Roaming tigers and panthers in Latin American fiction
Selected readings of: The Vintage Book of Latin American Stories, ed. Carlos Fuentes Jorge Luis Borges’s Selected Poems and Julio Cortazar’s Blow-Up and Other Stories
Reviewed by Gail Vida Hamburg
Author of The Edge of the World (Mirare Press)
From Jorge Luis Borges to Julio Cortazar to Luisa Valenzuela, tigers and panthers figure prominently in Latin American literature, not as predators or omens or figures in dreams, but as characters animating the fictional landscape. The Aztec, Inca, and Tiaga peoples venerated snakes and many varieties of cats, and subdued the wrath of these gods with large-scale human sacrifice. It is no surprise then, that the catalyst for Mexico’s [and eventually much of South America’s] conversion to Christianity was a pictorial of a woman clothed with the sun, standing on a globe, her foot crushing the head of the serpent: the apparition of “Our Lady of Guadeloupe.”
Yet, animism’s hold on Latin America and Latin American writers never really ceased. Perhaps, it is because animals alone best explain South America’s cold logic about duality, rooted in the faith of their ancestors. That creation depends on two snakes, two panthers, two tigers; even though Christianity imposed on them, the hard-to –swallow gospel of the Virgin Birth and the Trinity.
In his poem, “To A Cat,” Borges says to a panther: “By the mysterious functioning of some divine decree, we seek you out in vain; remoter than the Ganges or the sunset, yours is the solitude, yours is the secret …You live in other time, lord of your realm—a world as closed and separate as dream.”
In a number of South American fictions, tigers walk through bungalows and houses without eliciting surprise or shock. In Julio Cortazar’s “Beastiary,” a young girl spends her summer vacation in a country house where a tiger roams and eats the clovers in the garden. “I don’t like the idea of her going …not so much because of the tiger, after all they are very careful in that respect,” says the girl’s mother. Is she serious? Actually, quite. There is no line that separates the real and the fantastic. South Americans call it il real marvalliso—marvelous reality.
Luisa Valenzuela casts a spell that is perfectly implausible and irresistible in “Panther Eyes,” a story that unfolds on an ordinary day in a mundane setting. A woman and her boss are walking down the dark corridor of an office complex after a power outage, when the man screams. “What’s up?” she asks. And he answers: “Your eyes, your eyes are phosphorescent like the eyes of a wild animal.” The woman goes to her optician who examines her eyes and discovers a panther there. The narrator informs the reader: “You return home speechless and to calm yourself down, you start pulling your facial hair with a pair of tweezers. Inside you, the panther roars but you don’t hear it.” Later in the story which proceeds, again in a sphere of maddening normalcy, the narrator says: “Buenos Aires can’t allow itself the luxury of conscious hallucination,” and “The panther sleeps with its eyes open while she is awake, perhaps it wakes up during her sleep but that’s something that hasn’t been possible to confirm. She and the boss end up having it off in broad daylight on the office carpet.” A swift kick in the groin of the Argentinean government and collective public stupor before a woman/panther screws her frightened boss on the floor. This manner of creative ambition can only be met, it seems to me, at the shadowy intersection of fact and fantastic.
Along with labyrinths, tigers were an obsession with Borges. After exhorting the reader to “look for the third tiger …and not the one out of reach of all mythologies,” he writes: “… yet something drives me to this ancient, perverse adventure, foolish and vague, yet still I keep on looking throughout the evening for the other tiger, the one not in this poem.”