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