My Review of The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction at the Quarterly Conversation

My review of The Future Is Not Ours is up at the Quarterly Conversation. This came out last week but I´ve been off line for a while.

The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction edited by Diego Trelles Paz

The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction edited by Diego Trelles Paz

Review by Paul Doyle

Editor Diego Trelles Paz notes in his solid and lengthy introduction to The Future Is Not Ours that this trend was first evident with the writers born in the ’60s, especially those of the McOndo and Crack groups, spearheaded by Alberto Fuguet and Jorge Volpi, respectively. Both as a reaction to the constraint imposed by the writing of the Boom, and to the political climate, writers gave up on the “total novel,” which tried to capture the whole of a country. While Paz oversells the importance of events like the fall of the Berlin Wall, the murders in Juarez, Mexico, and the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, in shaping the writers and works in this collection, there is a clear awareness of the dysfunctional world they inherited. Paz claims “one can recognize the rather nihilistic conviction with which each writer confronts the disillusionment that” uses cynicism and indifference to avoid disappointment. Having seen so many failures, there is only so much one can say about a nation.

La familia del aire: Entrevistas con cuentistas españoles (The Family of the Air: Interviews with Spanish Short Story Writers) by Miguel Ángel Muñoz – A review

From bottom left clock wise: Cristina Fernandez Cubas, Miguel Ángel Muñoz, Hipolito G. Navarro, Fernando Iwasaki, Enrique Vila-Matas, Mercedes Abad, Andrés Neuman, José María Merino

La familia del aire: Entrevistas con cuentistas españoles (The Family of the Air: Interviews with Spanish Short Story Writers)
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Páginas de Espuma, 2011, 474 pg.

The Spanish short story writer Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s La familia del aire: Entravistas con cuentistas españoles (The Family of the Air: Interviews with Spanish Short Story Writers) is an invaluable guide to the modern Spanish short story, and one of the best books I’ve read on the art of writing. Muñoz is an excellent and dedicated interviewer whose questions show a deep and thoughtful reading of each interviewee’s body of work. He sees interviews as not just another genre, but as an art unto itself and as he mentions in his introduction, he keeps collections of interviews in binders. He believes that letting an author talk about his or her work helps expand it, place it in a deeper context, rather than only letting the work speak for it self. It is this deep devotion to short stories and his ability to draw from the 37 included authors what makes short stories so compelling makes the book a must read for anyone interested in the short story. It is all the more impressive since all the interviews were conducted over a series of  3 or so years and published on his blog, El sindrome Chejov. In one of those great acts of personal fascination lived publicly, in 2006 Muñoz began to interview Spanish short story authors. What started quietly without any grand ambitions, morphed over the intervening years into one of the primary sources about authors working with the short story. Muñoz notes he was a little surprised by the willingness the authors agreed to interviews, but his dedication and preparation, which at the minimum includes reading each interviewee’s oeuvre, makes him a trustworthy interviewer, one that most writers would love to have. Muñoz also brings an sense of excitement to the short story. When reading his interviews (or his blog posts) it is easy to catch that same excitement—I should know, since every time I read one, I want to go out and read the author’s stories. The book is truly a one of a kind success that I wish existed for English language authors.

The only draw back of the book for my English language readers is that very few of these authors are available in English (certainly not the author’s fault). I have tried to remedy that with my recent article about unpublished Spanish Short story writers at the Quarterly Conversation. And when an author has been translated into English it is usually a novel. The most recognizable name in the book is probably Enrique Vila-Matas. Andrés Neuman, the last interview of the book and one of the better ones, also just had a novel come out in English (read my review here). That said, one of the most fascinating things about the book for an English speaker is to see what authors have influenced these authors. Given that English language authors may not be exposed to as many translations as they are in Europe, it might come as a surprise that two of the most common names that came up were Raymond Carver and John Cheever. Over and over in the list of influences these two always showed up. Some authors have turned to the English speaking authors as a refuge from the Spanish language traditions, but even when they cite Spanish language authors those two show up. I’m not so sure that would be the case for the reverse. Other English language authors mentioned were Poe, Anderson, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Mansfield, Lorrie More and Alice Munro.

Spanish language influences tended to come mostly from Latin America. Cortazar was the most sited, the Onetti and Borges, and with a little less frequency Rulfo. There was a sense of disinterest in Spanish short authors from the middle of the century. The only two that were commonly cited were Juan Eduardo Zúñiga and Medardo Fraile. I think this is a function of one generation turning against another, something Andrés Neuman noted, saying that Spanish authors should take more pride in their own tradition with mid century authors like Ana Maria Matute. Only one author, Fancisco Afilado, though, really did not like the Latin Americans, especially Cortazar who he said led too may young writers to play games with their stories. Again, as a contrast to the American scene that notion of play is often lacking and too many write in the realistic vain. Afilado, naturally, is the author who loved the American realists the most, and is a perfect example of those who believe that noir is the best writing because it is the most real. I can’t say I agree with that, but it was refreshing and annoying at the same time to find one author in these interviews who has that opinion.

There were relatively few references to authors outside of the English and Spanish traditions. There were, of course, the trinity, Chekhov, Maupassant, and Kafka, but relatively few references to authors from any other languages (except perhaps Catalan). Only once did I see a reference to Thomas Bernard, for example. But given who rich both of these traditions are, there is quite a bit to mine in terms of influence.

With the exception of a few novelists, all the interviewees are dedicated to the art of the short story. As such, every interview has a question about the disrespect given to short stories in Spain. There were several theories all of which probably have some validity. My favorite was Carlos Castán’s theory that all the Christmas stories that come out ever year and which written by famous authors, turn readers away from the short story, because the stories are written by people who are not short story writers. I think the lack of critics who specialize in the short story, especially those at newspapers, is probably a better theory. The short story has the perception that it is just what you do between novels. Another mentioned that the public likes to engross themselves in a big story and don’t like the stopping and restarting that a collection of short stories entails. That may be the prescient commentary: it is one I sometimes feel when I am reading collections of short stories, especially ones larger than 200 pages.

Of course, things always look better across the water, and there were multiple references to the tradition of the short story in the US. However, I often feel that what they are looking at is a tradition that is from 30 years ago, if not father back. While major publishers do bring out collections of short stories, they are still a small fraction of published fiction. And while there are small magazines and journals like Tin House, the short story also lacks for prestige. Perhaps things are better here, but it certainly is not a paradise.

Ultimately, the book with its ample indexes, appendices of authors cited in the interviews, and a list of each author’s published works, short story or otherwise, is one of the best references to the short story I can think of. And as one might expect my list of authors that I’m interested in reading has grown. These are just a few that you may see on these pages some day: Mercedes Abad, José María Merino, Medardo Fraile, Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, Iban Zaldua, Ángel Olgoso, among others. That, I think, is the highest praise for La familia del aire: Entravistas con cuentistas españoles.

Note: For those interested you can read my reviews of Miguel Ángel Muñoz short story collection Quedate donde estas and his novel El corázon de los caballos.

Traveler of the Century (El viajero del siglo) by Andrés Neuman – A Review

Traveler of the Century
Andrés Neuman
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012, 564 pg

El viajero del siglo
Andrés Neuman
Alfaguara, 2009, 531 pg

Andrés Neuman’s Traveler of the Century (El viajero del siglo) is a broad novel of ideas that takes place in post a Napoleonic Europe that at first seems distant, but as he makes quite clear the same debates and the same arguments are still with us. It is an impressive bit of scholarship, bringing to life the philosophical arguments that have receded into the past. At the same time, Neuman also constructs a narrative that is equally interesting, giving the book a narrative impulse that is a good counterpoint to discussions about Schiller, Goethe and other 19th century German thinkers.

The novel follows Hans a world traveler who stops at the town of Wandernburg on the border of Saxony and Prussia. He intends to stay only a few days and move on, but he meets an organ grinder in the town square and they begin a friendship. The organ grinder is a kind of sage with whom he respects for his detached way of looking at the world, which lets him obverse the town, but stay distant from its intrigues. He also has seems to know that Hans should stay in the town and suggests after they first meet that he should stay an extra week. In that week, Hans who still plans to leave as he does every town he visits, meets the Gottlieb family and is taken with the daughter, Sophie. Once he has meet the family, striking up a friendship with the father and latter managing to get himself invited to the salon that Sophie hosts, he becomes, at least for a time, a resident of the town.

During the salon Hans, Sophie, an older professor named Mietter, a Spanish expat Alvaro, and several towns people discuss everything from the European union under Napoleon, the value of religion, which forms of government are best, and the merits of classicism versus romanticism.  While everyone chimes in, Hans as the worldly traveler brings the new liberal and romantic ideals to the group and often spars with Mietter who represents a conservative, Catholic, and classical view. The two are usually at odds and although Alvaro with his anti-clericalism can shock the group, Hans is the true rebel of the group expressing ideas that propose to overthrow the established order and many times are illegal in Saxony.

It is during these salons that the book returns over an over to the idea of identity. What is it that makes Europe, Europe? It seems to be odd to discussing these ideas again, and occasionally  during the salons I found myself thinking, yes, I already know this, why do I need to read this way. Yet these arguments are still going on and taking a gaze at Europe it is obvious that these arguments only seem settled because they are old. For example, at one point Alvaro notes it is better have less religious freedom because it leads to greater belief, unlike Spain which has such high disbelief thanks to the church. That friction still exists in Spain and has been an issue for a over a century. In other parts of the book, he looks at the desire for every ethnic group to have its own country, a topic that is still hotly debated in several countries. It is in these discussions that the book is more than just a rereading of German romantic thought, but rediscovery of the same problems that they tried to address and which have yet to be settled. While the novel was written between 2003 and 2008, the questions have taken on even more weight in light of the financial crisis that has exposed even more points of contention between the countries of Europe. (Alvaro’s funny take of the genius of Goya who knew to change the heads of the figures in the painting Allegory of the City of Madrid with the each change in politics, is particularly funny and telling.)

The narrative begins to move ahead at a quick pace when Hans and Sophie begin a passionate love affair. At first it is stolen glances and furtive meetings on country excursions, but soon the begin to meet in his rooms under the pretext of translating poems for publication. Between making love and delving into the subtlest meanings of words, they spend hours together in a world of romance and translation, as if each were part of the other. Neuman spends a fair amount of time talking about translation and his interest in the subject is quite deep. And within the greater theme of the book that Hans as a traveler is a translator of different places and ideas, it ties together all these discussions about politics with the simple need to be heard: without translation, in its specific sense of language, or the broader sense of different ideas into new forms that can be understood by new people, people stagnate. Of course, it is also a literary argument and Neuman shows great care in describing the process of translation, especially the argument between fidelity to the language versus fidelity to the meaning. As Sophie says, “Translation and manipulation are two different things wouldn’t you say?”

Eventually, Hans is found out to be the revolutionary he is–as men and women with new ideas are always called. As a result the love affair ends and Hans knowing that there is nothing left for him, has to leave town, finally, a year latter. At first the ending may see a little abrupt because Hans leaves town and nothing has really changed, except that Sophie is no longer engaged. But that is it. Yet that is really the perfect way for a traveler to come and go, both in the narrative and metaphorical sense. Hans is not meant to stay long, because like ideas, he must continue on, encountering new problems, new challenges to meet. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter where Hans is, because he has exposed Sophie to something that will continue to grow and help question what identity really is. And in that exploration Neuman has created a  work that is both prescient and needed.

A Note on the Translation

I read the first two thirds in Spanish. I had bought the book back in 2010 and had not gotten around to reading it until now. I switched to the English translation when the publisher sent it to me, mostly likely at the behest of Andrés (but who ever sent it, thanks).  Although it was a little strange to hear the characters all of a sudden in English instead of Spanish when I made the switch, I thought the translation was quite effective. It was a very good representation of the original Spanish and eminently readable.

My Little War by Louis Paul Boon – A Review

My Little War
Louis Paul Boon
Dalkey Archive, 2010 125 pg

This scant book is one of the more interesting ways to write about war I have read. It is also what makes it difficult to capture. My Little War is a series of 1-3 page episodes and little paragraph length moments that are tacked to the end of the episodes without any real relationship. They are just more noise of war. All of it is narrated by a person claiming to be the author. I mention this because while the style is consistent, one has the impression that multiple voices are at work. Nevertheless, each of the episodes describes the chaotic lives of the Flemish during World War II. The stories aren’t related and do not create a narrative arc that ties the lives of the characters together, giving the reader much of a connection to the characters. Boon is not creating great heroic stories of the resistance or of the pathos of the long suffering. Instead, he shows a world that in many ways has always existed and which during the shifting power structures of the war force to the surface. In story after story he shows the Belgians stealing and lying to survive. At other times the fascist sympathizers parade around town, finally powerful, only to change their stripes when the allies come. It’s a vision of pettiness that makes some of the Belgians look anything but heroic. That view is part of his larger point about the war. Those who lived  through it were surviving each day lacking any information of what was going on or any power to control it. It is not a sympathetic view, but it is effective and the voices of the episodes that seem anonymous in their brevity begin to suggest one thing: what was it all for?

But all the poets who wrote so enthusiastically about the Eastern front peeked out cautiously in their socks, back to writing poems about the stars and their solitude and God–God for God’s sake–after having pissed right onto Christ’s loincloth.

My Article on Four UnTranslated Short Stories Is Up at the Quarterly Conversation

My article about four untranslated Spanish short story writers is now up at the Quarterly Conversation. It turned out really well and is a much longer form article than I normally write coming in at a little over 3K words. While I think the stories mentioned in the article are great I had to leave out so many different ones that it seems at times I haven’t written that much. Writing about short stories is always hard because you end up with some many different ones and you have to try come up with some sort of thematic element to link them together. This was esspecially the case with these four, but I think I was able to do it.

Collections of short stories are generally considered difficult to market, and thus they’re often looked down upon by editors who acquire new works of literature in the United States. This fact is no less true when it comes to editors who acquire works of foreign literature translated into English, an already notably under-represented group. To make matters worse, what stories that do get translated are often lumped into anthologies of what you might call stories from over there, which obscure the full range of an author’s talent beneath the idea that one story is a representative sample.

This is all very important in the case of Spanish literature, which in recent decades has seen a rebirth of the possibilities of the short story. For authors of what’s called the New Spanish Short Story, this tendency has hidden a great burst of creativity that began in the early 1980s and flowered during the 1990s and 2000s (the few stories that have been translated have been relegated to obscure editions unavailable in the United States). From the stories of the fantastic by Cristina Fernádez Cubas to the structural inventions of Hipólito G. Navarro and the surrealism of Ángel Zapata, Spanish short story writers have created an exciting and diverse body of work marked by its openness and dedication to pushing the boundaries of the form.

I  have also commented on other stories from Navarro and Cubas. The rest of the Quarterly Conversation looks very good, too, and definately worth reading. They have a nicely timed overview of the works of Mercè Rodoreda. (You my reviews of Death in Spring and her short stories)

Tin House #50 – A Review

I finally finished the ever interesting Tin House this week. As usual, there were some excellent pieces and some that, while not bad, weren’t as interesting. The big piece in the issue was an excerpt form Michel Houellebecq’s newest book, The Map and the Territory. I’ve only read Platform and found parts of it interesting, this piece, as is the case with most novel excerpts, did little to interest me, or better said, I would like to read his book in spite of what I read here. On the other hand, Maggie Shipstead’s You Have A Friend in 10A mines in some way similar territory as Houellebecq, but makes it a little more interesting. Essentially, it is the story of a Katie Holmes like actress who is trying to survive the escape from a Scientology-like group. It is a dark picture of control, a story one knows or thinks one knows after passing the magazines at the checkout counter so many times. She had several rhetorical touches that made the story interesting and lifted it above the cringe worth stories of drugs and depravity that can come from this subject. Eric Puchner’s Little Monsters was a nice change of pace, telling a science fiction story of a race of young people who are manufactured and who kill any older adults who were created through sexual intercourse. It isn’t exactly a new idea, I know there is a Star Trek story along those lines, but he brought an impressionistic sensibility to what could have been cold science fiction. And as the two young characters learn to take care of a dying adult, the transformation doesn’t bring about a revolution but does cast the brutality of their lives into a new light. The best story of the fictions, though was Quintan Ana Wikswo’s The Little Kretshmar, a story about a couple learning to deal with their disabled son. What set the story apart is Wikswo strips the story down, removing all temporal and physical baggage so that it is just the actions or results of actions that exist.:

For now, the rings dangle on short strings around their necks. When they lean over the little Kretschmar, the rings swing and dangle. But the little Kretschmar cannot see them, nor can he grab at them. The rings swing in peace as the little Kretschmar rolls to the left, and then to the right.

It is all a reminder of the sauna, of Saturday, of sex and disgust and shame. He will no longer look at her rich, high breasts. She turns away when he unbuttons.

And they avert their eyes from the little Kretschmar when he cries, and tuck the rings inside their shirts.

The accumulation of the little pieces, almost devoid of emotion are more arresting, and do not weigh the story down with the extraneous details about time of day or the color of the sun.

The best piece of non fiction in the issue was Sonia Faleiro’s piece Leela, The Mumbai Bar Dancer. The opening is an excellent example of stretching the essay form. Faleiro starts off in what is third person but is really a playful first person between her and Leela, a kind of dance that Leela plays out with all her clients. It gives a great sense of Leela because it characterizes her, lets her act and speak on her own (even though this is just an illusion), instead of a description of her. She manages to capture more than just the working conditions, but a sense of Leela.

Xingu and Other Stories by Edith Wharton – A Review

Xingu and Other Stories
Edith Wharton
Charles Scribner’s Sons, October 1916, 436 pg

Xingu and Other Stories is an uneven collection of stories from a writer in the midst of her most fertile work. The good stories show similar concerns of her more famous novels such as the house of Mirth. When she is examining the lives of couples or more commonly the lives of women she is a powerful writer that doesn’t write polemics, but creates heroines that self aware and willing to try to size what should be theirs. They may not get it, but they’ll try. Interspersed among those stories, though, are less than convincing ghost stories, atrocity stories from World War I, and tales of revenge. Nevertheless, Xingu has some gems in it.

The eponymous story Xingu  is a funny send up of conformity and phony intellectualism. A group of women get together regularly and invite a writer to talk to the group about their book. The writers quickly bore of the  morally bland middle class women and their pedantic questions. Nor are the women are capable of  having their own opinions about the works. They all seek a kind of respectable consensus on what each book means and it makes for a conservative and unimaginative group. One day when they are trying to entertain a pompous writer one of the members mentions begins to talk about a place called Xingu. Everyone at the lunch fakes knowledge of Xingu, but none of them have heard of it. As the story builds, they begin to get more and more extravagant in their claims. Finally, the woman who first mentions Xingu , turns the table on them all and tells them what Xingu means, deflating the pedantic women of the group. It is a funny story although the punch line is a little long. Wharton can occasionally draw a story out a little too far.

Autres Temps… is classic Wharton with its subtle and nuanced look at women in society. In the story, a woman returns to New York after her divorce, a scandalous idea in during the late 1800’s, forced her to flee to Europe and a new life. She returns because her daughter has just divorced, too, and is going to remarry and she wants to be there to help her, because she remembers what a disaster it was for her. When she arrives, though, her daughter reminds her everything is alright. No one seems upset, even the women of her generation, the women she was friends with at one time. She begins to think that her exile is over, but slowly her daughter begins to suggest, perhaps she is too tired to come to dinner with everyone. Maybe she should stay in her rooms. It is a brilliant moment, both in the coldness of her daughter who should have been grateful for her help, and the identification of that all too common trait where mores change for the young, but those of the older generation still remember the past sins. It doesn’t so much as mater what she did, just that she did something at some point and should return to her exile.

The Long Run is perhaps the most cutting of all the stories and reminiscent of The House of Mirth. It it, a single man and a married woman are friends and lovers. They have been friends for years and the desire between them is strong. One night she comes to him and says she can be his. She is ready to give everything up for him and will run away that very evening. Although he says he wants it and would love to leave the factory he owns and write again with as his muse, he won’t do it. He says it wouldn’t be good for her. He is not the free thinker he is, but now the respectable factory owner more concerned about what people will think about him. Yet he is aware of his situation:

…she had married that pompous stick Phillip Trant because she needed a home, and perhaps also because she wanted a little luxury. Queer how we sneer at women for wanting the thing that gives them half their attraction!

But she is too independent for this and refuses his half measures that are more interested in respectability than love. She also sees that the winner if they do things his way is him. She won’t have any power. She wisely says no in the best line of the book:

…one way of finding out whether a risk is worth taking is not to take it, and then to see what one becomes in the long run, and draw one’s inferences.

The novella The Bunner Sisters is a strange tale about drug addiction, or as the drug addict is called in the book, drug fiends. The drug in question is opium and though Wharton never shows anyone taking it, it is the axis of the story. Even in the opening pages of the book there is a sense of danger and squalor populated by drunks and it sets the tone for the book. Describing the neighboorhood the Bunner Sisters live in she says,

These three house fairly exemplified the general character of the street, which, as it stretched eastward, rapidly fell from shabbiness to squalor, with an increasing frequency of projecting sign-boards, and of swinging doors that softly shot or opened at the touch of red-nosed men and pale little girls with broken jugs.

In other words, saloons, the so called scourge of preprohibition America. The story is about two lonely sisters who have a small millinery shop. They live a solitary life until one buys the other a clock for her birthday. The man they bought it from has a little shop and both women hold out hopes of marring him, but it is the younger sister finally marries him. Unfortunately, he is an opium addict and the older sister worries constantly about what happened to her sister who went to St. Louis wither her husband. Finally, the sister returns and tells a tale of addiction, poverty, violence, that finally ends in a still born baby and death by tuberculosis. It is a frightful tale of what can happen when you have no one and you are dependent on a man. The younger sister renounces her freedom in the little shop, although it isn’t much freedom, and chooses unwisely. It is a story that is only one step away from Dickens. It is hard to say, though without knowing more about drug usage in her works and in general (I do know in her novel Custom or the Country there is an overdose), whether this falls under prescient or after school special. That said, it is in the general tenor of the social realist problem novel. At the same time, it is well drawn picture of the two spinsters, ones you can imagine she probably met at one time or anther. And Wharton does capture the loneliness well.

As for the rest of the stories, we have Coming Home which is purported to be a story from American ambulance drivers in France during World War I. It is a story of a Frenchwoman who is caught behind enemy lines. She has no other option than put up with the Germans, letting them stay in her house, eat her food, and though it is not said, rape her. When the French take the town back her brother learns the truth and when finding the German officer who raped her he murders him, leaving as if he had been mortally wounded. It isn’t a bad story as they go, but it fits right in there with German atrocity stories and is as much propaganda as anything else. Wharton was quite committed to the war and had already written Fighting France and had helped set up hospitals, and would later write the novel, A Son at the Front. It was also the only story written for the collection and shows a hurried rush to write something relevant.

The rest of the stories are so-so. One is a ghost story with a tiresome ending that has little suspense and another is a mysterious murder that really isn’t that mysterious.

Xingu has some great Wharton and it has some less than stellar work, but the good ones are excellent. Now if only publishers would pay $2000 for stories like these as they did in her time.