The Best Short Story Collections in Spanish Over the Last 5 Years

The ever excellent blog El sindrome Chejov recently polled a series of Spanish language short story authors about what they thought were the best collections of short stories to be published over the last five years. It is a broad ranging list that includes authors English speakers would probably be familiar with, such as Alice Munro and Lydia Davis. Of interest to me were the books originally written in Spanish (I’m already sufficiently familiar with the English speakers). Some of these I’ve heard of and in a few cases I’ve even read some of the books. I certainly agree with some of the choices and am looking forward to finding some new authors.

The three most cited authors were Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, Alice Munro and Ángel Olgoso. However, I saw many references to Javier Sáez de Ibarra, Andres Neuman’s Hacerse el muerto (read my review), and Smanta Schweblin’s Pajaros en la boca, a book that I am looking forward to reading soon. Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s list is of particular interest especially since he has read 250 collections over the last 5 years. I also thought Miguel Ángel Zapata’s was interesting because it listed the writers and their approaches which gives you a little context. Lest the embarrassment of riches make you think things are all rosy over there, Muñoz does end his survey with a complaint that could be easily leveled here in the states:

Buenos libros y buena labor editorial. Mejora sensible en la atención de los medios. …Y pocos lectores. En un país con desesperantes bajos índices de lectura -disfrazados por la atención mayoritaria a unos pocos libros populares- pero con una media de cuatro horas diarias ante la televisión, el cuento, que requiere de un predisposición particular y una educación del gusto para disfrutar de sus resortes narrativos, tan distintos a los de la novela, no puede salir bien parado. Aun así, sigo pensando que el cuento posee un poder que nuestro sistema educativo no ha sabido aprovechar. Aún. Confío en centenares de profesores de bachillerato que van descubriendo, y difundiendo, las posibilidades que el relato corto ofrece para introducir a los alumnos en el placer de la literatura y, todavía más, en el mejor conocimiento y explicación de materias distintas de las estrictamente literarias. Historia o Filosofía, para empezar (¿se sigue estudiando eso en Bachillerato?).

From Zapata’s comment:

En la última década, el cuento español abandona las trincheras incómodas del gueto y comienza el lento acomodo en las mesas de novedades y en las reseñas de los diarios nacionales. Eso es un hecho; lento y a gotas, pero un hecho: llueve. Ya se ha apuntado muchas veces antes la labor encomiable y de zapa de editoriales especializadas en el género como Menoscuarto, Páginas de Espuma, Salto de Página, Tropo, Traspiés o Cuadernos del Vigía. Pero cabe anotar igualmente la proliferación de espacios en la blogosfera que promueven la expansión de los géneros breves y su rápida recepción por un público silente aunque masivo tras la pantalla del ordenador. En cuanto a las direcciones que asume el cuento actual, es precisamente la heterogeneidad de propuestas la clave para entender su auge: el terror contemporáneo entreverado de cierto apego a la sobriedad realista del cuento norteamericano en la obra de Jon Bilbao, la relectura del fantástico desde posiciones especulativas o metafísicas (en tres maestros del género en su estado más puro: Ángel Olgoso, Juan Jacinto Muñoz Rengel, Manuel Moyano), la experimentación formal en la renovación que parte del fantástico hacia territorios que lindan con lo telúrico (la portentosa cuentística de lo inaudito plausible que desarrolla David Roas), la orfebrería impresionista de altísimo octanaje literario (Óscar Esquivias, Jesús Ortega), lo cotidiano transfigurado (Miguel Ángel Muñoz, Andrés Neuman y Ernesto Calabuig, que hacen virtuosismo genuino de la lectura entre líneas y la fuerza emocional de las historias), el lirismo surreal (Juan Carlos Márquez en su estupendo “Llenad la tierra”, todo un despliegue talentoso de recursos y técnica)… Si a ello sumamos el trabajo de fondo de maestros contemporáneos que siguen trabajando el género aportando periódicamente nuevas obras de impronta clásica y generosos ejercicios de estilo (Merino, Calcedo, Aramburu, Díez, Aparicio, Fernández Cubas, Peri Rossi…), da la sensación de políptico generacional completo, de relevo asegurado y estupenda salud del género, como certifica el análisis que hizo del cuento en 2011 el artículo del crítico Ricardo Senabre para el último número del “El Cultural” el año pasado. Otra cosa, por supuesto, es la flexibilidad de mercado, distribuidores y librerías en el sostenimiento de títulos suficientes de un género que siempre supone un quebradero de cabeza para las editoriales que funcionan con la calculadora y la cuenta de resultados ante la mesa. Mientras siga chispeando…”

If you are interested in the short story, these 7 posts are worth skimming through.

  1. First
  2. Second
  3. Third
  4. Fourth
  5. Fifth
  6. Sixth
  7. Seventh

New Book of Interviews with Spanish Short Story Writers

Páginas de Espuma, the short story only press in Spain, has published a book of interviews with Spanish short story writers, La familia del aire. These interviews are all available on the blog of Miguel Ángel Muñoz, El Sindrome Chejov. I have read many of them and if your are interested in the New Spanish short story they are a great collection and insight into the short story writers in Spain today.

The Best Spanish Language Blogs – and Where are the Ones By Women?

El Cultural has a list of the best literary blogs in Spanish. Some of them I know of and read with some frequency, others not so much but they all look good. Moleskine Literario is great for finding articles about the goings on in the Spanish language press. I’ve read La Nave de Los Locos, but I’m undecided as yet. MICRORRÉPLICAS is good, although I don’t read it enough, as is Antonio Muñoz Molina’s. I’m looking forward to reading some of these others. I would add El Sindeome Chejov  from the Spanish writer  Miguel Angel Munoz to the list. He has some great interviews on his site. And I like Sergi Bellver’s blog too.

There is one glaring deficiency to the site as Liburauk points out. There isn’t a single blog by a woman listed. It is a huge omission, one that seems rather typical. Liburauk has a good rant about the problem and a link to a counter list at Escritoras that corrects the omission. It all reminds me of the series of books listed in Letra Libres article Spain in a 100 Books, that had hardly any women in it. It prompted Laura Freixas to create a counter list of women authors. (You can see my notes on it here). The same happened in the Granta youngsters in Spanish which had about 22% women, which seems a little low.

The Playing Card Novel of Max Aub – At El sindrome Chejov

El sindrome Chejov has a post about the playing card novel written by Max Aub (1903 – 1972), a Spanish novelist and short story writer . It is a clever novel printed on playing cards. The novel is printed on the reverse side of the suit, which could make for an interesting game of poker when everyone is holding their cards up, but would not be the best set if you don’t like cheaters. A new edition of the book was just republished for the first time since 1964. It is a little pricy at 50 euros, but an intriguing approach to story telling nonetheless. It is worth a look even if you don’t speak Spanish.

I reviewed a book of his, Field of Honor, sometime ago. I wasn’t impressed with it. You can see why here.

Short Story from Raúl Quinto

El sindrome chejov has a short story, Idoteca,  from Raul Quinto. I leave it to you to give an opinion about the story.

About the book:

Idioteca no es un libro de cuentos ni tampoco una colección de ensayos, ni siquiera una antología de largos poemas en prosa. No es nada de eso, aunque pudiera serlo todo. Idioteca es una búsqueda de respuestas donde al final acabamos encontrando interrogantes aún mayores. En sus páginas nos acercamos a misterios cómo cuál fue el verdadero origen del arte de la pintura o qué es lo que ocultan las grandes obras maestras bajo su superficie, se propone mirar un capítulo del Coyote y el Correcaminos o un partida de póker y averiguar qué es lo que esconden, que a lo mejor la realidad y el arte son una red invisible que nos teje y nos desteje sutilmente. En Idioteca el cine gore tiende su mano a la poesía de Rilke y la filosofía de Parménides justifica la pasión por el fútbol, aquí Goya y Sonic Youth comparten paleta, Yves Klein o Schumann desnudan sus rarezas, el arte se confunde con su sombra y amanece más lento. Es un libro distinto, un museo alucinado, un paseo por los sótanos paralelos de la historia de la cultura. Como muestra: la importancia de un limón.

The first paragraph:

Los problemas de la representación. Los límites del ojo y sus circuitos. Aquello a lo que llamamos realidad. Son cosas sobre las que se ha debatido en estas páginas largo y tendido, aunque todo indica que no hemos llegado a ninguna conclusión. Tampoco creo que lo vayamos a hacer ahora, la verdad. Pero sigamos abriendo puertas y afilando escalpelos, simplemente por el placer inigualable de diseccionar el cadáver de un animal imposible. Al fin y al cabo para eso hemos venido.

Stay Where You Are – Quédate donde estás by Miguel Ángel Muñoz – A Review

Quédate donde estás / Stay Where You Are
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Páginas de Espuma, Madrid, 2009
154 pg

Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s Quédate donde estás is a playful work from an author who takes the art of the short story very serious and has created a work that both relishes the act of reading a well written story and the act of writing it. The stories shift between two themes: what it is to be a writer and what it means to face a loss, whether that loss is a fabulistic extra set of arms or Kafka losing his ideal place to work. While I find stories about writing sometimes tedious (even if you are a writer it never sounds that interesting), Muñoz injects a humor and insight that makes his works clever and perceptive. While the styles and themes clash at times and I’m not sure if all the micro stories between the larger stories create a cohesive work, Muñoz shows himself as a skillful cuentista (short story writer).

The first story of the collection Quiero ser Salinger (I Want to Be Salinger) is kind of a misleading opening, yet it is idea Muñoz returns to continually: how does life inform the writer. He is not interested in platitudes, but a question to reveal the art. In Quiero ser Salinger, the narrator wants to be a writer, a Salinger and for him it is taking on all the gestures of Salinger, his isolation, his strange habits. It is a Borgesian question about what creates the writer, the circumstances that one lives in, or something else? Would living as Salinger in Spain really make you a writer like Salinger?

The question is indicative of the questions Muñoz finds in the lives of the writers he explores. In the story Hacer feliz a Franz (Making Franz Happy), he creates a fictional bet between Franz Kafka and Jakob Blod, where Blod bets Kafka he could not stand to be a locked in a cell without human contact and just write for even a week. Naturally, Kafka loves the writing and he finds the need to leave the cell when the bet is over not a relief but a loss, as if his relation with the power of words has been disabled. He’s a man who seeks the ultimate isolation where words are more interesting than people and its the power in themselves, not the communication they facilitate that is most interesting.

In a more humorous vein is Vitruvio (refers to Da Vinci’s famous drawing of the proportions of a man). It is the story of a writer who under goes a transplant operation and has 3 extra sets of arms attached to his body so that he can be a more productive writer. It helps greatly as one pair of hands is incessantly scribbling notes in notebooks and he begins publishing at a feverish rate, becoming a great success. His personal life also improves, including his sex life: eight hand are better than two, it turns out. But one day he receives strange letter that says he has something that belongs to someone. He makes a journey to the address to find the original owner of the arms waiting for him. What ensues returns again to the question of what makes a writer, in this case the hands, or the mind? But what happens after you loose the power in the source? Muñoz treats writing not mystically, but fantastically, almost surprised that the power exits. His use of the fantastic as a way to get at the question is intriguing, something I see quite often in Spanish language writers, and adds not only a bit of humor, but a more nuanced way to get at the question. Having to bother with reality can be so limiting.

His wonderment at the power, though, doesn’t stop him from writing the more traditionally realistic El reino químco (The Chemical Rein). In El reino a young boy goes with his parents to visit his grandfather who he has no memory of ever seeing. His father hates his grandfather so until this one summer they have never met. From the start the visit is mysterious and plagued with troubles, the car breaks down and when they arrive he wakes up from a long nap and all he sees are stars, as if the whole world had disappeared. Quickly, though, the boy sees that the real problem is in the strained relationship of the grandfather and dad, which can’t even bear a week long visit. After an argument, of which the origins are never clear, the father demands they leave right away. The grandfather, taking his only opportunity to really get to know the boy, takes him to a secluded cove on his property where he has a little roller coaster suspended over the water which dumps the passenger into the water at the end of the ride. The boy at first says he’ll do it, then he struggles and fights, afraid to go down the track. When the grandfather is knocked into the water during the struggle the boy thinks he has killed him. Instead, the grandfather stands up and says, you’ve got more balls than you father. You’re alright. The strange reaction of the grandfather is what makes the story so interesting. Too often when a character is domineering any deviation from his rules is a weakness, but when they grandson says no, he is congratulated. What, then, did the son do that he hates his father so much? It is that open question that makes it one of the better stories in the collection.

Finally, I should touch on Muñoz’s style, which is clear and analytical, especially in his third person stories. However, he can shift styles as he does in Quédate donde estás, the eponymous story, where he shifts to a stream of conscious-like narration to examine the decisions a young makes when his girlfriend is found to have skin cancer just as he is leaving for university. The way he obfuscates, and reveals the story so that what ever decision he makes, is sure to be painful, if not wrong, is impressive.

Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s Quédate donde estás is a solid collection of stories, ranging from the funny to the painful to the intriguing. All of his stories are clever and well written and I hope to read some more of his work sometime. In the meantime I will continue to read his blog avidly. Hopefully, someday a few of his stories will make it into English.

You can read an interview in Spanish with him about Quédate donde estás.

The Spanish Short Story – A Quick Overview at El Pais

El Pais has a story about the dynamism in the Spanish short story of the last 30 years and naturally it is brief. It mentions some of the authors, blogs and presses I have mentioned in these pages over the last few months. I don’t have 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: “La continuidad desde los años setenta de un género que en el panorama español ha sido guadianesco”. Ello pese a la calidad de figuras como Ignacio Aldecoa, Juan Eduardo Zúñiga o Medardo Fraile. Para Eloy Tizón, por su parte, la gran muestra de la vitalidad del género es, en lo literario, el hecho de que estos dos últimos sigan activos a la vez que los 35 nuevos autores antologados por Valls: de Carlos Castán, de 47 años, a Matías Candeira, de 26, pasando por Hipólito G. Navarro, Pilar Adón, Ricardo Menéndez Salmón o Elvira Navarro.

“Están a la altura de los autores latinoamericanos de cuentos de su generación. Eso es algo que podemos decir pocas veces”, afirma Fernando Valls de unos autores cuya “melodía de época”, dentro de una gran variedad de temas, sería su pertenencia a “la tradición del realismo” y una “asimilación no mimética de las vanguardias”. Más que boom del cuento, apunta Casamayor, lo que hay es “un crecimiento sostenido”. Un crecimiento al que han contribuido tanto las ediciones de cuentos completos de grandes clásicos por parte de Alfaguara, Lumen, Anagrama o Alba como los minilibros con uno o dos textos lanzados por Alfabia, Gadir o Alpha Decay.