Recommended: Lands of Memory by Felisberto Hernandez

Felisberto Hernandez is a Uruguayan writer of the mid-twentieth century, often cited as a major influence by other South American writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Julio Cortazar. I heard of him through ‘Bartyleby &Co’ by Enrique Vila-Maltas. Felisberto (as he is known) was primarily a musician, a pianist who performed throughout Uruguay and Argentina, and many of the stories in this collection feature a first-person narrator who is also a touring pianist. Like many writers, his narrator blurs the line between fiction and autobiography and one would have to know much more about him to sift through the differences.

His narrators are often concerned with problems of memory – why we remember certain things and not others, and his memnomic associations of people, objects and events are often quite unusual and striking. Impressions once made are hard to shake and so he cannot recall a certain person without also evoking a specific image, color or scent. These associations lead the reader through a maze of memories, though always returning, when you least expect it, to the original thread of the tale.

My favorite of this collection is “The Crocodile”. Here an itinerant pianist is attempting to augment his meager income with sales of ladies stockings, and finding success in neither endeavor. He voyages from town to town trying to both organize a concert and convince retailers to stock his hose. One day he breaks down and starts crying in frustration, drawing the nearby lady customers over to console him. Their attentiveness helps convince the retailer to place an order, and in lieu of this unexpected achievement, our hero adopts this as a regular practice. Soon he is known as the wandering weeping salesman. Our amusement at his folly is tempered by our sympathy with his plight. As readers we are drawn so far inside the narrator that we cannot laugh at him without somehow offending ourselves!

Some samples of his imagery:

That afternoon she appeared and disappeared like a light rain interrupted by sunshine

But she was the one who was pushing her way into the story as forcefully as if it were a crowded bus

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