The Element(s) of the Fantastic in Three Latin American Writers: Borges, Rosa, and Bombal

Hi, folks!  I’ve been taking an end-of-the-summer break while trying to decide what to post on next, and reading a number of short stories.  One thing that stands out in my mind as I’ve read some Latin American writers in particular is how heavily they rely on the fantastic element or elements in their writings.  The first writer I’ll mention today is Jorge Luis Borges, and his very well-known tale “The Gospel According to Mark.”

The main character, Baltasar Espinosa, is a medical student who goes to stay with his cousin Daniel at a country ranch, and becomes isolated in Daniel’s absence with the Gutres, the foreman, his son, and his daughter, who live as caretakers and servants on the ranch.  They are spoken of as being part-Indian gauchos, unlearned and superstitious, inheritors of both their native ancestors’ and their Calvinist ancestors’ perspectives, and when a major flood shuts Baltasar off with them, they all begin to eat meals together and Baltasar decides to read to them.  Though he is dependent on them for his continued existence, they quickly become dependent upon him for the stories he reads and the things he knows how to do, such as saving their pet lamb with medicine rather than applying a cobweb to the wound in the old country manner.  “The Gutres, as if lost without him, liked following him from room to room and along the gallery that ran around the house.  While he read to them, he noticed that they were secretly stealing the crumbs he had dropped on the table.  One evening, he caught them unawares, talking about him respectfully, in very few words.”

He reads to them the entire Gospel of Saint Mark, and that night and the next morning early thinks that he hears in the rainstorm the hammering as if the ark is being made.  The Gutres tell him, however, that it is the roof of the toolshed which is damaged, and that they are effecting a repair which they will show him when it’s done.  One night, the daughter creeps to his bed naked, and allows him to make love to her, though he realizes that she is a virgin.  The next day, the father asks him if Christ had allowed himself to be killed to save everyone on earth, and Baltasar affirms that this is true, even including the Roman soldiers who crucified him.  They ask him to read the last chapters over again, and then when Baltasar is standing looking at the flood receding and says “It won’t be long now,” the father repeats his words.

Here is the astounding last paragraph:  “The three had been following him.  Bowing their knees to the stone pavement, they asked his blessing.  Then they mocked at him, spat on him, and shoved him toward the back part of the house.  The girl wept.  Espinosa understood what awaited him on the other side of the door.  When they opened it, he saw a patch of sky.  A bird sang out.  A goldfinch, he thought.  The shed was without a roof; they had pulled down the beams to make the cross.”

The fantastic in this story is kept to a minimum in the first sections, though hints of it crop up here and there, in such odd portions as the remark that it’s not done to enter a settlement galloping on a horse, or that one never goes out riding “except for some special purpose.”  It’s only slowly that Espinosa advances in the Gutres’ perspective to be an image of God, and the first-time-through reader probably doesn’t suspect that a crucifixion is approaching, because the irony of the stance of humankind towards the Christ-figure is itself odd:  it seems that it’s out of an excess of respect that they select him to mock and spit at, rather than the reverse, and this points out the odd contradiction of the original Gospel according to Mark.  This is especially true because Baltasar Espinosa is a rather ordinary if intelligent and kind young man, who repeatedly imagines telling his friends about his exploits in the country, and grows a beard as a sort of egotistical support for his tale.  But as we have seen, he never gets back.  The simplicity in this tale highlights the fantastic elements in the original gospel story, and brings the gospels into the light of common day.

The second story which features some element of the fantastic is the story “The Third Bank of the River” by Joao Guimaraes Rosa.  Again, this story takes place in a “watery” set of surroundings, and again the story starts out with a not-unlikely situation, which turns out to have a more strained resemblance to reality the further along it goes.  The first sentence reads:  “My father was a dutiful, orderly, straightforward man.”  This is both true and not true, or fantastic.  On the one hand, the father never goes further away than the “third bank of the river,” which is to say at a certain distance from the home, where the narrator, his son, can still see him sometimes, or imagine him to be.  On the other hand, he has left as the second parent to his family, to all intents and purposes.  What happens is this:  one day, the father orders a boat.  He goes out without any supplies of any kind, and as he is leaving, the mother says, “If you go away, stay away.  Don’t ever come back!”  He does stay away, and where reality begins to be strained is that the boy continues to steal food for him and leave it by the waterside, and the mother, the boy realizes, is making it easy for him to steal food.  This is not so fantastic as a symbol of family love, but it seems more fantastic when one is told that this condition persisted for years and years, in all kinds of weather.  Finally, the other members of the family drift away elsewhere, including the mother, and the boy, who has become a man, and an old man at that, still stays by the water, tending at least to the memory of his father.  One day, the man goes down to the riverbank and sees his father in the distance and shouts to him that he has been out long enough, and if he will come in, the man himself, once a boy, will take his place, that he no longer has to do what he does.  When the father gestures to show that he accepts, however, the younger man loses his nerve and runs away.  He feels cowardly, but says his father was never seen again.  “But when death comes I want them to take me and put me in a little boat in this perpetual water between the long shores; and I, down the river, inside the river…the river…”

Obviously, this story is based upon the many tales of men leaving their families and not coming home at all or not until they’re old, or of fathers dying and leaving their families undefended.  But the difference is, of course, the fantasy that the father is near at hand at the same time, only held within the currents of the “third bank” of the river, in all weathers, wearing the clothes he went away in, though the boy also leaves him clothes by the near bank from time to time.  All in all, it’s a saga of loss and a boy’s attempt to understand the limits and extensions of the adult world, and his inability to deal with the situation between his mother and his father in any “real life” way.  Is the boy or his father crazy?  This question is raised, but dismissed.  This is the way, after all, that the world is, huge, flowing, and incomprehensible, like the river.

The third short piece (not a story as much as a paean to the elements of sky, sea, and earth) is by Maria Luisa Bombal, and is called after its characters eponymously “Sky, Sea and Earth.”  It is unlike the other two pieces of fantasy in that it is more like a chant, or a poem, and has no fictional structure, per se.  The fantasy comes into play in the number of things which the narrator (an “I” unidentified) claims to be able to know; some things she claims can of course be known scientifically, others, such as mermaids and sirens, cannot.  She begins thus, with the sea and earth first:  “I know about many things of which no one knows.  I am familiar with an infinite number of tiny and magical secrets from the sea and from the earth.”  She relates in a poetic manner some of the things that one could find in the sea and on the earth, realistically if poetically enough, but then breaches the element of reality by saying “…[I]f one lifts certain gray shells of insignificant shape, one is frequently sure to find below a little mermaid crying,” “”There is a pure white and nude drowned woman that all of the fishermen of the coast vainly try to catch in their nets,” “No one knows it, but the truth is that all frogs are princes,” and “‘La gallina ciega’ is smoke colored, and she lives cast below the thickets, like a miserable pile of ashes.  She doesn’t have legs to walk, nor eyes to see; but she usually flies away on certain nights with short and thick wings.  No one knows where she goes, no one knows from where she returns, at dawn, stained in blood that isn’t her own.”

Of the sky, unlike the sea and earth, however, she says:  “The sky, on the other hand, does not have even one small and tender secret.  Implacable, it completely unfurls its terrifying map above us.”  Her images and notions of the sky are just as extreme in their fantastic and poetical elements as of the other two, the sea and the earth, but they are intimidating, overwhelming, fearful; they involve “atoms that change their forms millions of times per second,” shooting stars, and a “sidereal ladder…through which I climb toward the shining dome….”  She says in her last paragraph, “No, I prefer to imagine a diurnal sky with roaming castles of clouds in whose floating rooms flutter the dry leaves of a terrestrial autumn and the kites that the sons of men lost, playing.”

In this third bit of fantasy, it is obvious that some biological study has contributed to these images, just as it is also clear that the fantastic is being invoked as one of the “secrets” the narrator knows and imagines.  Again, as in the stories by Borges and Rosa, the narrative flows along smoothly, adding unlikely and technically impossible notions to the story.  In Borges’s story, the unlikely is not absolutely impossible, but could have happened; it’s rather in the manner of the title that a double image of the two crucifixions makes two into one in a surprising manner.  In Rosa’s story, again the impossible is not an absolute, but more than in Borges’s story, the unlikely is accentuated to an extreme degree; it’s in Bombal’s story that we actually encounter some of the creatures of myth and mystery, and notice that the author is making claims to know about them from personal vision and experience.

One would possibly conclude from this brief study, were it not for the great number of other Latin American writers writing, that fantasy is an integral part of Latin American fictions, whether Christianized fantasy as in Borges or naturalistic fantasy as in Bombal, with Rosa somewhere in between.  In any case, in these three writers at least, the imaginary element is used to accentuate the unusual or peculiar in our everyday encounters and experiences, which perhaps without these fictions we would be in danger of overlooking or underestimating.  After all, when’s the last time you thought in an impartial manner about how odd a story the Christian gospel is; how common it is that parents desert their families, yet how it’s always a tragedy and different for each one; or, how miraculous and ingenious and various the natural world around us is?  If nothing else, these stories provoke these sorts of ponderings and speculations, and entertain us at the same time as they are filling us with wonder.

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3 responses to “The Element(s) of the Fantastic in Three Latin American Writers: Borges, Rosa, and Bombal

  1. I am both happy that I have some new authors to read and sad that I haven’t come across any of their books yet, except for Borges, he is wonderful of course.

    South America writers are always a source of fascination for the age old beliefs fused with European beliefs. Any story that includes something we all take for granted and puts it in a new and intriguing way makes me happy and encourages that ability to keep looking at life as new everyday, right down to the core basics.

    Calvino and Fuentes are equally fascinating authors but then again I am sure you already knew that and you don’t need a list of good authors from me!

    • Don’t be so sure that I don’t need recommendations–I’ve heard of and loved Calvino, but know nothing of Fuentes other than the name. What book of his/hers would you recommend? As for Rosa and Bombal, respectively, there’s “The Devil to Pay in the Backlands (Grande Sertao: Veredas)” and though I have no specific title for Bombal, I know she worked with the literary journal “Sur” in the 1930’s in Buenos Aires, if that helps. She also lived earlier in Chile and worked with an experimental theater group. I hope this helps.

      • Carlos Fuentes is one of my recent discoveries, I enjoyed Inez and need to get my notes sent over from America where I stupidly left them and Terra Nostra is very good as well, I need to read more though, like with so many authors. I look forward to picking up the other authors as soon as time permits a trip to a place with suitable bookshops…so not my home town then.

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