Story Playlist 23: The Man from the South

Roald Dahl: “The Man from the South” (1948) Most folks know Roald Dahl for his wonderful children’s books, like The BFG (Big Friendly Giant), James and the Giant Peach, or Matilda (now a Broadway musical), but Dahl led a number of lives. He was a spy during World War Two, and an older generation knows him for his razor-sharp, creepy short stories for adults, the most famous of which is “The Man from the South.”

The story is simple. Our narrator, an Englishman on holiday in Jamaica, is joined poolside by a man dressed in a white suit and cream-colored hat, who speaks with a Spanish accent (“the” is both written and pronounced “de”). This Man from the South (i.e., South America) engages in a bet with a young American sailor, who is trying to show off to an English girl he has just met. The sailor offers to bet a dollar that he can light the Man’s cigar outdoors on the first try with his Zippo-style lighter. The Man makes a counter-bet, offering his new Cadillac if the boy can successfully light his lighter ten times in a row. The sailor is intrigued and asks what he would have to forfeit, if he fails. The Man replies that it is something small that he would not miss—the pinky finger of his left hand.

As soon as the counter-prize is stated, the general tension brewed by Dahl in the slightly-awkward back-and-forth of the Man and the sailor leaps up to a higher level of dread that prompts the reader’s heart to leap with it. What seemed playful becomes sinister.

Our nervousness at the situation is contrasted by the bright and playful environment in which it takes place—poolside at a sunny Jamaican resort. The narrator expresses his dismay at this bet, as does the English girl, who thinks it is foolish. But the young sailor takes the bet anyway. Why is not clear, though he rationalizes that he’s never needed his pinky and would certainly like a Cadillac. Why the Man would want a pinky finger is not asked.

The narrator is roped into refereeing, and they adjourn to the Man’s hotel room. There the Man asks a maid to bring him nails, a hammer, and a meat cleaver. He hammers the nails into the hotel desk so that he can tie the sailor’s hand down to it. The sailor offers his hand, clenched but with the pinky extended, so the Man can lop it off before the sailor has second thoughts, should he lose the bet. The Man hands the car keys to the narrator, and the sailor begins flicking his lighter.

Dahl produces a wonderfully-tense countdown of successful lightings of the lighter, until we reach the ninth. Just then a woman bursts into the room, sees what is happening, and berates the Man in a flurry of Spanish. The bet is cancelled. The woman explains that this Man is her husband, and he is mentally unstable. He has taken 47 fingers and lost 11 Cadillacs—and all the Cadillacs were hers, and not his to bet. She then adds that everything that was once his is now hers, that she won it after hard work. Dahl then provides a marvelous kicker of a last line, when we see that the woman has only two fingers on one of her hands.

The story works beautifully, providing natural tension, and it is no surprise that it has been made into short films on several occasions, including by Alfred Hitchcock (starring Steve McQueen and Peter Lorre). What we are to make of the bizarre scene and the dynamic between the woman and her mad husband is another question, one which, happily, Dahl does not answer for us. To answer it would be to remove the mystery, and the sustenance of an enduring mystery based on a haunting situation is far more powerful than a mystery that is “explained away.”

Magritte is my favorite painter, because his paintings, with evocative titles, draw the viewer into a sense of a mystery to be solved—but then he does not solve it. David Lynch is the nearest approximation on-screen, with Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive two famous examples of engrossing mysteries that Lynch, arguably, never bothered to conceive solutions to. The goal is to draw us into the mystery, encourage us to seek its solution, but never to give us the satisfaction of feeling that we have solved it. To solve it would be to dismiss it, to move on. By never offering a solution, we remain haunted by the mystery. And after all, all great artists hope to haunt us.