I’ve been awash in translations of Spanish-language literature lately (more on that in a future article); it’s been fascinating reading. One of the things I’ve learned in my reading is that Carlos Fuentes wrote quite a few short stories. In fact, his first book was a collection of fantastic fiction called Los Dias Enmascarados (The Masked Days), which, to my knowledge, was never translated into English. Given the general preference of the reading public for novels over short stories, I’m not surprised, and such early writing would probably be considered only a minor work of his — not the optimal candidate for the effort of translation. But hope springs eternal, and so I had to look around….
Sure enough, a little digging uncovered an English rendering of the short story “Chac Mool“, translated by Jonah Katz, currently a professor of phonetics and linguistics at West Virginia University. “Chac Mool” was first published in Los Dias Enmascarados in 1954, then again in the 1973 collection Chac Mool y otros cuentos (Chac Mool and other stories — also never translated).
A chacmool is a particular form of Mesoamerican sculpture: a figure of a man reclining on his back, upper body supported by his elbows and knees bent. His hands are on his abdomen, holding a dish or a bowl for accepting ritual offerings. His head is facing to the side. Chacmools have been found throughout central Mexico and the Yucatan, down into Central America. Chacmools are often associated with the Aztec rain god Tlaloc or with the similar Mayan rain god Chac (or Chaac). Both these rain gods are associated with human sacrifice (the bowl the chacmool holds is often a cuauhxicalli: a bowl to receive human hearts).
In Fuentes’ story, the protagonist, Filbert (Filiberto in the original), buys a chacmool (or as the story puts it, a replica of the Chac Mool, used as a proper noun) from some little junk shop, and brings it home. After the Chac Mool arrives, the water pipes mysteriously burst and the roof springs leaks in the rain. Filiberto discovers that in all this moisture, the stone idol seems to be turning into flesh — a rain god coming to life. Slowly, the Chac Mool turns Filiberto into his slave….
The story plays a lot with the relationship between the past and the present, particularly in regard to Mexico’s history. Early in the story (which is told as extracts from Filiberto’s diary, with a framing narrative), Filiberto describes a chat he has with an old friend, about his friend’s theory on the simpatico between Christianity and the old indigenous religions. Christ, after all, was a sacrifice, an offering — and a bloody one at that. Mexicans would never have converted so readily, Filiberto’s friend maintains, if they had been conquered by Buddhists or Muslims. How could they “venerate an individual who died of indigestion”? (The Buddha, apparently, died of food poisoning — or at least soon after eating a meal.)
Christianity, in its warm, bloody feeling, of sacrifice and liturgy, turns into a natural and novel prolongation of the indigenous religion. The aspects of charity, love, and the other cheek, in turn, are rejected. And everything in Mexico is that: you have to kill men to be able to believe in them.
Filiberto has an interesting relationship with the past himself. He is fascinated with pre-Columbian Mexican art, and he lives metaphorically in the past, in the lonely (and too large) house left to him by his parents, repulsed by the idea of a modern apartment. He is alienated from the friends of his youth, successful men who “had been chiseling themselves out to a rhythm different” than his, forgetful of the history that took them to their present (a history that included Filiberto).
But then the past becomes his enemy. Or maybe (getting back to his friend’s theory) the past isn’t so happy that the Mexican people switched over to a new religion and way of life so easily. Mexico’s past, as represented by Chac Mool, is another reality, one that “we knew was there, homeless, that must shake us to make itself alive and present”. Filiberto’s reality (or is it just his grasp of reality?) crumbles; his behavior at work becomes noticeably erratic, until, eventually, he is fired.
But just as traditional ways are threatened by modernity, Chac Mool is also vulnerable to the present: he discovers hedonistic human pleasures — wine, silk robes, lotions — and this seems to age him. Filiberto hopes that it will weaken him, maybe even kill him. But will it happen soon enough?
You can find out, by reading Jonah Katz’s translation here. Or the original Spanish text, here. It’s a good classic horror story, and a fine example of weird fiction/magical realism. Not that I’m entirely sure what the official definition of magical realism is; maybe it’s just weird fiction written by Latin American authors.
Also of interest is Richard Reeve’s analysis of “Chac Mool” and its thematic influence on Latin American literature. By the way, the Cortazar story that Reeve mentions, “La Noche Boca Arriba” (“The Night Face Up”), is superb. It was my introduction to magical realism, and is still my favorite Cortazar story.
Here’s hoping someone publishes a collection of Fuentes’ short fantastic fiction in translation. Or maybe I’ll have to brush up on my Spanish and attempt it in the original.
Second image: Aztec chacmool from Tenochtitlan. Photo by Adriel A. Macedo Arroyo. Image: Wikimedia.