Impaled on an Orchid: Carlos Fuentes' Panamanian Allegory

Original By Jeffrey C. Barnett

In “Litany of the Orchid,” Carlos Fuentes delves into the fantastic to confront the reader with a seemingly absurd circumstance: the main character, Muriel, awakens one morning to find a beautiful orchid has sprouted from his coccyx. In typical Fuentes fashion, the fantastic serves to shroud an allegory that holds social significance. The ensuing actions carry a symbolic warning for Panama, which turns out to be both victim and culprit in Fuentes’ socially-minded, moralistic parable. At a first reading, “Litany” may seem to be a hermetic text, a failed avant-garde experiment that obfuscates its cryptic meaning within an over-stylized prose. But the story has been dismissed too quickly: “Litany” offers great insight into the early mindset of Fuentes and, more importantly, frames the discussion of Panama with a unique voice.

To understand “Litany of the Orchid” more fully, it is important to situate it within the context of the seminal collection in which it first appeared. Like other stories in The Masked Days (1954), “Litany” offers a strange blend of the fantastic and social realism. Most remembered for the often anthologized short story “Chac Mool,” The Masked Days initiates Fuentes’ vision of the fantastic as a destructive force that controls the character's destiny and serves to elicit a social reading of the text.[i] With this understanding of the fantastic in mind, a structural relationship becomes evident throughout the collection. The conflict in each story centers around a fantastic force portrayed as a pre-Columbian deity, an allegorical figure, or symbolic entity. Secondly, in each work the conflict comes about because the protagonist fails to properly recognize or acknowledge the fantastic. And finally, in each instance the consequence of the characters’ actions result in his or her demise, leading the reader to a social message. Each story holds a caveat for the Latin American to acknowledge, recognize, and be loyal to one’s own culture over the temptation to give in to outside forces, especially those brought about by capitalist greed (Barnett 68).

While the volume’s message may be straightforward, the manner in which the fantastic unfolds deserves closer attention. In the case of “Litany,” Muriel allegorically embodies Panama as the orchid does the canal. The reader, of course, is unaware of the symbolism at the story’s outset and instead sees Muriel merely as an anti-hero bored with life. He takes refuge from the heat and monsoons by lying in bed, letting his mind wander, and playfully repeating Panama’s rhythmic indigenous and African words: “Sluggish, he played around with the nonsensical musicality of his country’s jitanjáforas, those seemingly invented words that exist solely for their rhythmic beauty. The nation was full of them; they were the feet it rested upon: Alanje, Guararé, Macaracas, Arraiján, Chiriquí, / Sambu, Chitré, Penonomé / Chicán, Cocolí, Portogandí.”[ii] His mundane, uneventful existence, however, changes when he wakes up to find his emotional outlook has adopted a new physical symptom: “At that very moment, Muriel felt an itch on his ass. Scratching it only made it worse. It was something more ... a lump that seemed independent from the rest of his body.”

The reader is first unlikely to question Muriel’s altered state of reality, since he initially thinks “the swollen welt” might be the result of some type of insect bite or a tropical disease brought on by the “green grime” of the rainy season. In fact, some type of Darwinian naturalism is at stake—especially as the humidity causes the abnormality to swell into “a medallion of puss.” Nonetheless, what the reader holds as likely and plausible in Muriel’s world suddenly erupts—or better said, protrudes—when he makes his way to the mirror. His reflection reveals the unexpected, leaving him in a state of vertiginous confusion: “Yellow and violet petals, a rod-like stamen of pollen, a bulbous stem: a flawless orchid of abandoned symmetry had been born, indifferent to the terrain on which it had sprouted. An orchid was coming out of his ass!”

The reader is unsure whether to be frightened, repulsed, confused or merely tolerant of the ambiguity of an orchid that has just sprouted from his coccyx. Muriel after a moment’s consideration takes a different approach: one of pragmatism. He soon figures out that by cutting a hole in the seat of his pants and allowing the orchid to jut out the back “in a hypnotizing sway,” he can still parade around in public.

The absurd and suggestive image of Muriel sauntering through the marketplace with an orchid protruding from the seat of his pants seems farcical, but completely appropriate, as he dresses the part for the ostentatious and irreverent Carnival season. Once he learns to cope with his unnatural condition, he embraces his circumstance and glorifies it as an eccentricity, “a sartorial statement of joy” and prestige that sets him apart.

Still more jubilant and Freudian, Muriel takes delight in watching the orchid transform and change colors as he sprinkles it with coconut water; the orchid’s petals tickling him in turn. The most overt example of the Freudian imagery occurs the Happyland bar: “That night, Muriel danced like never before; the orchid bounced to the beat, its sap ran down his heels, it rose up to his chest, it dropped him to his knees, it excited him to the verge of passionate tears. From the root of the orchid came shrieking, tense waves like a litany. Chimbombó, my god! Chimbombó!” The phallic imagery of an orchid secreting sap as the dancer collapses from ecstasy amidst screams of exaltation may seem far-fetched, but the insinuations are further strengthened when one recalls that the Greek etymology of “orchid” is testicle (f. Greek, orxij; Latin, orchis).

Just when one accepts that the purpose of the story rests solely on the sensual, the narrator’s attitude takes yet another turn. From astonishment to pragmatism and on to sensuality, Muriel ultimately realizes that “the orchid was a treasure planted—at that moment, anyhow—in the greenhouse of his ass!” His epiphany leads him to consider it as an organic and sustainable source of lucrative income: “If this one had sprouted, why shouldn’t it germinate others, unique orchids in infinite variations? Orchids that could be put on ice and shipped by plane to thousands of cities where they’d wind up in the hands of women who still faithfully believed in courteous gestures.”

The orchid, once obstacle, is now opportunity. Muriel only has to cut off the orchid each morning, sell it, and wait for another to grow back. With one quick slice, he severs the orchid form his coccyx and imagines the fortune he will amass. But he pays the price for his greed: the orchid ceases to sprout outwardly and the root transforms into a splintery stake which turns inward and impales him, bringing to mind an ancient punishment for sodomy:

Muriel wasn’t able to scream; with a splitting crack, the stake tore through his legs, spilling blood forth, skewering his entrails, devouring his nerves, slowly yet deliberately splintering his very soul.... Muriel lay split in half, impaled, his arms splayed out in opposite directions. In the almost dry vase, the petals of the withered orchid reflected a swell of light in Muriel’s dead eyes.  Outside, between the prepositions, Panama hung from its own teeth. Pro Mundi Beneficio

The final words of the story leave the reader with an intentionally ironic barb. Fuentes closes the story with Panama’s national motto, Pro mundi beneficio [‘for the benefit of the world’] in an effort to challenge the matter of who is truly the beneficiary of the canal. If Muriel’s death has been brought about by the orchid, then who has benefitted? By analogy, if Panama has been forced to surrender its autonomy in favor of others, then who truly benefits? To make this rhetorical connection one must accept that Muriel’s implausible circumstances can be attributed to the allegorical. As stated, Muriel stands as the embodiment of Panama whereas the orchid—Panama’s national flower—represents the canal. The orchid has unnaturally severed Muriel in two parts, just as the canal has done, and all for the sake of monetary expedience. The “Muriel / Panama” character is beneficiary of nature but when the “Orchid / Canal” is exploited, it becomes the fantastic agent that severs the protagonist in two.

Once the allegorical code has broken, the story’s pieces fit into its matrix. Fuentes’ message is unambiguous: the natural has been transformed into the corrupted. The construction of the canal, built by outsiders for imperialistic and capitalistic gain, is as unnatural as the severed orchid sold for profit. Just as the orchid / stake has severed Muriel in two, the canal has similarly cut a gash through Panama for economic gain. Consequently, having defiled nature, the canal / orchid runs its course, impaling its owner and leading to its demise. The once seemingly attractive and viably economic venture of the orchid / canal brings death due to greed and cultural betrayal. 

While the effect is death and the agent is the canal, the true cause is prostitution, or rather the prostitution of Panama. Its lack of autonomy brought about by capitalism and greed from outside forces have led to his demise. But this is not a story that presents a solution to Panama’s situation and occupation, rather it is one of advocacy and solidarity. As Brushwood points out, “The reader participates not by understanding Muriel as a human individual, but as the symbol of a political situation” (23). The orchid itself is less to blame than the forces who have given in to self-exploitation and the systemic machine that allows Muriel /  Panama to profit.

Not only has Fuentes contrived an unusual allegory, he has done so through intensely poetic prose, a prose so laden with rich imagery that Brushwood considers it “mildly disconcerting” (23). For example, “The murky water accumulated aimlessly along the asphalt borders, subconsciously fearing the pull of the drainage systems ....” Whether emulation or parody of the Modernists, these and other examples seem to support the notion that “Litany” should be viewed as a youthful experiment in style and message. Fuentes explicitly illustrates the polemical and immutable icon—the Canal of the 1950s—all the while obfuscating his message within a baroquely rich poetic. It could even be argued that Fuentes employs the over-the-top style perhaps intentionally to disguise the commonplace message. That is to say Fuentes takes a well-trodden commentary and brings it into his own artistic voice. In doing so, his experimental use of poetic and allegorical language allows him to protest the U.S. occupation and control of the Panamanian territory, an exploitative act that will lead to the nation’s demise just as it did emblematically to Muriel. Moreover, as in the other stories in The Masked Days, the farcical circumstances of an orchid that impales its exploiter demonstrate a tenuous link on the one hand between a credible world invaded by elements of the fantastic and, on the other, a fantastic world which embraces commonly accepted traits of reality. It is this tenuous link which affords the author the aesthetic discourse to go beyond the mere didacticism of social thesis and, instead, convey a poetic allegory the reader must decipher.

[i] Lanin Gyurko points out a similar destructive usage of the fantastic in Cortázar's works.  Gyurko asserts that Cortázar presents the fantastic as an initial means of emancipation, a freedom or escape; yet, the creative potential of the fantastic inverts to a “tyrannical” force when the same medium which has offered the character emancipation now entraps him. (Gyurko 219). 

[ii] All quoted citations from “Letanía de la orquídea” (“Litany of the Orchid”) are my own translation and are found at Exchanges Literary Journal, U of Iowa, Fall / Winter, 2015. Web.

Works Cited

Barnett, Jeffrey C. “Vengeance is Mine: The Role of the Fantastic in Carlos Fuentes' Los días enmascarados.” Short Story Criticism. Ed. Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 125 (2009), 68-73. Print.

Brushwood, John. “Los días enmascarados and Cantar de ciegos” in A Critical View:Carlos Fuentes by   Robert Brody and Charles Rossman, eds. (UT Press, 1982), 18-33. Print.

Dominguez, Daniel Z. “Se fue uno de los grandes.” Cine y más. Web.

Fuentes, Carlos. Los días enmascarados. Mexico City: Biblioteca Era, 1954. Print.

----------. “Litany of the Orchid.” Trans. Jeffrey C. Barnett. Exchanges Literary Journal. U of Iowa, Fall /   Winter, 2015. Web. Dec. 5, 2015.

Gyurko, Lanin. “La fantasía como emancipación y como tiranía en tres cuentos de Cortázar.”   Revista iberoamericana, 41   [1975], pp. 219-236. Print.