The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories by Horacio Quiroga was not an easy read.
Written in eloquent prose, this short story collection is struggles with two main themes running simultaneously throughout the collection: One of death in its many forms, and one of admiration.
I'm glad I did not read the introduction and the about the author section until after I finished the book, as both offer a deep look into what lies behind Quiroga's stories. Had I read these before, it would have spoiled my reading experience. Instead, by doing the opposite of what the publisher had in mind, I was able to experience Quiroga without any prior knowledge, and thus judge his writing on its face value alone.
Let me first assess the theme of admiration. Quiroga obviously admired nature. His descriptions of rivers, the jungle, and the life on the frontier are amazing. He mentions plants, landscapes, and lives along the Parana river in a very tough region of Misiones, describing each in a colorful language that shows his admiration without boring the reader. Despite fighting it for their daily survival, his protagonists appreciate the wilderness. The descriptions and dilemmas of frontier life are very realistic and often unsettling. Face to face with the jungle and its wild rivers, man is truly at odds, while his disadvantage and vulnerability never leaves his mind.
On the theme of death, Quiroga is never cynical. Most of the stories in this collection deal with the theme of death in some way. What is fascinating though, is that all the death and macabre is unforeseen, it all happens by accident or as a consequence to some action. He is flirting with disaster as part of the daily routine - life is riddled with the unpredictable. In the title story, which is buried halfway up the book, Quiroga slaps you in the face with an ending one would not anticipate. Yet all of the unfortunate circumstances weave together a fabric of emotion, a fabric we can relate to on a basic human level. Reading about him after I finished the book, I can only imagine what he had gone through psychologically. It is no wonder that his stories feature darker themes.
Throughout the book one encounters a powerful human spirit, a spirit that drives men and women up the river into the unknown. A place without neighbors, facilities, and the comforts of civilization. The frontier is a harsh place, testing humans in ways they never imagined. The resiliency and determination of man is to be both admired and detested. This conflicting view is also prevalent in his stories. It is as if he, himself, struggled with the conquest of nature. Perhaps this is why, in a couple of stories, nature rebels and attacks man.
Overall, this is a great book. Yes, the realism employed is often dark and macabre. Yes, there is loss and sorrow. Nevertheless, Quiroga brings the reader along on a journey deep into the jungle, deep into the unknown, and deep into the human psyche. I believe that Quiroga's stories, like the stories of Borges and Poe, would make an excellent subject for discussions.