Guadalajara by Quim Monzo – A Review


Guadalajara
Quim Monzo
Open Letter, 2011, 125pg

Quim Monzo is a joker. A literary one, but a joker all the same. In Gasoline, his last work to make it into English, that humor was sour and lacked direction (see my review). Consequently, I had some trepidation that Guadalajara would succumb to the meandering obsessions that were neither fun nor interesting. Fortunately, Guadalajara is immanently readable and the stories show that his reputation as an inventive short story writer is well deserved. His stories all have an undercurrent of humor often coming from the retelling of well known stories. It is in subverting of the heroic or even just the humanistic that Monzo makes his black commentaries on human behavior, usually to great effect. But Guadalajara also reveals a writer interested in extending and playing with the stories that are literary common places, and in doing so constructing his own enigmas and dilemmas; counter enigmas that stand on their own but enrich the familiar.

In Outside the Gates of Troy he creates an alternate story of the Trojan Horse where Ulysses and his men wait day after day for the Trojans to drag the wooden horse into the walls. But the Trojans are to smart or suspicious and the men slowly die, alone, weak, unable to leave the horse. Ulysses holds on to the futility and can only cover his ears to avoid the groans of his men. Instead of heroism, we have the desperate futility of hanging on to a plan that will not work. Bravery sounded good, but Ulysses is left with nothing and so has to hope for something that will never come. Plugging his ears doesn’t save the men like it would in the Odyssey, it is a disappointment.

In a similar line, Gregor flips Kafka’s Metamorphosis and writes it from the prospective of a cockroach who becomes a man. The process of becoming a man is a discovery: the new sensations, the new physical attributes, the freedom to roam among the humans. But it is a heartless self discovery as he becomes a true human and purposely squashes his family under foot, because to be human is to be amongst one’s own kind, but to also destroy the foreign. For Monzo, Gregor could do little but squash his family, because that is the nature of transformations, you become something else, you are not both.

You see that thought, too, in Family Life, which describes a family where young boys when they come of age, have part of their finger cut off. Some boys go willing into the ritual because that is what one is expected to do, a few are resistant, but they internalize the cutting and in future generations expect others to have their fingers cut. Eventually, though, one boy refuses because he wants to be a musician and the family lets him escape the punishment. But that act of kindness also destroys the tradition and without tradition the family slowly grows apart. Given the power of tradition to hold groups together, the question here is which was worse? Or does that even matter since this is just what happens? With Monzo you have the sense that it is a once a problem, but inevitable. Although, like some of the stories in Merce Rodereda, tradition is too often evoked to excuse the powerful.

Monzo also likes to lean to the surreal. In Centripetal Force he describes an apartment building whose residents cannot leave by themselves. If someone comes to visit, they can leave with them, but if they try the same feat latter they find themselves in an endless loop. It is a contagious feature of the building and when “the man” (he often does not name his characters) is rescued by firefighters, the firefighters become trapped within the building. Its a comic and surreal story, but that Centripetal Force is all pervasive and the man who can’t leave his apartment, is really just an extreme compression of most people’s lives: the daily return to home, that centripetal force everyone has.

He also likes to play with the way people interpret events through the media. In  The Lives of the Prophet and During the War he builds realities based on the rote generics that fill the media during war or great calamity. During the War Monzo narrates the start of a war, but what war is it really? The descriptions that describe the war are almost a template of how wars should be reported. During the War has the strange honor of being devoid of description, or actual specific content, such as place, but feels as if the war is real because it is a narrative seen so many times. His writing style underscores that nicely since Monzo is a spare writer and the bland description of the war starting makes it even more darkly funny.

Despite its short length, Guadalajara is filled with stories like these that are funny, dark, and enigmatic. They also feel fresh, a reinvestigation of the short story that sometimes feels rote and repetitive. He is well deserving of his reputation of one of Spain’s best short story writers.

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2 thoughts on “Guadalajara by Quim Monzo – A Review

  1. I’m glad to see you liked the collection. I bought an e-copy when Three Percent was doing the e-book sale back in June (my first and still only e-book purchase). So far I’ve only read “Family Life,” which I had read before in the Dalkey version. I think I liked the Dalkey version a little bit more, but I am looking forward to the others.

  2. I’ll have to see if I can get the Dalkey version for a comparison. I’d love to see what the differences are.
    -p

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