(El cuenco de plata
by Felisberto Hernández
Man, I sure wish all my César Aira-loving friends could/would read this unpredictable, insanely entertaining and way over the top pre-Aira example of "delirious realism" from the Uruguayan master blaster Felisberto Hernández (above, 1902-1964). Pure genius! You see, the novella Las Hortensias
, available in English as The Daisy Dolls
, finds the Río de la Plata cult icon Felisberto walking the glistening knife edge between downright hilarious and outright creepy throughout his nearly 60-page account of eccentric married man Horacio's infatuation with his impressive collection of just slightly larger than life-sized dolls. While Horacio's longsuffering wife María Hortensia is enough of a good sport at the outset to prepare various "surprises" for her husband involving the dolls, helps her man stage his after dinner exhibitions of the dolls in various poses behind glass display cases (the guests try and guess what the "adventure" is about before reading the description of the scene that's been prepared by Horacio and his helpers), and even encourages Horacio to kiss a new doll that's a lookalike of her for laughs ("Él sentía por Hortensia la antipatía que podía provocar un sucedáneo. La piel era de cabritilla...él se disponía a hacerlo pensando que iba a sentir gusto a cuero o que iba a besar un zapato" ["He felt the aversion toward Hortensia that only a substitute for the real thing could provoke. Her skin was made of kidskin...he prepared to do it thinking that he was going to experience the taste of leather or that he was going to kiss a shoe"]) (27, ellipses added), things begin to take a turn for the worse after Horacio increasingly takes more interest in the new "Hortensia" than the suddenly somewhat boring María Hortensia. The latter eventually becomes extremely jealous of Hortensia and Horacio's other manufactured playmates, and the non-human Hortensia is stabbed to death so to speak not once but twice. While all this would probably just make for a strange or a disturbing tale in less talented hands, Felisberto--a silent movie pianist and an itinerant concert musician by trade--is nothing if not a consummate showman and a sort of bohemian bon vivant as a writer. His humor, for example, comes served in frisky, friskier, and friskiest highball glasses as in the scenes where 1) Horacio asks the dollmaker Facundo to modify Hortensia so as to make her more lifelike in regard to her "calor humano" ["human warmth"]: "Además me gustaría que ella no fuera tan dura, que al tomarla se tuviera una sensacíon más agradable..." ["Also, I'd like it if she weren't so stiff, so that it'd be more pleasant when taking her into my arms"] (31); 2) Horacio, separated from María but believing that she'll return, decides to take advantage of her temporary absence upon discovering a new doll--"una rubia divina" ["a divine blonde"]--at Facundo's: "Horacio pensó, en el primer instante, ponerle un apartamento; pero ahora se le ocurría otra cosa; la traería a su casa y la pondría en la vitrina de las que esperaban colocación. Después que todos se acostaran el la llevaría al dormitorio; y antes que se levantaran la colocaría de nuevo en la vitrina. Por otra parte él esperaba que María no volvería a su casa en altas horas de la noche" ["Horacio thought, at first, about setting her up in an apartment, but now another idea occurred to him. He would bring her to his house and put her in the display case of the dolls that were awaiting a permanent location. Then, after everybody went to bed, he'd bring her up to his bedroom and put her back again before everybody woke up. Besides, he was hoping that María wouldn't return home at such a late hour in the night"](49-50); and 3) when María finally decides to divorce Horacio after reading this newspaper article about the sudden popularity of Facundo's Hortensia dolls (59):
"En el último piso de la tienda La Primavera, se hará una gran exposición y se dice que algunas de las muñecas que vestirán los últimos modelos serán Hortensias. Esta noticia coincide con el ingreso de Facundo, el fabricante de las famosas muñecas, a la firma comercial de dicha tienda. Vemos alarmados cómo esta nueva falsificación del pecado original --de la que ya hemos hablado en otras ediciones-- se abre paso en nuestro mundo. He aquí uno de los volantes de propaganda, sorprendidos en uno de nuestros principales clubes: ¿Es usted feo? No se preocupe. ¿Es usted tímido? No se preocupe. En una Hortensia tendrá usted un amor silencioso, sin riñas, sin presupuestos agobiantes, sin comadronas".
["There will be a grand exposition on the top floor of the La Primavera store, and it is said that some of the dolls that will be sporting the latest styles will be Hortensias. This news coincides with the admission of Facundo, the manufacturer of the famous dolls, into the said store's commercial concern. We are alarmed to see how this new falsification of the original sin--which we already have spoken about in other editions--is making new inroads into our world. I have here one of the advertising flyers, discovered by chance in one of our major clubs: Are you ugly? Don't worry. Are you shy? Don't worry. With a Hortensia, you will enjoy a silent love without quarrels, without worrisome expenses, without midwives."]
For brevity's sake, I'll have to pass over the gag about the shy man who purchases what's practically the sister-in-law doll of Horacio's new favorite and the bit about the Hortensia love nest that Horacio eventually sets up elsewhere. Beyond the salacious humor, though, there's a lively unpredictability to the writing in Las Hortensias
that's just totally engaging. Seemingly fantastic scenes where Horacio kisses the dolls and the dolls seem to move in response, for example, are counterbalanced by others where the dolls seem to sit in silent judgement of him. "Después empezó a encontrar, en las caras de las muñecas, expresiones parecidas a las de sus empleadas: algunas le inspiraban la misma desconfianza; y otras, la seguridad de que estaban contra él; había una, de nariz respingada, que parecía decir: 'Y a mí qué me importa'" ["He later began to find expressions in the faces of the dolls similar to those of his female employees: some inspired the same sense of mistrust and others the certainty that they were against him. There was one, with her snooty nose, who seemed to be saying: 'And what do I care about that?'"] (29). Philosophical thoughts about whether spirits can descend into the bodies of dolls just as ghosts can haunt houses occupy Horacio here and there, but too much drinking, his phobias about mirrors and evil omens, and the possible onset of madness ground the character's concerns regarding inanimate objects in ways that rationalists won't object to. On the storytelling level, there's the presence of anecdotes like this--"La gente de los alrededores había hecho una leyenda en la cual acusaban al matrimonio de haber dejado morir a una hermana de María para quedarse con su dinero; entonces habían decidido expiar su falta haciendo vivir con ellos a una muñeca que, siendo igual a la difunta, les recordara a cada instante el delito" ["The people in the neighborhood had fabricated a legend in which they accused the couple of having let a sister of María's die so they could keep her money. Then, the couple had decided to expiate their guilt by letting a doll live with them who looked exactly like the dead woman, so that they would be reminded of their crime at all times"] (30)--and descriptions like this--"Pero en la noche, después de cenar, fue al salón y le pareció que el piano era un gran ataúd y que el silencio velaba a una música que había muerto hacía poco tiempo" ["But in the evening, after having dinner, he went to the salon and it seemed like the piano was a giant coffin and that the silence kept vigil over a piece of music that had died not too long ago" (55). To end on a less depressing note, I should probably mention that the great irony of all this is that Las Hortensias
was supposedly written for and dedicated to the second of Felisberto's eight wives as a wedding gift. She, apparently unbeknownst to him, was reportedly a KGB spy, and yet there's an otherwise insignificant scene in the story in which Horacio asks his Russian servant what he thinks of his latest doll: "Muy hermosa, señor. Se parece mucho a una espía que conocí en la guerra" ["Very beautiful, sir. She looks quite a bit like a spy I met in the war"] (57).
Illustration from the first standalone edition of Las Hortensias:
"A María Luisa" ["To María Luisa"], it says in type, "en el día que dejó de ser mi novia: 14-11-49 Felisberto" ["on the day that she stopped being my girlfriend: 14-11-49 Felisberto"], it concludes by hand.
This novella, the formal kickoff to my 2014 short story of the week project in which I intend to alternate short stories and novellas of my own choosing with the suggestions that various readers left me on this post here
last year, can be found on pages 17-74 of Felisberto Hernández's Las Hortensias y otros relatos
(Buenos Aires: El cuenco de plata, 2009). The English version of The Daisy Dolls
, translated from the Spanish by Luis Harss (whom some of you might remember from this post on João Guimarães Rosa
), is available in the Felisberto anthology Piano Stories
, which was just reissued by New Directions last week if I'm not mistaken. Edit:
Rise of the great in lieu of a field guide
just reminded me that he actually wrote about Harss' translation of The Daisy Dolls
in a post on the Masterworks of Latin American Short Fiction: Eight Novellas
anthology (Harper Collins, 1996) almost two years ago. Click on the link for a particularly juicy post from Rise and a mouthwatering discussion of what other titles people think deserve to be added to the list.
For more on Felisberto's second wife in Spanish, see Alicia Dujovne Ortiz's "Felisberto Hernández y la espía soviética" linked at Los Grandes de la Literatura Rioplatense blog here.