Felisberto Hernández

Felisberto Hernández, Piano Stories

The Wednesday quotation, part XIX: I’ve been reading Felisberto Hernández, a very striking Uruguayan writer from the first half of the twentieth century who is practically unknown, especially in English. Some of his short stories have been translated, in a collection entitled Piano Stories (introduced by Italo Calvino, which should give a sense of why they might be of interest), but so far as I can tell this book never sold well and is now long out of print.

“The Stray Horse” is a story that begins by giving life to very concrete things: a marble bust, for instance, or furniture, or a pencil that “was anxious to be allowed to write” (17). Before long the narrator, a child depicted with his grandmother and with his piano teacher, Celina, with whom he is obsessed, can say that “the objects were more alive than we were” (18). As the story progresses, however, it takes on the perspective of the man that the child has become many years later and turns into a long disquisition on memory and on aging in which abstract ideas are presented with surprising vividness, as though they were tangible objects. It is as though the two halves of the story were mirror images of each other: the life of things, and the things of life that unite in (or divide) the narrator’s consciousness.

For in time, with the effort to recollect the past, the narrator finds himself multiplied, fragmented, transformed. He imagines a shadowy partner, who follows him wherever he goes and whom he dimly discerns to represent or incarnate the world of others around him. Though the two are often depicted as at odds, they also make common cause in the narrator’s adventures in consciousness and memory. This leads to an extraordinary passage that ultimately proves to be about something like creativity:

I have to thank him for the times he followed me at night to the edge of a river where I went to see the water of memory flow. When I drew some water in a jug and was saddened at how little and how still it was, he would help me invent other containers for it and comfort me by showing me its different shapes in the different vessels. Afterward we invented a boat in which to cross the river to the island where Celina’s house was. We would take along thoughts that fought hand to hand with our memories, knocking over or displacing many objects in the house. Some of the objects may have rolled under the furniture, and others we must have lost on our way back, because when we opened the bag with our hoard it was always down to just a few bones, and the small lantern we had been holding over the soil of memory dropped from our hands.

Yet the next morning we always turned what little we had gathered during the night into writing. (43-4)

Meanwhile, here is something I wrote a few years ago specifically on “The Daisy Dolls” (“Las hortensias”).

doll

dollFelisberto Hernández‘s short story “Las Hortensias” explores an uncanny modernity of couples and doubles and life-like mass reproduction.

The story centres around a childless couple, Horacio and María, who live in a suburban house next to a factory whose machinic hum pervades their lives and the narrative. Partly perhaps as a substitute for the child that they cannot have (44), and also (we’re told) partly because of his fears of mortality and particularly of the possibility his wife might pre-decease him (20), Horacio acquires a collection of life-size dolls that he has arranged in a series of tableaux vivants.

But one doll in particular becomes rapidly an object of obsession for them both. This is Hortensia, made in the likeness of his wife (whose middle name is Hortensia), who stands in for wife, child, sister, and increasingly Horacio’s lover.

At the outset María colludes in the imaginative play with which Horacio gives life to Hortensia. But there’s something slightly sinister about the “surprises” she likes to play on her husband by switching roles with the doll, dressing her in her own clothing and providing her with animate qualities at the same time as she herself takes on increasingly doll-like roles. Soon collusion turns to jealousy as Horacio takes this simulation a stage further, having Hortensia fitted with veins through which warm water can be piped for additional verosimilitude, and fixing his desire ever more firmly on the mannequin.

Meanwhile, other doubles are equally troubling: for instance, the household’s servants include a pair of twins, one of whom is also named María, whom María (the wife) feels she has to hide from her husband’s gaze; and the couple keep the mirrors in their house shrouded, as their reflections provoke anxiety in Horacio however much he also “very much liked to discover the confusion of people and things that mirrors provoked” (51). There’s a sense from the start that such reflections and imitations are always likely to get out of hand, and to lead towards madness. Horacio feels himself surrounded by disturbing signs, above all the sense that “the dolls had their secrets,” that they are “full of omens,” and that they appeared to be “hypnotized beings carrying out unknown missions or lending themselves to unsavoury designs” (22).

More substitutions follow: María attacks Hortensia, though the couple both worry about the notion that a doll, supposedly inanimate, could be “killed.” Then Horacio swaps Hortensia first for a blonde doll and ultimately for a black one who turns out to be his wife, providing him with yet another of her surprises.

Unable or unwilling to trust his own senses, and with the feeling that his desire has become delirious (increasingly [un]fixed on part objects–the dolls’ detached limbs floating in a tank), Horacio himself becomes ever more of an automaton: he scarcely moves, “his eyes fixed as though they were glass, his silence that of a doll” (77). In a final breakdown, in terror at one last surprise on the part of his wife, one last substitution in which she plays the part of a doll, we find him setting off across the flowerbeds “heading towards the sound of the machines” (80).

Horacio has definitively abandoned human reproduction centered around the closed world of the domestic couple, to ally himself with the infinitely more productive (if also more disturbing) world of the factory. In the proliferation of representations that modernity allows, any distance between sign and thing has (for him) broken down. So why not enter fully into the world of things, abandoning pretensions to puppet mastery, to some kind of transcendent humanity?