Bestiario by Javier Tomeo – A Review

(from Cuentos Completos)
Javier Tomeo
Páginas de Espuma, 2012

Javier Tomeo was a Spanish writer who wrote hundreds of micro fictions along with novels and plays. His sort works are unique, especially those of the Bestiario, for their parable-like nature that mixes Aesop with modern science. First published in 2000, Bestiario presents the reader with a series of parables narrated by the titular insect, beetles, worms, and ants being the most common. Each insect narrates who it is in scientific terms, describing what it looks like, what it does. These are quite self aware insects who’ve had some time to look in the mirror and admire their appearance. His stories are not just an exploration of insectoid science, though. At their core they are an anthropomorphic exploration of the complexities, particularly the paradoxes, of living. Even in the midst of the detailed anatomy written by a man no doubt fascinated by science there is a human element. Or perhaps it is better to say that there is a little insect in all of us. In the habits and customs he describes you can see yourself reflected. The reflection is a melancholy one. Even the greatest of braggarts, the scorpion, is full of melancholy, of times lost, realities that have turned on him. Despite their repetition (the critic Fernando Valls suggested reading all of Cuentos Completos in one go is a little too much of the same), it is the little failures and disappointments, the cosmic joke that imbues such little creatures with lofty dreams, that make the stories a delight to read. They are not all brilliant but a good half caught me with their tone and insight and are great addition to the art of the micro story.

As I mentioned, his stories have a melancholia and insight that builds one up, only to find futility. For the powerful, Tomeo is the hardest as in the scorpion where an ancient symbol knows he can never regain what he has lost. He lives amongst the ruins of the past—his memory—aware that to live there does little for him, and yet it is what makes him. It is an economic style of writing that when Tomeo is at his best it sings.

El Escorpión/The Scorpion

Soy la expresión de las oscuras fuerzas telúricas, relacionadas con las tinieblas y las viejas piedras. Los hombres me temen. En otros tiempos fui protector de la diadema real y di forma a uno de los más antiguos jeroglíficos. Evocar ahora me pasada grandeza, sin embargo, no me sirve de consuelo, porque vivir de recuerdos es como vivir entre muertos.

I am the expression of obscure earthly forces related to shadows and worn stones. Men fear me. In other times I was the protector of the royal crown and gave form to one of the oldest ancient hieroglyphics. Remembering my great past now, though, doesn’t help console me because to live on memories is like living with the dead.

The story La Mantis Religiosa (The Praying Mantis) is typical of many of the stories, presenting a dialogue between the insect and an unknown interlocutor. The end of the story is also typical of many of his stories, turning what is an insectoid behavior into the unspoken attributes of human kind. This story in particular is particularly biting in its cometary, showing the way in which we praise the peace in religion but value the brutal.

La Mantis Religiosa/The Praying Mantis

—Voy a contarte algo de lo que te sentirás orgullosa —le digo a la mantis religiosa—. ¿Sabes tú, amiga mia, que los romanos colocaban junto a los ídolos de sus dioses la imagen tallada en bronce de una de tus antepasadas? ¿Sabes que, por esos mundos de Dios, quedan todavía campesinos que, al encontraros en el bosque, os preguntan cuál es el mejor camino a seguir?

—No me sorprende lo que cuentas —responde—. Nuestro aspecto es como para impresiona a cualquiera: ojos tranquilos e inocentes y las patas anteriores en actitude de súplica. Piensan que somos unos insectos piadosos y nos admiran por eso.

—Te equivocas —replico—. Te equivocas, porque lo que más admiran de vosotras no es ese aire de beatas, sino vuestro canibalismo sin remordimientos.

“I’m going to tell you something that will make you proud,” I said to the praying mantis. Do you know, my friend, that the Romans placed next to the idols of their gods bronze engravings of your forefathers? Do you know that, in this world of God, there are still peasants who, upon finding one of you in the forest, ask them which is the better road to follow?

“What you’re saying doesn’t surprise me,” he responded. “Our features impress everyone: tranquil and innocent eyes, and front legs in a praying position. They think that we are pious insects and they admire us for that.”

“You’re mistaken,” I replied. “You are mistaken because what they admire most is not that blessed air, but your guilt-free cannibalism.

At their best his stories have a power surprise and delight with dark insights. They have a hermetic  conciseness that belies a hidden world just beyond the surface. Using insects is apt metaphor for finding what is buried just beyond comprehension.