Souvenir From the Mountains by Adolpho Bioy Casares, 1959
SOUVENIR FROM THE MOUNTAINS
by Adolpho Bioy Casares, 1959
"Souvenir from the Mountains" is one of Adolpho Bioy Casares's most immediately accessible and engaging stories, although it is not without the twists and turns of narrative that characterize most of his work. In many respects it follows a familiar path in his fiction. Like many of Bioy's stories, it is written in the first person by an unnamed, older male. This narrator is desperately, helplessly, in love with Violeta, a married woman much younger than himself. When Violeta's husband, Xavier, is unable to accompany them on a journey to the mountains, he books them in at the Grand Hotel, but to his intense embarrassment is inadvertently given the same room as Violeta, "the person I admire and love most," and fears she will misconstrue his motives. The narrator is one of Bioy's characteristically older, almost valetudinarian characters, successful with other women but not with the one he most wants. He confides in Violeta concerning his love affairs and is gently ridiculed:
In those later conversations I pay for my indiscretions. Violeta (the sweetest, most soft-spoken girl) convinces me that on each occasion it is fair to compare my accomplice to a monkey. As for me, I am compared to a satyr, and she leaves no doubt that the satyr is the more ridiculous of the two animals.
The narrator's awareness of his age emerges immediately in the contempt he affects towards a group of French skiers who arrive at the hotel, superbly fit specimens, whom he instantly recognizes as a threat to his plans of winning Violeta's heart, "I would have sworn that no normal person would ever look at these yokels: apparently they are attractive to women." And similarly, "They belong to a family of animals noted for their height, haircut, and abundant stock of sweaters." The affected scorn conceals his own sense of being seen in a poor light, a not uncommon feeling among Bioy's narrators: "What a disadvantage for the man whose greatest vigor is intellectual! If nobody around appreciates it, intelligence functions in the dark, distraught with resentment; it ceases to exist."
What makes the story rather different from many of Bioy's is the vein of pleasant, slightly absurdist comedy running through it. "Souvenir from the Mountains" is one of the most tender of Bioy's stories, as well as one of the most psychologically searching. The narrator examines his own motives with great care and self-doubt, debating with himself over what he should and should not do. Speaking of Violeta's husband, he tells us, "I remember that evening we had a heated discussion about truth. According to Xavier, there is only one absolute truth; I believe that truth is always relative." He analyzes his own actions in meticulous detail. In contrast to the narrator's agonized self-consciousness is Violeta's brisk practicality and calm good sense. He worries about the mistake with the room; she simply says: "I don't mind sharing a room. Do you?" A page of his intricate self-analysis is followed by her suggestion, "Before the day's over, let's take a walk."
Self-mockery is a constant element in the narrator's tone. At one point, in speaking of the beneficial effects of the climate in the mountains, he asks her, "'You'll admit that it's taken thirty years off your age?"'
We are told: "Violeta did not respond. What could she say? With thirty years less, she wouldn't have been born." This dryly ironic tone is beautifully sustained throughout the story, "Time is a bone of contention between men and women," the narrator tells us. "What a talent Violeta had for delay. A few more such fights, and one might have guessed that we were married." However, he is constantly alerting us to his own misogyny. When Violeta suggests a picnic, he says: "Throughout my life I have noted how much women love picnics and all sorts of rustic—or at least uncomfortable—lunches. I return from such excursions with backaches, stomach aches, headaches, and dirty hands. I exclaimed: 'An excellent idea!"' He is unusually self-aware among Bioy's narrators and aware in particular of his own egotism: "We believe ourselves to be the reason for all that happens," he observes.
As often in Bioy's fiction, there is a suggestion of political oppression in the background, "In a halo of immobile dust, a broken-down truck advanced slowly along the streets of the town, broadcasting some folksy nostalgic music, interrupted by threatening statements from the government."
Near the end, however, the tone of comic drollery slowly gives way to a subtly prepared atmosphere of hallucinatory bewilderment on the part of the narrator. He has become involved with a married woman, Monica, and thinks gratefully to himself, "Women are spoiling me lately; I'm in luck." She invites him to dinner on the last night of his stay, just before her husband is due to return, and he comes away from her place feeling confused and wondering if the wine she served him had been drugged. Snow has fallen and changed the atmosphere of the landscape. Strange signs appear: "Grotto Factory." He wakes in the middle of the night to see one of the French skiers in Violeta's bed—or does he? The detail is so specific that it is hard to imagine that the narrator is dreaming it all, but in the morning he is not sure.
There is no one, however, that he can turn to to confirm or refute his belief that Violeta has entertained a lover. She herself behaves as if nothing out of the normal has happened, and he can hardly ask the skier's friends; that would be bad form. "Now we're back in Buenos Aires. I never even found out before coming home, if there really was a grotto factory in the town. What I wouldn't give to know if everything that night had happened in a dream provoked by Monica's wine." The story is left beautifully open-ended, with the narrator unable to confirm or refute what he hopes and believes was merely a dream. The title thus becomes resonant with irony. The "souvenir" the unnamed narrator brought back is a distinctly unwelcome memory—and memories, as he points out, are all-important: "The guiding principle of my behavior, especially when I'm with a woman, is to acquire an abundance and variety of memories, since these constitute the durable part of life."