Mirar al agua (Looking at the Water) by Javier Sáez de Ibarra – A Review

Mirar al agua (Looking at the Water)
Javier Sáez de Ibarra
Páginas de Espuma, 2009 pg 187

Javier Sáez de Ibarra is a Spanish high school teacher and author of several short story collections, including the 2009 prize wining Mirar al agua (I Premio Internacional De Narrativa Breve Riberea del Duero). Very little of his work has been translated. So far as I know, only one story in The Portable Museum Vol 2. Stylistically his work is hard to classify because it is so varied, moving from traditional narrative approaches that are easily recognizable as stories to the more experimental works that might not even be a story, lacking all notion of plot or character. Mirar al agua at its best mixes forms to explore different story telling approaches and leaves the reader with a collection that can both be moving and full of literary games.

Thematically, the collection explores the plastic arts, particularly painting, and finds in them a richness of material that is quite unexpected. The first story, Mirar al agua, shows Sáez de Ibarra as a deft and subtle observer of relationships. The story, as if it is a warm up to the collection, has a relatively traditional structure. A man goes on a boring date, or at least what he thinks will be. He insults the woman, but then in an act of shame and contrition begins to walk along with her, not as a friend, but as if he were looking for an invitation to show he isn’t as bad as she thought. In the end a bond forms between them as they work their way through the exposition of modern art. He knows nothing about art and is frustrated by what he is seeing. Only when they come to the end and he sees the word Water reflected in reverse. In that image he sees a metaphor for how images fail, and the water ever shifting is more real. It gives him peace and that first unsettling bits of the walk are over. The two of them just stand there. What makes it work is Sáez de Ibarra’s ability to capture the awkward frustration that acts out and yet is quieted in subtle understanding, a momentary bit of friendship.

In the second story Un hombre pone un cuadro (A Man Hangs a Photo), he uses a style akin to the New Novel. A man is trying to hang a painting in his flat. He goes over the steps, going back and forth between false starts with the hammer and the nail to slowly find in his actions what is driving the need to hang a photo. Slowly it becomes apparent that the photo is of his family and that the act of hanging it is an act of desperation, as if in hanging a representation of them he will actually have them. It is a beautiful story that both explores our relationships to objects and one man’s suffering.

Perhaps his best story in the collection is Una ventana en Via Speranzella (A Window on Via Speranzella) which describes an artist who on finding herself at age 23 trapped with children and the disappointments that come with letting one’s dream slip away, decides one day to open the window of her bedroom and show one of her breasts for a few moments. It’s an act she continues to do the same day every year, an act that becomes something that her neighbors come to expect and look forward to each year. It is not a prurient act, not for her and many of those who watch her every year. It is a liberation from the constraints of becoming a señora whose life has not turned out to be what she wanted it to be. The narrator, a kind of historian who is investigating what is known of the artist and her performance art, notes that it is liberation because it is an act completely counter to what she should do. It is also a private act done in public, one where she acknowledges no one, never looking at anyone while she does it. Nor does she speak to anyone about the act. It is hers to do and control and surprisingly her neighbors give her that space. It is this subtle mix of art theory (most of the stories include epigrams on art) and emotion that makes many of Sáez de Ibarra’s stories remarkable.

In his more experimental vein is Caprichos a play on Goya’s Caprichos. Caprichos contains 21 one or two sentence satirical descriptions of people, often with caustic titles. Much like Goya, these are biting criticism of society and were a welcome change to some of the short story collections I’ve read lately that lack a sense of social criticism. Sáez de Ibarra’s criticism are open ended, but sharp and biting. The following example is indicative of his humor.

Dos negros regresan caminando por la carretera, sus zapatos rotos, los miembros cansados; un escucha lo que el otro le cuenta. En un lado tres furcias, una jamona les enseña su escote
De cada cual según su capacidad.

Two black men return walking along the highway, their shoes are in tatters, their bodies tired; one listens to what the other is telling him. On one side three whores, one a buxom woman shows them her cleavage.
Every one according to their abilities.

Escribir mientras Palestina (Writing While Palestinian) is perhaps his most political work in the collection and one that may have the littlest to do with art. It examines the journey of a journalist to Palestine in 2008, around the time of the Rachel Coury death. In the search he doesn’t find much in the way of answers, just questions about how you approach writing about the problems without becoming a cliche. Ultimately, he comes to the wall that separates Palestine from Israel and sees in the graffiti voices that have lasted, that continue to exist even when people like him come and go.

In the playful Hiperrealismo / Surrealismo (Hyper realism / Surrealism), he takes clips from a Madrid newspaper and constructs a story. The clips are the typical official announcements and routine news that masks a different world, one that is perhaps more true. He then rewrites the clips mixing the ideas into funny combinations. For example, in the realism there are issues with recycling and the economic stability of families. Sáez de Ibarra coverts that into an official pronouncement from the government that children who cannot be cared for will be collected on the streets. The story, much like Caprichos, has a biting humor that is refreshing. The story also plays with form, eschewing plot and charter, and creating a picture of a world that is anything but realistic.

Mirar al agua is an impressive book full of ideas, both in terms of short stories and art, and has at least one story that will interest most readers. The breath of forma and structure is commendable and delightful, although it might be a barrier for some readers. Javier Sáez de Ibarra is a writer that I want to read more of and who should have a few more stories translated.

The Short Story “The Final Days of Daniel Knopoff” by Pablo Besarón up at Contemporary Argentine Writers

The blog Contemporary Argentine Writers has a new short story up: “The Final Days of Daniel Knopoff” by Pablo Besarón. There is also a short bio and an interview with him in Spanish.

The morning of Thursday, February 7, 2007, was a typical summer morning. With suffocating heat settling in for the rest of the day, it was inadvisable to walk or take the subway.

Daniel backed out of the garage on his way to temple. The last week in Buenos Aires; on Sunday, he would take Katia and their three children to Mendoza. A stream with a magnificent canyon in the background, a good way to relax for two weeks after a year-long stretch of demanding work.


Ana María Matute Has Died

The Spanish author, recipient of the Cervantes prize in 2010, has died. She was known for novels and short stories and was one of the representative writers of the mid century Spain. I’ve always enjoyed her work, even if she was lumped in with the social realists that are much out of favor these days. Hers were some of the first stories I read when I was mastering Spanish and making it a literary language. My favorite story of hers is from Las Historias de las Artimillas. I forget the name, but in the story a beggar forces a woman to house him by threatening to tell her husband that he has a great secret. When she finally has it with him and kicks him out he says, ok, but ask yourself what your husband is hiding if he also let me stay. A brilliant ending.

The Washington Post had a obit in English. Spanish ones below.

Ms. Matute’s novels spanning the 1940s to the 1960s depicted the devastation of rural, war-torn Spain from a child’s perspective.

Ms. Matute and other writers scarred by the 1936-1939 war — Juan Goytisolo, Ignacio Aldecoa, Carmen Martin Gaite and Carmen Laforet — were dubbed the generation of the frightened children.

“You know how horrible it is to be 11, and go from being a little middle-class girl . . . to finding yourself in a world divided, even brothers were divided. . . . Going through a war with atrocities, discovering the ugliest things in life,” she said.


From El Pais:

“Su papel fue relevante en la posguerra desde el punto de vista sociológico, por su condición de mujer que jugó un papel importante al abrirse paso en un mundo machista, y literario al reflejar la realidad a través de líneas duras y poéticas con dosis de ironía”, asegura Emili Rosales, editor de Destino.

La tercera mujer que ganó el Cervantes fue capaz como pocas, como pocos, de imbricar en su escritura las indispensables dosis de realismo con un irrenunciable hálito de lirismo. Matute llevó a las librerías novelas de la dimensión de Los Abel (1948), Pequeño teatro (1954, premio Planeta), El río (1973), Olvidado Rey Gudú (1996) y Paraíso inhabitado, su última novela. Con Primera memoria había ganado en 1959 el prestigioso Premio Nadal.

Marcada especialmente por los recuerdos de las bombas de la Guerra Civil, episodio que reflejó siempre desde la mirada infantil porque quizá nunca tuvo otra, sus problemas matrimoniales (se casó en 1952 con el escritor Eugenio de Goicoechea) marcaron tanto su vida como su obra literaria. En este segundo aspecto, la trayectoria fulgurante de una de las mejores voces de las letras españolas de postguerra, que ya llevaba consigo el bagaje del Premio Café Gijón por Fiesta al noroeste (1952), galardón al que siguieron los Premios Nacional de Literatura Miguel de Cervantes y de la Crítica por Los hijos muertos en 1959 (el mismo año en que consiguió el Nadal por Primera memoria, se frenó. No poder ver a su hijo sólo los sábados y no obtener su custodia hasta que Juan Pablo no alcanzó los 10 años después, lo marcó todo, en especial un proceso de divorcio, algo inaudito en la machista y retrógrada España de los 60. El resultado fue que tomó la decisión de irse a EEUU como lectora. Ello explica que en la Universidad de Boston esté hoy buena parte de su legado literario.

An Analysis of Juan Eduardo Zúñiga at Turia

The Spanish literary magazine Turia has an excellent overview and analysis of the work of Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, in particular his trilogy of the Spanish Civil War, by Fernado Valls, a literary critic whose work I like. It is a long article and worth the read. Zúñiga is the author of Largo novembre de Madrid and two other collections of short stories about the Spanish Civil War. His work is impressive. Words Without Borders published one of his stories not too long ago.

1980 puede ser la fecha clave como punto de partida para hacer un balance del conjunto de la producción literaria de Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, pues entonces es cuando gracias a los buenos oficios del editor y traductor José Ramón Monreal, se publica en la editorial Bruguera Largo noviembre de Madrid, recopilación de cuentos que le proporciona un reconocimiento inmediato y un prestigio literario discreto, pero de calidad, que no ha parado de crecer hasta el presente. Sin embargo, hubo una etapa anterior que arranca en 1945, fecha en la que apareció su primer ensayo: La historia de Bulgaria. Un año antes, junto a Teodoro Neicov, tradujo la novela del escritor búlgaro Iordan Iokov, El segador (Epesa, 1944). Su interés por la cultura, por la literatura eslava, se mantendrá vivo a lo largo de toda su existencia.  Y en ese mismo año de 1945 reseña elogiosamente Nada, de Carmen Laforet ([1]).

Como traductor, Zúñiga se ha ocupado de la obra de diversos autores de los antiguos países del Este, y de escritores portugueses, entre los que destacan Urbano Tavares Rodrigues (Realismo, arte de vanguardia y nueva cultura, Ciencia Nueva, 1967) o Mario Dionisio (Introducción a la pintura, Alianza, 1972). Gracias a esta labor obtuvo en 1987 el Premio Nacional de Traducción por su versión de las obras de Antero de Quental, Poesías y prosas selectas (Alfaguara, 1986), realizada en colaboración con José Antonio Llardent, aunque nuestro autor solo se ocupó de la obra en prosa ([2]).

El matrimonio de los peces rojos (The Marriage of the Red Fish) by Guadalupe Nettel

El matrimonio de los peces rojos (The Marriage of the Red Fish)
Guadalupe Nettel
Paginas de Espuma, 2013, pg 120

Guadalupe Nettel’s collection of short stories explore the relationship between animals and humans. Over the course of five stories the animals become reflections of human behavior as they interact with her characters at the edge of their preoccupations. The animals are not actors in these stories, but a disappointment with what we had first projected on the animals. The sense of disappointment fills these otherwise bright stories. In the title story, the narrator is a woman whose marriage reflects the life of her Beta fish. Beta’s are notoriously difficult to take care of because of their violent tendencies with other fish, even other Betas. That reflection of the state of one’s marriage is not the most faltering and ends with a separation. She notes a question that is at once interesting, and irritating,

Nadie nos obligó a casarnos. Ninguna mano desconocida nos sacó de nuestro acuario familiar y nos metió en esta casa sin nuestro consentimiento.

No one forced us to get married. No unknown hand took us out of our aquarium and put us in this house without our consent.

No, they don’t. Unfortunately, despite Nettel’s skill as a writer, her prose is very good, these kind of conclusions to her stories bothered me for their obviousness. The story of the woman and her fish was well told, but didn’t offer any particular surprises and the ending was a little too pat. It is too bad because in her second story, Guerra en los Basureros (The War in the Garbage Cans) she starts out with the memories of a young girl who goes to live with her aunt and family. Her parents are divorcing so living with people who eat together and otherwise get along is too much for her. She prefers to stay with the servants in the kitchen, eating only after the family has gone to bed. Then she kills a cockroach one night. It is a mistake because that only makes more and more of them come. She tries everything to stop them, including eating them in a form of penance. Here, her skills as a writer are on display and the story of the orphan and the cockroaches has a resonance of sadness and regret missing in the other stories which lean more toward the style of the first. Still while the end of the first story felt pat, this one felt forced. I can’t help think that this collection suffers for its insistence on forcing the framing metaphor: humans and animals. Yes they are alike, but they’re also  not. And in between something got lost. It is too bad, because I her stories always started with such promise. I know something of hers is coming in English soon (I can’t remember if it is this book or not). If it is a different work perhaps it will change my mind.



Tenth of December by George Saunders – A Review

Tenth of December
George Saunders
Random House, 2013, pg 251

It has been some time since I’ve read a book of short stories from an American writer and enjoyed them. For some reason I’ve had some back luck-that and I’m tired of reading about middle class problems, or, at least, the ones that I find when I read short stories. Which is not to say Sanders avoids these themes but Tenth of December takes some more interesting approaches to the avoids the easy outs and self satisfying conclusions and takes his narratives in different directions. He, too, uses a good dose of humor and the fantastical to flip what otherwise might be conventional into something perceptive.

The first in that line is the opening story, Victory Lap, which uses a multiple points of view to describe an attempted abduction. What makes the story worth reading is the different voices he uses, especially the boy who has been so smothered as he has grown up that he doesn’t have any idea how to make a decision of his own. When he finally decides to save the young girl who is about to be raped he can’t avoid thinking about his parent’s rules:

Then he was running. Across the lawn. Oh God! What was he doing, what was he doing? Jesus, shit, the directives he was violating! Running in the yard (bad for the sod);

And they go on that for sometime in a humorously panicked tone that at once makes fun of the parents and turns a story of heroism into a critique of it. The humor, the sharp edge that can descend easily into disrespect, is handled well in Tenth of December. And while the stories always have a knowing wink from Saunders, as if he knows this is all just a bit ridiculous, it doesn’t ruin them.

He is at his most successful when he keeps closest to the little defeats and accidents of everyday life, pulling from those the absurdity that is masked behind the common place. In the The Semplica Girl Diaries he creates a family that is trying to keep up with its neighbors, spending all its money on appearances. While it sounds familiar, there is something obscure, just off page, that is swirling around the family. The statues that they have bought, just like the ones everyone else has, have disappeared and now the family is at risk of arrest. Using the fantastical, the statues are more than stone ad to have let one escape is dangerous. It is in this play between the desire to keep up with your neighbors, the purchase of what ostensibly are tacky garden decorations, and the sentient statutes, that makes the story resonate with the absurdities and traumas of the lower middle class. Certainly, there is a lightness to the story, no dirty realism here, but that is what makes it refreshing.

The lightness comes at the expense of knowing the characters. Saunders is not necessarily a character driven writer but most of the stories in the collection revolve around their inner lives. Al Roosten is the best at looking inside the desperation of a man who doesn’t quite have it together, but is holding on as best he can. It is an internal monolog full of the desperate tropes that people use to convince themselves everything will turn out alright. Of course, for Roosten it probably won’t. Yet the story has a charm that keeps it from the looserus americanus style of writing. Roosten is human, his decisions are not fiat-acomplie, but the uncertain steps of a man who doesn’t know where he is going.

The sense that the characters don’t know exactly know where they are going gives Saunders a touch, not of hope, but an openness that evades the frivolous that is always wanting to enter his stories. He keeps that at bay by holding his characters close and giving them a life that resonates still, despite the absurdities that happen. I would like a little more complexity in his work, a deeper play amongst his character’s thoughts, but what he has on display here is still significantly interesting.



Técnicas de iluminación (Illumination Techniques) by Eloy Tizón

Técnicas de iluminación
(Illumination Techniques)
Eloy Tizón
Páginas de Espuma, 2013, pg 163

Spanish author Eloy Tizón’s Técnicas de iluminación (Illumination Techniques) is the most aptly name collection of short stories I have read for some time, one that not only describes what he is trying to do as a writer, but also what the stories themselves are trying to do. In each case he is, quite simply, attempting to illuminate modern existence, sometimes with his narratives, but always with his language. I have not read anyone for some time who is as adept at aphorisms and the ability to capture in quick images, often in just a short sentence, not only what it means to live, but what it looks like. While Parpadeos had this element, Técnicas seems to have moved him even farther towards a poetics of experience. The stories, as I think all good writers should strive to do, are varied in style, ranging from the the dense atmospheric first story, Fotosíntesis with its nod to Robert Walser, to the desperate monolog of a lost assistant in El cielo en casa.

Fotosíntesis (Photosynthesis) shows Tizón as his most perceptive in a story that is part dialog part exploration of existence. An overwrought description? Not when describing this story, which from the opening dazzles with its fresh ways of describing what is common place. It leaves one with the first glimpse into what Tizón has suggested he is doing in the title. At the same time, the story does not fall into easy philosophizing, instead challenges the reader as the narrator takes his figurative journey into the questions of life, but always keeping too much seriousness at bay:

La ley de la gravedad no tiene por qué llevar siempre razón.
The law of gravity does not always have to make sense.

In this story, the first of the collection you can see a line from Parpadeos, but one that is even more curt, eschewing all but the barest descriptions. Yet that serves the story well as its brevity conceals an enormity of ideas, or worlds that extend out from it. It is the mark of Tizón’s immense skill that his writing keeps you excited to see how he can reveal what could so easily become pedantic in lesser hands:

Todos somos viudos de nuestra propia sombra. Sin embargo, en el instante de morir, con nuestro último aliento, todos comprenderemos que sin sospecharlo nuestros pies han bordado un tapiz.

We are all widowers of our own shadow. Nevertheless, at the moment of death, with our last breath, we all understand that without suspecting it our feet have embroidered a tapestry.

From the meditative journey into existence of Fotosíntesis  Tizón moves, as if in progression, towards the more common place, both in theme and structure, but always keeping to the exploration of techniques that illuminate our lives. In Merecía ser domingo (It Deserved to be Sunday), we have one of his narrators who is lost and finds in every day incidents something behind them that suggests a larger world.

En el silencio de la casa, en el silencio del mundo. Me han dejado a propósito aquí solo, se han ido todos. De excursión, creo. A a montaña, tal vez. O no, a la playa. Es domingo o merece ser domingo. La luz es de domingo y el azul del cielo es de domingo y el periódico está abierto en la página dominical, así que tanta insistencia empieza a ser sospechosa.

In the silence of home, in the silence of the world. They have left me here by myself on purpose, they’ve all left. On an excursion, I think. To the mountains, perhaps. Or no, to the beach. Its Sunday or deserves to be Sunday. The light is a Sunday one and the blue sky is a Sunday one and the newspaper is open on the Sunday section, so there is so much insistence that you become suspicious.

The disappearance, like everything in this story, is about absences, not the explanation of them. There are hints of why things are absent, but what really is at stake is what the narrator observes while everyone is absent. Later in the third section of this triptych as the narration moves from apartment, to street, to the forest searching for something that goes beyond Sunday in the city, but is more removed, more primal, where a concert is nothing more than the sound of a heart beat, we have this observation of futility:

Atrás quedó la ciudad con su nebulosa de oficinas en las que un funcionario se entrena durante viente años para encestar una bola de papel o una telefonista se acaricia la entrepierna.

Behind remained the city with its nebula of offices in which the employees train for twenty years to throw into a basket a ball of paper or a receptionist cresses the inner thigh.

This kind of futility is written in precise detail and finds the narrators always trying to escape them, but rarely do they have much luck. Not that these stories are particularly plot driven. What is more important is to see the layers of habit and custom that overlay all encounters.

The book, too, is playful. There is a reimagining of the story of the Wizard of Oz and moving it away from a dream to a reality contained within the farm. In El cielo en casa we have a desperate narrator who is the assistant for a star of the fashion world. Like so many of these stories the powerful and the weak employees it ends baddy, and though it is probably the weakest story in the collection (but only in comparison), it also seems Tizón’s greatest stretch in this collection, one where he moves more towards the relationships between people to illuminate what life is. The power in this story comes in the last sentence as the narrator describes in the second person, addressing to her employee, the wonder and the slow decline into hell of their relationship. Yet at the end of the story she switches to the less formal form of address. Is this a take down? A realization that the narrator isn’t someone to be mistreated and thrown away?

Llevar un lago en tu propio apellido, en tu propio pelo, qué envidia, si es que hay gente que nace ya presdentinada para ser algo grande en la vida, en esta vida, es ley de vida, por eso te lo cuento.

To carry a lake  in your own last name, en your own hair, what envy, if it is that there are people who are born and are already predestined to be something great in life, in this life, it is the law of life, and because of this I’m telling you this.

Finally, there is perhaps my favorite of this collection, or at least the one that sticks with me, which is perhaps the same thing, Cuidad Dormitorio. Again, we have a story that describes a mechanical world where one places them self at its service, ridding buses and subways long distances just to come to meaningless work. Tizón along with his excellent portrayal of a hardworking woman’s daily routine, injects a boss who asks her to get rid of a mysterious box which he says has caused him many problems. She is not to look in it and if she does she’ll have a great future with the company. The box moves from time to time, but other than that she has no idea what is in it. Does she take care of the box and enter a world of success? The dilemma is not as clear and this small touch of the fantastic amongst a world he has already described as mildly dystopian, creates yet another way of illuminating the world.

Eloy Tizón is certainly a master of the short story and Técnicas de iluminación certainly shows him at the top of his skill.