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  • Writer's pictureAlan Bray

The Tell-Tale Heart

Kino sets off, leaving a note that the bar will be closed till further notice. He stays at a hotel, goes to the movies, hires a prostitute, all the while pondering Mr. Kamita’s message.

As per Mr. Kamita’s instructions, he sends his aunt a postcard with no identifying information. What had he not done that had caused such a serious problem?


He feels increasingly alienated, watching office workers all day from his hotel window, mystified by their seemingly meaningful lives. He sends his aunt another postcard, but this time, writes a short note on it—in defiance of Mr. Kamita’s warning. “I have to somehow get connected to reality again…(he thinks in justification)…or else I won’t be me anymore. I’ll become a man who doesn’t exist.”

So, he recklessly seeks contact with his aunt because alone, he is nothing. He’s becoming transparent. He’s not developing; he’s wasting away.

Then, apparently in consequence of writing the note on the postcard, he wakes during the night and hears a booming knock on his door. “Kino knew who was knocking…The door had to be opened by Kino’s own hand, from inside…It struck him that this visit was exactly what he’d been hoping for, yet, at the same time, what he’d been fearing above all. The ambiguous ambiguity was precisely this, holding on to an empty space between two extremes.”

This passage refers to several previous things in the text. First, Kino’s aunt had told him about how snakes—ambiguous creatures—hide their hearts outside their bodies for safekeeping. Then, Kino feels powerfully ambivalent about knowing who or what is knocking. An empty space is referred to, echoing Mr. Kamita’s warning about how things can slip inside spaces left by people who don’t do the right thing. “I wasn’t hurt enough when I should have been, Kino admitted to himself. (thinking of his divorce). When I should have felt real pain, I stifled it…I avoided facing up to it.”

Good insight.

Kino tries to hide, burrowing into the sheets and blankets. The knocking stops, then resumes right outside his hotel window, eight stories up. ”Like the sound of a heart beating with emotion.”

Kino is terrified of confronting his own heart, to see how wasted it is. He thinks of Mr. Kamita and of the gray cat, clutching at those memories to save himself.

But the knocking persists.

“In a small dark room, somewhere inside Kino, s warm hand was reaching out to him. Eyes shut, he felt that hand on his soft and substantial. He’d forgotten this, had been apart from it for far too long. Yes, I am hurt. Very, very deeply…And he wept. In that dark, still room.”

Ultimately, then, Kino must confront the deep sadness he feels. There is something in him that saves him, it’s manifested in the story in several forms—the cat, Mr. Kamita, his aunt, and finally an internal vision of a warm hand reaching for him. Our friends the Freudians would salivate over this, I’m sure. In any case, I think what we have in Kino is the story of an extremely reluctant transformation. Kino begins with a backlog of hurt that he denies. He dallies with evil and pain as ways to soothe his despair but maintains an ambivalent stance, unwilling to commit himself till the point at which he reveals his location and is tracked down by his wounded, ambivalent heart. But then in the final paragraph, he saves himself by admitting how he really feels.

(whiny voice; ‘Scuse me, ‘scuse me, Mr. Pretentious Bully. Last time you said you were gonna talk about magical realism, so when are you gonna do it?)

‘Kay. I’m happy you reminded me, dear whiny voice. The least intelligent among us will grasp that some things in the story seem a bit…magical. Let’s remember our definition from last time. Magical realism is a narrative strategy that is characterized by the matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic or mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction. I think it’s fair to describe Mr. Kamita and the cat this way. In any case, Kino knows little about them except for the ways they affect him, they are one-dimensional characters who try to protect him from danger. We’ve talked about how Mr. Kamita appears to be an allegorical character, a character who refers to a larger theme or to the idea of being a guardian.

Indeed, there is plenty of verisimilitude in Kino, plenty to seduce us into the illusion of it being a “real” story. But this device of allegory reminds us that this is fiction and makes us aware of the implied author at work, shaping our experience of the tale.

On the dark side of allegory and magical realism, we have the snakes and then Kino’s heart, which tries to get to him, apparently to confront him with how it’s devoid of any depth or weight—due, I think, to his maltreatment of it. Both the snakes and the heart seem to be unrealistic, magical things put into a realistic setting. A heart that could knock at a hotel door in the middle of the night and then climb to an eighth-floor window outside?


Snakes, I don’t know so much about snakes. But the story’s description of a series of multi-colored reptiles appearing outside of Kino’s bar seems mostly fantastic. And we have the story Kino’s aunt has provided of how snakes are ambiguous creatures who leave their hearts elsewhere for safety. That’s magic, best beloved. Real living creatures can’t remove their hearts.

I also said, in Kino, magical realism is used as a tool to find an identity, not to confirm it, meaning that all the elements—the cat, the woman with the burns, Mr. Kamita, the snakes, the heart—work to push Kino toward the climactic final moment in the story when he acknowledges he is deeply hurt. His transformation is to go from being ambivalent and uninvolved to feeling intense and genuine pain.

The thing Mr. Kamita warned him about, the thing Kino did not do, was to care for his heart. He mostly did not do the wrong thing. He did not assault his ex-wife or her lover, he did not water the drinks in his bar, but he did not do the right thing in acknowledging his pain. He tried to deny and hide it.

‘Kay. Till next time.


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