Lands of Memory
by Joshua Potter
Here is a collection of tales that are simple, beautiful, and honest; in unpretentious prose, Hernández subtly weaves stories about peoples’ relationships with one another, their spiritual connection to inanimate objects, and their tenuous grasp on their own recollections. He is a master at carefully disassembling the house of cards, shuffling the deck, and then gently rebuilding the house in a counterintuitive manner.
Felisberto Hernández / Uruguayan / 1942 / 190 pages
Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen
Felisberto Hernández could not possibly have come more highly recommended. He was beloved by Italo Calvino and Julio Cortázar, both of whom were highly influenced by his work. Gabriel García Márquez was another admirer, once noting: “If I hadn’t read the stories of Felisberto Hernández in 1950, I wouldn’t be the writer I am today.” The famous Jorge Luis Borges was the first person to take a chance on publishing his writings outside of Uruguay and Hernández cavorted with many well-known poets in Paris, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo. When The Lands of Memory was translated into English in 2002, it won the Best Book of the Year awards from both The Guardian and The Times Literary Supplement. Plus, my fellow literary troubadour Cristian gave it high marks late one night as we were driving around St. Louis with his uncle, Carlos, who was visiting from Montevideo. I’ll admit that it was a bit strange to hear Hernández’ obscure name thrown around in a discussion of Cortázar, Sábato, Infante, and Carpentier; but Cristian and Carlos were adamant: this dude was the real deal.
I think a lot about the writers I like, but I can’t say that I frequently consider what writers they like. Going into a book with the knowledge that many famous authors found it influential makes for an interesting exercise: I caught myself several times trying to figure out how and to what extent Hernández had rubbed off on Calvino, Cortázar, Borges, and García Márquez. I would advance the argument that Hernández most resembles a pleasant and low-key mash-up of Calvino and Cortázar. The former in the sense that the accounts of memory and recollection in Lands at times closely resemble the tales told by the characters in Invisible Cities; the latter insofar as Hernández exhibits similar gifts for writing about music, physical spaces, and slyly comedic/awkward plots. The Borges connection is a stretch, I think, but Hernández does faintly smack of a watered-down absurdism that no doubt Borges would have found appealing. When it comes to García Márquez, I’d say it’s all about the characters: both authors display a deep tenderness and honesty toward their depictions of people and their surroundings. This fact is all the more true in the case of Hernández who, it seems, drew heavily from his own personal experiences in the construction of these tales.
Lands of Memory is comprised of two novellas and four shorter works, almost all of which are fantastic. Hernández writes in the first person and indulges in letting his narrators draw equally from their present and their past in the course of telling their stories. A recurring theme is that of disconnectedness: the narrators often speak of their past selves as distinct entities, express dismay when their bodies won’t bend to the will of their minds, or focus so fixedly on one of another person’s physical attributes that the rest of the other person seems to fall away completely. So we encounter narrators mocking themselves at an earlier age; pianists who mentally yell at their hands as if they were controlled by some distinct force; and lengthy descriptions of, for example, teeth that are so thorough and inventive that we end up forgetting about the rest of the head.
In many ways, the characters of these tales are more connected to their physical, inanimate surroundings than they are to each other or even to their own memories. I have rarely seen simple objects come alive as they do beneath Hernández’ pen. His descriptions of darkened bedrooms, empty concert halls, dingy restaurants, and country roads are rife with language you’d expect to be more readily applicable to humans and their activities. The physical dimensionality of a piano is a nearly endless subject of meditation and a clothes manikin is endowed with so many human attributes that you’d think it was the focal point of the story. You can hear the crispness of the starched fabrics, smell the scent of foods and the stench of grime, see the porcelain white of skin and read every subtly in the face of each character. But none of this is to say that Hernández writes in the same vein as the realism of, for instance, Balzac or Turgenev. All of the details are there, but they are far from meticulous or obsessive; rather, they enter the story easily, subtly, and with a hefty endowment of emotional warmth.
To give you some idea of the way in which Hernandez’ mind works, consider the plot of “The Crocodile”, which is perhaps his most famous short story. The narrator is a concert pianist who is forced to sell women’s stockings simply to make ends meet. His initial attempts at doing so are utter failures and he is about at the end of his rope when he accidentally begins crying in front of a potential customer. The lady feels so bad for him that she purchases several pairs of stockings. He begins to induce crying as a sales technique and quickly becomes the sock company’s most successful salesman. He is invited to company headquarters to provide an instructive demonstration to the other sales associates so that they, too, might benefit from the technique. He becomes known around Montevideo and throughout the rest of Uruguay as “the crocodile” because of his ceaseless tears. After having made enough money to sustain himself for a while, he organizes a great public piano concert and performs for a packed concert hall. At the end of the concert, a small child approaches him and asks him to sign a caricatured picture of himself drawn as a crocodile. The man obliges, but when he returns to his hotel room later that night he cries himself to sleep (this time with real tears).
The story is melancholy, but also absurdly entertaining. Plus, it is indicative of the kind of thing you can expect in the rest of the collection: simple stories that read almost like poorly directed parables. Hernández often pulls up short at the end of his tales, by which I mean he tends to end on a sudden and arresting image that doesn’t necessarily square very well with the material he’s presented up to that point. It functions as a call, I think, to reexamine the story in its entirety. The tension of each story and its resolution don’t leap out at the reader; indeed, sometimes they appear to be totally absent. Instead we are parachuted into the middle of a space that Hernández has constructed very carefully for us to inhabit for a brief period of time. If we haven’t stumbled upon any earth shattering realizations by the final page, then he shrugs his shoulders at us. Most of life is not so grandiose, anyway. To ask anything more of his characters would be crass.
Rating: 9 / 10