Plain Tales from the Hills by Rudyard Kipling – a Review / Reflection

9780141442396HPlain Tales from the Hills
Rudyard Kipling
Introduction Edited with an introduction by Kaori Nagai
Penguin Classics, 2011, pg 292

I wanted to know, is Kipling readable? Is there something more to him than jungle stories or a colonial apologies? And what is he like as a craftsman? He was immensely popular once,  but that doesn’t necessarily make him an interesting writer. More than enough junk has climbed the best seller lists and has long been forgotten for good reason.  However, as certain fiction styles have ossified into best practices, it is good to look back and see the approaches writers of other days used. His first collection of short stories Plain Tales from the Hills seemed like a good choice for two reasons: it was published early in his career and would show him possibly less guarded; and two, the stories are less well know and wouldn’t merge with the various film versions of his works I’ve seen over the years. And, of course, I like short stories.

Taking these issues one by one. The issues with colonialism are certainly there and it is worth noting that the stories are rarely about Indians. The world of these stories are of the civil servants who exhibit all the concerns of late Victorians: class, social standing, reputation, and money. When Indians appear it is often in a transgressive story where the British have entered into a world they don’t belong, one that is indecipherable to the westerner. He returns twice to the character of a police officer who has learned the ways of the Indian under class, knows how to disguise himself and speak in their slang. He, though, is looked at as a freak who needs civilizing, in other words, needs to get married to change his ways. What we never see is exactly what he does amongst the people he is so capable of being with. Kipling appears to understand from a distance what life is like for these people, but is in no ways close enough to describe it like he does the British. Of course, there is always a subtlety to this: the best way to know a people is to be among them. Several times Kipling suggests this in his stories, but that knowledge comes at a cost of loosing oneself amongst the other. With Kipling, though, you are never sure if he is conscious of this dichotomy or it slips through.

For the British citizen and Kipling’s readers in Britten, the real danger was not the Indians, it was not being able to withstand the life in the colonies. The idea that the life in the colonies was harder and more difficult than that of Brittan is present throughout the book. It isn’t just the heat and food, it is the chance that one might loose one’s Britishness. Going native, or more to the point, letting one’s side down is the issue. It also points towards and ideal type of Englishman, who is strong enough to keep himself inline. Early on there is a story about a young man, probably a dandy, who kills himself because he can’t take life in India. The narrator and a friend do the only thing they can do and bury him and tell everyone he died of a fever. They send his parents a letter that praises his life. They will know nothing of the truth, one these two men of the Empire have had to do to keep Brittan content. Empire is a messy business and only certain men are called to it. Kipling is often noted for his ability understand the life of the average Brittan in India and render it in fiction, and that is his strongest element in these stories. The colonial enterprise is never questioned, but the hardships on the individual are often right at the surface.

Still, Kipling is writing about a mostly British world and his preoccupation with what seem like drawing room romances played against the Raj can get a little tiresome. Women in his stories are often interested in the petty, gossipy side of life. His portraits are not crude, but the lives of women are limited, not only by the times, but a little more insight into their actual lives. For example, there are a series of stories about two women who hate each other and both kenive to undo the machinations of each other. The narrator even notes how one, who was always self centered, helped a young man and beat the other woman at her own game. It is that sense of constant game that sours on the women, and gives the sense of a narrator winking at the audience, look how petty these women are. There are exceptions, of course, and in Three and – An Extra he describes a woman who on loosing her baby goes into grief and her husband begins to look at another woman. The wife through her maneuvers (feminine wiles might be the narrator’s choice) at a dance one night, wins her man back. The sensitivity to the situation is quite perceptive and shows him at his best. The story does, like many of them, end on a whimsical note: ‘Take my word for it, the silliest woman can manage a clever man; but it needs a very clever woman to manage a fool.’

As a short story writer he proposes some interesting challenges to the modern read used to the well wrought story with an epiphany. Certainly, these are stories, but you might also call them tales, little vignettes. The stories originally appeared in an Indian newspaper and can’t be more than 3000 words. It gives them a brevity and economy that is refreshing. While all the stories are in first person in the sense that the narrator makes himself known to the reader, and occasionally is the primary character of the story, the narrator is describing events at second hand, which means the stories lean more towards summary than detailed action. It may seem limiting to be writing about events from an unprivileged narrative position, but it gives Kipling room to play with the narrator. You are never quite sure what the narrator believes. Are there the occasional criticisms of British life in India? Take a line like this: “She was a Miss Tallaght, and men spelt her name ‘Tart’ on the programmes when they couldn’t catch what the introducer said.” Is this supposed to be taken as evidence of her lowly standing, or an example of how bad the men are, or something else? Another trick he employs is to start on a short tangent and stop midway through and say, but that is a story for another time. Occasionally, he actually returns to tell the story. All these touches make for a richer stories and the shifting of the narrative and the narrator throughout the book makes Kipling’s writing surprisingly interesting.

A note on the edition. In addition to the fine introduction which notes how the book was put together with an eye towards explaining India to Brittan, the notes make quite clear where Kipling, later in life, began to remove elements that suggested his characters had more contact with natives and had taken on more of their ways. In The Gate of a Hundred Sorrows, he takes what are the confessions of a British subject and opium addict and changes it to a non British character; thus, he limits the notion that an Englishman could descend into such a disgraceful life. This is the most egregious example, there are little changes throughout that show the younger Kipling, Kipling the journalist in India, had a wider vision and a freer sense of decorum, before he became the defender of Empire.

In all, Plain Tales from the Hills, despite it’s problems, has a surprising liveliness to it that marks Kipling as an interesting writer. I might not recommend reading all the stories cover to cover, they can get a little claustrophobic and you may need to read a little Orwell to counter balance,  but they are certainly better than one would suppose.


Short Story “Carpe Diem” by Abelardo Castillo Available at Contemporary Argentine Writers

Dario has published an English translation of the short story “Carpe Diem” by Abelardo Castillo at Contemporary Argentine Writers. It is a interesting story and has some nice touches, especially the way the he plays with how narrators describe things.

“She liked the sea and walking barefoot in the street. She wanted to have kids. She talked to stray cats. She wanted to know the names of the constellations. But I’m not sure if that’s truly what she was like. I’m not sure if I’m really describing her for you,” said the man with the tired face. Since sundown we had been sitting together in the fishing club by the windows that looked out onto the river; it was nearly midnight and for the past hour he had been rambling non-stop. The story, if it even was a story, was difficult to follow. He had begun to tell it three or four times, from different starting points, and always interrupted himself to back up to an earlier time, never getting past the moment when she, the girl, stepped off the train one afternoon.

Inteview and Overview of Patricio Pron’s New Book of Short Stories

El Pais has a review/interview with Patricio Pron about his new collection of short stories. It sounds interesting:

Sea como fuere, la escasa creatividad de sus colegas es también el tema central de Un jodido día perfecto sobre la tierra, uno de los cuentos del libro. En ello, Pron relata la insoportable y autobiográfica experiencia de ser jurado de un concurso literario al que llegan solo textos casi idénticos: “Me juré que jamás volvería a hacerlo. En línea general falta originalidad. Es el resultado de un establecimiento de condiciones genéricas, literarias y narrativas que los autores normalmente no cuestionan”.

Portada de ‘La vida interior de las plantas de interior’.

El mercado, según Pron, también juega contra la innovación: “Muchos autores en este momento están escribiendo el mismo libro. Se debe en parte al negocio editorial pero también al deseo de ciertos escritores de producir algo que tenga éxito”. ¿Qué escritores? Todo lo que se obtiene es un “es bastante visible” y el ejemplo de “las novelas de la crisis”.

Con su personalísimo estilo, Pron también está teniendo mucho éxito. A sus 36 años ya cuenta con premios, aplausos de críticos y colegas y un CV literario donde lucen libros como El comienzo de la primavera y El mundo sin las personas que lo afean y lo arruinan. De hecho, a veces hasta se sorprende de sus resultados. “Estuve en México de promoción y tenía ocho entrevistas al día durante cinco días. Jamás pensé que había tantos medios allí y que tuvieran interés en lo que escribo. Creo que la charla número 40 era intercambiable con la 39 y la 38…”, recuerda Pron.

The Complete (More or Less) Stories of Javier Tomeo Reviewed at Cultura/s

I’ve been watching the press about Javier Tomeo’s Cuentos completos, de Javier Tomeo, for a few weeks now. He is a Spanish writer who sounds interesting and definitely different. Sergi Bellver has a good review of the book that gives a good idea of what kind of writer he is. (You can read an excerpt here)

Tres prodigios, Historias mínimas (1988) ―uno de los siete libros recogidos en el volumen de Páginas de Espuma―, y las novelas El castillo de la carta cifrada (1979) y Amado monstruo (1985), descubrieron una mirada al margen de la avalancha literaria de la época, saturada de realismo social, y consagraron el prestigio de Tomeo, avalado por Anagrama ―“inesperada colisión entre Kafka y Buñuel”, le llamaría Jorge Herralde―. Después llegaron adaptaciones teatrales, traducciones, reconocimiento a nivel europeo y hasta una campaña de las fuerzas vivas aragonesas en pro del Nobel para su paisano ―el sabio Tomeo utiliza en “El sueño del Nobel” a Ramón, su recurrente personaje especular, para ironizar sobre su propia obra, algo que repitió en Los amantes de silicona (2008).

Los cuentos de Tomeo filtran la realidad, la alteran y la perfilan en un mundo genuino y personalísimo en el que también viven las luces y las sombras del lector. Ese es el poder atávico de jugar con un imaginario de animales y monstruos, arquetipos que el autor convierte en psicópatas de poética anómala. Tomeo admira al Goya más sombrío, disfruta dibujando ―faltan sus ilustraciones de Zoopatías y zoofilias en estos Cuentos completos― y estudió Criminología para conocer la oscuridad humana, aunque no ha insistido en la novela negra, ni bajo el seudónimo de sus primeros libros alimenticios, “Frantz Keller”. Las iniciales recuerdan al abogado Kafka, como Tomeo, otro hombre de leyes dispuesto a hacer añicos las literarias. El autor estará ya tan harto como feliz de que le menten al checo, al que homenajea en su relato “Gregorio, el insecto”, pero del que le separa su humor, negro, fuerte y lento como un burro, un humor que cocea aún tras la lectura.

A Thousand Morons by Quim Monzó – A Review

Thousand_Morons-frontA Thousand Morons
Quim Monzó
Open Letter, 2012,pg 111

Reading Quim Monzó’s short stories is always refreshing experience, a kind of cleansing of the palate after imbibing too many stories in the American vein. In Monzó there is little interest in the well written story and its obligatory finish with an apropos epiphany. His characters are seldom explored in strong emotional terms, instead they exist within the irrepressible march of time. In other words, events happen, characters perform their roles, but there is no reason why, it just is. The lack of explanation comes because Monzó and his narrators are always distant, keeping what is before them at arms length. It can feel cold, uncaring, but at his best it makes for a literature of perceptive descriptions and, surprisingly, empathetic stories that never loose his sense of humor, akin to that of Thomas Bernhard’s in the Voice Imitator.

While A Thousand Morons still has the touches of the comedic and the satiric, there is something more personal, too. In the first of the two sections, the stories are more personal, less distant from every day experience. There is still humor, but it is a humor that comes from contrasting a typically emotive subject against the absurdities of his telling. It isn’t that the injection of accessible experiences have weekend his work, it has allowed him to contrast play with the genre and retarget his humor at something new.

In the first story, Mr. Beneset, a son visits his father in a nursing home. The description is given in a dead pan third person that after the first paragraph which gives just the most minimal back story, becomes almost a dialog with stage direction. The father is a talker and performs a kind of elderly stream of consciousness, bouncing from one topic to another: the beauty of the Cuban aide, the thought of death, the deaths of his neighbors. These are not new ideas for a story. Monzó turns things around, though, because all the time they are talking the man’s father is dressing as a woman. It is mater of fact, as all things are in his stories. It doesn’t mater why he is doing it to the characters. They already know why. It puts the locus of exploration on the reader and opens up the story, moving it past the visit, to an alternate vision. The humor, which is surprising for Monzó, is moderated, and he uses the contrast of the father’s clothing to reenliven the dilemmas of old age and family.

The Coming of Spring mines similar territory, describing a man–there is no name–as he visits his parents in an old age home. It is a story of repetition: his visits; their problems; and the surprising ability of an old couple to survive so long. They survive as much by habit as by will and, the Monzós repetitive text underscores that. Many of the paragraphs that open the little sections all start with the phrase, A man… The habit of the elderly couple, is mirrored in the prose. The repetition lends a sense of melancholy as the man walks through the old apartment where the couple once lived and now stands vacant. A physical memory that has been left to deteriorate like the couple in the home. And like the couple it also continues on as if by habit. What makes the story so strong is the distance the reader feels between the characters. There is no comforting resolution here and it is in that distance, the separation of the son from the reader that the real emotional power resides.

While those two stories overpower the rest of the collection and give Monzó’s work, for the first time, a heavier, less comedic weight, the humor from his other works is evident throughout the collection. In Saturday, echoing Carver, a woman tries to erase her ex from her life. First its the photos. Next the furniture, until she attempts to destroy everything he has ever touched which is either impossible, or self destructive depending on how far one wants to take it. Of course the story is purely physical. There are no insights, just the illogical end of removing all physical memories of a lover. It is an unsettling idea.

For fans of Monzós more flippant and philosophical sides, there are still plenty of stories where the absurdity of an experience becomes an maddening experience. These are the typical Monzó story where the completely absurd, although often common place occurrence,  becomes an overwhelming experience. In Praise, an author makes a passing comment that he enjoyed an up an coming author’s book. Soon the the young author begins to hound the established author until the tables turn and the nice, off handed comment the established author gave, becomes his down fall. It is a typically Monzonian story in that something small can bring so many problems. It is the kind of story he excels at. It also underlies a kind of cynicism that pervades his work, as if what ever one does you will fail in some way. It is an idea I rarely see in American fiction, but in continental fiction it seems to show up quite often. On one hand, you have American optimism always finding a better tomorrow, even when everything is going to hell. And contrasting is a realism that seems cynical, but is really an outlook guided by precedent that knows how easy it is for the simple to turn into complete horror. Monzó is full of that idea, which is why this collection with its turn towards the personal seemed more startling.

Monzós stories deserve to be better known. His humor, cynicism and insight are a great antidote to short stories that can seem tiresome in their perfected resolution. With this collection, Monzó has show that the distant and skeptical stance can even be used in more personal settings.

You can read the story of A Cut (pdf) form Open Letter

The Best Spanish Language Short Stories of 2012 from Sergi Bellver

The Spanish writer and critic of the short story Sergi Bellver has published his list of the best short stories that appeared in Spanish. It is a long list and will give anyone reading it an insight into the art of the short story. In his list I’ve seen a couple authors that I’ve seen in a couple of other articles. One is Edmundo Paz Soldán a Bolivian writer, and Ignacio Ferrando a Spanish writer. Both had interesting collections come out this year. You can read the full article here.

Llama la atención la irrupción en 2012 de varios narradores latinoamericanos en el panorama editorial español del cuento. Tal vez la más llamativa sea la del excelente escritor mexicano Alberto Chimal, de cuya narrativa breve el crítico Antonio J. Morato seleccionó los relatos del libro Siete (Salto de Página). Otro de los hallazgos trasatlánticos del año ha sido la edición española, a cargo del sello aragonés Tropo, de Vacaciones permanentes, que la boliviana Liliana Colanzi había publicado con la editorial El Cuervo en su país.Precisamente su compatriota Edmundo Paz Soldán, a quien ya conocíamos por estos lares gracias a sus novelas,ha publicado en el último tramo del 2012 uno de los conjuntos de relatos más interesantes de la temporada, Billie Ruth (Páginas de Espuma). América sigue siendo un filón para el mejor relato, y de algunos ilustres cuentistas latinoamericanos que ya no están entre nosotros, como el original y desapercibido Francisco Tario (mexicano) con La noche, o el inigualable y genial Felisberto Hernández (uruguayo) con La casa inundada, la editorial Atalanta ha recuperado en 2012 sus mejores textos para la colección Ars Brevis. Pero no sigamos por esa senda, ni por la de los libros traducidos de lenguas extranjeras (porque entonces no daríamos abasto y tendríamos que empezar mencionando joyas tan singulares como los relatos de Peking by night, de Svetislav Basara, publicados por Minúscula), y regresemos a los autores españoles actuales, aunque me detendré antes en otro libro de cuentos en particular, uno de los mejores en el arranque de 2012: el convincente Un montón de gatos, de Eider Rodríguez (Caballo de Troya), autora vasca que escribe y publica primero en euskera y luego traduce al castellano sus relatos, pero que, hasta donde sé, revisa y edita a fondo sus textos en ese proceso, por lo que su propia traducción se convierte en todo un trabajo de autoría. Capítulo aparte (que dejaré para otro día, por sangrante) merece el cuento en catalán, en un año en el que los lectores en castellano han visto pasar de largo el centenario de un cuentista contemporáneo de talla europea como Pere Calders, ya que ninguna editorial ha considerado acometer la tarea de actualizar y presentar sus cuentos al lector en castellano, es decir, no sólo al español, sino también al hispanoamericano. Respecto al cuento escrito en gallego, en otoño de 2012 llegó la traducción al castellano de la Narrativa breve completa de Carlos Casares, por parte de la editorial barcelonesa Libros del Silencio.

Hi, This is Conchita and Other Stories by Santiago Roncagliolo – A Review

Hi, This is Conchita and Other Stories
Santiago Roncagliolo
Edith Grossman, translator
Two Lines Press, 2012, pg 176
(Publication Date: April 9, 2013)

Santiago Roncagliolo’s Hi, This is Conchita is a series of phone calls stripped of all narrative clutter. They exist just as voices as if one were listening to a wire tap, or as fits Conchita, voyeurs . It is a structure that served another Latin American writer, Mario Benedetti, well, and in the hands of Roncagliolo it makes for some humorous writing. It also shows Roncagliolo’s talent for comedy, which has not been as apparent in his works translated into English so far.

Composed of alternating phone calls, Conchita follows four characters in an unnamed city. Conchita is a phone sex worker and her first call opens the book with straight up porn. Within a couple lines she is already talking about how hot she is. Every imaginable cliché follows from there. Roncagliolo adds even more humor as Conchita’s clients break in mid fantasy to correct her descriptions of the act. For example, in the first call she says she is on his office desk and leaning on the coffee machine, and the caller corrects her and says the machine is across the room. From there they go back and forth negotiating what she really would be leaning on, before she returns to the act. The humor intensifies with each call because they all start the same way and have the same non sequiturs into details of the room, or what the caller looks like. For the callers, though, the illusion never fails and one caller continues to call back, falling in love with Conchita. It is a voice of loneliness that inhabits all to frequently the men who engage with phone sex. Roncagliolo does not make fun of the caller, but the situation and in the end he gives a power to change events that he does not know he has and may never realize.

Following on the humor of Conchita are the conversations of a hit man and his client. The hit man is a professional but he is also clumsy and has a philosophical outlook that leads him to question his client if he really wants to kill his lover. The client can’t stand the questions, but the hit man thinks affairs of the heart don’t need to be solved by killing. The conversations between the two are funny and create a dynamic between the passions of the client and the professionalism of the hit man that leave the reader with the impression that the hit man is of great skill. Yet when it comes to the actual hit the only thing professional about him is willingness to kill. And from that a series of humorous events ensue that tie the book together.

Two other callers are a self obsessed ex boy friend who leaves long and rambling messages on his ex’s answering machine. After the first call it seems obvious why she left him. However, Roncagliolo is playing with the reader here, because all one knows is his voice. She never speaks. All that is known is that they had something for sometime and like the Conchita’s callers he is lonely and pitiful. He’ as pitiful as the man who keeps calling the customer service agent and never gets help with what he needs. While the ex boyfriend is occasionally heavy handed, the customer service vignettes with their bureaucratic logic and employees who make one feel as if you are wasting their time, are the most common stereotype throughout the book. If it did not link in with the other stories as the book concludes it would have dragged the book down.

At first the calls are separate, unconnected, then as the story grows the characters begin to intersect. The calls between a man and his lover intersect between the hit man and his client, changing what had been the comedic episodes of two men, intrudes its true horror on the voice of a desperate woman who demands her lover respect her. Roncagliolo doesn’t tie all the stories neatly together, but they do all interrelate, if even lightly. The interrelations, though, expand the characters and adding a level of complexity to them that has not existed until then. Even the otherwise week customer service calls are reframed by the new relationships. It is this ability to shift how one looks at the stories and turns the humor from bright to dark that makes Hi, This is Conchita interesting.

Three stories are also included in the collection. While their is nothing particularly wrong with them, they are not really that noteworthy. For someone looking for a good short story, one should see the story included in The Future Is Not Ours. The stories are typical written in the realistic tradition, ones that populate so many collections of short stories that while well written, don’t really add anything new. However, if one has not read many short stories from younger Latin American writers, they will give an insight into how younger writers are looking at more international models and as such the stories can seem similar.

Hi, This is Conchita and other stories is a funny book from an up and coming star of Latin American fiction. A reader would do well to spend a little time with this short volume of freely rendered conversations.

FTC Notice: The publisher of the book provided me a copy of the book. For that I thank them.