The Earthquake In Chile by Heinrich von Kleist, 1807
The magic trick:
Establishing a remarkably enticing premise in the first paragraph
We’re off to Germany this week, though technically we begin in South America.
I read this story in the middle of the night, thinking maybe a couple pages of a very old German story might be just the thing to nurse me back to sleep after a frustrating two hours of tossing and turning in bed.
It was not a good decision.
Not only was I so riveted by the story that I had to finish it in one sitting, the plot was so harrowing it kept me awake at least an hour further processing what I’d just read.
Great story. Not a great sleep aid.
Just the consider the opening scene. We are introduced to a man who has decided to hang himself in his prison cell just as a massive earthquake rocks Santiago. In a moment he goes from preparing to tie a rope around his neck to clinging for dear life to the same very same pillar as the prison collapses around him.
Not so easy to put down the book from there.
And that’s quite a trick on Kleist’s part.
In Santiago, the capital of the Kingdom of Chile, at the very moment when the great earth tremors of the year 1647 struck, in the wake of which many thousands found their doom, a young Spaniard by the name of Jeronimo Rugera, accused of a crime, stood beside a pillar of the prison in which he’d been incarcerated and wanted to hang himself. Don Henrico Asteron, one of the wealthiest noblemen in town, had about a year before chased him out of his house, where he was at the time employed as a tutor, because he had been found to have a tender entanglement with Donna Josephe, Don Henrico’s only daughter. The old Don, who had expressly warned his daughter, was enraged to such an extent by a secret denunciation conveyed to him, thanks to the crafty eavesdropping of his proud son, that he himself had his daughter sent off to the Carmelite Cloister of Our Beloved Lady of the Mountain.
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