Nine tales of greed and hardship set in the harsh, unforgiving landscape of southern Chile’s islands.
The premier story, also the longest, is the title work, a bleak examination of how the discovery of gold turns prospectors into grasping sinners for whom too much is not enough. The moral dilemma is summed up as the two soldiers-turned-prospectors, Novak and Schaeffer, are about to part. “Look after the bag [of gold],” Novak warns, “it’s all you have in life!” “It is life” Schaeffer composedly responds; certainly the characters act as though it is. In “The Lighthouse Builder,” construction worker Vladimir brings his wife Ana to the desolate land and, not surprisingly, finds her coveted by others. Esteban, a young man exiled by his family, winds up living with the couple and makes a clumsy, ill-advised move on Ana. She tells her husband, but rather than being outraged, Vladimir is amused that this puny youngster dared to accost his wife. He delights in coming home after a day at the construction site to torment Esteban with humiliating questions: “And how goes it today? Did you or didn’t you? How was it? Did you get the treasure?” Humor and tragedy coexist in these tales redolent of the sea, but tragedy often wins out. Men who come ashore to bury a comrade who died at sea get distracted at a local tavern and leave the body to be covered by snow (“Five Sailors and a Green Coffin”). A malicious horse-breaker makes sure that the company accountant gets an untamable animal, and the predictable rapidly becomes the inevitable: The horse throws the rider, who develops hallucinations and loses track of time (“On the Horse of Dawn”). A ship’s cook “adopts” a lamb and later kills the sailor who threw it overboard (“Passage to Puerto Edén”).
Much-honored Chilean author Coloane (1910–2002) captures the geographical and psychological extremity of his native grounds in beautiful language, well translated by Curtis.