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.

iss_web10

iss_web23

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.

 

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People by Joe Ollmann – A Review

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People
Joe Ollmann
Conundrum Press, 2014, 242 pg

happystoriescoverfrontback

Joe Ollmann’s  graphic novel, Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People, is really a collection of short stories in the best sense of the word, rich in character and structure. Moreover, his work includes a broad range of characters that stretches his writing from the sometimes insular biographical approach of other graphic novelists. The dedication to his characters is what makes the collection, and the lack of any self congratulatory nods, is what makes the collection strong.

The collection contains eight stories, which split into two rough themes: adults facing a present over-saturated with the past, and kids trying to understand the present. As overwrought as those kind of stories could be, there is a heavy does of humor in Ollmann’s work. In Oh Deer a nebbish office worker agrees to go on a hunting trip with his coworkers as part of a bonding event. As someone who has never had a gun or even thought of hunting, he is initially elated when he shoots a deer. But when he takes it home he finds himself burdened with a corpse he doesn’t know what to do with. From there he goes into epic efforts to dispose of the deer, ending in a late night of digging in his back yard.

In a more hopeful vain, Hang Over, shows a man whose life is has come to nothing (several of Ollmann’s characters are in this position, but thankfully not all). His alcoholic mother ends up in the hospital and leaves his adult brother who is developmentally disabled alone. He has to step in an and take care of the brother. It is something he hates, thinks is a burden, and wants to hand off to anyone he can. He is a total mess: drinks too much, lost his girlfriend. While the story could easily veer into maudlin sentimentality a la disabled brother makes drunk sober up, Ollmann is careful to keep the story grounded in a deeper reality. One where the brother is conflicted in both directions and not able to truly understand his bothers capabilities. It gives the story a sense of ambiguity.

Ollmann is equally good at capturing the lives of teenagers are the brink of a change. In They Filmed a Movie Here Once, Ollmann draws a Catholic girl whose mother has died and lives with her father who has taken to drinking at night. It is a lonely life, one she fills with the church, but she also wants to love. But here Catholicism puts her in conflict with the two guys she meets. One would like to have sex, but she is against that. She is too strict for that (there is a scene where she goes to confession and admits to swearing). The other guy she likes confesses she has stolen something. In each case she dreams of the men, but each is a disappointment. All the while she is alone. Her father doesn’t truly understand and the women she works with in a diner are too hard bitten to help. Ollmann’s interweaving of humor, disappointment, and lingering hope make this one of his better stories. He is at his best when he can find the right mix of the three.

Ollmann’s work is the right mix of humor and disappointment, one that doesn’t dwell in hopelessness, but finds its just something that sits at the margin. Its how his characters deal with the disappointments that propel his stories .

Amsterdam Stories by Nescio – A Review

Amsterdam Stories
Nescio
Damion Searls, trans
New York Review of Books, 161 pg.

The Dutch author Nescio wrote little over his 79 years, publishing what amounts to a small collection of short stories and a fragment of a novel, itself published as a story. The paucity of his work is both refreshing (no late career disappointments here) and disappointing, for the brilliance of his writing, rendered in Damion Searls excellent translation, leaves one asking, what if there were more? Or maybe its best he left us with his indelible poets and dreamers who are forever watching the colors of the countryside from a Dutch dike.

His reputation rests on three short stories: The Freeloader, Young Titans, and Little Poet. All were written during the 1910-19 and describe the lives of bohemian young me living on the margin and dreaming of become an artistic success. It may sound like well trod ground, but the quality of his writing, almost elegiac, less interested in the physical life, and focused on the spiritual, gives his work a transcendent quality, one that puts you in the same melancholic longing that is part of his reoccurring characters. In The Freeloader, Japi, a man who tries his best to do nothing, lives from friend to friend, handout to handout, trying to do as little as possible. This isn’t the pose of the idle rich who go from event to event, but say they do nothing. Japi just sits and does nothing. Early on he describes himself:

“I am nothing and I do nothing. Actually I do much too much. I;m busy overcoming the body. The best thing is to just sit still; going places and thinking are only for stupid people. I don’t think either. It’s too bad I have to eat and sleep. I’d rather spend all day and all night just sitting.”

In Japi’s case its something he does rather well. But in Necio’s stories it isn’t something glamours. There’s always the physical realities that impinge on his characters: the weather, the lack of food, the lack of sleep. The only thing that allows a freeloader to survive is exactly what they eschew: money. Nevertheless, Japi’s strange appearances and disappearances, his selfish finishing of the narrator’s last bit of food, tea, or tobacco, all have a certain strange charm. But like most of Nescio’s characters, that freedom is short lived. The narrator notes, Japi wanted to “[s]moke a couple cigars, chat a little…enjoy the sunshine,” but the narrator also knows

You can’t sustain that. He knew [Japi] that. It couldn’t last, it was impossible, you’d need a mountain of money. And he didn’t have one. What his old man might leave him wasn’t worth the trouble. And he, Japi, thought that was just fine. Now he spent his time staring. It’s not like it’s possible to accomplish anything anyway.

The same sense of hopeful youth meeting an indifferent reality permeates The Young Titans. In this story, the narrator, Koekebakker (Cookie Baker), the same narrator through most of the stories, describes the excitement and slow disillusion of hope as he and his friends see their great plans come to nothing.

We were kids-but good kids. If I may say so myself. We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic…Was there anything we didn’t want to set to rights? We would show them how it should be.

But life doesn’t go as the men want and they slowly disappear into lives of seeming respectability, their art and works abandoned. Its a melancholy that is pitted against an empty and yet beautiful natural world. If society with its rich men and poor artists is a given, then the cruelest of all things is the countryside.

Every day we longed for something, without knowing what. It got monotonous. Sunrise ans sunset and sunlight on the water and behind the drifting while clouds-monotonous-and the darker skies too, the leaves turning brown and yellow, the bare treetops and poor-soggy fields in the winter-all the things I had seen so many times and though about so many times while I was gone and would see again so many more times, as long as I didn’t die. Who can spend his life watching all these things that constantly repeat themselves, who can keep longing for nothing? Trusting in a God who isn’t there?

The search for a meaning is always there. The search for God, or the seeing of God in little things is a constant refrain. In this sense Nescio’s work reflects back on the romantics who saw something divine in the natural. With Nescio its more of a loss, then a discovery. But when God is revealed in a beautiful sunshine there is a sense of animation in the characters, it is what gives them the spark. Only when they return to the city does that spark dull, grow grey, covered in mud, and diminished to the imperatives to find a cigar or a lump of coal for the fireplace. Ultimately, it is that constant battle rendered in careful prose that makes Nescio’s stories so beautiful.

Perhaps brevity is best, but I can’t help but wish that Nescio published a little more.

 

Los mares del Sur (The Southern Seas) by Manuel Vázquez Montalbán – A Review

Los mares del Sur (The Southern Seas)
Manuel Vázquez Montalbán
Planeta, 1979, 220 pg

Los mares del Sur is the fourth of Manuel Vázquez Montalbán’s Pepe Carvalho detective novels.  1979 Planeta Prize winning novel is considered as one of his best and it representative of the popular series, filled with all the quirks that made Vázquez Montalbán’s novels popular: food, social commentary, a picture of Spain at a moment of great change. Much like great noir from American authors like James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, Los mares del Sur is not just a detective story; it is something more: a picture of Spain during the transition from dictatorship to democracy. It is the combination of an intriguing and memorable detective with a well drawn Barcelona that makes Los mares del Sur a vital novel.

The mystery is Stuart Pedrell, a wealthy businessman who goes missing. The family calls in Carvalho to search for him. There is a suggestion that he had abandoned everything and had gone to live on an island in the South Seas. From this simple request, Carvalho begins his exploration of Barcelona society. The wife is cold and more interested in his wealth. His closest friends don’t seem to care much about him either. It’s more important that Carvalho keep up appearances. Carvalho’s investigations, though, bring him to a working class barrio where Pedrell has been moonlighting as an accountant and setting himself up in an apartment in the same neighborhood. The discovery of the apartment leads to one of the most detailed description of detection as Carvalho goes from cafe to cafe looking for someone who’d known him. Ultimately, the search brings him to his young, pregnant lover who only knew him as the accountant, not a wealthy man. Her hostility to Carvalho’s investigations mirror those throughout the book as the wealthy who had profited from the Franco regime face the coming of democracy. She has no interest in Carvalho’s ideas of duty. She has her own life and doesn’t care much about the rich who have paid him. The tension between these worlds animates the tension, and, finally, the conclusion.

That scant outline, of course, is, like most great detective stories, almost inconsequential. Los mares del Sur certainly holds together as a mystery and the conclusion makes sense. Nevertheless, it is Pepe Carvalho who is the real focus. Carvalho is one of the great fictional detectives like Phillip Marlowe or Sherlock Holmes, at once recognizable and uniquely his own character. His most obvious trait is his precise and biting descriptions of Spanish society as it goes through its transition to democracy. They alternate with Vázquez Montalbán’s third person narration which adds another level of commentary. Each provides a prescient criticism of all strata of society, although Carvalho himself is an ex-communist who did time in prison and whose some-time girlfriend is a prostitute. It is a fossilized and brittle Barcelona he encounters, still stuck, in many ways, in the past. Carvalho, like the best detectives, has no illusions about the past, and although he is not a hard boiled detective, he has a hard edge.

Carvalho, as well as Vázquez Montalbán, was a well known gourmet and all the books in the series are filled with references to food. Carvalho is always drinking a white wine or discussing food. And there are several stretches given over to cooking. In one section there is a detailed description of making a shrimp omelette. In another, as he, his butler Biscuter, and several friends discuss the case, they make an elaborate dinner that is described in great detail. The love of food is one of the classic Carvalho elements.

Los mares is an humorous and meta novel. In one chapter Carvalho stumbles on to a noir novel talk presentation from a professor. Vázquez Montalbán both describes what noir fiction is about, and also makes fun of the genre. It lends a level of criticism and self-awareness to the novel that is refreshing. Yes, the novel is criticism, but it is also understood that the noir genre can be over imbued with meaning that is not necessarily there.

Fortunately, for English readers Melvile House published a translation in 2012. Several other of his books are available in English.