Monday, May 31, 2010

Horacio Quiroga, The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories

Quiroga, Horacio. The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press.
______. The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories. Translated by Margaret Sayers Peden. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004.

A collection was published with the same title during Quiroga's lifetime: La Gallina Degollada y Otros Cuentos, 1925. This is not a translation of that work, but a new collection of stories spanning Quiroga's career.

You can find synopses of each story at the Internet Book List.

Rating:     5/10
Uruguay author Horacio Quiroga’s fiction is tame compared to his tragic life. There are a number of differing variations between biographical sources, but since he led such an unusually active and tragic life, I felt it useful to piece together a brief and somewhat accurate account. (By "accurate" I mean I have omitted contradictory details.)

Born in 1878, Quiroga was just over two months old when his father, returning from a hunting trip, accidentally shot himself. The wound proved fatal and he died shortly thereafter. In 1901, the year that witnessed the publication of his first book, two of his brothers died of typhoid fever. Later that same year his best friend was preparing for a duel, and with the intention of helping him, Quiroga accidentally shot and killed him. He was arrested for the incident and imprisoned, but after investigators deemed the killing an accident, he was released and later exonerated. Quiroga married Ana Maria Cires, one of his teenage students, and they relocated to the jungle in 1908. The couple had two sons.

Quiroga’s insistence on making their life in the wild environment led his wife into a deep depression, and in an attempt to take her life she consumed arsenic. She was violently ill for several days and finally died a painful death. A few years later Quiroga fell in love with seventeen year-old Ana Maria Palacio, but his insistent pursuits only forced the girl’s parents to take her away. He then fell in love with another teenager, Maria Elena Bravo, who married him in 1927 when he was forty-nine. Quiroga returned to the jungle with his new wife and they soon had a daughter, Quiroga’s third child. Shortly thereafter the writer’s position with the state was revoked and, unhappy in the jungle, his wife fled from home, taking their child with her. After many years living with acute pains, Quiroga was eventually diagnosed with prostate cancer and hospitalized. There he discovered that a highly deformed patient was kept locked away in the hospital’s basement, and urged that the man, Vicent Batistessa, be released and allowed to stay with him in his room. Batistessa was grateful and proved faithful to his saviour, and helped him to locate and consume some poison to end his own life. (He used either arsenic or cyanide, depending on the source, though some cyanide compounds may contain arsenic.) Both of his sons, on separate occasions, later committed suicide as well. Quite the legacy. Amid all of this Quiroga worked many years as a state official, and produced a number of plays and short stories, as well as a few novels, mostly dealing with unrequited love.

In this collection of Quiroga’s stories, we are presented with an introduction to his writing that spans his entire career. There are obvious similarities across the twenty-something years, but the latter works are generally more skilfully written, while some of the ideas in the earlier ones are more interesting. Many of the stories are simply flat, relying on standard shock endings (“The Feather Pillow” 1907), while some are so infused with filler that getting to the end is a bit of a dull chore (“A Slap in the Face” 1916). Other stories employ interesting ideas but are unfortunately not well rendered (“The Pursued” 1908). Too many of the stories are too alike, though this may be the result of story selection for this edition.

The only truly satisfying story in the collection is “Anaconda” (1921), a novelette about a jungle serpent community threatened by the presence of a human research facility. This story seems to amalgamate the positive elements of Quiroga’s literary phases, everything fro
m a unique idea to solid prose and the strongest example of characterization his work has ever presented (ironically the characters are mostly snakes). Quiroga replaces his usual choppy prose with smoother, even writing, and his characters are more than caricatures, rendered with some fine light humour. There is a poignant message and the story hits is layered with various themes, a multiplicity that is wholly absent in most of his other works. “The Incense Tree Roof” (1922) almost manages this as well, but a strong idea and an interesting character are cast aside by an ending that is more deserving of his earlier stories. The comical and eccentric civil servant is a portrayal of Quiroga’s own disorganised behaviour while acting as Justice of the Peace. What is interesting about this piece is that Quiroga does well in delineating the civil servant protagonist, since his stories often resort to employing partially-formed or stock characters.

I mentioned above, the translator and/or publishers may have preferred a certain style of Quiroga story, and it is possible that the preference for a certain style excluded other worthy(ier) tales. At least in his youth he was referred to as an experimenter. There is a wide gap in the chronology, between 1922 and 1935, a period from which no story is represented. It is possible the author was less productive in the form, focusing more on his novels. I have not been able to find a definitive bibliography of his short works, and may add an addendum to this review when I do.

ccording to the blurbs at the back of the 2004 edition, Quiroga has been compared to Poe and Kipling, a statement I find rather surprising. Not only does he lack Poe's inventive story-telling, character technique and attention to detail, his story endings are often incidental, tacked onto any random thought, on par with the tired "it was all a dream" convention. Furthermore, he does not have Kipling's devotion to character and interest in character relationships. Likely these blurbs helped to sell a few copies of the book, which is unfortunate and unfair to Quiroga as it likely raised certain expectations while delivering something obviously sub-par. This raising of expectations would result in disappointing readers.

This volume is illustrated by Ed Lindlof, and though I liked the concept of the drawings I did not care for the art. Each story featured a full-page illustration, and the only one I found satisfying and appropriate to the spirit of the work is the haunting drawing for the semi-haunting "The Dacapitated Chicken" (Originally "La gallina degollada" 1909) . The cover of the 1976 edition features a yellow chicken over a blood-red background, with the bird's head lopped and lying in the opposite corner. Terry Gilliam's artwork comes to mind, and the effect is somewhat dated and comical. The art and design of the 2004 edition is quite effective. A clean white chicken torso is strung upside down, its head covered over by the elaborate title design. This image leaves more to the imagination, and the lettering is really quite nice.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Casual Shorts 2: Edward D. Hoch, "A Melee of Diamonds" (1972)

  • First published in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, April 1972.
  • Reprinted in Alfred Hitchcock's Tales to Be Read with Caution, ed. Eleanor Sullivan, NY: Random House, 1979; The Best of Mystery, ed. Alfred Hitchcock, NY: Galahad Books, 1976; Leopold's Way: Detective Stories, eds. Francis M. Nevins, jr. & Martin H. Greenberg, Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985.
  • Rating: 4/10.
  • "A Melee of Diamonds" at the Internet Book List.
(Mostly spoiler-free.)

A man walks by a jewelry store, smashes its glass display case with a cane and rushes off, only to be caught a few feet away by a bystander with a policeman in sight. Despite the fact that $58,000 worth of diamonds are missing from the showcase, the thief is found empty-handed. Captain Leopold is brought in to investigate.

This is the premise to Hoch's sloppily-written mystery short, "A Melee of Diamonds." An incredibly prolific writer, Hoch seems to have tossed off many stories in a single afternoon (one website logs 680 individual works, including those published under different pseudonyms). This one features Captain Leopold, one of Hoch’s many recurring investigators, and though it has an interesting premise and a potentially good resolution, it ended up being fairly predictable. Moreover, the distractions Hoch employs to throw the reader off the scent do not work in the least, as most readers should know that the obvious solution to a mystery is rarely the correct solution. What is truly embarrassing about this story is that it inadvertently portrays Leopold as a less-than-sharp-minded detective. He is quite passive and forgetful, and his overall awkward approach to the case results in portraying him as somewhat of an imbecile.

The opening scenes are set up in an attempt to focus the reader on the Samaritan bystander. Since the most obvious suspect is usually innocent, I found myself quickly considering the other alternatives. The initial thought that passed through my head was: "What happened to the cane?" as the item seems to have all-too conveniently dropped off the page. Oddly the cane is not mentioned during the initial investigation, and it turns out Leopold has completely forgotten about it. Half-way through he remembers the item and blurts out, "Why didn't I think of it before?" I asked the same thing; aren't weapons & tools involved in a crime examined early on and shouldn't professional inspectors be interested in what clues these items can yield?

Leopold is led to solving the case by a woman who walks up to him in the middle of the street, telling him she knows where the diamonds are. Great deduction work, Leopold! Brave Leopold then sets up a little scheme in order to learn the true thief’s identity, a scheme that results in getting a middle-man killed. Despite this unnecessary death, Leopold is pleased at having figured out the identity of the glass-smasher’s accomplice, while I was left to mourn the pointless death of the small-time crook.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Theodore Odrach, Wave of Terror

Odrach, Theodore. Voshchad. Ukraine, 1972.
______. Wave of Terror, Translated by Erma Odrach. Chicago, IL: Academy Chicago Publishers, 2008.

Wave of Terror at Goodreads.
Wave of Terror at the IBList.

Rating:     7/10

Wave of Terror is an unusual mixture of comedy and Soviet horror, dealing with the opening months of the Soviet occupation of a rural area in Ukraine in 1939. We follow the Soviet usurpation primarily through the experiences of two disparate villagers, the school headmaster Ivan Kulik and the pretentious young Maria Valentynovna. In its episodic format we are introduced to many diverse characters and witness a wide array of scenarios, from the comic and absurdist to the horribly tragic. Some scenes are more effective and some simply more interesting than others, yet each episode is fairly short, preventing a potential lag or unevenness in the reading that episodic novels can fall victim to. The overall balance is strong and I was able to read the book at a consistent pace.

Odrach evidently wanted this book to be the first part of a trilogy, yet sadly passed away before he was able to complete it. The ending is abrupt and many situations are left open-ended, but this lack of closure enhances the work, especially considering that its aim is to solely examine the beginnings of occupation and its prompt affects on the rural populace. Odrach’s point is made and his vision of the early Soviet Ukraine remains quite vivid.

The singularly unique aspect of the novel is the combination of outright humour and devastating tragedy. Though there is some slapstick, particularly in the opening sequences, the humour succeeds best when used to illustrate the absurd notions of social reform by a regime that pretends to be a saviour, when it is evidently less benevolent to its people than its predecessor. Odrach emphasizes his point that salvation from the cruel Polish landowners is less than a blessing when the new controlling Soviet force has less to offer the people of Hlaby, and instead finds more from their meagre holdings to seize. It is a horrible tragedy, and though the tragic events are often bleak, the humour shines through making for an unusual read. As we become enmeshed in the lives of the victims of this new regime, the humour takes a back seat, overshadowed by the elements of persecution and paranoia that overtake the town and its inhabitants.

My favourite sequence in the novel is the election held to appoint a Deputy of the Village Soviet (Chapter 19). Two comical and glutinous Soviet officials stage an election as a ploy to keep a certain lascivious local within their insatiable grasps. The staged election becomes a farce as the townspeople cannot take the proceedings seriously, not caring for these formalities and expecting to gain nothing from this supposedly serious and important civil act. When the two officials nominate their intended, they ask that the townsfolk call out their nominations for the four party seats in order to make up a presidium, specifying that they should elect their most upstanding citizens. In a wonderful show of mockery and chaos, the four names are among the town’s social outcasts, who have not a clue as to what is going on around them. In this scene Odrach succeeds in portraying the extremes of political absurdity, and though I laughed aloud while reading it, I could not escape the intended seriousness behind the scene. Indeed, it is the humour and absurdity that heightens its serious elements.

Being a historical novel of Soviet occupation, there are some truly disturbing moments with less than comical characters, emphasized primarily though the sinister Sobakin. One can argue that most of the characters (if not all) are two-dimensional, and indeed they are, but the two opposing forces here are the Soviet motherland and the rural town of Hlaby. The many characters are used to illustrate the various degrees extremes that people go through in such conflict, the victims, rebels, submissives and those who manage to strive as best they can. Though we do pursue the experiences of two specific characters, the novel is not a character study nor the relating of a single unified set of experiences, but an overall view of a vast event. In that the novel succeeds, and I can only hope that we will see more of Mr. Odrach’s work in translation.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Casual Shorts 1: Edward Thompson, “Moses and Mr. Aiken” (1952)

  • Edward Thompson, “Moses and Mr. Aiken,” Collier’s Magazine, 8 March 1952.
  • Reprinted in Modern Stories for Modern Schools, ed. E. F. Kingston, Toronto: J.M. Dent & Sons, 1953, pp. 111-230.
  • Filmed for the television series Fireside Theatre, 5 January 1954.
  • Rating: 7/10.
  • "Moses and Mr. Aiken" at the Internet Book List.

Background and Publication

“Moses and Mr. Aiken” is a short story by forgotten Memphis author Edward Thompson. Primarily a novelist, Thompson gained some recognition during his career, garnering a Pulitzer prize nomination for his 1948 novel A Seed in Spring. Other novels include Listen for the Laughter (1942) and Take Away the Darkness (1944). These works have all fallen into obscurity, long since out-of-print, and I have been unable to locate a copy of A Seed in Spring in any of my local libraries. I have also been unable to find reference to a collection of stories for Thompson (a frustrating search since the name has proven incredibly common), though I suspect one may have been published at some time. It appears that Thompson started up a production company in 1948 with producer Al Lewis, the aim of which was to film adaptations of Thompson’s own work, including A Seed in Spring. Information on IMDb is sparse, but Thompson’s Golden Girl was filmed in 1951.
“Moses and Mr. Aiken” was first published in Collier’s Magazine on 8 March 1952, and appears to have been well received as it was reprinted a year later in E. F. Kingston's high school English anthology Modern Stories for Modern Schools, then filmed for the long-running anthology series Fireside Theatre, airing less than two years after the stories initial publication.

General Overview (spoiler free)

There is nothing complex or even complicated about the story, though it is well conceived and plotted. Today it appears nostalgic and, in light of modern short story conventions, refreshing, and I can’t help but liken it to a Frank Capra film. Mr. Elwood Aiken, a crotchety Associate Cashier at a bank, is concerned that the recently vacated post of Cashier has not been offered to him, and is dismayed that a competition for the post has arisen between him and the younger, affable Warren Hastey. Aiken dislikes Hastey simply because the younger man is easy-going and openly friendly. Aiken himself is serious and reserved, and undoubtedly a little envious of the other man’s natural ability to make people like him.
Preparing breakfast one morning, Aiken is consumed with these problems, and his reverie is shattered when he and his wife Wilhelmina discover a newborn kitten abandoned in the ferns in front of their house. Aiken immediately contacts the local animal shelter to care for it, but as they would only destroy the animal the crotchety cashier begins to care for the kitten himself, and a remarkable transformation begins to take place.
A fairly light read, “Moses and Mr. Aiken” is genuinely heart-warming the way many of Capra’s films are. In broad terms the story is about placing faith on character rather than collateral, of being human/humane, and though the protagonist is not a lovable George Bailey, he is likable despite his gruff exterior and his dislike of his well-meaning colleague and the neighbourhood children. The story is genuinely humourous, with some great one-liners aimed mostly at Aiken, and the narration is somewhat ironic as we find ourselves grinning at Aiken’s own serious logic, unable to take him as seriously as he takes himself. Though initially delineated as a stock character, Aiken's dimensions expand and we (as expected) see a softer side of him creeping through. By the end of the story he is (as expected) a well-balanced individual.

I am not revealing anything striking by remarking on Aiken’s transformation as the story clearly heads in that direction. Despite this obvious course, there are some satisfying twists in the plot, and all story details are brought together very nicely, and competently. Well-plotted overall with a straightforward structure, the stock characters are enjoyable and the dialogue is strong. The story is a pleasure to read on all levels.

Since the development of the modern short story in the nineteenth century, the form has proven most successful when dealing with darker themes, less than hopeful situations and, in general, more serious or "realistic" aspects of life. Stories often tend to close with open-ended resolutions, the acceptance of a less-than-perfect situation, or in the middle of the complication where a clear resolution is cannot be achieved. The clear-cut resolutions that are requisite of mainstream film and most novels are not normally suited to the short story, but in "Moses and Mr. Aiken" Thompson has succeeded in constructing a properly arced storyline with clear resolution in the form of a short story. This is quite a unique accomplishment.

I must admit that when I came across the story for a second time, only two or three years after my first reading, I could barely remember a single detail from it. Though I expect this normally occurs when the story itself is less than memorable, at least in my experience, it actually proved beneficial as I was able to enjoy the story a second time as though it were the first.

Analysis (spoilers)

“Moses and Mr. Aiken” is an existentialist story. While it lacks the modernist notions of absurdity it deals specifically with the issue of man’s role within society and his responsibility toward himself and others. Early modern existentialists argued that man must confront existential obstacles, such as angst and despair, in order to live life to its fullest potential. Moreover, man also has a responsibility toward society, and must act in such a way that society will benefit. In “Moses and Mr. Aiken” identity is confronted head-on and perceptions of reality are altered as Elwood Aiken gains an objective view of his self. With greater self-awareness he is able to achieve happiness and become a great beneficiary to society.

Elwood Aiken is a man of routine, so integrated with his daily pattern that his perception of the world has become dangerously narrow. The moment he discovers the kitten the pattern of his life becomes altered, immediately affecting how others perceive him and consequently how he perceives those around him. With a renewed perception the world around him begins to change. He visits the local library and pet shop and is surprised that both the librarian and shopkeeper immediately recognize him. Moreover, he thinks to himself that people appear different when not at the bank. Since the people in their own environment appear naturally friendly and good-humoured, this remark is a criticism on Aiken’s own character; when we later see Aiken at work we learn that he customarily declines customers’ requests and outright censures their goals. What has occurred, however, is that Aiken is seeing the world outside his normal habitat, and this new world appears wholly different. Returning to his own neighbourhood, Aiken’s perception of the boy Bobby Condee is also altered. He discovers that Bobby knows “all about cats… baby ones too,” and Bobby suddenly transforms in Aiken’s eye: “The boy he looked at was suddenly no longer an annoying brat, a disturber of the peace. He was an authority.”

Later that morning everyone at the bank is concerned since it is the first time Aiken has ever taken the morning off, and people begin to view him differently. When his colleagues later read about his attempt at raising the kitten and of his political views, their perception of him receives a complete overhaul, and they treat him as though he were someone entirely different. The women admire him while the men respect him and treat him as an equal. In turn, Aiken begins to treat others differently as well, and these experiences result in a newly-formed philosophy: “character and decency were far more precious items to be considered in making loans than collateral.”

Aiken writes a note to the bank, favouring Hastey for the position of Cashier, as Hastey is a more affable and naturally friendly individual than himself. Aiken understands that personality should be considered in decision-making, and recognizes that Hastey is a better people person than himself. Aiken essentially recognizes his own self in a relatively objective light, and fully accepts himself for who he is. Furthermore, for the benefit of the world he makes an effort to take on the role best-suited for himself. Thompson makes it clear that before Aiken can be offered a better position in his society he must first overcome his existential angst. Writing the note and his willingness to sacrifice that position for the greater good of the bank proves that Aiken has defeated that angst and is unselfishly taken responsibility for society’s benefit.

Aiken's overall perception of the world changes. While the world was a cold and serious place, an opinion shaped by the premature death of his and Wilhelmina's son and their inability to conceive other children, by the end of these experiences (and of the story) the world has become "a wonderful place, full of wonderful people."

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