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28.2.02

I apologize to those of you who have never read "El Yaciyateré," by Horacio Quiroga. We were discussing the story in Spanish class and I had ideas about it that I wanted to get down before I forgot them.

The story is like this: The narrator and his friend are testing a new canoe that they built, which they think will be able to withstand anything. A storm comes along while they're on the river and shipwrecks them. They spend the night with a family whose youngest son is dying of meningitis. They do little to help him, because they have a superstition that he is under the power of a bird (which we hear but noone has ever seen) called the Yaciyateré. Four years later, the narrator returns to find the family gone, but the sick boy is still living -- albeit in a bestial state, starving and unable to speak.

I said that the three episodes seem to show a progression from reason (the firm cause and effect understandings of boat engineering), to superstition (the illogical cause and effect of the bird), to a complete lack of understanding (on the part of the boy). Prof. Luciani said that to him the canoe trip is much more surreal than the night with the family, and the starving boy at the end seems an example of a "harsh reality." I drew a little Levi-Strauss diagram juxtaposing the two ideas, and thought that perhaps that was the point -- that reliance on reason is self-delusional. But then, the narrator survives to the end and seems in good shape, while the superstitious family disappears and the irrational boy is starving. And the boy at the end is fascinated by the narrator's canoe.

I think the problem is that there's too much we don't know in this story. Some people raised the possibility that the boy at the end is a ghost -- which would suggest that the superstition was right -- or that he was a figment of the narrator's imagination -- which would be wishful thinking about the wrongness of the superstition. The story doesn't say for sure. The story doesn't say where the family might have gone -- are they dead? Did they abandon the boy (thinking he was a goner) and move away? Quiroga purposefully creates this situation by using first-person narration. The narrator is a person in the story, with the limited and situated perspective (as opposed to omniscience) that comes with it. There's nobody who knows what's "really" going on, who understands the entire situation.

I think the story ultimately raises a bunch of questions about how we understand the world and then says "I don't know, you don't know, and there's really no way of finding out for sure, because none of us have the necessary omniscient view."

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