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Lands of Memory Summary

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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...

(The entire section is 2,316 words.)