Granta Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists – A Review (Part II)

I learned something in reading this collection: with certain exceptions, I find novel excerpts irritating. Either they are too short to say anything, or just when they get going they stop. I also relearned that my antipathy for best of youth collections seldom live up to the word best. That is unavoidable, of course, with any collection, but with youth comes promise and it is the let down that makes it worse. That said, of the works remaining works that I had left to read (see my review for the other authors), and those that I did not skip because they were novel excerpts and I’d rather just read the novel (this is especially the case with Zambra, Roncagaliolo, Oloixarac, and Navarro), I found some of these works readable, and occasionally intriguing, but on the whole uneven.

The Andrés Neuman short stories showed some real inventiveness and suggest he has quite a range as a short story writer. I should say, he was someone, who before I had read the stories, I was interested in reading. His work seems to have an expansiveness to its approaches and breaks out of of certain story telling traps. I did find, however, that the story about the nun was perhaps a bit cliched. Still his portrait of a nun who in having an affair with a womanizer, turns his world into a hell without her. It has that kind of religious story flipped that still leads to the same result. Instead of the man going to hell just by his acts, or realizing it through a sermon, the religious figure leads the man into hell. It has a touch of that Issac Babel’s story in the Red Calvary where Jesus sleeps with a woman on her wedding night, because if her wedding is not consummated, she will be killed.

Frederico Falco’s story about a girl who has a summer crush on a Mormon doing missionary work was perhaps the funniest story of the collection. In it Falco creates a precocious teenager who announces she is an atheist to her grandmother, who of course finds the thought horrifying. Shortly after two Mormon missionaries come to the door and she is taken with one. She invites them in for the first of many visits to talk over the Mormon faith. She thinks if she keeps bringing them along, fainting interest in the religion, she’ll have more time with the cute one. But every time she tries something she finds that the boys are too committed to the faith and that even simple gestures of friendship are filtered through the mission. It isn’t a tragic end, because she doesn’t care. She’s just using them, and the boys are so committed that they just move on to the next mission. It is a warm and yet distant story, that doesn’t so much as sympathize with the girl who is looking for a little fun, but toy with the irreconcilability of two such opposing points of view.

Sonia Hernández, much like Samanta Schwiblin and to some extent like Andres Neuman, belongs to the tradition of the fantastic or perhaps surreal that seems to surface often in Spanish language short stories. Her piece about a mysterious wall with a newly installed door, is probably the most allegorical of anything in the collection. At first it isn’t clear why the organization installed the door, or even why there is a wall. The only thing you know is that people complained about the noises from the other side. Is this a social comment about unwanted immigrants? But then the story takes a turn as the narrator says a friend of hers has left and this has caused the leadership of the building to get upset. The question becomes, is this some sort of prison and those on the other side are free? Hernandez, though, has more complications as the residents of the building are mute. They speak but no one can hear them. The missing friend, who is dead, has returned and is begging the narrator to go with her and keeps talking with her but is inaudible. Is this perhaps after all, some sort of purgatory, or just a closed society where the laws of existence are so defined you cannot act freely? Of course, each of those readings leads to tyranny against the individual. Either way, the story ends ill at ease, leaving little hope for the inhabitants of the building: …ese es el castigo a su soberbia (this is the punishment for her pride).

Structurally speaking, Rodrigo Hasbun’s short story that constructs a story through constant revisions of itself had potential. But like many of the works in the volume it tended to be interested too much in writing. The same thing happened with Patricio Pron’s short story which was obviously written for the collection and suffered for its cleaver nods to Granta. I’m certainly not above reading about writing or meta fiction (see my countless posts on Hipolito G. Navarro), but the pieces in hear often seemed to be afflicted with the young writers syndrome, where the only thing the writer knows is writing so they write about writing. I once took a class where we had to write a novella in one quarter. We all accomplished the task, but the majority of the works were about either writers or some other type of artist. I wrote about a guitarist, since I also play guitar. And reading these pieces reminded me about that class which as far as I know didn’t produce any great works.

Those inconsistencies in the works are why the collection was quite uneven. Having read it, I would like to ask the editor how she picked these authors. Since, really, the collection is a reflection of the editor as much as anything. The focus on youth I think is a little misplaced sometimes. The Guadalajara book fair’s focus on unknown writers seems a little more productive.

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