A pelea de gallos is a cockfight, the bloody and senseless fight between two roosters all for the enjoyment of rabid men. It is an apt metaphor for María Fernanda Ampuero’s excellent first collection of short stories, where characters, often at the margins, find themselves trapped in often horrifying situations they did not expect. The stories are taught and powerful, unafraid of the violence and inhumanity that comes from a pelea de gallos. Yet there is also a well honed subtlety and an unsaid that create a wide texture of moods and motifs, and reveal an author who knows how to construct a short story. It is a surprising mix that makes a compelling read, one that is hard to put down, and leaves you wanting more, given its scant 114 pages (one of my few complaints, even though concision should usually be commended).
The first story of the collection, Subasta (Auction), is a good reference point for the themes Ampuero explores. The story is in two parts. In the first the narrator tells of her girlhood spent helping her father at the cockfights he ran. She had the duty of cleaning up after the fights, getting covered in the blood and gore of the fight, becoming the brunt of jokes for her filth. In the second part she is kidnapped in a taxi and taken to an auction where she along with other victims are auctioned off so they can be ransomed, or in the case of young women, sexual slavery. It is a terrifying story, one that increases in tension and terror as it builds. It also surfaces two themes that run through out the collection: the extreme disparities in wealth in the unnamed country (Ampuero is from Ecuador, but never locates her stories in a specific place); and the differing treatment of men and women. These two elements are as clear as it gets in Subasta, and the results are horrifying. Yet the narrator’s solution to her problem, one that both takes her dignity and yet leaves it intact, reveals a world where the powerful are one step away from what horrifies them most.
I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but the stories fall into groups. The first grouping might be said to be the unmoored young consisting of Nam, Crías (Offspring), and Persianas (Blinds). In many ways these three were the most shocking. The way Ampuero explores awakening sexuality within the the context of family. In Nam the teenage narrator finds a growing same sex attraction to her American classmate, an unrequited attraction that is never fulfilled as the mysterious family reveals its dark secrets. In Crías the narrator is on a journey to the past, to the home she left long ago, which, is often said to be impossible. Instead, she finds in her friend’s brother a continuity with her childhood, a sexual relationship that started when she was thirteen and years later is still with her, permeated with the memories of his hamsters who eat their young. The dark and seedy place where she feels home, where the opening act of friendship is to give a blow job on a cockroach stained carpet, all open the idea of offspring to question. It’s the same question that arises in Persianas when the narrator’s first experiments are with his cousins, and the outrage of it leaves him alone with his mother whose own loneliness to the most transgressive behavior. In each of these stories, innocence disappears, for the better, perhaps in Nam, and for the worse in Crías and Persianas, but in all of them there is a moment that marks the characters, shows them as malleable, a drift in a world that they cannot control.
Another notable set is Cristo (Christ), Pasión (Passion), and Luto (Mourning). Each of the stores explores the innocent and powerless among the religious. In Cristo, a mother searches frantically for medicine for her young child, while her older child is completely indifferent to the power of religion. Is it just a lack of experience, or is the older child wise enough to see her mother’s desperation is easily used against her? Who is more innocent, here, the one who believes, or the one who does not? The question of innocence flows through both Luto and Pasión. Luto is the retelling of the Lazarus story, from the point of view of the sisters, Mary and Martha. Here, though, Lazarus is a brute who beats Mary and banishes her to a barn where she is raped by the men of the village, simply because he caught her masturbating. It’s a dark story that only gets darker when you realized the sainted man who visits the home is Jesus and he says he can do nothing for Mary because Lazarus is the head of the house. Who is the sainted one here, is a good question, but what we know is it’s the men who get to claim credit for holiness. The best of these stories, though, is Pasión, a retelling of Jesus’ life, suggesting that it was a woman with magical power who was responsible for his rise to fame. And like all men once he gets what he wanted, he forgets everyone else. It’s one of those stories that not only questions the biblical, but expands its dimensions and makes the questions of faith and religion more interesting.
Finally, there is the set of Ali, Coro, and Cloro (Chlorine). The first two follow the lives of the upper class told through those below who watch them but are voiceless. In all of these the tight adherence to appearances over everything else, even at risk of self destruction is paramount. While each of the stories are excellent, showing a skill both in narration and in language, Cloro has a particular beauty that captures much of what Ampuero is trying to get at. Cloro is less a story then a landscape, a slow tracking shot through a land of futile gestures for the sake of an unobtainable perfection. The story opens with men cleaning the pool at a large high end resort. It’s a task they do every day, fishing leaves and garbage and dead animals from a pool no one uses. But they have do do it: it’s what the guests expect of the resort. One such guest, checks into her perfect room and looks out at the perfection on the other side her window, and in one of Ampuero’s best observations, the guest puts her finger in the butter on her tea tray only to find that that act has destroyed the perfection all around her. In one little act, an act you must do if you are to eat, the marketing campaign image in her head is destroyed. Yet the repetition continues, and the men will never stop cleaning the pool, and perhaps the same guest will return, expecting the same sterile perfection.
María Fernanda Ampuero’s Palea de Gallos is an excellent collection. There is not one bad story (although I thought Nam could have used a little bit more development in relation to the Vietnam aspect, but that might just be an American perspective when it comes to the war). Ampuero’s collection suggests a bright future, and I look forward to reading more from her.