Usage of the phrase “wolf by the ears” was first attributed to the Roman emperor Tiberius by his biographer Suetonious: “The cause of his hesitation was fear of the dangers which threatened him on every hand, and often led him to say that he was ‘holding a wolf by the ears.’” The phrase was also used repeatedly in the context of precarious political situations by Thomas Jefferson, and though it may not be common enough to be considered a standard idiom, it feels familiar, and its sense is unmistakable—Danger: Wolf. The beast has been captured, but it is far from under our control, and in holding it captive we have also become subject to its power. In the Spanish expression “verle las orejas al lobo” (literally, to see the ears of the wolf), danger is avoided by respecting the wolf’s power to cause harm. To see the ears of the wolf is to see the writing on the wall—to see trouble on the horizon and to change course to avoid it.
The two expressions describe opposite situations—in one case an encounter with a powerful being has led to a predicament where neither action nor inaction is safe, while in the other safety is assured by intentionally avoiding the encounter—but both deal with the same issues of power and danger, and both evoke the thrilling, terrifying feeling of teetering on the brink of something. It is this instability, this dance between beauty and horror, fear and elation, and this delicate navigation of power, which can turn one into the other, that animates Antonio Ungar’s singular, captivating novel The Ears of the Wolf. The Colombian-born writer’s book was recently published in a beautiful bilingual edition by Brutas Editoras, a small independent press based in Santiago, Chile, and New York City.
Throughout the text as much as in the title, Katherine Silver’s stunningly poetic and crystalline rendering of Ungar’s straightforward yet artful prose is a case of meaning found in translation. The echo of the English phrase, opposite yet complementary to the Spanish idiom, both subverts and deepens the Spanish title, and the production choice to have the book read in two directions—English one way and Spanish the other, with similar though not identical covers that face in opposite directions—is perfectly suited to the text. In the world of The Ears of the Wolf, everything is flipped: through the eyes of the precocious young narrator, a party is nightmarish and school recess is a battleground, but blood causes laughter and abuse brings joy.
The story is told in two halves, subtitled “Dark Days” and “Clear Days,” each of which is broken into episodes with simple titles that could be ‘90s rock songs: “Honey,” “Survivors,” or “Fat Man (Green Car),” for example. At the beginning of the book, the narrator is three years old; by the end he is seven. The voice, however, is anything but childlike: though the prose is often matter-of-fact, we get the sense that it is underwritten by a powerful, even frightening, wisdom. From the first scene, the narrator establishes his authority, and he brooks no argument: “I am a child but I am also something else, something much stronger,” he tells us on the second page. When he later reveals that the “something else” is a tiger, his commanding tone has already upset the border between fancy and reality, and we feel it would be an error to dismiss this as mere metaphor.
In The Ears of the Wolf, the boy-narrator’s vision turns the world into a magical place, and because of his authority and our sympathy for him, we as readers accept his descriptions. Reality is the intruder, and it is the intrusions of reality, not the child’s poetic visions, that need to be parsed and decoded—is the jolly fat man who pulls “something that looks like a white rubber band” out of his pants playing with the children or abusing them? Is it really yellow juice that he serves the narrator, or something more sinister? Indeed, reality does intrude, and harshly. The Ears of the Wolf tells the story of a child’s broken youth, marked by a ghostly father who disappears from his family, the forced conformism of a brief, unhappy tenure at school, makeshift homes with a succession of relatives and friends—sometimes alone, sometimes with the narrator’s mother and his idolized sister—and the hint of sexual abuse by the mother’s new boyfriend. All of this occurs against the backdrop of a Colombia that we only glimpse. Other than passing mention of soldiers and men on a truck, and a brief, unexplained trip to Panama, recognizable marks of contemporary Colombia are absent, and even specific locations are called by epithets like “the city of the cold.”
Though the book does not draw a vivid geopolitical picture, it is, in fact, largely built of images—beautiful, often shocking, unforgettable images. The narrator’s sister’s honey-coated body covered with bees that do not sting her because she is too pure and too “powerful” in her “limitless strength and seriousness.” Hallways paved with flowers. A frog imprisoned in a glass of water covered by a book. Often the poetry of the images derives from their very banality, or rather from their transformation from ordinary things into objects of significance and beauty.
Ultimately the “magic” here is of a very recognizable kind: It is the child’s understanding that transforms the world around him. It is easy to relate to the childish impulse that drives the narrator’s conviction that the only way to survive recess is to march in a straight line across the playground without stopping. This faith in the value of seemingly naïve or futile actions is something the adult reader understands as “magical thinking.” But in fact, this outlook allows him to transcend the pain and violence that so often surrounds him, by embracing it and willfully understanding it as beautiful. When his playground march is interrupted, he allows himself to be beaten up, to become his attacker’s “toy,” while his sister watches with a sphinx-like “smile behind her eyes”:
Anything to make my sister laugh, who will then make me laugh from the solidity of her body. When the ugly boy pushes me, I roll over three times. When the ugly boy hits me, I fold in half. Like a circus clown. I kneel down, feeling the laughter growing in my chest . . . I feel the blood dripping down my throat and this makes me laugh much harder because blood tastes good, and it’s warm.
In a life where he has seemingly so little control, depending as he must on the whims of adults who shuttle him from place to place, depriving him of a real home, of his “real house in the middle of the countryside, where you don’t have to look at things or games up close, where all you have to do is be and breathe,” adults who seem to understand nothing, the boy survives by seizing power: through laughter, through transgression, through imagination. By the end of the book, the reader understands the narrator’s pity for his grandfather, who jokingly asks whether the boy hunted many jaguars in the jungle, not knowing that he in fact spent the night sleeping peacefully next to one, awaking to find himself covered in the blood of a pig recently ravaged by his animal companion. After all, the grandfather is “just a grown-up.”
After becoming so fully immersed in the narrator’s disturbing, beautiful world, the conclusion is moving, even euphoric. Dressed in a wolf costume for a school play, the boy’s strength suddenly cracks:
And I realize I am no longer a tiger. Or a wolf. I’m just me. A boy. That they haven’t even let me pull my socks up over my pant legs for the play. That my red mane is hidden under my mask, that instead of suspenders I’m wearing a wolf’s skin that doesn’t let me move my arms or bend my legs.
As he enters the stage, his mask gets caught on the curtain and twisted around so that he can’t see. And then, just when darkness and fear threaten to overcome him, he hears laughter—a laughter that turns the ugly adults in the audience into a crowd of happy elephants. And he dances, a tiger in wolf’s clothing, to thunderous applause.
It is a celebratory note to end on, but the book’s real beauty lies in the fact that the joy we take in the ending is not unalloyed. The narrator’s strength and creative survival is extraordinary, even inspiring, but it is clear that the dark background that necessitates it is only held at bay, not conquered. The narrator’s triumph is a tenuous one; the comfort and security offered by the knowledge that his mother is in the audience, applauding, beautiful in a green dress, is of a kind that cannot last. Ungar’s book is ultimately powerful in its fragility, in its celebration of beauty wrested from pain—conditional, bittersweet, unexpected—but for that all the more precious.