If the short story, in relation to the novel, is an underappreciated form, then flash fiction, or it’s better sounding name in Spanish, the Microrrelato, is even in an even worse state. There are imaginative authors who’ve dedicated whole works, even careers, to the art. I’ve covered writers such Javier Tomeo, Ángel Olgoso, or Zakaria Tamer, and to that group belongs the Argentine writer Ana María Shua. She has writes longer, more conventional length novels and short stories, but one of her hallmarks is the micro story. In her sixth collection, she explores war through its contradictions, failures, and ironies.
Before looking at a few of the pieces, it is important to discuss genre. La guerra is not necessarily a collection of stories. There is narrative in some of the pieces, but that is not really the focus of the work. Instead, they might be better understood as aphorisms. They don’t fit the strict definition of an aphorisms since each pieces is several sentences long, but the effect is similar: a principle idea is announced, the some form of contradiction appears, and a koanic idea is expressed. The basis for some pieces is history, and in others it is purely fictional. In the latter case, the genre takes the form of a fable.
The success of a work like La guerra rests not in the narrative surprises or the characters, but in the insights one can add to the already well trod paths through history and its action adventure section, war. One of the better examples is in the piece La carga de la Brigada Ligera (The charge of the light brigade)
La famosa carga de la Brigada Ligera, durante la guerra de Crimea, fue una masacre. A los altos oficiales que comandamos la caballería británica y la lanzamos contra los rusos, se nos consideró incompetentes. Se habló de la disorganizatión, de los errores. En fin, se nos acusó injustamente, sin convalidar tanto esfuerzo. Sin nuestra incompetencia, nuestra disorganizatión, nuestros errores, jamás se hubiera inscrito esa página de salvaje heroísmo en la historia del ejército británico. Sin el tesón y el sacrificio de los inútiles, ¿qué sería de los héroes?
The famous charge of the Light Brigade, during the Crimean War, was a massacre. For us high officials who commanded the British carvery and threw them against the Russians, they consider us incompetent. They talk of disorganization and errors. They accuses us unjustly, without checking with much effort. But without our incompetence, our disorganization, our errors, there never would’ve never been written in the history of the British army such a page of savage heroism. Without the tenacity and sacrifice of the useless, what would happen to our heroes?
The piece takes on the fictional narrative voice of the leaders of the British army during the Crimean War. From there, he attempts to justify the disaster which over the years, thanks to Tennyson’s poem among other things, has become a piece of legendary heroism. Of course, it was also pointless and the generals, in this telling, don’t care what so ever about the soldiers. The idea of unintended consequences and legends they grow up around an event.
A more fanciful story is in Los olores (The Smells).
Entre las ideas menos prácticas de la inteligencia militar de Estados Unidos durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial, se inventaron bombas que no mataban pero que provocaban al estallar un violentísimo mal olor. Las flatulencias y la halitosis fueron los aromas elegidos para los ensayos, como si el olor a cadaverina no hubiera embotado ya los sentidos de los soldados amigos y enemigos. Tuvieron más éxito, en cambio, las bombas con olor a cebolla frita y pan caliente, capaces de provocar epidemias de nostalgia, pero nunca se usaron porque eran peligrosas incluso para la tropa propia.
Among the least practical ideas of the United States military intelligence during the Second World War was the invention of bombs that didn’t kill, but which on exploding let out a violently bad odor. Flatulence and halitosis were the chosen for the tests, as if the smell of rotting flesh had already confused the senses of the soldiers, both friend and foe. The bombs would’ve had more success with the smell of fried onion and warm bread, both capable provoking epidemics of nostalgia, but they would never be used since they would’ve been dangerous even for US’s own soldiers.
Here the story seems pure fiction, something so ridiculous it is parody. But Shua balances the humor with a couple truths about war: everyone gets used to the killing, and nostalgia, fist observed in soldiers, and renamed morale, is something strong. The story is also a good example of her style. While this seems fictional, other pieces are based purely in fact and lead to a similarly constructed conclusion. In this one, she plays with the violence of war and the stupidity of the ideas that often are applied to it.
A collection like this is tricky to pull off. In general, Shua does, but there are the occasional miss. In general, the success hinges on the last sentence. Does it flip the story, break out some ironic insight? If not it can lay flat. I was impressed with the number of these that worked. War is a subject that is to oversimplify and easy to make trite. Shua has done the opposite.
La tierra será un paraíso (The Earth Will Be a Paradise) is the second book in Juan Eduardo Zúñiga’s Madrid trilogy, picking up a few years after the close of Largo noviembre de Madrid. It is the early 1940s and Spain is under the control of General Francisco Franco, who has dealt harshly with the defeated Republican forces. Madrid is gripped by poverty and fear and, as Zúñiga makes clear, an ever present fear hovers over the city in general, and in particular the defeated. Where Largo noviembre tried to look at the war through the lives of the inhabitants of Madrid (generally civilians in his telling), La Tierra looks at how those same inhabitants, now cornered, often poor, suffering after a year or two in prison, are trying to survive. The survival is tenuous, made even more so by many of the veterans who are trying to keep a resistance alive. Almost eight years later it is obvious the resistance was futile, but in the midst of World War II, as the Germans were loosing there was some sort of hope, misplaced, but one that provided a kind of balm for the defeated. It is in this milieu that Zúñiga sets his nuanced refection on memory and survival.
Las ilusiones: el Cerro de las Balas (The Illusions: Bullet Hill) is an aptly titled opening story for Zúñiga’s second book in the Madrid Trilogy. Largo noviembre de Madrid ended in October of 1939 with the entrance of Franco’s forces into the capital. The collection here takes off in 1943 in a city devastated both physically and emotionally by the war. The earliest impressions gives the reader are of a poor gypsy woman in rags scratching out a living in a bar. It is an image of more than poverty, which is certainly every where from cheep, run down shacks to the beer that is served warm in dirty glasses because there is neither enough power during the day to keep the refrigerators going nor enough water to wash adequately, an image of the outcast. The narrator is a veteran of the war, a republican soldier who has done a little time in a concentration camp. He works in a laboratory of a veterinary clinic with a Doctor Dimitar Dimov, a Bulgarian who the narrator doesn’t know well, and given that Bulgaria was allied with the axis at the time, perhaps he shouldn’t get to know. Nevertheless, as the walk the destroyed city and drink warm beer a confidence emerges and Dimov asks if he can find a Bulgarian who was part of the International Brigades. It is a dangerous proposition, since, if found, he would be in grave danger. The two men though begin the search and the friends of the narrator give varying bits of help, revealing a country sized with fear, a place where the defeated live in fear of more imprisonment. Ultimately, they decide the best thing is to escape to Viciy France. It is a plan full of illusions that doesn’t really face the reality that France is controlled by Germany and is as much a threat as Spain. There is no escape except in little pleasures such as that of the gypsy woman. The narrator decides he will get close to her despite her appearance, despite who she is. If there is no freedom, at least he can find something with the other outcasts. Of course, this is only an illusion, one that is common in Zúñiga, one that leaves the narrator in a devastating limbo unable to escape what they know should be abandoned.
Antiguas pasiones inmutables (Ancient, immutable Passions) describes a post war Madrid, returning to the old ways, the rich taking possession of what had been theirs before the war, the poor living in hovels. Yet it is also a story of shifts of fortune that such destruction brings about, allowing a few people who were completely separate before the war to mix, to change, not in some ideological sense, but in practical terms. Told in sentences that continually shifting mid sentence between the perspective of the principle figures of the story, Adela, a maid, and Reyes Renoso, a rich landowner, so that their stories, although disparate, reflect a growing interconnectedness. Zúñiga is a master stylist and each one sentence paragraph, some three pages long, bring the threads of each character’s life together in the contrasts of their experience. She is a semi-literate young woman who has scraped by in the neighborhood, who has always looked at the great house on the edge of the slum where she lives and has wondered what it was like inside. He is the last survivor of a a rich family that was all killed during the war who takes over the house. Wounded and recovering in the home, he is a prisoner in some ways, surrounded by the same people who must have thrown the grenade that wounded him. Each is an observer. He of her; she of the world outside the great windows, which she never would have imagined looking thorough. They draw closer, but it is not clear if it is anything more than transactional, but each gives up part of their past to do it: he an elite sense of class that was destroyed when his family was executed; she a box of papers a republican soldier, a boyfriend most likely long since dead, gave her and told her she had to keep. Lines are crossed, borders frayed as the characters seek refuge of a sort from the war’s aftermath.
Camino del Tibet (Tibetan Road) is a search for a better way of living, one that is so out of sync with its time, it renders the believers unmoored from all hope. A group of theosophists meet in Madrid waiting for their leader, trying to decide what to do. They are dedicated members, one pair refrains from sex even though they sleep in the same bed, others refuse to discuss the left, not because they are pro Franco, but because to analyze the world in those terms is to participate in the physical. It might seem an odd choice for a story about post war Spain, but it fits nicely given that the Franco regime was a Catholic dictatorship which had executed theosophists. Moreover, given the ever present backdrop of World War II, the discussions of ethereal terms, both seems brave and pointless, both in the sense that they will achieve nothing and that faith doesn’t matter. And without the leader, without a sense of purpose, a future, it becomes very difficult to maintain the group. It is a story emblematic of all those faiths, religious or otherwise, that meet the hard reality of the war’s end.
Sueños después de la guerra (Dreams After the War) is a sad and beautiful gem that looks at the lives of the soldiers, now defeated, who lives of poverty and disappointment. Although the disparities between the rich and poor show up in a story like Antiguas pasiones inmutables, Sueños adds another layer of tragedy. Carlos is a shoeshine man who works at an expensive hotel where he hears the the men talk about high finance and wealth all things he has nothing to do with, nothing he can ever hope to access. He a man from humble beginnings who had become a construction worker. During the war, though, he served with distinction and was promoted to lieutenant. He was somebody. Then the war ended, his girlfriend was killed and he ended up in prison. All he has left is the bottle and his dreams. Zúñiga doesn’t stop with just the personal disaster of one man’s war. Despite his fallen state, his complete and utter hopelessness, his ex-comrades look to him as someone who can lead the underground, who can keep the fight going. It’s pointless, a dream that will never come true and Zúñiga makes clear that all dreams, the ones of the past and those of the future do little but make the reality that much more painful.
Pero no era un vencido sino que algo peor había golpeado su hombría: una vergüenza de las muchas que los hombres ocultan a lo largo de años y que a veces, cuando en un momento inesperado vienen al pensamiento, entre tantos esfuerzos como hacemos por olvidar, cruzan delante de los ojos, clavan sus garfios en las vísceras más hondas y el rostro se osxurece y nos sentimos desfallecer aunque luego vovamos a hablar de fútbol, de la corrida en la plaza de las Ventas y se alardea de algo que deseamos poseer y que no hemos conquistado, pero la cicatriz de aquella vergüenza está allí, cruzando el pecho.
La dignidad, los papeles, el olvido (The Dignity, the Papers, the Oversight) and the Interminable espera (Interminable Wait) both cover similar ground. In each a veteran of the war are working actively with the Resistance, one distributing papers, the other observing a pick up. In each fear and suspicion mark their every move. The temptation to give up, to find relief in the radio, any kind of distraction. What makes these stories so strong is Zúñiga carfuly balances the same of loosing, the hope for a new future, the fear of getting caught, all the while finding an emotional depth in all of them.
…los receptores de radio cuyas averías arreglaba, traían palabras divertidas y música, girando el interruptor less callaba o les hacía hablar a su antojo y lo prefería a estar como él estaba, sumido en la fasedad del recuerdo proque éste, cada vez que le invocamos, nos da una imagen distinta, va cambiando sin parar según lo que anhelamos o nos conviene, por lo cual no recordamos lo que pasó sino distintas invenciones que acaban siendo engaños.
The last story, El último dia del mundo (The Last Day of the World) requires a note on style. All the stories, save El último are written in long, single sentence paragraphs, some that span several pages. They are perfect for the complex narration, swithing between subjects, as the past and the present mix in the characters mind’s. El último is a transitionary story. As in Largo noviembre which contained one story the took place after the fall of Madrid, El último is the begining of the end of the emediate post war. The story follows three people who refuse to leave their neighboorhood as it is redeveloped. Their defiance is a silent one, one that will end in their destruction. There is no deep psychological examination of fear and hope. That’s gone. What is left is the commercial, the new paradise. This, of course, is not the paradise that is intended by the title of the book, which is a quote of the International. As the vision of a dictatorship, the language changes to simpiler, shorter sentences, which capture a more utilitarian sense of language.
While not quite as magical as Largo noviembre de Madrid, La tierra será un paraíso is an excelent collection. When taken in the context of the trilogy, the work is even stronger, examining the profound depths of the end of the war. Where Largo was constrained with action, upheaval, the constant bombing, La tierra is quite, frozen in terror. The two states are perfectly represented in the structures of the narratives and the stylistic approach of the writing. These two works are a must for anyone interested in the Spanish short form.
For a country whose most famous literary work is a novel, Doña Perfecta has the appearance of an early novel, a novel whose shifts in style and the occasional lacuna in the plot, suggest a nascent form, one that hasn’t quite come into shape. This, of course, is an error. Benito Pérez Galdós’ 1877 novel is a brilliant work whose structure, style, and themes all seem quite modern, and underscore the struggle between the modern, industrial world of the cities and the conservative, inflexible one of the rural provinces. It is a story, though written nearly 25 years before the start of the twentieth century, presages the internecine battles of the next hundred years.
The titular Doña Perfecta is the matriarch of an upper class family that comes from a rural provincial capital. It is an isolated place. The journey from the modern train station takes several hours by horse back through land that rife with bandits. It is ringed with with shanties and the town has been in decline for some time. None of this stops Doña Perfecta and her circle of friends, which includes a high church official, from looking suspiciously at anything that comes from the Capital, Madrid. When her nephew Pepe comes to town to marry her daughter and claim his ancestral lands, the conflict between these two worlds collide.
Galdós does not make it clear what Pepe exactly does to set off the ire of Perfecta and her friends. He lets the inhabitants relate what they’ve heard, leaving the reader in a game of telephone where what one hears about the young man might be upsetting, but is it true? The accusations are, naturally, all of a religious nature, but essentially are reducible to one idea: he has used his scientific thinking to disrespect the traditions of the city. Pepe, a good engineer more interested in building a physical future, one built on reason, cannot see what harm it is to walk through a church and look at the art. In the age of over tourism, it is hard to take this as a great crime, but it does show an inflexibility, an unwillingness to even listen to Pepe defend himself. Pepe doesn’t do that very well for he speaks in modern terms, ones that they are unable to understand.
Galdós’ characterizations are one of the true strong points of the novel. While he does employ a narrator that gives local color, or pushes the plot along with details from larger events, particularly the revolts of the 1870’s, it is in exploration of the voices of the narrow minded inhabitants of the province that the novel comes alive. Doña Perfecta is a particularly exasperating one, but one of those dark characters who sparkle in fiction. Her ultimate fate, dark and just as it is, is also tragic, and given her moral rectitude one she is completely unable to see.
Ultimately, Doña Perfecta reveals a Spain unable to shake itself of a lethargy and embrace the modern world. It is a failing with tragic consequences for both the characters of the novel, and the country as a whole.
Thomas Boyd’s 1923 WWI novel is relatively forgotten work in the literature of the war. Although, F. Scott Fitzgerald called it a work of art in his review, it does not quite rise to that status. Overshadowed by the likes of Hemingway and the Europeans who had more to say on the subject, Through the Wheat does have a place when looking reading the war.
Through the Wheat follows a Marine, Hicks and his company as they go from green Marines to experienced combatants. The conventionality of the narrative is more implicit, than explicit: there are none of the traditional scenes of boot camp. Nevertheless, even implicitly stated it slows the book at the beginning. One problem is Boyd attempts to capture the voices of all the men, show their boredom, excitement, the emotions that drive them. Unfortunately, he is not quite able to capture it. There is no real sense of who the characters are and the novel seems conventional, overly dramatic, and plodding. As the novel develops and more and more of Hicks’ comrades die, he becomes the focus and Boyd gives a deeper sense of the internal life. But even then, Boyd keep Hicks at a distance. This is a both a feature and a defect. Hicks is not a thinker; he is an average Marine and before he joined he was an average man more concerned with food and women. That approach cuts off a rich vein of experience and makes the book, especially in the open pages, a popular novel more interested in adventure.
As the book progresses and the American campaign in the Muse-Argonne becomes bloodier and most of Hick’s comrades die, the light tone disappears. Boyd describes the horrors Hicks endures in a mater of fact tone, one that drops horrifying images so quickly that the reader has no time to reflect on what has just happened. It is a reflection of Hicks’ inner life. Hicks slowly becomes numb to these images, but he hardly reflects on them. There is the momentary disgust, but all he cares about is getting relieved and getting a good meal. In this sense, Through the Wheat might most closely resemble All Quiet on the Western Front. The descriptions of the battlefield are certainly similar.
The sights of the dead in all of their postures of horror, the loss of those whom he had known and felt affection for, the odor of stinking canned meant and of dead bodies made alive again by the head of the day, the infuriating explosion of artillery; the kaleidoscopic stir of light and color, had bludgeoned his senses. Now he lay, incapable of introspection or of retrospection, impervious to the demands of the dead and the living.
Hard, cold, and unfriendly dawn broke over the earth like a thin coating of ice shattering in a washbasin. In the eerie light the tangles masses of wire, the weather-beaten posts from which the wire was strung, the articles of equipment and clothing once worn by men looked unreal. The woods ahead, a grayish black, lay against the sky like a spiked wall.
Through the Wheat is probably one of the best fictional descriptions of the WWI by an American of the era. Hemingway, Dos Pasos, ee cummings, all wrote novels about the war, but they were concerned with art, with a politics that at first glance seems missing. One could read the book as both as an anti-war book, as well as a testament to the Marines. When I was reading the first section I couldn’t help wonder if the reprint was driven by the 1926 release of What Price Glory, a successful film that made the Marines seem like a lot of fun. It is the lack of a heavy revulsion at the war, the use of Hicks, the dispassionate observer, that certainly places the work outside the canon. It took me quite a while to appreciate some of its elements. It is certainly not a great novel (a few less adverbs would’ve helped), but it is more reflective of the war than any of his contemporaries.
Library of America
Sherwood Anderson’s interrelated collection of short stories is a masterpiece of the form. As good as other works such as The Triumph of the Egg are nothing quite matches the magic of Winesburg, Ohio. Published 100 years ago, it is both modern and wistful, describing a time, even when it was first published in1919, that had long passed. It is that mix of wide-eyed realism and a kind of nostalgia for a small town America that never quite was what it seemed, which makes Winesburg such a compelling read.
Winesburg opens with a form of a frame story, or at least the idea of one. An old writer has written a book about the truths of men, the truths that make them grotesques. It is a book that is never published, but are we reading it? Is Winesburg full of grotesques? I won’t answer that, but even this little story has the marks of an Anderson jewel: multiple levels of story telling, that of the writer and the carpenter; a desire to touch something metaphysical: a truth, an emotion, a dream; and a concision of style that is not minimalist, but is never long. His brief paragraph about the carpenter which captures the horrors of the Civil War and what we now call PTSD is fascinating.
There are a couple overriding occupations for Anderson: the rise of the modern industrial world; and the dark, unsaid disappointments of the inhabitants. The former theme weaves its way throughout as a coloration. It creates the idea of an idyllic small town America, one pure, quiet and beautiful. It is a powerful image, one that still animates American thinking. Usually, he is discrete in his descriptions: a beautiful sunset, the laughter of berry pickers on their way home in the dusk. Other times he is direct, discussing the rise of machines, the coming of industrialism (an archaic usage that captures the passion for the machine age).
It is the latter, though, were Anderson spends most of his time. In a town of 1900 during the mid 1890s, few are happy: failed marriages; marriages made in haste when one lover becomes pregnant; dreams of passion foundering on the realities of a marriage. For Anderson it is not just the social constraints that are important, but the internal passions, often unvoiced and vaguely understood. They drive his characters to take a lover or marry, because they see in the other a way out of a small town, a boring life. The big cities of Cleveland and Chicago are always off in the distance, tempting, influencing, putting ideas into the heads of the inhabitants. He captures it well in most stories, but the two stories about Elizabeth Willard, a sick woman who slowly fades away in her forties, are stand outs. Both show a woman fully aware of the disappointments in her life and unable to overcome the depression which it brings on. But she finds a kind of solace in hoping her son, George the one character who moves throughout all the stories in the work, will leave town much like she wanted to before she married her husband. He also creates a kind of tender connection in her relationship with Dr Reefy. Both of them are damaged individuals and they find in her visits a kind of solace, a forbidden love that is never quite spoken, not quite realized, but gives them a fleeting hope. It is in these moments the nostalgia darkens and this ideal place is less than ideal. A passage from the penultimate story captures this sense well.
There is something memorable in the experience to be had by going into a fair ground that stands at the edge of a Middle Western town on a night after the annual fair has been held. The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and the country around. Farmers with their wives and children and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified. One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.
Winesburg, Ohio is still a masterwork of the short form that still holds up.The creative vision of his short stories are still magical. And the picture of a world already long past when he wrote the collection, has the right mix of darkness and light, showing that there is no perfect past. Small town America, despite the glowing memories made manifest in places like Disney’s Main Street, was as unfulfilling as any other place; perhaps even more.
Somewhere halfway through the François Mauriac’s 1941 novel, A Woman of the Pharisees, the narrator sides with his stepmother, Bridget. It is a small thing, but it is clear this is no social novel. It is, as the title suggests, more interested in a certain kind of faith, one that is more universal than its very Catholic setting might suggest. Mauriac’s erudite, and yet brief novel (it is only 204 pages in my 1988 Penguin edition), captures a search for a faith that is grounded in personal belief, not the guarding of it. That is why the off handed passing of the tragic fates of its characters is not as important as Bridgette’s inner struggle.
I mention the core struggle of the novel here because the focus on faith slowly bubbles up, in what otherwise appears to be the reflections an aging author on the family scandals. Scandals are there. There are at least five different scandals that weave their way through the book. By modern standards they are tepid, but for 1890’s Catholic Bordeaux they carry the weight of social damnation. For Bridgette Pian, the greatest scandal is when a local teacher, her weekend secretary, falls in love and marries a brother from a Catholic order. What seems loving, to her is a sin, a break down of the way the religious should behave. She does not hesitate to slow the marriage and when the couple find themselves penniless, she does not offer them jobs, even though it is in her power to help. Yet she is not without a sense of obligation. When the young woman is bedridden during a difficult pregnancy, Brigit gives them money. The narrator makes it quite clear that this isn’t a christian forgiveness that makes her do it. It is what the upstanding christian does. But even that comes with a heavy hand, as she not only insists the husband tell his wife that she has been giving them the money, which he had, heretofore, lied and said he had earned it; she goes to the squalid apartment to tell the wife that information, even though it might cause her to miscarry.
It was during this incident the narrator decided to side with Bridgette. Although he seems dispassionate there are moments when his Catholicism seeps in.
I owe it, in justice to myself, to add that his appearance moved me to a sense of pity, or, at any rate, produced in me the sort of moral discomfort which is always excited by the sight of another’s poverty. and which we are tempted to call by the nobler name. But when I thought about Monsieur Puybaraud’s misfortune I could not but feel myself in agreement with Madame Bridgette. I found it difficult not to despise him for having yielded to an attraction which, though I had yet felt its power myself, I was already inclined to view with suspicion and disgust.
The narrator can’t quite decide where his loyalties lie. Are they with his friend Mirbel who has a scandalous affair with his sister, or are they with Bridgette who in her determination to set the world straight, sends his father to an early grave? That conflict gives a seeming dispassionate account of the crashing lives. It is at once callous, as it is to the poor couple, as it is open to a full examination of events, because in the end it is through the suffering and the journey is salvation achieved. That a perfectly good and christian couple fall into poverty and untimely death is beside the point. As with Mirbel and his mother’s scandals. Mauriac uses that duality to give us some delicious lines. When describing Bridgette, a liberal priest says
He said that there are some people who choose God, but that perhaps God doesn’t choose them…
Or is this the narrator making a point that about the end for Bridgette, one that he approves of? Mauriac leaves these questions open.
Despite the religion, there is humor and wit. Mirbel’s mother, a countess has one of the best introductions, one that suggests how scandalous she might be.
“The Comtesse de Mirbel,” said the priest, “is a lady of letters”—and he gave vent to a guffaw of laughter out of all proportion to the very mild humor of his remark. “Did you know that she has written novels?”
“Has she ever had any of them published?” I asked.
“No,” snapped my stepmother in her most sarcastic tone; “she finds it sufficient to live them.”
Finally, Mauric’s writing is precise and at times he creates precise miniatures of an idea. The sense of a lost time and the passage of an era is perfectly captured in this very literary moment.
…I am not going to set own the real name of a man who was once as celebrated as Donnay, Bernstien or Porto-Riche, though to-day it is entirely forgotten. If nothing now remains of a body of work which was once highly considered, if the very titles of his most famous plays have passed from human memory, it remains true that he once exercised a profound influence on many who are still alive and who, like the Comtesse de Mirbel, are dragging out the fag-end of their existence before taking the final plunge into nothingness.
One wonders if Mauriac was not thinking of himself. It is certainly too early for that to happen to A Woman of the Pharisees.
Jorge Volpi’s Una novela criminal is a novela sin fiction, that is a novel without fiction, a book that tries to examine the complexity of Cassez-Vallarta case that roiled Mexico and France during the second half of the 2000’s and, in some ways, is still not resolved. While the case itself may not be familiar to English speakers (I hadn’t heard of it before), the story of a justice system failing the accused and the victims is a troubling one. Volpi’s precise analysis not only takes apart the flaws in the case, but paints a wider picture of Mexican, and to some degree, French society. He reveals a world of corruption, police misconduct, and indifference to truth that resonates beyond Mexico.
In practice, the novelization in Una novela criminal is not like famous true crime works such as, Cold Blood. Volpi is not using many techniques of a novelist. There are changes in style, and minimal scene setting, but most of that is done in clearly journalistic sense that sticks to factual details. Volpi comes in and out as a narrator, but, again, it is the voice of an essayist. The novel is the story itself, the interweaving of lies and counter lies, ellipsis and lacuna that fill the book and make the idea of justice a capricious and infuriating process. The book is not so much a novel, but an examination of how a narrative is constructed. And constructed is the right word. From the beginning of the case, the lives of Florence Cassez and Israel Vallarta were put on display. Volpi writes how when they were apprehended by the police for kidnapping, the tv crews were there. Except, that they had been apprehended the day before and the police were staging, not even restaging, the capture. Time and again, he shows how the beatings, extra judicial maneuverings, and unreliable witnesses create a narrative that is pure fiction and full of holes.
Yet there is more to the case than just injustice. For Volpi, Vallarta is difficult to understand. His testimony changes throughout the course of the book. While he is sure Cassez is innocent, in part because her testimony has always been consistent, he is unable to get a read on Vallarta. Is there something he is hiding? It is not clear, but at the level of the novel, it leaves questions open. It is in these mysteries, despite one’s belief in how bad the law was abused, you can understand why this is called a novel.
It can also be a bleak book, one that captures our times:
Hoy, que tanto se habla de la posverdad —un término tan elástico como inconsistente—, pienso que el caso Vallarta-Cassez, como quizás la mayor parte de los asuntos criminales en México, prefiguraba su lógica. Si la posverdad existe, tendríamos que imaginarla no como el ámbito donde los poderoso mienten, y ni siquiera donde mienten de modo sistemático, sino aquel donde sus mentiras ya no incomodan a nadie y la distinción entre verdad y mentira se torna irrelevante.
Today, there is so much talk about post truth—a term so elastic it is doesn’t mean much—I think that the Vallarta-Cassez, like the majority of criminal cases in Mexico, predates it. If post truth exists we have to imagine it not as the place where the powerful lie and not even where the powerful lie systematically, but where their lies don’t bother anyone and the distinction between the truth and a lie have become unimportant.
It is this sense of injustice, runaway state power, and arbitrary use of the law that makes Una novela criminal a book for our times, not just Mexico.