‘The Dead Man’ by Horacio Quiroga, translated by Margaret Sayers Peden

Like Blackwood, the Uruguayan writer Quiroga uses place as more than setting. His characteristic tales of “love, madness and death” (the title of a 1917 collection) take place in the densely forested province of Misiones in Argentina, or along the banks of the Rio Parana, which forms the border with Paraguay. His key theme is the fraught relationship (or lack of) between man and nature. 
 
On first acquaintance one might take Quiroga for a pessimist or even a nihilist; there is something implacable in his outlook. But the truth is that Quiroga is a realist. He doesn’t sentimentalise nature, even in his children’s tales of talking animals. Life is hard out there in the wilderness, where every insect, reptile and animal will kill you if given half a chance. There is little happiness to be found, it seems, in the jungle. Or rather, once found, it is often quickly snatched away. Man is brutalised by this environment. In ‘The Orange Distillers’ (1923), Dr. Else, deranged by excessive consumption raw orange bitters, mistakes his daughter for a giant rat and kills her. In other stories, Quiroga simply depicts a protagonist who has experienced a terrible piece of luck – a snake bite (‘Drifting’, 1912), an infection (‘The Wilderness’, 1923), or in ‘The Dead Man’, a bizarre accident– and whose death is inevitable. Coming to terms with this fact constitutes the tale.
 
In ‘The Dead Man’, in prose of great economy and precision, we find a nameless man who has slipped and fallen on his machete. He lies in the grass, knowing that he dying, and listens to the sounds of the landscape; someone passing by on a nearby road, the nervous movement of his horse, his wife and children bringing him lunch. He sees the red roof of his house through the banana trees. He can barely understand what has happened to him. And that is all. 

First published in Spanish as ‘El hombre muerto’ in La Nación, June 1920, and then in the collection Los desterrados, 1926. Published in English in The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories, University of Texas Press, 1976. Available online here

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