Horacio Quiroga (1878-1937) was a Uruguayan writer. His short stories are ranked among the best to emerge from Latin America.
Horacio Quiroga was born on December 31, 1878, in Salto, Uruguay, and died on February 19, 1937, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Though born and raised in Uruguay, he spent most of his years in neighboring Argentina. His life was crammed with adventure and filled with recurrent tragedy and violence. When he was only a babe in arms his father was accidentally killed when a shotgun went off on a family outing. Later his step-father shot himself, and in 1902 Quiroga accidentally shot and killed one of his best friends and literary companions. In 1915 his first wife, unable to endure the hardships of life in the jungle of northern Argentina where Quiroga insisted on living, committed suicide by taking a fatal dose of poison, leaving the widower with two small children to raise. Quiroga himself, when he realized he was incurably ill with cancer, took his own life.
His love affairs and marriages were also turbulent. He married twice, both times to younger women; his second wife, a friend of his daughter, was nearly 30 years his junior. The first marriage ended with his wife's suicide; the second, in separation. All this violence in his personal life undoubtedly explains a great deal about the obsession with death so marked in his work.
Quiroga's love of adventure and the attraction the jungle hinterland of northern Argentina held for him are also biographical details that have great impact on his writings. His first trip to Misiones province took place in 1903, when he accompanied his friend and fellow writer Leopoldo Lugones as photographer on an expedition to study the Jesuit ruins there. In 1906 he bought some land in San Ignacio, Misiones, and from then on divided his time chiefly between the hinterland and Buenos Aires. While living in the jungle Quiroga tried various experiments, such as distilling an orange liqueur. These endeavors ended in failure but provided him with good materials for his stories, as did all his activities there, such as building his bungalow, his furniture, and canoes and hunting and studying the wildlife of the region.
Quiroga began writing under the influence of Modernism, a literary movement which dominated Spanish American Literature at the turn of the century. Soon, however, he reacted against the artificiality of his first book in this mode, published in 1901, Coral Reefs (Los arrecifes de coral), a collection of prose poems and poetry, and turned to writing tales firmly rooted in reality, although they often emphasized the strange or the monstrous. Many of these early stories are reminiscent of Edgar Allan Poe, whose influence marked much of his work. "The Feather Pillow" ("El almohadón de pluma") is a good example of his expert handling of the Gothic tale. The effects of horror, something mysterious and perverse filling the atmosphere, are there from the beginning of the story, with a sensational revelation at the end.
For three decades in the early 20th century Quiroga continued writing and publishing stories in great quantity—his total output ran over 200—and many of them are of impressive quality. His several attempts at novels were relative failures. Among the various collections of his stories, two should be singled out as high points: Stories of Love, Madness, and Death (Cuentos de amor, de locura, y de muerte, 1917) and The Exiled Ones (Los desterrados), published in 1926. The splendid title of the first of these volumes sets forth his major themes and could properly be the heading for his entire work.
Quiroga also achieved great popularity with his Jungle Tales (Cuentos de la selva) in 1918, with its title reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling. This collection is made up of stories in a fable mold, with talking animals and usually an underlying moral. They are filled with humor and tenderness and are appropriate for children of all ages. Another of his celebrated tales, Anaconda (1921), describes a world of snakes and how they battle men and also one another. This long story moves at a slower pace than is usual in Quiroga's work and has a spun-out plot. Its reptilian characters are more compelling than believable, and the animal characterization, though good, is not quite as striking as in some of his shorter narratives.
If we examine Quiroga's stories carefully, we will find them full of vision concerning mankind. He had a sharp awareness of the problems besetting man on every side—not only the pitfalls of savage nature but also those referring to human relationships. Quiroga pointed out man's weaknesses and failings, but he also stressed the heroic virtues of courage, generosity, and compassion in many of his best stories.
All this rich human material is shaped into story form by a master craftsman. Quiroga was conscious of the problems involved in the art of the short story, and, like Poe, he wrote about them. He described his technique in what he called his "Manual of the Perfect Short Story Writer, " which consists of ten commandments. Warnings stressing economy of expression are here; others are concerned with careful advance planning. His final suggestion for writing good stories is perhaps the best: "Tell the tale as if the story's only interest lay in the small surroundings of your characters, of which you might have been one. In no other way is life achieved in the short story." Quite rightly Quiroga emphasized here the word life, which lies at the core of his stories.
Usually Quiroga practiced the economy he preached in this manual. Feats of condensation are common, as in "The Dead Man, " where he shows his powers in dramatic focus on a single scene describing a dying man, or in "Drifting, " a stark story in which everything seems reduced to essentials, where the brief opening scene of a man bitten by a viper contains the germs of all that comes afterward. The language is terse, the situation of great intensity, the action straightforward and lineal. There is also much suggestion and implication, rather than outright telling, in his best work.
Quiroga did not seem to have a social axe to grind, although some of the most cutting social commentary in Spanish American fiction can be found in his stories, particularly those about the exploitation of the Misiones jungle lumberjacks, like "The Contract Workers" ("Los mensú"). Setting, as well as technique, is important to Quiroga because it is inseparable from the real, day-to-day experience of human existence. His feelings are bound up in place, especially in Misiones, where most of his best stories occur. He makes us feel the significance of this setting, the symbolic strength of the rivers and the hypnotic force of its snake-infested jungles.
Recognition for his mastery of the short story came to Quiroga fairly early in his career, and he continued to enjoy fame throughout his lifetime. In the Spanish-speaking world he is still much admired today, though the type of story he excelled at, in which man is pitted against nature and rarely if ever wins out, is no longer commonly composed in Latin America. Quiroga knew his trade inside and out, he was universal in his appeal and subjected his themes to dramatic form. He wrote tautly and described with intensity so that his stories would make their mark on the reader.
Further Reading on Horacio Quiroga
Quiroga is listed in such guides as The Oxford Companion to Spanish Literature (1978) and Foster and Foster, editors, Modern Latin American Literature (1975). For longer studies, see Jefferson Spell's chapter on Quiroga in Contemporary Spanish American Fiction (1944) or the excellent critical work in Spanish on his life and works by Emir Rodríguez Monegal, The Exile: Life and Works of Horacio Quiroga (El desterrado: vida y obra de Horacio Quiroga, 1968). Aside from scattered translations of Quiroga's stories in anthologies and the collection South American Jungle Tales (1959), there is available in English a book which includes a dozen of his best tales, The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories (1976).