War, So Much War By Merce Rodoreda – A Review

War, So Much War
Merce Rodoreda
Open Letter, 2015, pg 185

war_so_much_war-front_largeMerce Rodoreda’s late works are magical miniatures of madness, destruction, and authoritarianism. Much like a Death in Spring, War, So Much War creates a condensed claustrophobic world where the inhabitants are given to a petty violence that is rooted  in jealousy as much as it is custom. Its a dark novel and Rodereda paints war time Catalonia in a less than flattering light. Published in 1980, several years after the end of the Franco regime, it is both a criticism of the events and an act of witness. War, So Much War is not a novel of the righteous lost cause or a golden era. It is a vision of cruelty for cruelty’s sake. She wrote in Death in Spring, “men who are eager to kill are already dead,” and it is an apt description of the characters in War, So Much War. No one wins here.

Structurally, and much like Death in Spring, the narrative is a kind of picaresque and the reality feels as if it is part of a fable as much as it is a description of a given reality. From the few details she teases us with the war is taking place in Catalonia. There is one mention of Barcelona, which is the main link. The only reference to the Spanish Civil War is when she mentions Moroccan troops, which were employed by the fascist side. (It is possible there are more clues in the original Catalan that a Catalan would pickup on.) Other than these small clues, the book is isolated, cut off from any larger world, giving a sense of madness to every remote location the narrator ventures. While Death in Spring had its own unique and terrifying reality, War uses what should seem familiar, farms, fishing communities, and imbues them with terror and violence. Its as if the war is not a singular event, but a reflection of what the normal order.

The start of War, So Much War shows just what Rodoreda thinks of war and soldiers. The protagonist, Adria Guinart, runs away from home with several other boys and join a the army. Militia might be a better term since it is a woefully inadequate group. They are sent into battle and are immediately routed. They flee into the woods where Guinart finds himself on a journey through the war ravaged land. He stumbles on farmers who try to kill him, others who want to make him into a slave. Occasionally, he meets a good person, a farmers daughter who wants to make love to him, a hermit who wants company, and the wounds he receives at the hands of the violent heal before circumstance sends him on his way. In one of the longer sections of the book, he takes up with a man who lives alone by the sea. The relationship is one of trust and when the man dies, he gives everything to Guinart. He lives in the house for a while and he has a chance to examine what it is he is searching for. The moment allows Guinart to become more than a cork floating on the sea as he is in much of the novel and shows that Rodoreda is looking for something more than just a caustic criticism of war.

Ultimately, War, So Much War is a dark book. At times I wonder if there was an urban versus rural dynamic, not just a vision of war. Much of what happens has nothing specifically to do with war. Is the world she has created a result of a war, or war is the result of such a society? Either way, Rodoreda’s late works are magical, brutal, and richly evocative.

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Entre malvados (Between the Wicked) by Miguel Ángel Muñoz – a Review

Entre malvados (Between the Wicked)
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Páginas de Espuma, 2016, pg 146

MUNOZ_EM_C_IMPRENTAEntre malvados is the Spanish author Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s third collection of short stories, and represents a return to the short form after two novels. His recent work has been concerned with the intersection between art and identity, best expressed in his last book, the transgressive La canción de Brenda Lee. Entre malvados marks a change of direction towards stories that are concerned with recent history, not necessarily political, but engaged in the events that have shaped recent Spanish history. The title is quite clear in stating where his focus lies; however, the stories are richer and more ambiguous explorations of recent events than a simple reading of the tile might allow. It is also worth noting, that several of the stories were either written or started almost a decade ago. Their collection here, though, does seem well timed.

The stories fall into two general camps: ones that deal directly with an event; and ones that are more generalized sources of evil. In the later, Somos los malvados (We are the Wicked), the first story of the collection explores the origins of cruelty and how it propagates itself. The story is simple: a man is abused as a child by local bullies. As an adult his daughter is taught by one. All he has to do is spread rumors about the teacher and he will get his revenge. Obviously, the condemnation of bulling is there, as is a recognition of its power. But there is more here, more than a tale of satisfying revenge. The means of achieving that revenge is a new propagation of cruelty.

In a similar vein, Los hijos de Manson (The Children of Manson) is an exploration of evil, both extreme and commonplace. Muñoz describes four people who in their own ways brought evil to those around them. The firs is the  strange power of  Charles Manson and his manic evil. The  second is the mob killer known as the Iceman who lived with his family in middle class normalcy, but was vicious in his professional life. These two are traditional killers, evil men most people would despise. Then Muñoz turns to the father of the Enlightenment, Rousseau who is monstrously cavalier in his raising of children, giving them all away and convincing himself they would be better that way. Finally, he takes on Arthur Miller who refused to see his son who had Downs Syndrome for his whole life. The contrast between all of them is quite large, but it underscores the general theme of the book. The inclusion of Rousseau and Miller makes for a more nuanced collection and makes it difficult to say, of course they are bad.

Aguantar el frio (Putting Up with the Cold) is a transitional story, one that plays against the back drop of the real and the general. The story follows a cop who is looking for a missing girl. He’s seen this happen before, but in that case he found the girl after she had been killed. He won’t do it again. On a tip from the girl’s neighbors he arrests and brutally beats one a different neighbor. He won’t fail and he knows who did it. It’s just a mater of time before he gets to the truth. At the same time, his son has lost an eye in one of the big government protests in Madrid that happened during the height of the economic crises in 2009-2012. He doesn’t want anyone to know that. He is ashamed that his son has turned out the way he has. It is a classic crime fiction dilemma. Here, though the cop is blinded by the past, his own zeal, an the inability to understand that the same people he wants to protect are being damaged by the government he works for. Moreover, we have echos of the first story, Somos los malvados, that suggest the revenge that felt good in the first story, is perhaps being abused by the neighbors. It is an effective story about the tunnel vision and over application of the lessons of the past.

There are two stories, Los Nombres (The Names) and Un hombre tranquilo (The Quiet Man) that deal with the March 11, 2004 bombings at the Atocha train station in Madrid. Muñoz intended these stories to be part of a larger collection of voices of the event. In each he writes about the last few hours before the bombings. In Los Nombres he describes a man who is having his second child and is about to transition between a soccer playing good time guy, to a dedicated father. Un hombre tranquilo Muñoz  creates a kind of musical journey, as the protagonist surveys the train as he listens to El ultimo habitante del planeta. Its almost a montage from a movie. Where the Los nombres celebrates the life outside the train, Un hombre brings a kind of beauty to the every day. In each Muñoz finds the good and beautiful in the routine. The two stories show his strongest writing in a technical sense and make full use of his skills as a writer to get inside the lives of those who died.

Intenta decir Rosebud (Trying to Say Rosebud) is his most ambitious story. Based on the Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa’s account of his captivity as an ISIS prisoner, builds a compelling account of life as a prisoner and, more importantly, what life is like after the experience. There is more to the experience than survival and the continued reminders that even the simplest things in daily life are difficult moves the story from war to aftermath and touches on Muñoz’s general theme of the continual presence of evil. The actual depictions of life in the prison cell are chilling. The title is both a nod to Citizen Kane and to the power of art to calm. One of the prisoners tries to remember scenes of movies as a means of escape. Kane is his favorite movie and just remembering Rosebud offers him something outside the room. Intenta decir Rosebud is the most brutal and arresting story of the collection.

Entre malvados is a fine collection of stories. While they do give a sense of modern life in Spain, the traumas and the politics, they are more than just newspaper cut outs. There is a search for the darkness in everyone, and what makes the best us overcome it, if even temporarily. After such a long absence from the short form, Entre malvados is a welcome return for Miguel Ángel Muñoz.

 

Spanish Fever: Stories by the New Spanish Cartoonists – A Review

Spanish Fever: Stories by the New Spanish Cartoonists
Santiago Garcia, ed
Fantagraphics Books, 2016, pg 283

There was a moment when I first began to read Spanish Fever I thought I had made a mistake: not another anthology of excerpts that propose to give you a sense of a writer’s work, but given the brevity of the sample all you get is sections of novels that don’t really say anything. Fortunately, Spanish Fever is better than that. Fist, the pieces are not excerpts. The selected pieces are self contained, almost short stories, and that gives a sense of completeness to the works. While many of the pieces are collaboration between writer and artist, especially older authors, it is critical to see an artist’s work as a whole.

While I’m familiar with recent Spanish history and how that has played out in literature, I’m less familiar with comics and graphic novels. The only graphic novel I’ve ever bought in Spain was actually Lebanese. The brief introduction from Santiago Garcia is quite helpful in showing how the transition from dictatorship to democracy actually slowed the development of the graphic novel. Tebeos, as they are called in Spain, were associated with the Franco regime, and in the 80s, despite the arrival of mature and irreverent comics, attempts to create graphic novels failed. Only in the last fifteen years or so have writers found success.

Of the writers included here, Poco Roca might be the most famous. His book Wrinkles about Alzheimer patients was made into a successful animated move. His piece here is Chronicle of a Crises Foretold, which describes the economic crash of 2008 and its effects. It feels as if it was an newspaper supplement explaining what happened. It is quite successful and the art is solid and his drawing of monopoly board is very effective.

Other writers of note were Jose Domingo’s Number 2 Has Been Murdered, which is one of the most stylistically drawn works. It is uses very precise angular drawings with stark contrasts between black and white. It is also one of the more sarcastic pieces, making fun of corporate culture. Javier Olivares Finland uses a an approach that is closer to Clowes, with a nice use of color and solid geometric lines. The story is meta and shows strong story telling skills. Both Max and Micharmut’s work eschew realism in narrative and are more symbolic. Max is the more famous of the two and his work is very recognizable. Gabi Beltran and Barolome Segui’s Mathematics is taken from another work and looks interesting. The piece stands on it own, but the stories of his childhood, if they are the same quality as Mathematics, have potential.

As usual, the number of women included in the volume is quite small. 4 out of 28 pieces are by women, which is a pretty bad ratio, especially given that there are many stories with women as protagonists. Ana Galvañ’s Horse Meat was better than I thought it would be. I’m not a big fan of the art, but the story two teenage friends who have the shape of horses was interesting.

It is a collection that is worth using as an entry in to the world of Spanish graphic novels.

Finally, the blog Historia y Comic is a great resource for finding comics, in Spanish, about history.

Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) by Samanta Schweblin – A Review

Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses)
Samanta Schweblin
Páginas de Espuma, 2016, pg 123

Anyone who has read this blog will know that I admire Samanta Schweblin’s work. While little has come out in English, and at that only a few stories and a short novel, her work as a short story writer deserves attention. Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) was 2015 Riviera del Duero short story prize winner, and her latest book of stories to come out, published by Paginas de Espuma in Spain. Her work has always played with the fantastic, or, as I think I read somewhere, the borer between the real and the unreal. Her previous 2009 short story collection La furia de las pestes (my review) (re titled Pajaros en la Boca) certainly held to that territory. With Siete casas vacías, though, the fantastic is no longer is no longer an external element or force that one can interact with, no matter how strange. Instead, its an open question, perhaps of motivation, perhaps of perspective. Either way, its something unsaid. In that unsaid, though, is the unreal, or at least the odd. Its a change that brings the common place ever closer to her work and turns it into the fantastic.

The first story, Nada de todo esto (None of all this) is indicative of this move. In it we have a mother and daughter driving through a neighborhood. The mother seems confused, uncertain where she is going or how she get there. She is driving and the daughter is asking her to stop, to let her take over. They end up in the house of a rich woman. At this point the mother proceeds to look all through the house and steals a wooden sugar jar. This was the whole reason for entering the house. They leave only to have the owner of the sugar jar find them. The daughter wants to give it back and yet there is hesitation in her. It is the elusiveness of her mother’s motivations, and the daughter’s growing resistance, that lave the story open ended. What is this habit? Simple theft or something more?  Schweblin’s handling of the ambiguity, mixed with the a kind of comedy of errors, is well handled.

The best story of the collection (and longest at 50 pages) is La respiracion cavernaria (Deep Breathing). It is the simple, and yet mysterious, story of a widow, Lola, who lives alone in her home and is slowly feeling her age and her isolation press in on her. Schweblin captures the day to day struggle against solitude and the simple tasks that age make difficult. All around her home she sees change and crime and threats and is always on the look out for problems. Are the neighborhood boys stealing the things in her garage? What’s that noise she hears outside her window? She visits her neighbor several times to complain about her son. But the neighbor says her son died some time ago. For Lola it doesn’t register. She still thinks he wants chocolates that she would give him. For the reader, the unreality of age, of perception, begins to take the story into a different direction. What does Lola really experience? Its that lack of reality that makes the story even more profound. If the hardships of age weren’t bad enough, the loss of a fixed reality only make it worse. Its here that Schweblin’s skill at the unstated reality shows her work to be of exceptional quality.

Schweblin’s work seldom disappoints and Seven Empty Houses definitely does not. It is a worthy prize winner in a competition that has seen some excellent work by previous winners (my reviews: The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente, Mirar al agua by Javier Sáez de Ibarra). Her work stands out as some of the highest quality short stories in the Spanish language.

An interview with Schweblin at lit hub.

Read a recent review of her last novel now translated in English.

In The Sounds and Seas by Marnie Galloway – A Review

In The Sounds and Seas
Marnie Galloway
One Peace Books, 2016

Marnie Galloway’s In The Sounds and Seas is a beautifully drawn and imaginative wordless fable. The art of the wordless book is the purest expression of the  graphic novel, depending solely on the writer’s ability represent a story with images. There are few practitioners of the art, such as Lynd Ward, Franz Masreel, and Otto Gluck. Galloway’s book is a welcome addition to the form and creates richly detailed work that is part quest, part myth. What stands out, of course, and its what caught my eye when I bought the book at the Short Run festival, is her hyper  detailed drawings. The two shown below are indicative of her style, with its attention to detail. She excels at the interplay of black and white, creating subtle shadings of light and dark. Her fine hatching and clean lines bring motion and light and a liveliness to drawings. Even in the more traditional narrative panels that bring a more traditional comic feel to the book, her work is finally detailed. The voyaging section in the Storm chapter is one of the best examples her skill.

The narrative follows three women as they make a long maritime journey. Its a journey, which the epigraph from Homer suggests, that will not find a resolution, but is more a voyage of discovery. The discovery is both geographic and environmental as the women are both moving across the seas, but are also part of the sea. Images of boat ribs becoming whale bones, or even in the image below with the whale caring a human inside, make clear the relationship between the characters and their environment is part of the story. Its a fantastic relationship, one where its possible to swim in currents of rabbits and birds. The use of the fantastic is extends to the women’s relationship to the boat. One of them grows long hair which she ties to the ship, becoming an extension of the boat, an apt metaphor for the relationship between voyager and vessel.

Ultimately, Galloway leaves the narrative open ended. Both the impetus for the search and the its resolution allow the reader explore multiple ideas, both realistic and metaphysical. It invites rereading and looking at the narrative in different terms, examining the rich detail for new clues to its construction. Between the detailed drawings that invite reexploration and a narrative that shifts with that same exploration, its a great wordless novel.

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A List of Spanish Short Story Writers

A few months ago the Spanish writer Sergi Bellver sent me article that had a great list of living short story writers. I’m now getting around to posting it. Many of them I’m familiar with, but there are some news names here that are worth exploring. Many of them, of course, are not in translation. One can always hope.

I’ve mentioned Matute, Fraile, Tomeo, Zúñiga, Cubas, Hipólito G. Navarro, Eloy Tizón, avier Sáez de Ibarra, and Ángel Zapata in these pages, especially my article that appeared in the Quarterly Conversation on short story writers.. A quick search will bring you my thoughts about any of them. But there are so many more.

Recomendaría a mi impaciente compadre y a cualquier lector latinoamericano que comenzara leyendo a Matute, Fraile, Tomeo, Zúñiga o Cubas, pero si pudiera facturar en una maleta veinte kilos de libros para que se hiciera una idea atinada del cuento español del siglo XXI, empezaría sin dudarlo por Hipólito G. Navarro, bicho raro y luminoso como El pez volador (2008). Si de luz hablamos, añadiría enseguida Técnicas de iluminación (2013), de Eloy Tizón, el libro de relatos ―en― español más inspirado de los últimos años. Me arriesgaría en la aduana con la eterna búsqueda de Javier Sáez de Ibarra en Mirar al agua (2009) y el material inflamable de La vida ausente (2006), de Ángel Zapata. Para compensar, incluiría a tres narradores puros, como Gonzalo Calcedo, Jon Bilbao y Óscar Esquivias, pero dudaría qué título elegir de cada uno, aunque creo que me decidiría, respectivamente, por La carga de la brigada ligera (2004), Como una historia de terror (2008) y Pampanitos verdes (2010). En una esquina, bien protegidos, colocaría Museo de la soledad (2000), de Carlos Castán; Los peces de la amargura (2006), de Fernando Aramburu; Leche (2013), de Marina Perezagua; y Ocho centímetros (2015), de Nuria Barrios. Y en la otra, para combatir el dolor, pondría analgésicos del tipo El camino de la oruga (2003), de Javier Mije; Llenad la Tierra (2010), de Juan Carlos Márquez; El mundo de los Cabezas Vacías (2011), de Pedro Ugarte; Una manada de ñus (2013), de Juan Bonilla; Mientras nieva sobre el mar (2014), de Pablo Andrés Escapa; y Hombres felices (2016), de Felipe R. Navarro. No me dejaría unos cuantos libros brillantes sin los que cojearía la maleta, como El hombre que inventó Manhattan (2004), de Ray Loriga; Bar de anarquistas (2005), de José María Conget; Gritar (2007), de Ricardo Menéndez Salmón; Estancos del Chiado (2009), de Fernando Clemot; No es fácil ser verde (2009), de Sara Mesa; Antes de las jirafas (2011), de Matías Candeira; La piel de los extraños (2012), de Ignacio Ferrando; y El Claustro Rojo (2014), de Juan Vico. Para romperle la cabeza a quien pretendiera requisarlos, cubriría el conjunto con Alto voltaje (2004), de Germán Sierra; El malestar al alcance de todos (2004), de Mercedes Cebrián; Breve teoría del viaje y el desierto (2011), de Cristian Crusat; y Los ensimismados (2011), de Paul Viejo. De contrabando irían algunas sustancias extrañas y adictivas como El deseo de ser alguien en la vida (2007), de Fernando Cañero; Nosotros, todos nosotros (2008), de Víctor García Antón; Órbita (2009), de Miguel Serrano Larraz; Los monos insomnes (2013), de José Óscar López; y Extinciones (2014), de Alfonso Fernández Burgos. Creo que la maleta ya reventaría a estas alturas, pero para que mi interlocutor imaginario no se quedara con las ganas buscaría hueco y le daría una oportunidad a alguno de los primeros libros de relatos de jóvenes como Aixa De la Cruz, Mariana Torres, Juan Gómez Bárcena, David Aliaga, Raquel Vázquez o Almudena Sánchez. Estoy seguro de que la compañía aérea me hará pagar por exceso de equipaje, y de que camino del aeropuerto olvidaré algún buen libro, como acabo de hacer ahora. Habrá sido el mezcal de mi compadre.

 

 

La muerte juega a los dados (Death Played with Dice) by Clara Obligado – A Review

La muerte juega a los dados (Death Played with Dice)
Clara Obligado
Páginas de Espuma 2015, 228 pg

Clara Obligado’s La muerte juega a los dados is a loosely interconnected collection of stories that forms a kind of inter-generational family epic. Given the title of the collection, though, Obligado is less interested in a family epic but the capriccios of history. The overarching family story is always there, but Obligado through the different way she constructs her stories, through the sometimes oblique connections of the stories, creates a dark set of stories that are both structurally inventive and rich with characters.

While Obligado suggests one can read the book in order or randomly, she doesn’t quite achieve a Hopscotch like work. Nevertheless, the structure of the book is very loose and each story could stand on its own. The longer, family oriented stories are less experimental, but Obligado’s command of the genre is obvious. One of the stand out stories (the longest of the collection) La peste (The Plague) is a portrait of a patrician family on the decline. Its an almost Gothic picture: the patron of the family confines herself to her room in grief, the children are decadent wastes, and the grandchildren are trying to make sense of it all. In the midst of it all Buenos Aires suffers the March, 1956 polio outbreak. The sense of a world collapsing in on itself and coming to end is ever present. As Obligado shifts her focus in brief sections from family member to family member, capturing each one’s unique collapse, and in the case of the grandchildren, their confusion, the capriciousness of history shows itself.

The power of each story, though, is enhanced with the interweaving of the tragic arc of the family. Starting with the unsolved murder of the patriarch of the family during the 20’s, the survivors are continually at the mercy of the 20th century’s major events. Its a history that Obligado deftly and judiciously recreates. She wisely avoided a greatest hits of the century, instead focuses on the personal, how events shape the characters. As such we follow the newly wed Lenora as she makes her first transatlantic journey with a husband more interested in his strange house keeper Mdme Tanis. In another, she writes of Mdme Tanis’s teenage years in a brothel in revolutionary Mexico. Or she describes the torture and disappearance of Lenora’s granddaughter, Sonia in 1970’s Argentina. Each story has just enough sense of place to carry the story forward, without loading it up with extraneous details. When Obligado veers into occupied France, she connects the story to the other through the presence of a rare book on origami, avoiding the temptation make the family more important that it really is. Its these light touches that make the discovery of each little connection part of joy in reading the collection.

Ultimately, it is Obligado’s ability to tell a story that makes the collection strong. El verdadero amor nunca se olvida (True Love Is Never Forgotten) is perhaps the best of the collection. She captures the strange family dynamic of a distant mother who cares only about appearances and a father who still loves her. It is the daughter who doesn’t understand her distant mother, an Eastern European immigrant who doesn’t seem to fit in Buenos Aries. As the daughter describes her mother, the richness of the story is revealed. The daughter thinks, how could anyone love her? And yet her father all these years later has never given up. The strength of Obligado’s writing is one can see how both positions are valid.

La muerte juega a los dados with its shifting genres, styles, registers, and its sense of decay, is both an excellent collection of stories and a novel.