"El diario" bears some similarities to Henry James' "The Turn of the Screw": an English governess in isolating circumstances, watching over a girl and a boy. One of the characters even makes reference to Henry James, although she is unsure whether the name is Henry or Francis James. Despite the obvious homage, the story is not another retelling of James' classic. Instead, it goes off into its own curious direction of lycanthropy, predestination and the text that mediates between them.
True to its title, the story does feature the diary of Porfiria Bernal, the young girl of the family. We are introduced to the diary by Helen Fielding, the English governess taking care of her. In a "Dagon"-like touch, Miss Fielding assures us that she is writing her introduction shortly before the end. We are never given specifics on why Miss Fielding has come to be in Argentina, the circumstances which have led her to her current position, but it appears she has something of an interesting family history. She describes how she came to work for the family and her experiences and affection for Porfiria. It was Helen's suggestion that inspired Porfiria to keep a diary. Miss Fielding is taken aback a bit when Porfiria asks her whether everything you put into a diary has to have really happened or not. She doesn't think much about the question until she has managed to read the diary. It is then the narrative shifts from Miss Fielding to Porfiria's diary.
What follows appears to be a normal account of a somewhat different girl, her family and governess. The Bernal's are upper middle class and travel a fair amount during the year, spending summers on the beach. There are suggestions that more may be going on. Miss Fielding gets along well with the family, but Porfiria doesn't really trust her. Miss Fielding also appears to have a strange reaction to cats.
After several months of entries, the diary is interrupted by Miss Fielding's writing. She claims that the diary is making things happen. She has had it away from Porfiria for several days, but still the events of the last several days have taken place just as described in the entries for those days. From here the entries grow stranger. Miss Fielding becomes more violent with Porfiria, until it culminates in a near fatal accident and a surreal transformation.
It's an interesting combination of elements, one that definitely plays with your expectations. I have to admit, it came as a bit of a surprise when the diary was interrupted by MIss Fielding--sort of equivalent to realizing someone has been reading over your shoulder. There is a pretty interesting ambiguity as to what is going on, whether the diary is causing things to happen or if Miss Fielding is having a nervous breakdown. (But if she is, so it would seem is Porfiria.) In the end, though I enjoyed the story, it struck me as perhaps more comical than haunting, which may or may not have been the intended result.
Donald Hall (1928-2018)
3 weeks ago