November 2012

Josh Zajdman

The Forgotten Twentieth Century

Sex, Truth and Castles: A South American Fairy Tale

I regret to inform you that I let Maria Luisa Bombal's House of Mist languish on my shelf because I assumed it was something much different than it is. You know that adage about assuming? Well, it's true. This isn't completely my error, though. House of Mist is billed as "one of the first South American novels written in the brilliantly imaginative style that would become known as magical realism." Magical realism and I don't get along. I do not want to play with midnight's children and cannot tolerate even a year of solitude. But for some reason, I picked up Bombal's book recently and completely flipped for it. I am still trying to figure out how it happened, as it seems somewhat magical in and of itself.

Allow to rectify my preconceived notions and push this book on you. It's simple: you must read it. Because it doesn't do the magical South American lit thing in any way you've encountered before. Instead, Bombal owes a much greater debt to a couple of Brontės and a couple of Misters Grimm. Her work is far more entrenched in the fairy and folktales tradition than any Latin American or Spanish antecedents. For those that came after her, Carlos Fuentes referring to her "as the mother of us all" seems to have been most influenced. Above all, what was most fascinating about House of Mist? It's a wonderfully and refreshingly honest consideration of eroticism and the rights and place of women from the woman's perspective. That's amidst the beautiful and brilliant set pieces that would put any fairytale to shame. There really isn't another book like it.

The consideration of women, gender, and sexuality in the House of Mist ended up striking this reader as almost accidental, as it is never didactic. Instead, such concepts slowly come to fruition, if you will, through the novel's close consideration of storytelling and song and its unique power and ability to be equally moving, whether truthful or steeped in deceit. The unbearably turbulent lives and relationship of Helga and Daniel serve to anchor these conceits. In its two-hundred-and-forty-five pages, love burns and wanes; life lives and dies; passion is spent or fulfilled; and a rich, unbelievably rendered world of nature and fantasy (chock full of very real emotions and desires) cascades over the reader.

Helga and Daniel's relationship surely has to be one of the most sordid, painful, and spiteful relationships in literature. Well, admittedly, the spite, dishonesty, and manipulation, if not downright abuse, is a bit one-sided for the larger part of the novel. Which brings an important point: namely, that one must proceed carefully when discussing the novel. The gradual development, subsequent climax, and ever-thickening air of mystery make for a beguiling and very enriching reading experience. To spoil that for a reader would be unfair. In her prologue to the novel, Bombal takes a minute to carefully frame the forthcoming experience for the reader.

I wish to inform the reader that even though this is a mystery, it is a mystery without murder.

He will not find here any corpse, any detective; he will not even find a murder trial, for the simple reason that there will be no murderer.

There will be no murderer and no murder, yet there will be... crime.

And there will be fear.

Those for whom fear has an attraction, those who are interested in the mysterious life people live in their dreams during sleep, those who believe that the dead are not really dead, those who are afraid of the fog and of their own hearts... they will perhaps enjoy going back to the early days of this century and entering into the strange house of mist that a young woman, very much like all other women, built for herself at the southern end of South America.

Bombal was twenty-eight years old when this, her first novel, was published. It was written in English, with the dedication reading, "to my husband, who has helped me to write this book in English." This was a detail I didn't fully appreciate until having finished the novel. Throughout the novel, the dependency, pain, truth, and lies of varied domestic relationships serve as its focal point. To imagine that a couple worked to create this book adds an entire other layer of meaning.

Meaning is a thread woven throughout the novel. Characters are questioned as to what they mean, what an event means, and whether they mean what they say. Meaning is tied to truth and intention -- two things regularly taken for granted by the characters that live in and around the House of Mist. This is an atypical mystery and an atypical novel, thwarting expected genres and combining unexpected ones. This unmooring of theme and subject carries from Bombal's prologue to the Helga's explanation of the novel at the beginning of chapter one. "The story I am about to tell is the story of my life. It begins where other stories usually end; I mean, it begins with a wedding, a really strange wedding, my own."  

The narrative, though chronologically inverted, is a consideration of several traumatic events as seen through the eyes of Helga. Just to whet your appetite, I'll offer up a few. The novel begins with Helga as an orphan being mistreated by her relatives and eventually shipped away, only to arrive at the door of a staunchly religious aunt. Eventually, she is double-crossed by her cousin, brokenhearted countless times, and has one of the most crushing initial sexual encounters ever. Just when you think she can't take any more, she may or may not see several ghosts, attend a ball, and that's where we will stop. By my tally, she's beaten every other fairy tale princess. It's her emotional response and thought process that propels the narrative and serves to make her a fascinating character and proto-feminist. Well, until the end, maybe. But I have to be careful not to spoil.

After reading House of Mist, I've become slightly fairy tale obsessed. I've been reading Vladimir Propp's astonishing work of scholarship Morphology of the Folktale, Bruno Bettleheim's The Uses of Enchantment, and Angela Carter's The Bloody Chamber. In House of Mist, Daniel's tyrannical behavior is often likened to that of Bluebeard. Of course, I had to check out the fascinating film Bluebeard, from the always controversial Catherine Breillat. The best books open your eyes to what they contain and push you to further expansion. House of Mist is such a book. I reveled in it and it led me to several other experiences that helped me understand why. Now, if you'll excuse me, I am going to start reading it again. You should start too.