House of Mist by María Luisa Bombal

María Luisa Bombal’s 1938 novel House of Mist opens with a prologue that promises “a mystery without murder,” or, more precisely, a mystery without the usual characteristics of a mystery novel. It also suggests that it might only be enjoyed by “[t]hose 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….”

As I mentioned, this is certainly too Gothic for some. The novel is (supposed to be) one of the first in the South American tradition of magical realism, which it seems many people either love or hate. I guess in that dichotomy I “love” it, and despite the many weaknesses of this novel I really liked it too.

The novel’s narrator, Helga, is an orphaned love child raised by resentful aunts and uncles, practically a servant in their households. The great legacy of her mother—Danish, you see—is fairy tales; Helga is an escapist child who never quite grows up into a realist woman. In other words, she’s the perfect, extremely Romantic, extremely unreliable narrator for a work of magical realism.

Her story is one of love and adultery and family and scandal and death and secrets, the whole nine yards. It’s a pretty good story, as those run, and there are some pretty good characters involved in all that juiciness. The fog imagery may be a little heavy—the light and water imagery in general—but there’s something nice about reading a book narrated by a true dreamer, but where you don’t feel the author is just laughing at you at every turn. Dependably undependable, like when she begins:

The story I am about to tell is the story of my life. It begins where other stories usually end; I mean, it begins wtih a wedding, a really strange wedding, my own.

Of course, not only does the actual story of Helga’s life not begin with her own wedding, even the parts she has decided to recount do not, and this book really does not, because after the first chapter we have most assuredly bounced back to her childhood. This kind of mild trick is pulled more than once.

One interesting thing about the novel that I did not learn until I began reading it is that it was written in English. Here I have been talking about “beginnings” of the novel but I ignored the real beginning, its dedication, where Bombal reveals her husband helped her to compose the novel in that language. I don’t know the significance of that choice, but it certainly had me paying attention to the language from then on. I really liked the descriptive passages, but I can’t put my finger on why. The dialogue was a bit off, mismatched somehow to the narration. Perhaps it just seemed jarring, in such an oozy and foggy world, to have people do something as direct as speak to each other. The atmosphere seemed to thick for words to pass through it.

And thus (feebly) begins the Latin American project…