Reviewing Granta’s Young Spanish Writers:Puenzo, Barba, Schweblin, Montes, Olmos

It is probably not the best way to start this mini review by saying, now I remember why I never buy the Grant Best American/British youngster editions. I find them uneven and while there is usually something interesting in the volume, of other writers I can only ask, why? I broke down this time because it was Spanish language authors and this blog is rather dedicated to the subject. I even went through the extra step of getting the Spanish edition, not the English translation. Yet some where in reading Andres Barba or Javier Olmos I wondered if the volume was really worth the trouble. I’m only 5 authors in so I could change my mind, we’ll see.

The Andres Barba piece was particularlly disappointing. Essentially, it is the story of a prostitute who decides to have a horn installed on her forehead. She has visions of what it will be like, interspersed with scenes of  her working life. While Barba tries to give some sort of nuance to the story, describing the revenge she imagines taking, or showing the nervousness of the clients, in the end the story is simplistic, and juvenile. Abused prostitute wants to grow horn on her forehead—how Freudian. But isn’t that what college students learn in their first year when they over apply terms like phallic symbol? That would be forgivable, but the prostitute is a fairly one dimensional character. Dimensionality isn’t always a requirement for charter development, but in a piece that tries to examine the thoughts of a prostitute, it is.  Ultimately, the story is simplistic and silly.

I next read Javier Montes piece about a professional hotel reviewer, which is part of a novel excerpt. I mention the order I read these in because Montes, too, seems to be fascinated by porn. At the first the pieces starts with potential, following a hotel reviewer as he explains what his life entails. A nice touch is the narrator’s dislike of sites like Trip Advisor with all the  free reviews. He has some nice insights about the impersonality of hotel chains. Halfway through the piece, though, the narrator is given the key to a room where they are filming a porno. The narrator watches, transfixed, confused, not sure what is happening. Finally, he flees the room. While the story isn’t as insulting as Barba’s, Motes’s feels flat: narrator explains the life of hotel reviewing, then stumbles on a porn film. So? As a stand alone piece it isn’t very interesting. It has the feels just slightly juvenile. But the piece also shows the problem with the Granta Best Young editions. Since this is an excerpt I’m not sure if it gets better or worse. It certainly has potential, but I’m left to base my opinion of something less.

Fortunately, there are some stories that are more interesting. Lucia Puenzo’s Cohiba is a funny take down of the literary world. In it the narrator goes to Cuba to attend a literary conference hosted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He is depicted as a kind of out of touch mystic who shows up to give koan-like advice to writers. It is the same kind of advice that you’ll hear in a thousand different writing workshops. The advice and the criticism he gives the story writers is in many ways useless, but all the writers give him their adoring and uncritical attention. Puenzo contrasts the privileged life of the conference participants against those of the Cubans. The writers have easy access to a film festival, while Cubans have to wait, or can’t even get in. It is obvious she is taking down the hagiography that has grown up around Marquez. I don’t know what Puenzo thinks of Marquez’s writing, but Marquez the celebrity and the industry around him is an object of ridicule. At the same time, Puenzo’s vision of Cuba is a violent country where women suffer the same indignities as they do in the west. There are several ways to go with this, but for this quick review, I’ll just say this reflects badly, again, on Marquez who has been a staunch defender of Cuba. It would be too much to blame him for what happens in the story, but Puenzo’s story makes him guilty by association.

I have written about Samanta Schweblin’s stories in several posts, and I tend to like her work, even if it is a little uneven. Her story Olingiris is typical of her work, bordering on the fantastical, a type of modern fable that usually ends without a fixed resolution. In Olingiris, the lives of two women intersect at a mysterious Institute whose sole purpose is to pay women for their body hair. When a woman is plucked she lays naked on a table and three women on each side of her pluck hairs from her body with tweezers. At the end of the day all the hairs are collected and taken away. It is never explained what the hairs are for. The story of the Institute is just a frame to explore the lives of these two women who are alone in a big city, but the hair removal, typically a beauty treatment done in one’s privacy, now becomes something sinister and even more isolating. What are the women really giving up when their hair is taken. As the story closes, it is obvious that it is a traumatic experience, and like the best of her stories, takes what seems logical, the work people put into beauty, and creates an extreme vision.

Finally,there is Alberto Olmos’s Diego and Eva. Of the three male authors in this review, his story was the best, although it had a couple of moments that felt like a man channeling Candice Bushnell. The story is about consumption, both a society that is always buying, but a society that continually consumes itself, destroying what existed only yesterday, and replacing it with something that will be destroyed in the near future. The narrator is a journalist who has trouble coping with a terrorist attack in a shopping center and fixates on consumerism, vacillating between questioning it and participating in it. Over all the story was interesting, but it wasn’t the most subtle, which I would have preferred.

A criticism: once again the percentage of women authors is quite low. There are, by my count, 5 women authors, out of 22 total, which comes out to 22%. While it doesn’t make artistic sense to demand 50/50 if the works aren’t there, I’m sure there are more women writers out there (I know there are since I’ve read some of them), at least enough to get to 60/40, if not 50/50.

Finally, Imagined Icebergs has a couple of reviews from the collection and is worth a look.

4 thoughts on “Reviewing Granta’s Young Spanish Writers:Puenzo, Barba, Schweblin, Montes, Olmos

  1. I think I liked the Montes story a bit more because the narrator’s reaction seemed so bizarrely passive as to be put in question, but I agree it is hard to tell given that it is just an excerpt. Those excerpts are annoying in general. I’m getting close to being done with the volume and it continues to be uneven and often just dull, as you say.

    I’m curious, though, are you reading the stories in order? I ask because if so, the order is generally different from the English version, though I’m not sure what exactly would prompt that.

  2. No, I’m not reading them in order. I read Cohiba fist because I read your review and it peaked my interest. I then read Barbas, Montes, and Olmos (in that order), because they will be here in Seattle tomorrow and I’m going to see them. Then I read the Schwabin because I have liked some of her other stories. I’ll probably read the rest in order.

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