Friday, May 21, 2010

Death on the Pampas

My Borges edition didn't include "The South" ("El Sur"), which was this week's selection, but I found it online here. It's a very short piece and the general plot is thus: a Buenos Aires resident named Juan Dahlmann knocks his head on a recently painted door someone had forgotten to shut. He comes down with septicemia, which leads to a hallucinatory stay in a hospital followed by a sanitarium. Upon his release, Dahlmann seeks out the family ranch, which he hasn't seen in years. Unfortunately, a simple lunch at a local store soon spirals out of control. On his way to the subsequent knife fight, Dahlmann finds that he is unexpectedly fearless and actually proud to be headed towards an honorable death.

Now Dahlmann has been established as both a bibliophile (he was carrying a special edition of The Thousand and One Nights at the time of his accident) and an ostentatious Argentinian patriot. As Amateur Reader recently noted, Argentina and the United States share a common history: "the immigrants, the frontier, the cowboys, the wars with indigenous people." I'm assuming, then, that the gaucho occupies a cultural space similar to that of the American cowboy - as the rough-and-tumble hero of untamed lands. So basically what we have here is a coalescing of various elements.
The general store at one time had been painted a deep scarlet, but the years had tempered this violent color for its own good. Something in its poor architecture recalled a steel engraving, perhaps one from an old edition of Paul et Virginie. A number of horses were hitched up to the paling. Once inside, Dahlmann thought he recognized the shopkeeper. Then he realized that he had been deceived by the man's resemblance to one of the male nurses in the sanitarium.
Given the dreamlike quality of "The South" as a whole, juxtaposed against the improbability of its climactic incident (a guy throws a couple of breadcrumbs and now we're having a knife fight?), I'm inclined to think that the whole episode actually ends with the sanitarium. The rest is all in Dahlmann's head, the whole episode a fever-vision of a remote, romanticized Argentina that only exists in Dahlmann's imagination. His death at the hands of a gaucho is active and idealized, as opposed to a passive succumbing to illness in a modern clinical setting. His fantasy gives him agency: this ending he chose.

In reading "The South" I was reminded of a Thomas Man story I covered awhile back called "Tristan." It's about an airheaded writer staying at a convalescent home even though there's really nothing wrong with him. He meets a sick woman and falls in love with her, imagining her as a wildly romanticized wilting flower and her son and husband as a pair of brutes undeserving of her ethereal presence. The ensuing narrative is a parody of those emo artist types who view real life through the lens of their own overwrought, fiction-fueled imaginations. Although "The South" is obviously a more serious work, we have essentially the same thing happening here, only to a much greater extent. It all goes back to a theme I often write about regarding chaos, the narrative, and human cognition. In essence, reality is how we perceive it.

"The South" may comes across as a very different Borges story, but his familiar topics of time, reality, and perception are all present if you look closely enough. Though less conceptual than "Pierre Menard" and "The Library of Babel," it is also more accessible to the general reader and may serve as a great launchpad for other Borges works.

"The South" also inspired a short story by the late, great Roberto Bolaño called "The Insufferable Gaucho."

The Non-Structured Book Club read three short pieces by Borges for the month of May. Our schedule went as follows:

May 7: "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote"
May 14: "The Library of Babel"
May 21: "The South"

This week's participants were:



Emily said...

I'm weaseling out of this last \story post (think I'm coming down with something - my brain is all mushy), but really enjoyed your post on this short, E.L. Fay. I was hugely struck by the differences between this story and the other two we read (more naturalistic, not as conceptual), so thanks especially for that observation about the similarities among them.

"The South" reminded me a bit of that Ambrose Bierce short story about the Confederate sympathizer who thinks he's escaped hanging...can't remember the title.

E. L. Fay said...

Darn, I was looking forward to your post.

I've never read Bierce but I've seen quotes from The Devil's Dictionary and they're hilarious!

Amateur Reader said...

"An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge"

The gaucho and gaucho literature are if anything more important to Argentinean culture than cowboys and Westerns ever were to U.S. culture. I don't think any single U.S. Western has anything like the Argentinean canonical status of the epic gaucho poem Martín Fierro (1872).

Richard said...

While I think it's a mistake to try to draw too close a connection to the "common history" between Argentina and the U.S. (for example, the gauchos used to be looked down upon as "low class" people who threatened the stability of urban, "civilized" Argentina; Argentina has had a long rivalry for power between Buenos Aires, where almost half of its citizens live, and the "interior" [a/k/a the rest of the country] where the other half dwell), E.L. Fay, you're quite right to draw on the importance of these themes in "The South." One of Borges' little jokes, if you agree that Dahlmann only imagines his trip to the South, is that the "South" of the story only refers to the south side of Buenos Aires where Dahlmann imagines he grabs the train at the Constitución train station! Amateur Reader rightly emphasizes the importance of the gaucho poem Martín Fierro to Argentinean literary culture past and present, but Borges and other pals/luminaries in the 1920s (inc. your buddy Macedonio Fernandez) also wrote for a magazine called Martín Fierro which published fake obituaries in addition to their other literary offerings. I think this has something to say about the more amusing aspects of Dahlmann's romanticized, folkloric conception of the past. Anyway, nice post and interesting comments about Ambrose Bierce from Emily (Bierce's "Parker Adderson, Philosopher" also has to do with how a civil war spy faces his execution, but his "heroism" is a little complicated by the events).

E. L. Fay said...

AR: That's interesting. I think cowboys and Westerns in the US are definitely associated with pop culture. I've heard Lonesome Dove is supposed to be really good but is it considered Great Literature?

Richard: Buenos Aires v. the rest of the country? That sounds like my home state of New York - NYC v. the rest of us! Seriously, NYC people, quit calling everything outside your city "upstate." Utica is upstate, Westchester is not.

nicole said...

I felt the same way about the superficial differences but underlying similarities.

Re: the long quote you posted—I specifically noted in that passage how the store had been painted, in my edition, red, then faded—like Dahlmann's house, which was noted as scarlet faded to pink. I'd been wondering about the translation, but this supports the connection between those two buildings, I think.

Amateur Reader said...

Nicole's got it right - it's not a "common" history so much as a history with a lot of surprising and useful parallels. Useful because they help historians isolate the importance of different factors, like in a laboratory experiment.

I mean, the U.S. and Argentina independently developed a frontier cowboy mythology, complete with pulp novels, songs, and distinct clothing, with just a few common roots traceable back to Spain (fancy rope tricks and perhaps certain kinds of horsemanship). I find that kind of amazing.

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