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by Bamber Gascoigne

Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937)


Uruguayan short story writer who has been compared to Edgar Allan Poe. Quiroga wrote over 200 short stories. Among his famous tales is the haunting 'El almohadón de plumas' (1907, The Feather Pillow), in which the life of a young bride, Alicia, fades away in a large silent house. After Alicia's death, a servant finds from her pillow a grotesque animal with hairy legs, a parasitic creature, swollen from blood it had sucked from her.

"These parasites of feathered creatures, diminutive in their habitual environment, reach enormous proportions under certain conditions. Human blood seems particularly favourable to them, and it is not rare to encounter them in feather pillows." (from 'The Feather Pillow')

Horacio Quiroga was born at Salto on the River Uruguay, into a middle-class family. When Horacio was an infant, his father, an Argentinian consular official, was killed accidentally in a shooting incident  The family moved to Córdoba, returned to Salto a few years later, and eventually settled in 1891 in the capital, Montevideo, where Quiroga studied for a short time at the university. From 1897 he started to publish in local magazines and was the founding editor of Revista de Salto (1899-90).

After his stepfather's death – he shot himself – Quiroga visited Paris, but soon realized that the 'bohemian' life was not for him. In Paris he fell under the influence of the French symbolist movement and the works of Poe, although he also read extensively Chekhov and de Maupassant. Quiroga's diary from this period was published in 1950. 

Returning to Uruguay, Quiroga published a volume of Modernist poetry, prose pieces, and stories, Los arrecifes de coral (1902, Coral reefs), and became the centre of a group of young writers, El consistorio del gay saber. Having breathed some of the fin-de-siècle atmosphere in Paris, he experimented with chloroform, opium, ether, and hashish, which were relatively easy to get in Montevideo too.

Quiroga accidentally shot and killed his friend in 1902 while they were inspecting a gun. After a trial, he left for Buenos Aires, where he taught Spanish at the British School. Willing to take a new turn in his life, he accepted the invitation of the poet Leopoldo Lugones to join an expedition as official photographer to Misiones in northeast Argentina. The target was the Jesuit ruins – the Jesuits had been expelled in 1767. Quiroga became enchanted by the wild region and he spent the larger part of his life in remote jungle regions, first not in Misiones, but in Chano province, where he settled in 1904. He planted cotton but the venture failed and he abandoned the project. When the Argentine began to encourage farming in Misiones, he bought some land in San Ignacio, on the river Paraná.

Experiences from this period – accidents, extreme hardships, and realization that man cannot control nature – provided material for a number of his writings. Nature was for Quiroga a hostile element. A simple walk through a cane-brake could be exhausting: "The clumps, arched in a dome chest-high, were tangled in solid blocks. The task of crossing, difficult even on a cool day, was very hard at this hour. Mr Jones crossed it, nevertheless, swimming between the crackling dusty cane over the clay left by the floods, gasping with fatigue and the bitter vapour of nitrates." (from 'La insolación')

From 1906 to 1911 Quiroga taught at the Escuela Normal, Buenos Aires. This experience left him completely disillusioned about institutional education and teaching as a vocation. "One is born an educator just as one is born an artist or an inventor," he argued in 'El maestro de terriorios' (1926). In 1909 he married Ana María Ciries, his pupil; they had one daughter, named Egle, and one son, named Darío after the pseudonymous surname of Félix Sarmiento. Both these children later killed themselves. With his family Quiroga moved to San Ignacio, Misiones. Besides keeping honey bees, planting yerba maté and oranges, distilling liquor, and hunting, he took jobs as justice of the peace, as civil registrar, and as Uruguayan consul in Misiones. Unable to tolerate the harsh conditions, Quiroga's wife committed suicide by poisoning herself with cyanide – she suffered a full week before she died. Alone with two children, Quiroga wrote a tender collection of children's stories.

In 1916 Quiroga returned to Buenos Aires with his children, but continued to visit his property in Misiones. After failing to marry the seventeen-year-old daughter of a neighbout, he married in 1927 María Elena Bravo, a friend of his daughter. Mária, nearly thirty years his junior, found life impossible in the jungle, too, and the marriage ended in separation.

Throughout his life, Quiroga was plague by his illnesses. He suffered from mental disorder, and to dispel his bouts of tension and anxiety, he began to drink. Quiroga committed suicide by cyanide on February 19, 1937, at a Buenos Aires clinic, after he was told he had cancer.

Obsession with death, human weakness, and emphasis on bizarre situations marked Quiroga's work. Often in his fatalistic stories the protagonist is struck down by a fatal accident or fights against nature, but man rarely if ever wins out: the will of nature cannot be opposed. When Jack London wrote about the barren ice-covered plains of the far North, and Kipling set his stories in the jungles of India, Quiroga's stage was the wilds of the Amazon. His most famous collections are Cuentos de amor, de locura, y de muerte (1917, Stories of Love, Madness, and Death) and Los desterrados (1926, The exiled). Cuentos de selva (1918), animal fables for children, was translated into English by Arthur Livingston under the title South American Jungle Tales (1922). In addition to Cuentos de la selva, Quiroga wrote numerous other pieces with young readers in mind. Anaconda (1921) was told in the style of Kipling's Jungle Book and described struggles in the world of snakes. Scorned, mistreated, and tortured, the non-poisonous snakes and the venomous vipers side together against the humans, represented by the Antivenom Institute, which collects snake poison to make serum.

Quiroga also published two novels and a play, but his reputation rests on his short stories. '  One of his most anthologized pieces is 'El almohadón de pluma' (1917, The Feather Pillow), about a young woman, who becomes anemic and dies after suffering hallucinations. Her husband discovers within her cushion a bloodsucking vampiric insect – "over the background, between the feathers, moving slowly its hairy legs, . . . a monstruous animal, a living, viscous ball. It was so swollen that its mouth was barely visible." His own technique Quiroga presented in 'Manual de cuentista perfecto' (1927), stressing the need for economy and intensity. In 'El hombre muerto' (The Dead Man) a man falls on a machete knife, he is dying, time stops, and he watches his surroundings with heightened senses. "What had changed? Nothing. And he looked. Isn't this banana plantation his plantation? Doesn't he come here every day to clear the ground? Who knows it as he does? He can see his plantation perfectly; very sparse – and the broad leaves naked from the wind. But now they are not moving. It is the midday calm; soon it will probably be twelve o'clock."  The protagonist in 'A la deriva' (Drifting)  is bitten by a deadly snake and dies feeling at last better: he don't have to keep up illusions. 

For further reading: Vida y obra de Horacio Quiroga by J.M. Delgado and A.J. Brignole (1939); Horacio Quiroga by M. Seymour-Smith (1952); Horacio Quiroga by Noé Jitrik (1967); Genio y figura de Horacio Quiroga by Emir Rodríguez Monegal (1967); El desterrado by Emir Rodríguez Monegal (1968); An Introduction to Spanish-American Literature by Jean Franco (1969); Aproximaciones a Horacio Quiroga by Ángel Flores (1976); El estilo de Horacio Quiroga en sus cuentos by Nicolás A.S. Bratosevich (1980); Trayectoria de Horacio Quiroga by Enrique Espinosa (1980); Horacio Quiroga by José Luis Martínez Morales (1982); El Quiroga nue yo conocí by Enrique Amorim (1983); Quiroga by Peter R. Beardsell (1986); World Authors 1900-1950, Vol. 3, ed. by Martin Seymour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); Testimonios Autobiograficos De Horacio Quiroga, ed. by Norma Perez Martin (1997); Contemporary Latin American Literature by Gladys M. Varona-Lacey (2001); 'Bloodsucking Bugs: Horacio Quiroga and the Latin American Transformation of Vampires' by Gabriel Eljaiek-Rodríguez, in The Supernatural Cinema of Guillermo del Toro: Critical Essays, ed. by John W. Morehead (2015); Pariah in the Desert: the Heroic and the Monstrous in Horacio Quiroga by Todd S. Garth (2016)

Selected works:

  • Los arrecifes de coral, 1902
  • El crimen del otro, 1904
  • Historia de un amor turbio, 1908
  • Cuentos de amor, de locura y de muerte, 1917 (Una estación de amor, Los ojos sombríos, El solitario, La muerte de Isolda, El infierno artificial, La gallina degollada, Los buques suicidantes, El almohadón de pluma, El perro rabioso, A la deriva, La insolación, El alambre de púa, Los Mensú, Yaguaí, Los pescadores de vigas, La miel silvestre, Nuestro primer cigarro, La meningitis y su sombra) 
    - The Decapitated Chicken, The Feather Pillow, Drifting, Sunstroke, in The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, 1976)
  • Cuentos de la selva para niños, 1918 (La tortuga gigante, Las medias de los flamencos, El loro pelado, La guerra de los yacarés, La gama ciega, Historia de dos cachorros de coatí y dos cachorros de hombre, El paso del Yabebirí, La abeja haragana)
    - South American Jungle Tales (translated by Arthur Livingston; illustrated by  A. L. Ripley,  1922)
  • El salvaje, 1920
  • Las sacrificadas, 1920
  • Anaconda, 1921 
    - Anaconda, in The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, 1976)
  • El desierto, 1924
  • "La gallina degollada" y otros cuentos, 1925 
  • Los desterrados, 1926 (El Ambiente: Anaconda, El regreso de Anaconda; Los tipos: Los desterrados, Van-Houten, Tacuara-Mansión, El hombre muerto, El techo de incienso, La cámara obscura, Los destiladores de naraja)
    - The Dead Man, The Incense Tree Roof, in The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden, 1976)
  • Pasado amor, 1929
  • Suelo natal, 1931
  • El más allá, 1935
  • Cuentos, 1937-1945 (13 vols.)
  • Horacio Quiroga: Sus mejores cuentos, 1943 (with introduction and notes by John A. Crow)
  • Cuentos escogidos, 1950 (preface by Guillermo de Torre)
  • Diario de viaje a París, 1950 (edited by Emir Rodríguez Monegal)
  • Cuentos, 1964 (edited by Ezequiel Martínez Estrada)
  • Obras inéditas y desconocidas, 1967-73 (8 vols., edited by Angel Rama)
  • Cuentos escogidos, 1968 (edited by Jean Franco)
  • Cuentos, 1968 (edited by Raimundo Lazo)
  • Cartas inéditas, 1970
  • El mundo ideal de Horacio Quiroga, 1971 (ed. Antonio Hernán Rodríguez et al.)
  • The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories, 1976 (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden; illustrated by Ed Lindlof)
  • Cuentos completas, 1978 (2 vols.)
  • Novelas completas, 1979
  • Más allá, 1980 (preface by Eduardo Romano)
  • Más cuentos, 1980 (introduction by Arturo Souto Alabarce)
  • El salvaje y otros cuentos, 1982 (preface by María Kodama)
  • The Exiles and Other Stories, 1987 (translated by David Danielson and Elsa K. Gambarini)
  • Peligro en la selva, 1987 (illustrated by Delia Contarbio)
  • A la deriva y otros cuentos, 1989 (edited by Olga Zamboni)
  • Los desterrados y otros textos: antología, 1907-1937, 1990 (edited by Jorge Lafforgue)
  • Cuentos, 1991 (edited by Leonor Fleming)
  • Cuentos, 1994 (edited by Pablo Rocca)
  • Testimonios Autobiograficos De Horacio Quiroga. Cartas Y Diari, 1997 (edited by Norma Perez Martin)
  • Cuentos completos, 1997 (vols., edited by Carlos Dámaso Martínez)
  • Los heroísmos: biografías ejemplares: trabajos publicados en Caras y caretas en 1927, 1998 (edited by Annie Boule)
  • Cartas a Isidoro Escalera: 1922 a 1937, 1999 (edited by Annie Boule)
  • Obras, 2007-  (edited by Jorge Lafforgue et al.)
  • Quiroga íntimo: Correspondencia. Diario de un viaje a Paris, 2010 (edited by Erika Martínez)
  • Jungle Tales, 2012 (translated by Jeff Zorrilla; illustrated by Bert van Wijk)

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