Esther Allen, the translator of Lands of Memory, provides in the prologue a small biography of Felisberto Hernández in which she outlines his peculiar life (he was a concert pianist who began as a piano player for silent films when he was twelve, he recorded the titles of tango music on state radio to protect the composers from theft, he worked as a stenographer, he started a bookstore that failed because he paid no attention to it, and he had four wives) and his humorous and eccentric way of seeing things (for example, “He had a habit of comparing pianos to coffins,” and “His purpose, if he has one . . . is to immerse the reader in a shifting sequence of states of being and mysterious mental processes”). Indeed, it is the narrator’s eccentricity in perceiving himself and the people and objects around him that define the main character (who is the author himself) of the two short novels and four short stories that compose this collection.
In the first of the short stories, “My First Concert in Montevideo,” the narrator, practicing in his family’s house for the concert in the title, is dispirited by the violence of his father’s creditors, by his separation from his wife and daughter in another city, and by a pessimism about himself which carries over to the concert when he gives it, remembering how the first concert he ever gave brought him little money and no entrance into unfamiliar houses.
In fact, he is so depressed that he dreams of his wife moving toward their wedding by herself, while he is a dog dragged slowly along on her bridal train. As he is about to go on stage for his recital in Montevideo, he imagines his piano as a shark he will have to wrestle in “an illuminated swimming pool.” When he starts playing, he begins to feel “a confidence born from madness.”
His dark mood brings up the memory of the one new house he managed to enter after his former recital, when he was hired by a jilted widow to play the piano twice a week for her. Her name is Señora Muñeca, and her maid Filomena (or Dolly) introduces the narrator to the house and reveals things about the widow (especially that her lover, after composing a tango for her on her piano, ran away with another woman), but since Dolly addresses the narrator in the familiar form of “you,” smokes cigarettes, and tries to bully him into her bed, she disgusts him, as does Señora Muñeca herself, who is repulsively tiny, wall-eyed, prissy, demanding, and a drunk.
The narrator’s memory, on the other hand, does not exclude “moments of happiness,” such as his feeling the morning after the concert in Montevideo. It is a mingling of joy, repugnance, and even humor that ends the story: He woke up and saw in the bed he shared with two of his friends “a mouse that had approached the sleeping head of one of the painters and was eating his hair.”
“Mistaken Hands” consists of letters the narrator writes to three women (Irene, Inés, and Margarita), in which he writes about the “unknown,” mostly the mysterious details of strangers’ movements, such as a woman turning her head in a theater, or a woman hiding her laughter with a handkerchief. As he writes to Irene, anguish comes to him from the unknown, while to Inés he writes of her mysteriousness to him—how “Through the loose weave of your hat brim, the light cast arabesques of shadow on the upper part of your face”—and how it makes his memory of her a dream with a space in it for a feeling that will surprise him. Writing to Irene again, he gives her a list of things he wants to happen, the order of which is without the logic of drama, causing him to suspect “that reality is sometimes intrinsically dark and confused,” and in tandem with this, when he writes to Margarita, he says he imagines his letters falling “into the abyss of the mystery of extraordinary women.” Pausing for a moment to resume writing to Irene, he remarks that the unknown can spring up in the act of unexpectedly comparing the eyes of a dead acquaintance to the eyes of a woman he is talking to—that is, in a collision of the past with the present—then, returning to Margarita, he explains what the “mistaken hands” of the title mean: They are his own hands futilely writing and receiving letters to find “a little mystery,” which he admits he probably makes up himself, although he also admits that his pursuit of the unknown is a distraction that pleases him.
In “The Crocodile,” the narrator is a traveling salesman for a brand of women’s stockings called Illusion; he has made up his own slogan for the brand: “Nowadays, who doesn’t cherish their Illusions?” His sales record is dismal (as he says, “a concert pianist who sold stockings made a bad impression”), but then he learns to weep spontaneously in front of shopkeepers and soon his sales improve. Some women try to comfort him when he does this—one of them points out that a secret distress in him causes his tears (he already knows it is at least self-pity)—while other women do not, for when he pulls his stunt of weeping at a concert he is giving, one of them shouts from the audience, “Crooo-co- diiiiile!” At the end of the story, the narrator finds that just as the dingy harp player at the beginning of the story cannot help his blindness, he himself cannot help weeping, and thus his tears, whether he intends to fake them or not, reveal the true condition of his soul.
“The New House” is set in motion by the narrator trying to distract himself from his poverty and from his poet- friend’s so-far failed attempt to arrange a concert for him by looking at the houses outside the café in which he is writing. He...
(The entire section is 2316 words.)