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Microreview: Tierra del Fuego

Tierra del Fuego
By Francisco Coloane
Europa Editions, 2008

As though to provide a gentle reminder to American readers that Roberto Bolaño is not necessarily the be-all and end-all of Chilean fiction, Europa Editions has now published a selection of stories by Francisco Coloane called Tierra del Fuego. Coloane, who lived between 1910 and 2002, was a native of the rugged Pacific island Chiloé. His stories nicely reflect his background as a man of wide learning with roots in an underdeveloped archipelago—at their best they combine a canny, scientifically modern consciousness with wide-eyed folk-tale wonder.

All are set in the first half of the 20th century in or around Patagonia, the southernmost portion of South America subject to such climactic and geographic extremes that even today human civilization there is sparing. At the time of the stories in Tierra del Fuego, outposts, ranches, and mining compounds have only just been chiseled into the tough territory, and the absence of infrastructure or codified law mean that the conflicts are barebones and refreshingly archetypal.

In the title story, for example, two escaped rebels of a tyrannical mining magnate live in hiding together for nearly a year, but their friendship is imperiled at almost the instant one of them discovers trace amounts of gold. “Five Sailors and a Green Coffin” similarly centers on an old sailor whose life comes to crisis when he’s tempted by the savings of a dying shipmate. The temptation in “The Lighthouse Builder” is the wife of the title character, the only woman among a far-flung construction crew.

Other stories find their drama in the doughty (and usually doomed) struggles of laborers against their oppressive bosses. Coloane was a member of the Communist Party for much of his long life, and there’s obviously a specific political sympathy being espoused here, especially in the martyr-making story “How the Chilote Otey Died,” but the stories are charged with such an unabashed sense of mythos that they entertain far more than they orate. And the best story of the book, a splendid ship yarn called “Passage to Puerto Edén,” is so orotund and richly allusive that you’ll conceive an immediate urge to revisit your Viking Portable Melville.

Tierra del Fuego is not without its weaknesses. I can’t say how faithful Howard Curtis’ translation is to Coloane’s writing style, but the prose here has an unfortunate scholastic rigidity—Curtis, at least, doesn’t have a great touch. The dialogue, too, is off-puttingly demonstrative and hortatory; it’s so exclamation point-prone you sometimes think you’re reading an opera libretto.

But these are forgivable things in the face of the wild frontier Coloane brings so imaginatively to life. It’s a frontier that yields much hard-earned wisdom, like this observation from a seaman in “The Hidden Part of the Iceberg”:

Third-class is the same everywhere, whether on land or at sea, and those of us who are part of it are also the same. We constitute a kind of frontier of humanity—we are like the crust of the earth, forever on the outside, exposed to the friction of the elements, the breath of the stars, while the opaque ball inside turns eternally in the darkness of space.

And of course there’s extraordinary natural beauty as well; it’s a place of desert and pampas, mountains and valleys, and of course a vast unsettled sea. The natural world is often the indifferent agent of man’s ruin, but sometimes Coloane describes the unique symbiosis that makes his distant setting so enchanting. In this passage, about a mussel diver who befriends sea ducks called quetros, you get a glimpse of a world uncommonly seen:

The diver had raised them since they were chicks and, whenever he went down, so would they. They would move in front of the eyes of glass, looking in at their master and friend, he would give them a few little fish from the rocks, and then they would come back up to the surface to frisk. And so they went on, diving and frisking, until the diver came up from the bottom, bringing them some tidbits, and the quetros would lift their big orange bills to the sky and eat. When the diver got off the boat, the quetros would follow him to his zinc house on the coast and stay with him like two big farmyard ducks. “They bring me luck,” he would say, and never excluded them from his work.

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