casual violence. His father’s death in a hunting accident made a huge impression on the young Quiroga. Then, when he was 17, he came upon his stepfather’s dead body and was the first to find that the man had shot himself. When Quiroga was 24 he himself accidentally shot and killed one of his best friends. Thirteen years later his wife, unable to bear life in Misiones, poisoned herself to death, leaving Quiroga with two young children to raise on his own. Finally, Quiroga poisoned himself after discovering that he had an incurable cancer. As George D. Schade points out, the “singular amount of violence marring the writer’s personal life cannot be overly stressed, for it explains a great deal about his obsession with death, which is so marked in his work” (Schade, p. x). In Quiroga’s fiction, then, death is “just as pervasive, protean and arbitrary” as it was in his life, and serves finally “to portray human life as a preordained struggle that, however valiant, affirms inglorious destiny and the futility of individual action” (Borgeson, p. 697).
Literary sources and context
Horacio Quiroga drew much of the content for his stories from life experiences in urban Buenos Aires and in the frontier region of Misiones where he lived and worked as a colono. As noted, Quiroga became one of the prime initiators of regionalism, which strove to “rediscover” Latin America and its authentic identity, depicting its unique types and landscapes. Quiroga found these ingredients in Misiones, which provided the themes, settings, and characters for his stories. Many of those set in the tropical jungles of Misiones include references to real-life places, rivers, and ports (such as the Parana, the Iguazú, Tacurú-Pacú, and Puerto Esperanza in “Dead Man” and “Drifting”). The story “The Incense Tree Roof,” for example (also anthologized in The Decapitated Chicken), describes the tribulations of a recently arrived government official who keeps poor records and is always distracted by a leaky roof that fails to shelter him from the torrential tropical rains. The story is based on Quiroga’s real-life experiences.
Quiroga is also considered a precursor of the concentration on the fantastic in Latin American fiction. In the horrific, often unsettling content of some of his stories, he shows a tendency to depict reality as interrupted by the supernatural (as in the story “The Feather Pillow,” also anthologized in The Decapitated Chicken).
Horacio Quiroga did not write with an explicitly social or political agenda. Yet his stories contain some of the most powerful social criticism of the day, especially in regard to their analysis of the transformations of the land effected by the process of modernization. Without being didactic, Quiroga’s stories offer testimony to the social injustices common in his time, such as the violent exploitation of laborers by bosses. The Decapitated Chicken’s “A Slap in the Face,” for instance, tells of an indigenous man’s revenge on the arrogant ex-boss who beat him.
Quiroga’s regionalist work enjoyed favorable reception by critics early in his career, especially in Buenos Aires, where he had already established a reputation in the first decade of the century. Many of his short works, including “Drifting” and “The Dead Man,” were originally published in periodicals that brought them to the attention of relatively small audiences. With the 1917 publication of the book collection Cuentos de amo, de locura y de muerte (Stories of Love, Madness, and Death), which included the cuentos misioneros, “Quiroga achieved widespread popularity and critical acclaim” (Pou-pard, p. 206).
The Decapitated Chicken, which anthologizes and publishes for the first time in English the two short stories “Drifting” and “The Dead Man,” received favorable reviews in U.S. journals, which took note of the bizarre quality to the stories. A reviewer in Library Journal concluded that the “telling is so vibrantly and surely done that the reader is captivated by method and universality of meaning more than content” (Dougherty in Mooney and Klaum, p. 1091). The New Yorker (August 9, 1976) called the stories “lucid and written with great economy,” and went on to compare Quiroga to Edgar Allan Poe (New Yorker in Mooney and Klaum, p. 1092). With its perfect combination of technique and content, “The Dead Man” is commonly considered Quiroga’s masterpiece.
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_____. Todos los cuentos. Edicion critica de Napoleon Baccino Ponce de Leon and Jorge Lafforgue. Madrid: Coleccion Archivos, 1993.
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