Thursday, April 28, 2016

Crocodile Tears

Two  Crocodiles by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Felisberto Hernández

—how true it is that we know not beforehand the fate that awaits us!

What happens when you put a Russian and a Uruguayan crocodile into the same small tank (or between the same two covers)? You get a lot of crocodile tears.

Dostoevsky’s 1865 story “The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident” is described, on its title page, as “A true story of how a gentleman of a certain age and of respectable appearance was swallowed alive by the crocodile in the Arcade, and of the consequences that followed.” The description is not only funny, but apt in characterizing the brilliantly dry, matter-of-fact tone in which this shrewd little satire unfolds. 

One day, so Dosotoevsky’s narrator relates to us, a pompous civil servant named Ivan Matveitch takes his wife, Elena Ivanovna, to see the exotic and “monstrous” crocodile on exhibit at the Arcade, part of a travelling sideshow from Germany. Boldly taunting the creature to impress his pretty young wife, Ivan Matveitch is promptly gobbled up, swallowed whole before her much-astonished eyes. In the words of friend and narrator, Semyon Semyonitch (which, forgive me, I will quote at some length), this is what ensues:

The crocodile began by turning the unhappy Ivan Matveitch in his terrible jaws so that he could swallow his legs first; then brining up Ivan Matveitch, who kept trying to jump out and cltuching at the sides of the tank, sucked him down again as far as his wasit. Then bringing him up again, gulped him down, and so again and again. In this way Ivan Matveitch was visibly disappearing before our eyes.  At last, with a final gulp, the crocodile swallowed my cultured friend entirely, this time leaving no trace of him. From the outside of the crocodile we could see the protuberances of Ivan Matveitch’s figure as he passed down the inside of the monster. I was on the point of screaming again when destiny played another treacherous trick upon us. The crocodile made a tremendous effort, probably oppressed by the magnitude of the object he had swallowed, once more opened his terrrible jaws, and with a final hiccup he suddenly let the head of Ivan Matveitch pop out for a second, with an expression of despair on his face. In that brief instant the spectacles dropped off his nose to the bottom of the tank. It seemed as though that despairing countenance had only popped out to cast one last look on the objects around it, to take tis last farewell of all earthly pleasures. But it had not time to carry out its intention; the crocodile made another effort, gave a gulp and instantly it vanished again—this time forever. This appearance and disappearance of a still living human head was so horrible, but all the same—either from its rapidity and unexpectedness or from the dropping of the spectacles—there was something so comic about it that I suddenly quite unexpectedly exploded with laughter.

In fact what at first appears a matter of horror, soon turns decidedly amusing, bizarre, as the just-devoured Ivan Matveitch begins to speak, to cajole his awestruck wife from within the bloated belly of this same beast. When his wife exclaims with wonder that he is still alive, he replies, “Alive and well, and thanks to the Almighty, swallowed without any damage whatever.” In fact, he feels so well, is so steadfast in his devotion to his work, that he determines (expounding all the while) to continue his official duties as a civil servant from his new home inside the crocodile!

Paired with this tale, producing an interesting reaction between them, is the much shorter, if equally amusing story by the same name by the great Uraguayan writer, Felisberto Hernández. Based in part on the author’s own experience as a self-taught pianist who earned his living playing music in the silent-screen theatres and cafes of Uruguay, the story is narrated by a lonely concert pianist trying hard to make ends meet. One day he makes the inadvertent discovery, when he finds himself weeping in the middle of a concert, that his tears are more of an attraction than his music. Told in a voice and style reminiscent of (if predating) that of Boll’s The Clown and “The Laugher”, Hernández’s “The Crocodile” is one of numerous tales “about quietly deranged individuals” that has distinguished the career of this highly influential stylist. Revered by such writers as Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Márquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Roberto Bolaño, Hernández is a writer whose works I am delighted to know. 

“The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident” by Fyodor Dostoevsky was translated by Constance Garnett. “The Crocodile” by Felisberto Hernández was translated by Esther Allen.

Peter Adam Nash

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