Monday, February 26, 2018

The Bard of Montevideo

Susan Jill Levine

AS ITALO CALVINO says in his affectionate introduction to Piano Stories, "Felisberto Hernandez {1902-1964} is a writer like no other: like no European, nor any Latin American. He is an 'irregular'." It is about time that this Uruguayan naif humorist (with his own brand of surrealism, Proustianism and psychoanalysis, as Calvino asserts) has become available to the English-reading public. Included here are his best stories, from the collection No One Had Lit a Lamp (1947), as well as the erotic tall tale "The Daisy Dolls" (1949), his last finished novella, The Flooded House (1960), and "The Stray Horse" (1943). The selection is also prefaced by an enchanting ars poetica, "How Not to Explain My Stories" (1955), and "Just Before Falling Asleep" (1946), on the slippery wiles of memory.

Hernandez earned his modest living as a provincial recital pianist (and, his compatriot Juan Carlos Onetti once remarked, one can only imagine those flea-bitten audiences), gathering weird anecdotes as he wandered from town to town -- hence the appropriate title of this collection. Hernandez himself was a character out of magical realism, with his many marriages, his appetite for food and rotund women, and his grotesque state at death (of leukemia), as translator Luis Harss notes, "his body so bloated it had to be removed through the window in a box as large as a piano.

A master in the "mysteries of the everyday," as Garcia Marquez accurately commented, also adding, "If I hadn't read the stories of Felisberto Hernandez in 1950, I wouldn't be the writer I am today," Hernandez was relatively obscure in his own lifetime. Despite his fanatical fans -- he was often seen in the same cafe in Montevideo spinning tales for his sycophants -- he was obsessed with a sense of failure, perhaps because his production was so minimal. His autobiographical pieces speak of memory and the difficult art of writing; Hernandez said once that he had many anecdotes in his memory, but that he was looking for something else. That "something else" is precisely what we find in his stories.

In a style at once vivid and absent-minded, straightforward and fumbling, Hernandez grasps the ineffability of our desires, among them the urge to write, as in "The Stray Horse": "Not only am I unable to write, but it's a great effort for me to live in the present, to live forward. Without meaning to, I had started to live backward, and there came a moment when I couldn't even live many of the events of that past time . . . But before this tie came loose . . . I was enjoying one of those nights of the past. Although I had been stepping slowly, like a sleepwalker, suddenly I tripped over the wisp of an idea and fell into a moment full of events." The duality of the writer is defined in a lucid comparison with a moneylender who weighs memories "not for their personal value, loaded with private feelings and associates, but for their intrinsic worth."

Hernandez depicts objects, people, sensations and thoughts with wildly unexpected similes and metaphors (he shares with Calvino an intuition for the all-encompassing bizarre detail) such as "my head was like a gym where the thoughts were exercising," or "The piano was a nice person. When I sat close to him, pressing a lot of his white or black fingers with a few of mine, and combining the sounds with our fingers we both felt sad."

These tales provide us with ways of seeing that were hitherto invisible: In "The Usher" the main character's eyes are lights that possess objects and influence people's actions; in "The Woman Who Looked Like Me," the narrator imagines himself a horse and we are suddenly seeing and feeling like a horse: "My eyes . . . were ponds reflecting all sorts of things, big and small, near and far, on their sloped surfaces brightened with tears." Being in that other reality is ultimately what all fiction writers do, but here romanticism's longing to see space from the bird's eye becomes the surrealist sad clown's somersault into the void of non-personality.

One could say that Hernandez sums up his essential uniqueness in "How Not to Explain My Stories": "My only certainty is that I can't say how I write my stories, because each of them has a strange life of its own. But I am also aware of their constant battle against the strangers consciousness keeps urging on them." Borges spoke of the "fantasies of conduct" but none of the Latin American fantasists (with the possible exception of the Cuban Virgilio Pinera) has given such full reign to the primal, associative unconscious as Hernandez has, for example, in his slapstick masterpiece "The Balcony," in which our traveling pianist encounters a reclusive young woman who is in love with her balcony. Objects rebel against their passive roles, parts of the body seem to carry on independent lives, weird Oedipal knots mark the hilariously disconnected gestures of Hernandez's unfathomable characters.

There is a childlike simplicity, almost a refreshing awkwardness in Hernandez's syntax. The translation is occasionally marred by lapses in colloquial usage, particularly in dialogue, as in the comic bagatelle "Lovebird Furniture" ("The Canary Furniture Company," literally), about a dreadful advertising campaign in which private citizens are physically injected with a radio announcement featuring tweeting canaries. Ordinary names are unnecessarily translated throughout the book, and Luis Harss resorts at times to explanations when he cannot find creative solutions; Felisberto Hernandez does not require this kind of rewriting.

Picasso once said of the Sunday painter Rousseau -- surely Hernandez's equivalent in the visual arts -- "Don't forget that the douanier knows the Louvre by heart." Hernandez, too, is not so naif; perhaps the most poignant lesson we can learn from him is that living for us humans is ultimately, tragicomically, the life of the mind.

Credits:  This article originally appeared in 1993 in The Washington Post

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