La máquina de languidecer (The Languishing Machine) by Ángel Olgoso – A Review

La máquina de languidecer – Micro Cuentos
(The Languishing Machine – Micro Fiction)
Ángel Olgoso
Páginas de Espuma, 2009, pg 131

Ángel Olgoso is a Spanish short story writer who often works within the fantastic. In the La máquina de languidecer is a collection of a 100 micro fiction, short stories that are no more than a page in length, probably around 500 words at maximum. Olgoso’s stories range in subject from the fantastic to speculative to the intersection of language and reality. At all times though, his writing shows a beautiful development of imagery that comes from a precise and expansive use of language. Each story, even in the ones where the subject is not fully successful, is written with an attention to the poetry that is inherit in prose, but is often undeveloped in other writers. That focus makes his work a rich exploration of the language of story that both in terms of style and subject is searching for something deeper in the deceptively short.

As the critic Fernando Valls notes in his introduction, the work of Olgoso is often haiku-like, an assessment I agree with. At his best his stories full of rich imagery, often using disparate pairings of elements to achieve fresh images. He also is skilled at finding in an image, like the best haiku, a complete idea, often a sense of loss or longing that is part of human life. In that sense the title of the book is a reflection on that sense of loss, since it the languishing machine he is referring to is the human being. And like a haiku his images are brief, fleeting, leaving just the image alone, the rest unsaid, in the background, waiting for the reader to make the associations. In El Golpe Maestro del Leñador Mágico, a story that describes the last thoughts of the last man on earth, a couple thoughts are of cuerpos desnudos tan blancos como nevada en un lecho / naked bodies as white as snow on a bed, and la fruta robada por primera vez / fruit stolen for the first time. Or in the story El Misántropo he describes loneliness of a misanthrope who is accidentally burred alive as El malentendido es la ley de gravitación de los solitarios / To be misunderstood is the gravitational law of solitary people. In these phrases it is possible to see some of his imagery at play and his precise way of describing characters, all of which gives his work an power both economic and arresting.

The themes of his stories fall into three general categories: the structures of story and language; metaphysical and meta shifts of reality; and the fantastic often seen as a shift in perspective. In the first category is a basic story such as Conjugacion:

Yo grité. Tú torturabas. Él reía. Nosotros moriremos. Vosotros envejeceréis. Ellos olvidarán.
I screamed. You were torturing. He was smiling. We will die. You all will get old. They will forget.

In the story you have a playful use of verb tenses to create a very short story about a couple of murderers. Or in Un mélange mitológico, He writes of the gods who do things extravagantly, using the dreaded Spanish equivalent of the of the adverbial ly for all his descriptions. He concludes the story:

¿por qué entonces ha de abstenerse un escriptor inexperto de yacer a voluntad con los adverbios acabados en mente?
why the must an inexperienced writer abstain from using adverbs that end in ly?

Again he plays with the language and is interested in how it can be used, such as the ly in his description which lends great weight to the power of the gods, and yet have a connotation outside of its purely grammatical role. Another story I would point the reader to in this vein, is Nudos, which uses the word nudo (knot) in as many different ways in a story, and shows an attentiveness to shades of meaning.

The stories that play with grammar can suffer, occasionally, from the one liner like nature of Conjugaction. The stories that focus more on metaphysical and meta are often his best pieces. In the story El otro Borges an author gets a chance to meet Borges and after drinking a shot Borges offers him either his first novel recently published, or a tetradracma. The writer, afraid of Borges’ wife, chooses the tetradracma. Borges also turns out to be a joker, a man who would probably be more at home in the corner bar. It is a funny story that reimagines Borges. It also makes fun of a writer whose instinct was not to take the book. And most obviously, it is a play on Borges well known story of the same name. Yet where Borges is imagining another self, one that represents an alter ego with unknown qualities, as if the he had not passed through the garden of forking paths, Olgoso plays Borges for a joke, imagining a real man who has hidden behind appearances. It is one of his many different realities.

The idea of books and literature as a living thing and also a precarious element also show up in El ultimo lector which describes the last reader left on earth remembering the scene when the last known reader was killed. Here, the power of reading is seen as something dangerous whose secrets only remain with one person. And like several of his stories, there is a sense of precariousness of something so important as reading. At the same time there is also a sadness that reading did not prevent the end of the ability to read. As important as reading and literature are, they have no force in of themselves to protect and survive human kind.

In 237 fragmentos de metralla a soldier of the Great War recounts how he almost killed a valiant solider who was rescuing wounded allied soldiers. When wounded and captured he asks in the hospital who that soldier was. It was Hemingway. Again there is the blending of the paths not taken and the importance and fragility of literature. That such an important 20th century writer’s life was at the whim of an Austrian soldier opens to question if there were other writers lost who had more to give.

In a turn towards his fantastical work, Buenos propositos is about a writer whose work no one wants to read, even when he pays them. So he does what he has to: he kidnaps them and forces them to read his work at gun point where they find, much to the writer’s surprise, the “cry at his verses, tremble at this intrigues” and overall react appropriately before each genre. Here it is the writer or the situation that makes the work so powerful for the readers, or both. The story shows both his attention to narrative but an interest in the macabre and indicates some of his approaches to writing fantastical stories that border on science fiction or even, occasionally, horror.

Cerco a la Bella Durmiente allows Olgoso to approach the most fantastical of stories, fairy tales, with in a humorous way. In one of my favorites of the collection, he describes a prince who has gone to wake Sleeping Beauty with a kiss. She doesn’t wake, though. Olgoso gives 11 possible reasons ranging from a heavy dream to not kissing her correctly according to tradition. Whatever the reason, the prince is consigned to wait for years until the right moment when his kiss will truly work. The reasons he give are perfectly logical in terms of a fairy tale, but also make great fun of the genre, breaking apart the conventions and romance and playing it for what it is: a fantasy.

Ultimately, his stories show a love of precise language and a profound interest in what makes a story. This doesn’t always make for great reading, but given the 100 stories here, not all could possibly be winners. That so many are good, twisting one’s expectations and creating worlds of meaning in phrases shows a micro story writer of high skill. I leave you, with out comment, his most poetic story:

Diadema en tu cabello / The Crown in Your Hair

Hay quien afirma que tu única vestidura es tu pelo, tu cabellera cuisadosamente cepillada y peinada y ungida con perfume, tu largo pelo negro que refulge y se ciñe como un manto real al blanco de tus huesos.

One must recognize that your only clothing is your hair, your head of hair carefully brushed and combed and rubbed with perfume, your long black hair that shines brightly and clings like a royal mantle to the white color of your bones.