“Felisberto Hernández is a writer like no other,” Italo Calvino announced once, “like no European, nor any Latin American. He is an ‘irregular,’ who eludes all classifications and labelings–yet he is unmistakably on any page to which one might randomly open one of his books.” This is a sharp eulogy by the author of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler, and as trustworthy as they come, for I’ve tried it myself: I’ve browsed aimlessly at the impish Spanish prose in Felisberto’s three-tome Obras Completas, released in 1983, some twenty years after his death, and the effect is daunting: The voice is unlike anything one comes across anywhere in literature–a voice broadcast direct from the unconscious, poignant, “irregular” in the best sense of the term. Rubén Darío, Nicaragua’s famous modernista poet, used the term el raro–the eerie–to describe the disposition of people like Edgar Allan Poe, the Comte de Lautréamont and Paul Verlaine. Felisberto would have made the cut too.
Since his death in 1964, at the age of 62, a Felisberto cult has developed, not only in his native Uruguay but all across Latin America and in certain regions of Europe–a club for the initiated in the occult exercises of his imagination. This cult has been prolific of late: At least half a dozen biographies of him have appeared in the past couple of decades or are in preparation, as well as a significant number of academic studies. This isn’t quite an industry, but it is surely a sign of increasing enthusiasm. It is an enthusiasm that began beyond Felisberto’s own borders, when Borges published one of his stories in the elite journal Sur. Since then others have paid tribute to this author of the legendary novella The Daisy Dolls: Puerto Rican writer Rosario Ferré has a study titled El acomodador, a sort of explicative meditation that is succinct and thought-provoking; and Julio Cortázar…ah, who would Cortázar (another raro in Darío’s canon) have become had it not been for Felisberto? Cortázar stories like “House Taken Over” and “Blow Up” can be said to have a Felisbertian drive. Cortázar acknowledged that the Uruguayan exerted so powerful a spell over him that, in retrospect, even his own masterpiece, Hopscotch, reads like a variation of Felisberto’s enchanted tales like “No One Had Lit a Lamp,” and bewildering essays such as “How Not to Explain My Stories.”
Felisberto was first and foremost a pianist–not of the type that ends up in Carnegie Hall but of the ones that accompany silent movies. He gave a concert in a club in the Argentine city of Chivilcoy in 1939, where Cortázar worked as a college teacher at the time. “Do you realize how close we were?” the author of Hopscotch wrote in a letter-qua-prologue. “I believe we would have recognized each other in that club where everything would have projected us towards each other, and I would have invited you to my little room to offer you a caña and show you some books and maybe, who knows, some of the stories I was writing then and never published.” A few lines later, Cortázar shrieks: “Felisberto, I will always love you.”
Esther Allen, whom I’ve learned to trust as a translator of Javier Marías and José Martí, ought to be thanked for this fine collection of two novellas and four stories. Almost a decade ago, Luis Harss, famous for the groundbreaking collection of literary reportage Into the Mainstream, issued a volume of Felisberto’s tales under the name Piano Stories. It included one of his most celebrated pieces, “The Flooded House,” a Kafkaesque parable with political undertones about a home inundated with water. The imagery developed is a feast in surrealism: disjointed, dreamlike and macabre. Harss’s volume also contained The Daisy Dolls, a critique of fetishism and capitalist society, in which a bizarre couple exists surrounded by life-size dolls that awaken feelings of adultery and incest in them. Hernández makes us feel that the dolls are alive. Day and night they bask in “covetous looks and those looks nested and hatched in the air.” They come alive frighteningly, like “creatures in a trance, on unknown missions, or lending themselves to evil designs.”