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The Flying Fish (El pez volador) by Hipólito G. Navarro – A Review of the Spanish Short Story

EL PEZ VOLADOR
Hipólito G. Navarro
PAGINAS DE ESPUMA, 2008
Occasionally when you begin a short story collection it is quickly apparent that you are reading something masterful where each story shows great attention to structure, language and narrative. That might be enough to make a good collection, but Hipólito G. Navarro’s El pez volador goes beyond the well written and gives one a collection where every story is written in a different style so that his stories keep evolving and suggesting new ways to construct a story. His stories, if one has to categorize them, move from the somewhat realistic interior monologue to meta fiction to more stream of consciousness, although, each of those terms only serves to constrain his work. And little seems to constrain his work which is always surprising, whether it is a twist at the end of a story, a sudden shift in perspective, or his ever present sense of humor, the stories reveal Navarro as a master and one of important writers in the revitalization of the Spanish short story.

Brevity, Darkness, Humor

For Navarro, story telling is a two fold act: telling a story, and telling the story of the story.

El pez volador from Páginas de Espuma (unavailable in English) is a collection of Navarro’s stories published over the last 15 – 20 years. It is hard to know what order they were published in, which might give a sense of his development, but there is a sense of progression, from more familiar story telling to the more meta. Yet that gives the impression that everything he writes about is self referential and refers only to story telling, which is far from the case. For example, Las notas vicrias (The Vicar’s Grades) two boys are given an old piano from a move theater. They spend all their time playing it even though it is missing a few keys. They struggle to learn how to play, to master the music of the Beatles and the Blues, often ignoring their homework, which gets them in trouble. After a few years when they have become good musicians, a stranger moves to the outskirts of town where one of the boy’s father had sold him a house in his orchard. The man is solitary and there are whispers around town about the man who they call the vicar, but the narrator, 30 years latter, doesn’t understand why they used that word, which suggests he was celibate. The narrator knows he lived alone, so he finds the gossip confusing. One day his friend’s father has the piano tuned. When the boys go to play it they learn, to their horror, that what they had learned to play sounds horrible on the newly tuned piano. It isn’t music any more, and they give up, never to play it again. On top of the piano is a card from the tuner: it is the man who has moved to the orchard. Years latter he remembers that the home in the orchard burned down and the piano tuner died. No one cared much but there was talk that the fire was arson and the story ends as the narrator says,

…Rafa y yo, sabemos positivamente que sí que fue provocado.

…Rafa and I, we know that it was arson.

Many of the common elements of Navarro’s stories are here. First there is the humor, a kind of humor based in inexperience or naiveté. His stories are not cruel, and bitter satire is not one of his methods. Following the humor, is a kind of unsettling of dreams, not so much a shattering, although the boys certainly have their dreams shattered, but a comic undoing of what a first seemed so obvious—the piano is in tune. Yet that isn’t to say there isn’t darkness in his work. The conclusion suggests something extremely dark, a violence and revenge that is quite passionate. However, that violence is off page, something only hinted at and softened by the multiplicities of interpretations of the story. The multiplicity of possibilities and the disparate elements that make up the motivations of the story are another trademark of his work. Navarro, leaves as much unsaid as possible. For him, it as if the shorter the better. Las notas nicrias is slightly more than four pages, yet in that brevity he is able to be both funny and dark, starting with a coming of age story that ends in revenge and suggestions of abuse.

The stories Las frutas mas dulces (The Sweetest Fruit) and La cabeza nevada (The Snowy Head) are similar in style, and the power in these stories is how he reveals what is actually happening. In La cabeza neveda it is only until the last moment does a shift in understanding in who the narrator is does the story finally describe reveal itself. It isn’t so much that the story makes no sense until then, rather he lets you make sense of the story, then says what I just told you is true, but you made an assumption where you shouldn’t have. In Las frutas mas dulces he goes again into the dark. In a scant three pages he describes a young girl who gets revenge on her uncle by having sex with a boy who comes into his melon fields to violate the melons. While the girl has her revenge,  the question what kind of revenge has she gotten and with whom? Again, Navarro leaves one with more question than he answers.

Playing With Stories

Moving into the more meta or experimental, the story El tren para Irún, por favor? (The Train for Irun, Please?) is told with only questions. Every sentence is a question and it leaves many open ended thoughts. Yet he has structured it so that many of the questions are implicitly answered by the following question. It is an effective technique, although, I found myself a little tired of it part of the way through and then warmed to it again as the life of the narrator filled out more and more. El tren is probably the most autobiographical piece, too. In his interviews he has mentioned his father who owned a bar in a village in southern Spain and who eventually died of alcoholism. In this story, a son is returning to a village after his father has died. He hasn’t seen him for years and is full of questions about what he will find. Will he ever get to know his father, understand what it was like to be an immigrant in Germany in the early 70’s. From these questions, though, the troubled father emerges. Despite the unsettling number of questions, El tren para Irún, por favor? is probably the story that is the closest in theme to modern American short stories: family dysfunction.

In A buen entendor (Dieciocho cuentos muy pequeños redactados ipsofácticamente) (A Good Understander — 18 very small stories edited ipso factly) Navarro dispenses with even the semblance of traditional story telling and gives the reader a series of short pieces with titles that seem to edit themselves, as if there were two voices talking. Each piece seems unconnected with the next, but as the story comes to an end they begin to refine themselves and the story that contains the little stories finally takes shape. The writing is some of his most playful and meta at the same time. For example, he opens the story with this piece that sets the action, but also makes a little joke with the repetition of the title in the first phrase.

I came about the anouncment
—I came about the announcement.
—Alright! You already told everyone about it.

Listen, this thing about fucking interests me
—Listen, this thing about fucking interest me.
—Alright! You already told everyone about it.

Yo venía por lo del anuncio
—Yo venía por lo del anuncio.
—Ya!, eso sel lo dirás todas.

Hombre, eso de follar me interesa
—Hombre, eso de follar me interesa.
—Ya, eso se lo dirás a todas.

Later, after several short bits, the phrase is repeated, but in a longer, more contextual frame:

I Came About the Anouncement
—I came about the announcement, he told her.
—Don’t fuck with me, she answered surprised (and no wonder).
—Listen, this thing about fucking interests me, came out suddenly.
—Alright, you already told everyone about it, replied the woman, inevitably.

Yo venía por lo del anuncio
—Yo venía por lo del anuncio — le dijo.
—No me jodas — contstó ella asmobrada (y no era para menos).
—Hombre, es que eso de follar me interesa -soltó el de pronto.
—Ya, eso se le dirás a todas —replicó la chica, inevitablemente.

Each of these parts slowly builds a story and and expands the story. Ultimately, in the last bit he puts all the pieces together and each of them is a different way of looking at the character and his way of thinking. At the same time it is a way of looking at how a story is constructed in pieces, as if the characters who are living the story are writing it too.

Navarro’s playfulness extends to the title story, too. In Sucedáneo: pez volador (relato en varios tiempos e higienes) (Substitute: Flying Fish — A Story in Various Tempos and Hygienes) Navarro again plays with structure. This time he breaks ups the story into numbered sections that are thematically grouped by the numbering. He then breaks up all the story into little sections that are imagistic and leave the reader, as he does in so many of his stories, wondering how the story will come together. In Pez volador another one his common elements appears: the natural world. Navarro, a former biology student, put vivid descriptions of the natural world in his works. In this story the main character keeps his bath tub as a kind of stagnate pond filled with worms, fish, and other creatures. It is not only a pond for observing, but one for bathing in and the protagonist spends his time sitting in the bath letting the creature crawling over him. Naturally, that is something one would not want to let others know and he keeps the shameful secret. The contrast of the secret with the intertwining stories creates a tension that, as in many of the stories, the characters are isolated, in a world of their own making. The resolution of the story, brining the natural into the larger world, the character out his isolation, and tying all the threads of the story together, again creates a story whose resolution is not only the end of the story, but a resolution of that one particular exploration of story telling. For Navarro, story telling is a two fold act: telling a story, and telling the story of the story.

Navarro is considered one of the preeminent short story writers of the last 30 years. His works, especially El aburimiento, Lester (The boredom, Lester), have been touchstones for the revitalization of the Spanish short story since Spain emerged from the dictatorship of Franco. With his power as a story teller and stylist his stories are a continuation of the legacy of of the Spanish language short story by such notables as Julio Cortazar. Hopefully, one day more of his work will be available in English.

What’s In English?

So far there isn’t too much English from Navarro. This is a shame and hopefully more will become available. Unfortunately, he has two strikes against him: American’s don’t read a lot of works in translation; and short story collections tend not to be published. Mix the to together and we may be waiting for some time There are a few works out there for the diligent and I would recommend reading his stories if you can. The NH Hotel chain published a collection of stories called, Bedside stories 6, which contains a couple of stories. I have yet to see a copy anywhere on the Intenent, so good luck finding it. In the collection Been There, Read That! Stories for the Armchair Traveller from The University of Victoria in New Zeeland he has one story. The book is readily available through sites like Abe Books. And the author has said that his translator Nicola Gilmour is working on a story for Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction, one can only hope it will come out in 2011. If it does come out, it will be the easiest way for and American to read one of his stories.

Occasionally when you begin a short story collection it is quickly apparent that you are reading something masterful where each story shows great attention to structure, language and narrative. That might be enough to make a good collection, but Hipólito G. Navarro’s El pez volador goes beyond the well written and gives one a collection where every story is written in a different style so that his stories keep evolving and suggesting new ways to construct a story. His stories, if one has to categorize them, move from the somewhat realistic interior monologue to meta fiction to more stream of consciousness, although, each of those terms only serves to constrain his work. And little seems to constrain his work which is always surprising, whether it is a twist at the end of a story, a sudden shift in perspective, or his ever present sense of humor, the stories reveal Navarro as a master and one of important writers in the revitalization of the Spanish short story.

El pez volador from Páginas de Espuma (unavailable in English) is a collection of Navarro’s stories published over the last 15 – 20 years. It is hard to know what order they were published in, which might give a sense of his development, but there is a sense of progression, from more familiar story telling to the more meta. Yet that gives the impression that everything he writes about is self referential and refers only to story telling, which is far from the case. For example, Las Notas Vicrias (The Vicar’s Grades) two boys are given an old piano from a move theater. They spend all their time playing it even though it is missing a few keys. They struggle to learn how to play, to master the music of the Beatles and the Blues, often ignoring their homework, which gets them in trouble. After a few years when they have become good musicians, a stranger moves to the outskirts of town where one of the boy’s father had sold him a house in his orchard. The man is solitary and there are whispers around town about the man who they call the vicar, but the narrator, 30 years latter, doesn’t understand why they used that word, which is similar to priest and suggests he was celibate. The narrator knows he lived alone, so he finds the gossip confusing. One day his friend’s father has the piano tuned. When the boys go to play it they learn, to their horror, that what they had learned to play sounds horrible on the newly tuned piano. It isn’t music any more, and they give up, never to play it again. On top of the piano is a card from the tuner, who is the man who has moved to the orchard. Years latter he remembers that the home in the orchard burned down and the piano tuner died. No one cared much but there was talk that the fire was arson and the story ends as the narrator says,

…Rafa y yo, sabemos positivamente que sí que fue provocado.

…Rafa and I, we know that it was arson.

Many of the common elements of Navarro’s stories are here. First there is the humor, a kind of humor based in inexperience or naiveté. His stories are not cruel and bitter satire is not one of his methods. Following the humor, is a kind of unsettling of dreams, not so much a shattering, although the boys certainly have their dreams shattered, but a comic undoing of what a first seemed so obvious—the piano is playing correctly. Yet that isn’t to say there isn’t darkness in his work. The conclusion suggests something extremely dark, a violence and revenge that is quite passionate. However, that violence is off page, something only hinted at and softened by the multiplicities of interpretations of the story. The multiplicity of possibilities and the disparate elements that make up the motivations of the story are another trademark of his work. Navarro, is a master of leaving as much unsaid as possible. For him, it as if the shorter the better. Las Notas Vicrias is slightly more than four pages, yet in that brevity he is able to be both funny and dark, starting with a coming of age story that ends in revenge and suggestions of abuse.

The stories Las frutas mas dulces (The Sweetest Fruit) and La cabeza nevada (The Snowy Head) are similar in style, and the power in these stories is how he reveals what is actually happening. In La cabeza neveda it is only until the last moment does a shift in understanding in who the narrator is does the story finally describe reveal itself. It isn’t so much that the story makes no sense until then, rather he lets you make sense of the story, then says what I just told you is true, but you made an assumption where you shouldn’t have. In Las frutas mas dulces he find goes again into the dark. In a scant three pages he describes a young girl who gets revenge on her uncle by having sex with a boy who comes into his melon fields to violate the melons. While the girl has her revenge,  the question what kind of revenge has she gotten and with whom? Again, Navarro sets leaves one with more question than he answers.

Moving into the more meta or experimental, the story El tren para Irún, por favor? is told with only questions. Every sentence is a question and it leaves many open ended thoughts. Yet he has structured it so that many of the questions are implicitly answered by the following question. It is an effective technique, although, I found myself a little tired of it part of the way through and then warmed to it again as the life of the narrator filled out more and more. El tren is probably the most autobiographical piece, too. In his interviews he has mentioned his father who owned a bar in a village in southern Spain and who eventually died of alcoholism. In this story, a son is returning to a village after his father has died. He hasn’t seen him for years and is full of questions about what he will find. Will he ever get to know his father, understand what it was like to be an immigrant in Germany in the early 70’s. From these questions, though, the troubled father emerges. Despite the unsettling number of questions, El tren para Irún, por favor? is probably the story that is the closest to modern American short stories: family dysfunction.

In A buen entendor (Dieciocho cuentos muy pequeños redactados ipsofácticamente) (A Good Understander — 18 very small stories edited ipso factly) Navarro dispenses with even the semblance of traditional story telling and gives the reader a series of short pieces with titles that seem to edit themselves, as if there were two voices talking. Each piece seems unconnected with the next, but as the story comes to an end they begin to refine themselves and the story that contains the little stories finally takes shape. The writing is some of his most playful and meta at the same time. For example, he opens the story with this piece that sets the action, but also makes a little joke with the repetition of the title in the first phrase.

I came about the announcement
—I came about the announcement.
—Alright! You already told everyone about it.
Listen, this thing about fucking interests me
—Listen, this thing about fucking interest me.
—Alright! You already told everyone about it.

Yo venía por lo del anuncio
—Yo venía por lo del anuncio.
—Ya!, eso sel lo dirás todas.
Hombre, eso de follar me interesa
—Hombre, eso de follar me interesa.
—Ya, eso se lo dirás a todas.

Later, after several short bits, the phrase is repeated, but in a longer, more contextual frame:

I Came About the Announcement
—I came about the announcement, he told her.
—Don’t fuck with me, she answered surprised (and no wonder).
—Listen, this thing about fucking interests me, came out suddenly.
—Alright, you already told everyone about it, replied the woman, inevitably.

Yo venía por lo del anuncio

—Yo venía por lo del anuncio — le dijo.

—No me jodas — contstó ella asmobrada (y no era para menos).

—Hombre, es que eso de follar me interesa -soltó el de pronto.

—Ya, eso se le dirás a todas —replicó la chica, inevitablemente.

Each of these parts slowly builds a story and and expands the story. Ultimately, in the last bit he puts all the pieces together and each of them is a different way of looking at the character and his way of thinking. At the same time it is a way of looking at how a story is constructed in pieces.

6 comments on “The Flying Fish (El pez volador) by Hipólito G. Navarro – A Review of the Spanish Short Story

  1. Muchas gracias, Paul, por tan estupendo comentario sobre mis cuentos. Ya le he pasado el enlace a mi editor, y también a una buena amiga, Marina Perezagua, profesora en el Instituto Cervantes de Lyon, en Francia (que fue profesora cinco años en NY), que ha sido quien me ha traducido el texto para que no me perdiera nada de lo que escribes en él. No solo haces un análisis muy interesante de mis relatos, sino que además animas a su traducción en los USA; te lo agradezco mucho. ¡Quién sabe! A lo mejor después de leer tu comentario algún traductor se atreve con el reto como se atrevió mi querida Nicola Gilmour en Wellington. Sería estupendo, ciertamente.
    Abrazos desde Sevilla.
    Hipólito

  2. […] time to translate anything from it, but you can always use Google translate or read my thoughts on Hipólito Navarro or Fernando Iwasaki. Para Valls, su nueva antología certifica un hecho insólito hasta ahora: […]

  3. […] a bit of playfulness in stories. You can see some of that in my reviews of Fernando Iwasaki and Hipolito Navarro. The segment of from his novel is quite short, but looks like it has promise. Perhaps he’ll […]

  4. […] story collection by the same name. Written in 2005, it is his last collection of new work, although El pez volador, a selection of the stories from this book, came out a year or two ago. I can’t say much […]

  5. […] have also commented on other stories from Navarro and Cubas. The rest of the Quarterly Conversation looks very good, too, and definately worth […]

  6. […] stories and have published some great works by some of the best in short stories (see my reviews of Navarro and Neuman). The interview talks about the press, its history, and the craziness of the publishing […]

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