This pearl from New Directions contains one short story from Russian literary master Fyodor Dostoevsky (translated by Constance Garnett) and one short story from Uruguayan forefather of magical realism Felisberto Hernández (translated by Esther Allen). Both pieces are entitled “The Crocodile,” hence Two Crocodiles.
The edition is slim and aesthetically pleasing; it fits in your jacket pocket, making it perfect for reading on the subway and impressing the people around you with its beauty and your class. Flip it over and you even find endorsements from David Foster Wallace (re: Dostoevsky) and Roberto Bolaño (re: Hernández). Sold.
I won’t compare and contrast the writing and themes from The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident to Dostoevsky’s more famous pieces (The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment), partly because it’s been done enough already, and partly because the goal of this book seems to be to juxtapose (or prove connected) the similarly-named stories of two very different authors from two very different literary worlds. In turn, Felisberto isn’t as well known as Dostoevsky, but literary giants Gabriel García Márquez, Julio Cortázar, and Italo Calvino all credit him as a major influence of their own work.
Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Crocodile: An Extraordinary Incident
Ivan Matveitch and his wife are both ridiculous. In the opening paragraph we learn that Ivan is a cultured man, planning a trip to Europe “not so much for the sake of his health as for the improvement of his mind,” and excited to see a crocodile. Ivan’s wife, upon seeing the crocodile exclaims “Why, I thought it was something different,” clearly disappointed by the lack of a spectacle. The family friend and narrator of the story, Semyon, explains her crocodile-disappointment to the reader: “most probably she thought it was made of diamonds.”
Two pages later Ivan is ingested by the crocodile, where he stays for the remainder of the book, ordering Semyon to do his bidding, making plans for his wife’s social calendar, imaging his future fame, and criticizing the quality of Russian-made clothing. And while Ivan has no trouble causing Semyon to suffer with multiple requests and insults, he is also considers himself a real humanitarian, deciding not to adjust his position inside the crocodile—in order to prevent the creature from suffering.
Ivan to Semyon, from inside the crocodile:
“But I will prove that even lying like a log—nay, that only lying like a log one can revolutionize the lot of mankind. All the great ideas and movements of our newspapers and magazines have evidently been the work of men who were lying like logs; that is why they call them divorced from the realities of life – but what does that matter, their saying that! I am constructing now a complete system of my own, and you wouldn’t believe how easy it is! You have only to creep into a secluded corner or into a crocodile, to shut your eyes, and you immediately devise a perfect millennium for mankind. When you went to work this afternoon I set to work at once and have already invented three systems, I am now preparing the fourth. It is true that at first one must refute everything that has gone before, but from the crocodile it is so easy to refute it; besides, it all becomes clearer, seen from the inside of a crocodile . . . There are some drawbacks, though small ones, in my position, however; it is somewhat damp here and covered with a sort of slime; moreover, there is rather a smell of India-rubber exactly like the smell of my old galoshes. That is all, there are no other drawbacks.”
Felisberto Hernández, The Crocodile
In Hernández’s story, a pianist turned women’s hosiery salesmen uses crocodile tears to increase sales during hard times. The tears on demand are likely a reflection of an inner melancholy; New Directions describes the story as a “heartbreaker.” Yes, there is something unsettling about the narrator’s ability to cry on demand, but the recognition that there is something inside of many of us that would prompt us to use the same strategy may be more unnerving than heartbreaking.
“I longed to leave that shop, that city, that life. I thought about my country and about many other things. And suddenly, just as I was beginning to calm down, I had an idea. What would happen if I started crying right in front of all these people? It struck me as a very violent thing to do, but I’d been wanting to do something out of the ordinary, to put the world to the test, for a long time. I also needed to prove to myself that I was capable of great violence. And before I could change my mind I sat down in a little chair backed up against the counter and with all those people around me I put my hands to my face and began emitting sobbing noise. Almost simultaneously, a woman let out a loud cry and said, “A man is weeping.”
While these two stories have little in common beyond their name, they do offer the reader an opportunity to explore two lesser-known works from influential writers.
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“Yeah, it looks short. What is it, a hundred pages?”
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