Horacio Quiroga is too-little known; he is a wonderful short story writer of great range from his naturalistic and disturbing “Decapitated Chicken” (the title story to one of the two collections that I have read) that recounts a horrific family event in flat prose without commentary to his parable, “The Alligator War.” His long short story, “The Beasts in Collusion,” can be found in the collection The Exiles, and is another good example of his mature work. Quiroga (1878-1937) is Uruguayan and his life was touched by tragedy (death of one wife–both children committed suicide, he suffered from prostate cancer). He was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe and Guy de Maupassant and their influence on him is visible to a casual reader of his stories.
I love teaching Quiroga’s incredibly dangerous–and seductively subtle–“Juan Darien” each year. A brief recap before we discuss why it is so dangerous: the story is told by a first person narrator in direct address to the audience (there are asides such as one that recommends that a child who doesn’t understand a particular episode should go find an adult and another that suggests that the narrator is withholding something to protect children who would hear the story).
The story is set up as a “fairy tale” beginning as it does, “Once upon a time,” which dislocates us in time and is followed by the declaration that we are in a village (unnamed) on the edge of a jungle. We are effectively dislocated from any real space; we are in the liminal world between the civilized and the savage; the domesticated and the wild. A young widow has lost not only her husband but her infant son in a plague. One night she hears a mewling noise and discovers outside her cottage a small tiger cub who is so young his eyes have not yet opened. She takes the creature in and he is starving; she nurses him and the narrator tells us that she obeys the great commandment of the Universe, that one life equals another. A man going by the house hears a noise and concludes that there is a wild animal in the house–the woman (there are no names, a common motif of much parabolic literature) runs out the back door of the cottage and a snake stops her and tells her that she should have no fear–that her great love has transformed the tiger cub and he will only lose his humanity when another mother calls for his blood. She goes back in the house and lets the frantic man in–he searches everywhere but finds only the woman and her baby boy. She names him Juan Darien.
They live an idyllic life for 10 years and then the good woman dies and Juan Darien is orphaned. He is the best student in his school but his classmates find him odd and don’t take to him. One day an important visitor comes to the school and, struck by Juan Darien’s oddness, tells the school teacher that Juan Darien is dangerous and is a tiger and that he can prove it. (One thinks of the victims of the Salem witchcraft trials and the tendency to scapegoat the outsider, the weak, and those with no one to defend them–watch bullies at any level work and this is what you will see.) He asks numerous students what it is like to live in the jungle and they give pedestrian answers. He calls Juan Darien forward and instead of just asking him questions he leads him on a guided meditation about living in the forest (“Close your eyes, it’s 3 a.m., you are heading towards the stream, where are the bushes in relation to you? What sounds do you hear from the river?” etc.). Juan Darien’s imagination, being more powerful than the imaginations of his classmates, describes the world as he sees it as a tiger. He says he sees the bushes going by at eye level and watches as his breath stirs the leaves on the ground. The interrogator claims this is proof that Juan Darien is a tiger though the narrator has been quite clear that when he arrived on the doorstep of his mother that his eyes had NOT opened–he could NEVER have seen the things that he narrates.
The interrogator now says that he knows of an infallible test to prove Juan Darien is a dangerous tiger hidden in human shape–he knows of four dogs that have ALWAYS discovered a tiger in any form. Juan Darien is locked in a cage with the dogs and the dogs are told to get the tiger–they jump around madly but leave Juan Darien alone (in fact they merely lick him in a friendly way). At this, in the manner of all eisegetic readers (an eisegetic reader is one who forces a meaning on to a text to make it fit what he or she wants it to say) the man says the test proves nothing. (I expect to post a more elaborate definition and description of eisegetic readers later in the fall when blogging about Ovid.)
The man then takes to beating the child until he raises stripes on his back. Then Juan Darien is turned loose, his clothes stripped from him, and he staggers towards home begging to be understood–it is incredibly painful to watch. He sees a woman with her infant in her arms and stretches out his hands in supplication to her–and she claims he is attacking her and demands blood. Thus is the snake’s prophecy fulfilled and Juan Darien becomes a tiger. He is left to die in the jungle but does not. We are told that he retains three things from his time as a human: 1) he is able to use his hands; 2) he retains language; and 3) he retains his memory.
The tiger Juan Darien has the patience of a wild animal and he hunts the man who most tormented him finally capturing him and torturing him in EXACTLY the same manner he was tortured as a little boy. When the man begs “Juan Darien” to stop, to save him, etc. the tiger looks about and says that there is no Juan Darien anymore. The man is killed and the tiger goes to his mother’s grave, writes “and Juan Darien” below her name on the wooden cross that marks her grave and declares “Juan Darien” dead. The tiger leads a war against the humans. All of this and more in just 7 or 8 pages.
Why is this story so doggone dangerous? On first blush it suggests that the power of love is so extraordinary that it can make humanity out of non-human forms. And there is something incredibly seductive about that. There is also the drive towards justice (or maybe vengeance?)–the man who tortures the child gets what he deserves. I suppose it calls to mind “Beauty and the Beast,” no? If we are loved then we become human–until then we are merely animals. What terrific power this gives the “lover”–and for those of us who believe love to be an act of the will then the sense that our love can MAKE another life human is astonishingly powerful. (And this notion has been claimed by lovers about their beloved ones world-wide.)
But…if we can be made human by love, can we be rendered sub-human by being treated as sub-human? Can we have our humanity stripped from us by poverty, by slavery, by the concentration camp? Well, if our humanity is NOT essential to us then I suppose that is true. Do we want to believe that? Should we? Is our humanity conditional or essential? And now we begin to see why Quiroga’s story is so seductive and so dangerous. It suggests that humanity (or human-ness) is conditional–and can be taken from us. Or maybe, you are thinking, Quiroga has left us a tiny aperture to squeeze another idea in. What happens to Juan Darien takes place before he is 12 years old. Maybe, we think, the humanity of children is more malleable (one thinks of Russ Rhymer’s brilliant telling of the abused girl–a feral child–known as Genie or Roger Shattuck’s Wild Boy of Avignon or other histories of feral children). What Quiroga does so subtly is to cause us to think about what makes us human–though he does not seem to believe that it is something we can create ourselves or that humanity is even “natural” to us. That’s why it is a femme fatale of stories–beautiful, seductive, destructive.The vexed question of what is “natural” is at the heart of lots of great writing.
“Juan Darien” seems so simple. The level of vocabulary is elementary and the plot direct. What remarkable depths this story plumbs, leading us believe that our humanity is constructed by others. My students and I often end our dialogue about this story in a kind of reverential silence, each of us inside our own heads, turning over the ideas and looking for answers about who we are and how we came to be. The story should be better known than it is.
Next week some ruminations on utopia (eutopias and dystopias)–I think.