Since the celebrated “boom” of the 1960’s, English-speaking readers have become increasingly aware of Latin American fiction, previously terra incognita, and writers such as Julio Cortázar, Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel García Márquez, and Jose Donoso now enjoy international recognition. María Luisa Bombal—like Jorge Luis Borges, the patriarch of Latin American fiction, who has provided a prefatory note to this volume—was an important predecessor to the writers of the “boom,” and her stories are among the most widely anthologized in Latin American literature.
Bombal’s first work of fiction, The Final Mist (1934), a novella, brought her immediate recognition. Both this novella, published in the Spanish collection La última niebla (1935; The House of Mist, 1947), and the novel, La Amortajada (1938; The Shrouded Woman, 1948) are considered masterpieces of Hispanic fiction; both of these translations, however, have long been out of print. Other stories, written mostly between 1937 and 1940 but not translated into English, advanced her reputation in the Hispanic world as a virtuoso stylist whose fiction was innovative yet carefully controlled; richly ornamented, yet free from affectation; evocative, but never sentimental.
New Islands and Other Stories includes the novella The Final Mist and four stories: “The Tree,” “Braids,” “The Unknown,” and “New Islands.” The Final Mist introduces themes and techniques that inform the other stories, so that as one continues to read, the introduction to Bombal becomes a lengthier acquaintance and then, as if by magic, an almost instinctive knowledge. Whatever the vehicle used, this ability to probe beneath the surface and so to communicate at levels more inclusive than the simply rational is the mark of a great writer. Bombal works in a twilight atmosphere, her characters existing halfway between waking and sleeping, between mundane and imaginative worlds, bridging night and day, fantasy and reality, the microcosmic and the macrocosmic.
The Final Mist opens on the day that the protagonist (who is never named) first enters her new husband’s house. It is raining, and the rain is leaking into every room. Her husband, Daniel, has remarried less than a year after his first wife’s death, a wife whom he had adored and never forgets. Continually yearning for her, he has become embittered by her early death. The protagonist and Daniel are cousins and know each other well, perhaps too well; there is no mystery in the marriage for them, and the bitterness and anger which mar their wedding night continue to poison their relationship.
Shortly after the wedding, the protagonist attends the funeral of a lovely young girl and, for the first time, views the “face of the dead.” An empty face, it is devoid of feeling, imprisoned in a wooden casket and surrounded by silence. Horrified, the protagonist runs outdoors, where a fine mist veils the landscape and where the silence is even more pervasive. It is winter, and the fallen leaves are wet and decomposing; the trees are shrouded in mist. The protagonist cries aloud, affirming her life and beauty against the stifling existence in which she has become trapped.
The lifelessness made manifest in the figure of the girl in the coffin and in the wintry landscape is opposed to the vitality embodied by Regina, the protagonist’s sister-in-law, who is engaged in a passionate affair. Regina confronts the protagonist defiantly, causing her to recognize her need for physical passion, and she seeks comfort for her body in the warm river pond, whose currents caress and penetrate her. Later, Regina’s lover offers the protagonist a newly killed ringdove still warm and oozing blood, but she refuses the “trophy,” though she is painfully aware of the man’s presence and virility.
One night, seeking escape from the dead rituals of her daily life, the protagonist walks the mist-shrouded streets of the city, losing herself in the urban maze. She stands under the white light of a street lamp, where a shadow suddenly is transformed into a young man. He takes her to his home, and there she experiences, for the first time, the joy and tenderness of sexual love. This single encounter gives her the strength to endure ten more years of marriage to Daniel, during which she repeats,...
(The entire section is 1806 words.)