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Is it just me, or does everything penned south of the United States border get the “magical realism” tag slapped on it? It seems a particularly unhelpful definition, second only to “postmodernism” in its vagueness – hence I won’t be using it as a crutch in discussing the writings of South America. “Magical realism” this ain’t.

Luisa Valenzuela (born 1938) is an Argentinian novelist whose writings crossed to America at the end of the 70s. She became one of the first South American women writers to gain a reputation over here, though Isabel Allende became far more popular. From what precious little I’ve read of her work, I’m going to guess that Valenzuela’s status as a minor writer is more due to bad luck and (perhaps) a darker and more hardened angle on the world than any technical inefficiencies in her style. Her works are difficult to find – I’ve only read two of her comical stories and the extraordinary ‘I’m Your Horse in the Night.’

‘I’m Your Horse in the Night’ is political in nature, set during the Argentinian military regime of the 70s (the story apparently first came out in 1982 and my translation is by Deborah Bonner). It is, however, spared the traps of moral stridency and telegraphed messaging through the counterpoint of a love story (this technique doesn’t always work, but Valenzuela pulls it off without any difficulty). Told briskly and with a restraint  that is in complimentary opposition to the passionate nature of the events which unfold, the story becomes even more impressive when you realise she tells it in a bare three pages.

The doorbell rang: three short rings and one long one. That was the signal, and I got up, annoyed and a little frightened; it could be them, and then again, maybe not; at these ungodly hours of the night it could be a trap. I opened the door expecting anything except him, face to face, at last.

The love affair between the narrator and a revolutionary in a police state – with all the trappings: long separation, secrecy, romance, uncertainty, danger, a bottle of cachaca and a Gal Costa record. It’s a beautiful work of written theater. The characters are locked into their roles of the mysterious revolutionary with an assumed name (Beto) and the woman who waits for him. Few words are exchanged, the scene is brief and the only moment the lovers escape their roles and become ordinary people is in their argument over what Gal Costa means by the titular phrase. The woman carried away with esoteric meanings and witchcraft takes it in a shamanic sense as the result of a trance state, the spirit and the possessed. The man takes it more literally as the interplay between lovers, an interpretation the woman is happy to accept.

Part two.

And then, abruptly, the scene shifts. It’s the morning after, the woman is alone, the phone rings and a man announces they’ve found Beto six days drowned. This is a shock tactic, to make her say something incriminating, which she does. She says it can’t be Beto. “Who is this?” Only then did I think to ask. But that very moment they hung up.

The police arrive, search the house and take her into custody. What’s going to happen to her? Nothing good. But at this point events become even more vague than they’d been previously as the narration shuts down and excludes all but the essentials. The woman attempts to preserve what matters most to her and to protect Beto in the only way she can – by willing him out of existence. My dream the night before, when Beto was there with me and we loved each other. I’d dreamed it, dreamed every bit of it, I was deeply convinced that I’d dreamed it all in the richest detail, even in full color. And dreams are none of the cops’ business.

They want reality, tangible facts, the kind I couldn’t even begin to give them.

At this point a stylistic change occurs. Quotation marks vanish as neither the police interrogation nor her answers escape her in-head narration. The horror of the situation is grimly denied and the reality of the night before dissolves as she forces it to become the product of a dream.

Where is he, you saw him, he was here with you, where did he go? Speak up, or you’ll be sorry. Let’s hear you sing, bitch, we know he came to see you, where is he, where is he holed up? He’s in the city, come on, spill it, we know he came to get you.

I haven’t heard a word from him in months. He abandoned me, I haven’t heard from him in months. He ran away, went underground. What do I know, he ran off with someone else, he’s in another country. What do I know, he abandoned me, I hate him, I know nothing.

(Go ahead, burn me with your cigarettes, kick me all you wish, threaten, go ahead, stick a mouse in me so it’ll eat my insides out, pull my nails out, do as you please. Would I make something up for that? Would I tell you he was here when a thousand years ago he left me forever?)

I’m not about to tell them my dreams. Why should they care? I haven’t seen that so-called Beto in more than six months, and I loved him. The man simply vanished. I only run into him in my dreams, and they’re bad dreams that often become nightmares.

The story ends with her in jail, thinking of that night, remembering that phrase of Gal Costa’s and now accepting her own unbounded interpretation of it. Beto, dead or alive as he may be, is now a spirit and she behind bars is his possession – and where this is concerned, the real world can go to hell.

So this is a story in which an alleged imaginary encounter, which as I pointed out was built from theatrical trappings regardless of its in-text reality, faces off against a true and inescapable reality and comes across as the more vivid of the two. The narration may be unreliable but every word of it seems to come from the soul. It is a love story told with grace. I have read it many times and it hasn’t lost its power yet. And finally, ‘I’m Your Horse in the Night’ could almost be shorter than this review praising it. It is an unsung masterpiece.

A Note on Editions: Unfortunately, sorting out the Luisa Valenzuela bibliography is next to impossible. I came upon this story in The Houghton Mifflin Anthology of Short Fiction, edited by Patricia Hampl in 1989…which credits it to The Art of the Tale, edited by Daniel Halpern in 1986. Her novels and short stories have been published by High Risk Books and The Dalkey Archive Press, at least, but I have no way of knowing which volume (if any) includes this one.

I now leave you with Gal Costa. Any expert who knows which tune it was that the story referenced, feel free to step forward. In the meantime, a random one:

Update, August 2013. Amazingly, someone did come forward with the correct information. It wasn’t Gal Costa at all, it was Maria Bethânia and the song’s actual title is Sem Açúcar (it was written by Chico Buarque). So here is a rendition of the real deal, “eu de noite sou seu cavalo,” or “I’m your horse in the night.” Many thanks to Museredux1.