The Mexican author Socorro Venegas’ fine collection explores the transition to motherhood, the early stages of pregnancy through the first year or so, where doubts, uncertainty, and strictures from outside one’s self and the process, at times, difficult to adjust to. In economical prose (only one story is longer than five pages) she captures in brief moments the encounters that make the transition fraught. Filtering though out the book, explorations of memory as something that both defines and haunts oneself. In the world of La memoria one is constantly confronting what one is trying to escape.
The idea of escape most clear in Pertencias (Belongings) where a young window, overwhelmed by her loss and the ever present reminders of her late husband, she answers an ad in the paper looking for someone to exchange the complete contents of an apartment. In doing so, the narrator completely changes everything around her, including the location of memory, which Venegas rightly locates in physical objects. A beautiful story about grief, she captures the difficulty of the loss itself, but how one is continually reminded of it in subtle ways.
Con su muerte me sucedió algo singular: los que venian a dar me consuelo me confesaban secretos. ¿Veían en mí un filtro muy ancho, por el que también sus penas podrian irse?
With his death something strange happened: those who came to console me could confess their secrets. Did they see in me a wide filter which would also take make their pains go away?
In the comic and fraught La gestión (The Process), a woman who is a few months pregnant is driving in her used car. On the back is a sticker from the previous owner that says “I feel great, ask me how.” A strange man grabs her wrist and won’t let her go until she explains how. The man is insistent, and to diffuse the situation she invites him for coffee at a café across the street. Sitting, watching him, she realizes he is a lost soul, and wonders what his mother was like. But this kind of though is double edged, and plays into her doubts about becoming a mother, and she knows it wasn’t the mother who is at fault.
Que difícil ser madre. No se deja de ser madre nunca, al menos mientras el hijo exista. Por el mundo, en algún sitio, había una mujer entrada en años que parió a este desdichado. Y esa mujer sería siempre cupluda por la infelicidad de su vástago.
It’s so difficult to be a mother. You never stop being a mother, at least while your child exists. Someplace in the world, there was a woman long ago who gave birth to this unfortunate creature. And that woman will always be blamed for the unhappiness of her offspring.
In El hueco (The Gap), Vía lacteca (Milky Way), and Real de catorce, the protagonists, respectively, are living among the difficulties of postpartum depression, loss of a premature baby, and a loss of family control that might also be postpartum depressions. In each she explores the pressure to be the idea mother, or how the perceptions of what motherhood is supposed to be come in conflict with the reality of it. El hueco is particularly dark since there are suggestions that the new mother, once she has given birth, has performed her main duty. Real de catorce, takes that theme and finds a narrator whose husband is “perfect”—he spends more time with the kids than she does—but that perfection is not one of sharing, but, instead, leaves her with tasks that she can only do: cooking, some cleaning. The idea of the helpful spouse is turned on its head, and the narrator is left in the same situation as the mother in El heco, uncertain if she will see her child again. The narrator in Vía lacteca asks, as if in conversation with these other mothers, if becoming a mother was really worth it. In each brief narrative, Venegas captures the complexities of these moments, giving a picture that is anything but happy.
In La soledad en los mapas (The loneliness of maps) a story with echos of the rural villages of Rulfo, two census takers travel to a remote village that is mired in poverty. The town is full of only children: all the parents have left to find work. The pair spend the night together. As the narrator, a woman, is falling asleep she wonders, “Pensé en esos niños tan semejantes a animales, en sus sonrisas fáciles, en sus manos callosas. ¿Niños?” “I thought about the children so similar to animals, about their easy smiles, their calloused hands. Children?” Its a dark vision of childhood. The next morning, covered in bug bites, she asks her partner, if she looks like a pregnant woman, and he says she looks like a castaway. It’s not just among the starkness of the poor village, is the narrator on her own.
Socorro Venegas’ work is marked with subtle insights and an economy of prose that is both elegant and surprising. In the scant 110 pages, she captures so much. An excellent collection.
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.
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.
Plain Tales from the Hills
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
La realidad quebradiza: Antología de cuentos
(The Fragile Reality: An Anthology of Short Stories)
José María Merino
Páginas de Espuma, 2012, pg 262
José María Merino’s La realidad quebradiza: Antología de cuentos is an anthology of short stories from a writer who in his fiction has explored the fantastic as a way to break open the fragile reality surrounds and paradoxically for something so ephemeral traps us. While not particularly well known in the English speaking world, he has published a steady stream of fiction since 1976 including novels, short stories, and children’s books, and has won several awards, is a member of the Real Academia Española, and amongst fans of the short story is a respected figure. Although he has not exclusively focused on the fantastic, it is, perhaps, what he is best known for, with stories ranging in style from horror to science fiction to meta works that hearken to Borges, Kafka and Cortazar. With La realidad quebradiza: Antología de cuentos, Páginas de Espuma has put together a career spaning overview of his work amongst the short form that not only includes a large selection of short and micro stories, but a lengthy if rather strange introduction to his work from Juan Jacinto Muñoz Rengel, and a long interview with Merino that examine his approaches to writing short fiction. It is probably as a good an introduction as one could ask for.
The fantastic is difficult material to work with: too obvious and you have the literary equivalent of a Twilight Zone episode where the camera changes at the last second and you say, ‘oh, I get it now,’ but then never return to the episode because the shock has worn off; too subtle and it ventures into the purely symbolic (perhaps surrealistic), where nothing has any relation to reality. Merino’s own working definition of the fantastic would be helpful before going on much farther:
Coincido con una definición moderna de lo fantástico de Roger Caillois: una ruptura estrepitosa del orden habitual, textualmente <<una irrupción de lo inadmisible en el seno inalterable de la legalidad cotidiana>>. Otroa cosa sería lo maravilloso, en que lo aparentemente inadmisible resulta la regla general, como los cuentos de hadas o El señor de los anillos, pero sin duda no estoy dotado para ello, pues a la hora de escribir, la realidad está en mí demasiado al acecho.
I agree with Roger Caillois’ modern definition of the fantastic: a resounding rupture of habitual order of things, textually “a burst of the impermissible in the unalterable breast of the routine laws of everyday.” Something altogether different would be the marvelous where the apparently impermissible is the rule, such as in fairy tales or The Lord of the Rings, but without a doubt I’m not blessed with that skill because when it comes time to write, reality is lying in wait for me too much.
For Merino, the fantastic is that little explosion of unreality in an otherwise real world that opens new perspectives on reality. What it isn’t, is fantasy which is more concerned with its own fictive reality. It is an important distinction because the interplay between reality, which is often described in a realist tradition, and the fantastical can occasionally seem jarring. However, the shock of the rupture in the habitual that he mentions usually overcomes the Twilight Zone moment. And as you will see, there is a great fluidity in his writing that can make the occasional disappointment worth reading.
El niño lobo del cine Mari (The Wolf Child of the Mari Theater) is perhaps the best story in the collection in terms of a pure mix of a narrative and the fantastic. One day when an old movie theater is the process of destruction, the construction workers find a little boy amongst the ruins. It turns out he has been missing for 30 years yet has no aged a day since he disappeared. It is a mystery, but despite all pleas to tell his story the boy won’t explain what happened. In desperation, the doctor looking after the boy takes him to another theater. It would stand to reason he likes movies. The doctor watches him carefully at first, but caught up in the movie she doesn’t see him go behind the screen and enter the movie where he disappears again. Here, Merino mixes the two streams of reality, that of the everyday and that of the cinema, locating our dreams not just in the films themselves, but in the portals to them, as if they formed a kind of collective memory that lasts as long as the movie does. Moreover, he expands the idea of a fiction not as something that you only observe, but as something you participate in and extend. It is that extension of the story, or the bifurcation of the story into multiple paths, that reappears throughout the book.
You can see that bifurcation La casa de los dos portales (The House With two Entrances). In the story a group of boys break into an old abandoned mansion. After exploring the house they find a small passage way to an a room that has its own door to the exterior. They go through it and head to their respective homes. But nothing is right. Family members who were dead are alive or vice a versa; homes are not kept in the same ways. In short, it is a parallel world, one that is terrifying to the boys. That parallelism also links back to the idea of the double, of the other self, a classic trope in Spanish language fiction, but here it extends to a whole world.
Both stories come from his collection Cuentos del reino secreto (Stories from the Secret Kingdom) published in 1982. They show an interest in stories where the line between reality and the fantastic exists, but is not a commented on within the text. In his latter works, his short stories are much more open to direct introspection of the limits of reality. In El viajero perdido (The Lost Traveler) and Bifurcaciones (Bifurcations) he explores the way linear construction of reality is really a series of forking paths (to quote Borges) one takes, but are also mental paths one takes as they construct the narrative for themselves when they remember. El viajero perdido follows a writer as he tries to create a story about a traveler who he stumbles on one night. The story though twists between what the writer struggles to write and the trip his wife is having. With each new strange encounter he comes up with it is mirrored in his wife’s world. As he brings the story to conclusion she comes closer to home. And with in the wife’s world she comes across the traveler that first promoted him to write the story, bringing the different bifurcations of story together. Merino leaves the story open as to what will happen, as if stories can never be finished.
In Bifurcaciones, a middle aged man is invited to a college reunion. He begins to wonder what ever happened to a girl, Pilar, he had once been infatuated with. He wanders down by where she used to live and he runs in to her. Feeling lucky, they spend some time together and he thinks his dreams have come true. Then she begins to ask him why he never wrote after ‘that summer?’ He has no idea of what has happened, but she creates a whole different life they led together. Yet he begins to believe it, rewriting his past. Yet when he finally goes to the reunion she’s not there and yet another bifurcations of the past occur. Merino places layer after layer of bifurcations so that man is rewriting his past and going through memories of events he never had. With each memory he recreates his whole history summed up towards the end of the story when he tries to make sense of the differing stories he is living.
Su esfuerzo por esclarecer la contradcción de aquellos veranos contrapuestos le hizo comprender que el encuentro en el vestíbulo era un misterioso punto de bifurcación, donde su memoria parecía titubear, aunque al cabo siguiese con más seguridad el camino que lo lleveaba a un período de angustiosa apatía, a sus primeros empleos, a la vinculaión con el bufete de su tío Jaime, en una ciudad del sur, al encuentro de Pilar y todo lo que, desembocando en el día que recibió la invitactión de Carlos Campoy, parecía formar la urdimbre verdadera de su vida durante aquellos veinticinoc años.
His effort to clear up the contradiction of those opposing summers made him understand that the meeting in the vestibule was a mysterious point of bifurcation where his memory seemed to hesitate, although after following with more certainty the road that took him to a period of agonizing apathy, to his first jobs, to his joining his uncle Jaime’s firm in a southern city, to the meeting with Pilar and everything that flowing from the day that he received the invitation from Carlos Campoy, seemed to form the true plot of his life during those twenty five years.
Finally, it would be remiss if a few comments about his language were overlooked. In more than a few stories the role of language itself is the center of story and even in one story when a man looses his ability not only to speak, but think in words, he disappears from reality. So for a writer with such wide ranging interests it would be natural that he prose have a certain power to it. In Papilio Siderum, a story that reworks Chuang Tzu’s story of the butterfly where a man dreams he is a butterfly then wakes as a man is unable to tell the distinction between the two. In Merino’s telling the story takes on a deeper and wider celebration of the paradoxes of memory and he captures both the transitory nature of memory, but the beauty in it to (sorry no translation; I’m out of time).
Intentaré empezar diciendo que, después de dejar la terraza, nos fuimos cada uno a nuestro cuarto, y que yo me encontraba desvelado, porque la presencia de Elisa haviía despertado en mí el enardecimiento de los veranos de la adolescencia, aquel tiempo en que hasta la propia luz y los olores del día eran capaces de provocar en mi ánimo una sucesión de impresiones indefinibles y hasta contradictorias, un tempr confuso la luz implacable del mediodía, que a su vez despertaba en los arbustos esos aromas secos tan estimulantes de la placidez, o cierta euforia la larga luz del atardecer, cuando sin embargo el olor humedo de los parados me incitaba a senir la congoja de alguna pérdida que no podía indentificar, y en cada momento y en cada paraje una conciencia tiubeante, que ya no tenía la capacidad de embeleso de la infancia pero que tampoco podía apoyarse en esas seguridades que al parecer eran privilegio de los adultos.
While every story in La realidad quebradiza: Antología de cuentos didn’t excite me as these did (a couple were too much in the ghost story vein, something I’m not much interested in), on the whole is a successful mix of the fantastic and reality, and the majority of the stories are fascinating reads. The selection of these short stories and micro stories, almost prose poems at times, which I didn’t even have a chance to discuss, leaves me wondering what other intriguing work remains in the volumes that these stories were selected from. Merino is definitely a maestro of the fantastic and Páginas de Espuma has put together an excellent collection to demonstrate that.
The Los Angles Review of Books has an excellent review of David Shields and Matthew Vollmer’s Fakes: An Anthology of Pseudo-Interviews, Faux-Lectures, Quasi-Letters, “Found” Texts, and Other Fraudulent Artifacts. What is so interesting about (in addition to the book itself) is the author, Johannes Lichtman, goes into some detail about the foundational text books of the MFA scene, how they have shaped writing and how this book may too, for good and bad. As I’m always interested in how the short story is developed I found it quite interesting. I’m less and less inclined to like the MFA experience of teaching writing. I didn’t get an MFA, but I can remember my undergrad days and the heavy Carver influence running through the whole thing.
AS MOST PEOPLE KNOW, it’s not easy to make money writing. Young writers read of a mythical past when aspiring authors could work for “newspapers” in exotic locales like Kansas City, but even if there is still a newspaper operating out of some soon-to-be-abandoned warehouse on the banks of the Missouri, I bet it isn’t hiring. The BFA/MFA track has become one of the last refuges for young writers before they start fighting their way into the welfare state of grants and fellowships, and even if we remain undecided on the question of whether writing can be taught — if I have to read another essay asking that question I may run away to Kansas City myself — we have definitively declared that the teaching and learning of creative writing can be a good way to make money (or at least to postpone the need to do so).
For this reason, contemporary fiction anthologies have never been more proliferant than they are now. Classroom texts — most often either the Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Fiction edited by Lex Williford and Michael Martone or the Vintage Book of Short Stories edited by Tobias Wolff — are where many undergraduate writers (weaned on high school classics, Stephen King, Stephanie Meyer, and Chuck Palahniuk) get their first doses of modern short fiction. These books answer the burning question: what are real writers writing today?
Which makes it such a shame that the two most popular anthologies offer such limited answers. The Vintage and Scriber collections feature eleven writers in common, but more importantly, they draw from a common aesthetic. Both favor a kind of story that generally relies on a first page/first sentence hook, a second page circling back to explain how we came to this interesting place, and, after the necessary information has been dumped on the reader, a series of events that lead to some sort of change in the protagonist: a change which usually takes place epiphanically, when the story has, to paraphrase Stuart Dybek, shifted from the narrative to the lyrical mode.
There’s nothing wrong with writing stories in this manner; some of the best American fiction follows just such a traditional blueprint. But the Vintage anthology — which, published in 1994, is starting to feel a bit dated — suggests that this is pretty much the only way to write a story. While the Scribner book offers more ethnic diversity than the Vintage anthology, it likewise doesn’t put much effort into diversity of narrative approach. To the latter’s credit, it does include work by Junot Diaz, A.M. Homes, and Daniel Orozco, but woefully absent from its pages are David Foster Wallace, Lydia Davis, and Dave Eggers, three of our most stylistically influential authors. As such, the Scribner anthology is pretty much the worst fiction anthology out there. Except for every other anthology.
I’ll also point you to another review of the book that is quite positive. The entirety is below:
David Shields and Matthew Vollmer, eds., Fakes: Shields’ ongoing project to smash the support beams of conventional fiction (or maybe just expose them; hard to tell sometimes) clearly led him to help assemble this collection, which is largely made up of parodies of everyday forms of writing. (Jack Pendarvis’ “Our Spring Catalog” brilliantly sends up publishing-speak.) But fiction can’t survive on satire alone—one hopes—and the best stories here thrive on taking their artificial formats and making something sincere from them: Charles Yu’s “Problems for Self-Study,” Charles McLeod’s “National Treasures,” Caron A. Levis’ “Permission Slip.”
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)
Guernica has a good short story from Etgar Keret. It has fun with the idea of the writer and is one of his stories that touches more directly on the troubles. The story is from his forthcoming book to be published in April, I believe.
“Tell me a story,” the bearded man sitting on my living-room sofa commands. The situation, I must admit, is anything but pleasant. I’m someone who writes stories, not someone who tells them. And even that isn’t something I do on demand. The last time anyone asked me to tell him a story, it was my son. That was a year ago. I told him something about a fairy and a ferret—I don’t even remember what exactly—and within two minutes he was fast asleep. But here the situation is fundamentally different. Because my son doesn’t have a beard, or a pistol. Because my son asked for the story nicely, and this man is simply trying to rob me of it.
The Girl on the Fridge
Farrar, Straus and Grioux 2008, pg 171
Etgar Keret’s work is often marked by a sense that one is in a slightly different reality. It isn’t surrealism, just a place where you might be able to buy for 9.99 the meaning of life. In the stories of Keret that purchase never really works out as one would want, and usually the charters don’t so much as regret their decisions as abandon them as just yet another of life’s let downs. The stories in The Girl on the Fridge aren’t quite as fantastic (see my review of The Bus Driver Who Wanted to be God), but there is still that sense that what one wants doesn’t always work out. Keret’s stories are very short and he has the ability to zero in on those moments with great precision, stripping away everything except those small moments of disappointment.
In The Real Winner of the Preliminary Games, a group of men get together every few weeks to talk and drink. They have a ritual to it and the evenings allow them to not so much find answers to their problems, but find that they are not so bad. Towards the end one of the men says he’s feed up and is going to commit suicide. His friend, Eitan, talks him out of it. But Eitan, in a moment that has that feeling of melancholy that is just below the surface of many Keret stories takes out his M 16.
“If I want to, I can shoot,” he said out loud. He ordered his brain to pull the trigger. His finger obeyed, but stopped halfway. He could do it, he wasn’t scared. He just had to make sure he wanted to. He thought about it for a few seconds. Maybe in the general scheme of things he couldn’t find any meaning to life, but on a smaller scale it was okay. Not always, but a lot of the time. He wanted to live, he really did. That’s all there was to it. Eitan gve his finger another order to make sure he wasn’t kidding himself. It still seemed prepared to do whatever he wanted. He put the gun on half cock and pushed the safety back in. If not for those four beers, he’d never even have tried it. He would have made up an excuse, said it was just a dumb test, that it didn’t mean anything. But like Uzi said, that was the whole point. He put the gun back in the drawer and went into the bathroom to puke. then he washed his face and soaked his head in the sink. Before drying himself, he took a look in the mirror. A skinny guy, we hair, a little pale, like that runner on TV. He wasn’t jumping or yelling or anything, but he’d never felt this good.
Eitan puts the gun away because that is what one does. He then feels a rush. Is it from the test or the rush that comes after throwing up? Whatever it is, it isn’t the answer to anything, just the relief from melancholic doubt. Tomorrow it may return and when the men return to the bar they’ll talk each other into living again because that’s what one does.
In one of his more fantastical ones, Freeze, a man gains the power to make the world freeze. When the world freezes he takes the opportunity to have sex with the best looking women (rape is what he is actually doing although the character would never admit it). At first it works out great for him, but eventually some one tells him that is not good because the women aren’t asking for it. So he then begins a series of experiments, telling the women why they are in their frozen state to scream during sex. Nothing satisfies him until he realizes all he has to do is tell the woman to love him for himself. Of course that works and the woman loves him. All through the story, though, you have a man getting what he wants only to find it is what he wants and in relationships is isn’t just the one person that matters. He is satisfied, but there is always the lingering doubt that what the relationship, any relationship is built on are demands that only one wants. That he can command someone to love him for himself is in of it self contradictory and at the same time a parody of what should be a operating principle for couples. It is a disturbing story that leaves one wondering what loving one for oneself really means.
Keret often uses the perception of children to expose the strangeness of the adult world. In Moral Something, a man is sentenced to hang and the kids who have seen the sentencing on TV try to understand what happens we someone is hung. Since the adults are trying to protect them from the information and the kids only have roumor they have to experiment. They hang a stray cat, but of course it settles nothing because they don’t know if they have done it right. The boys argue over it and when the prettiest girl in school walks by she tells them they are all animals. Keret in that little scene is able to create what the adult world looks like without the veneer of rules, laws, and moral codes. The kids, too, are on that ever present search for the answers that never exist. They don’t know yet, as Eitan in The Real Winner, that there are only approximations, things you settle on because they work even if they aren’t what everyone else is doing.
There are dozens of brief little encounters such as these that show Keret as a master of the form. His vision of a world that never quite operates with the same rules as ours does makes him one of the most interesting short story writers around. While The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God is a little more fantastical and, therefore, more interesting, The Girl on the Fridge is still a welcome addition to his body of work.
El Pais has a review of some new short story collections which sound interesting. I have read a story by Juan Carlos Márquez, which is mentioned in the article and it is funny and well written (I have a link in this post to the story). The Daniel Garzónsounds interesting as he writes about 30 somethings who are college educated with jobs that are precarious or outside their field of study, an all too common problem in Spain and other countries.
Narrativa. Al reseñar Pequeñas resistencias, 5 (Antología del nuevo cuento español, 2001-2010), uno de los nombres que destaqué fue el de Juan Carlos Márquez (Bilbao, 1967), por su habilidad para conjugar microscopia cotidiana y surrealidad, valiéndose de un lenguaje tan incisivo y preciso como brillante en el empleo de imágenes reveladoras. Este rasgo esencial (verdadero nudo gordiano de su narrativa), “cierto desplazamiento de qué hacia el yo”, como lo denomina el autor, sustenta prácticamente todos los relatos del último libro de Juan Carlos Márquez, Llenad la tierra, que trata de lo que sucede a partir del día en que un padre aparece en el umbral de casa “con el corazón en un puño”, de la (espeluznante) vida de un hombre solitario que vive cerca de los contenedores de un hospital cuyos restos y desechos lo alimentan, del odio histórico que revierte sobre el guardameta de la selección alemana de fútbol, de los delirios de un padre ante los hipotéticos peligros que amenazan a su hijo, de un viejo mercenario que mata para sobrevivir y cuenta cómo actúa “llegado el momento”, o de los subterfugios de vida que ocultan las barras de los bares. En otros relatos, breves y a modo de sketches o escenas dialogadas, la presencia de lo absurdo en una situación anodina opera como revulsivo (hilarante): la anciana madre que recita a Neruda, la pareja ante la tarta de aniversario, el imposible “orden integral” en la cola de un supermercado o la “mecánica popular”: espléndido ejercicio mezcla de equívocos, nonsense e ignorancia.
The blog El sindrome Chejov has has a published the sort story Ecuador Ángel Zapata’s latest book Las buenas intenciones y otros cuentos. You can read the original at El sindrome, but here is my translation of the piece.
You place a bone, perhaps from a giant, on the table cloth, my child: at lunch time, at dinner time, at the sad and meticulous hour of breakfast; you place that bone with a casual gesture that could be mistaken for mercy (three bones at the end of the day, I don’t know if it’s different); and latter you stay there, coming closer to the fire, looking at the bone of a giant on the table cloth, child; like fasting with the hunger of another; the same as if you try to cry with that hard and yellow weeping, empty inside, your mother the same as myself would not have known how to ever show you.
Update (9/7/2011) this is a different author below, Miguel Ángel Zapata. I got confused by the names. Thanks to Luis for the clarification.
If you are not familiar with Zapata here is what El sindrome noted in his recent review of Esquina inferior del cuadro.
Los cuentos de Zapata están llenos de marcas de estilo. Un estilo profundamente pensado, que no gustará a todos los lectores, pero que busca -y logra- una voz auténtica y personal, reconocible. Ahí está su riesgo y su belleza. Esparce por todos los relatos puntos suspensivos que remarcan las elipsis en cuyos márgenes se construyen sus narraciones. Gesto gallardo: quiere decir, os cuento esto pero podría contaros todo lo que callo, lo que esos puntos esconden, lo que el escritor-astrónomo tiene que desechar para preferir su historia, que no es sino una elección que sólo a él pertenece y que comparte con sus lectores, porque así lo quiere, no porque lo necesite.
The on-line journal Cuatro Cuentos’s newest edition is about Spain and has a story from one of the writers I’ve discovered recently and have enjoyed immensely, Hipólito G. Navarro. His story comes from his 2000 book Los Tigres Albinos. I haven’t had a chance to read the stories yet but I look forward to giving them a read soon.
Cuatrocuentos #12. Edición Especial España, a cargo del editor invitado Javier Sáez de Ibarra, concuentos de Hipólito G. Navarro, Pilar Adón, Iban Zaldua y José Manuel Martín Peña.
“Ahora los críticos españoles –dice Sáez de Ibarra– y también los periodistas, afirman que el cuento vive aquí un momento extraordinario y hasta empiezan a igualarlo a la consagrada entre nosotros generación del medio siglo (Aldecoa, Fernandez Santos, Martín Gaite, Rodoreda, Matute, Fraile). Quien esto escribe sabe que no verá el veredicto del futuro, que dicen que es el bueno, en tanto discrepa de las competiciones. Así que me complace el gusto de presentar a los lectores de Cuatrocuentos, a estos autores que espero muestren una diversidad de estéticas posibles y un rato suficientemente extenso para el placer lector. Conque allá van: Hipólito Navarro, que ha ido ganando crédito como patriarca de lo breve, entre otras cualidades exhibe la de la construcción del relato. Las escenas se suceden con maestría, ofreciendo momentos y perspectivas que se suman, se comentan, se corrigen. Esto da lugar a la posibilidad de lo complejo, espacio a lo imaginable, silencios elocuentes y opciones para la interpretación; así como el sumo deleite de ir descifrando lo que se lee, o incluso después, cuando las páginas se han apagado y nos quedamos solos.
Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s Quédate donde estás is a playful work from an author who takes the art of the short story very serious and has created a work that both relishes the act of reading a well written story and the act of writing it. The stories shift between two themes: what it is to be a writer and what it means to face a loss, whether that loss is a fabulistic extra set of arms or Kafka losing his ideal place to work. While I find stories about writing sometimes tedious (even if you are a writer it never sounds that interesting), Muñoz injects a humor and insight that makes his works clever and perceptive. While the styles and themes clash at times and I’m not sure if all the micro stories between the larger stories create a cohesive work, Muñoz shows himself as a skillful cuentista (short story writer).
The first story of the collection Quiero ser Salinger (I Want to Be Salinger) is kind of a misleading opening, yet it is idea Muñoz returns to continually: how does life inform the writer. He is not interested in platitudes, but a question to reveal the art. In Quiero ser Salinger, the narrator wants to be a writer, a Salinger and for him it is taking on all the gestures of Salinger, his isolation, his strange habits. It is a Borgesian question about what creates the writer, the circumstances that one lives in, or something else? Would living as Salinger in Spain really make you a writer like Salinger?
The question is indicative of the questions Muñoz finds in the lives of the writers he explores. In the story Hacer feliz a Franz (Making Franz Happy), he creates a fictional bet between Franz Kafka and Jakob Blod, where Blod bets Kafka he could not stand to be a locked in a cell without human contact and just write for even a week. Naturally, Kafka loves the writing and he finds the need to leave the cell when the bet is over not a relief but a loss, as if his relation with the power of words has been disabled. He’s a man who seeks the ultimate isolation where words are more interesting than people and its the power in themselves, not the communication they facilitate that is most interesting.
In a more humorous vein is Vitruvio (refers to Da Vinci’s famous drawing of the proportions of a man). It is the story of a writer who under goes a transplant operation and has 3 extra sets of arms attached to his body so that he can be a more productive writer. It helps greatly as one pair of hands is incessantly scribbling notes in notebooks and he begins publishing at a feverish rate, becoming a great success. His personal life also improves, including his sex life: eight hand are better than two, it turns out. But one day he receives strange letter that says he has something that belongs to someone. He makes a journey to the address to find the original owner of the arms waiting for him. What ensues returns again to the question of what makes a writer, in this case the hands, or the mind? But what happens after you loose the power in the source? Muñoz treats writing not mystically, but fantastically, almost surprised that the power exits. His use of the fantastic as a way to get at the question is intriguing, something I see quite often in Spanish language writers, and adds not only a bit of humor, but a more nuanced way to get at the question. Having to bother with reality can be so limiting.
His wonderment at the power, though, doesn’t stop him from writing the more traditionally realistic El reino químco (The Chemical Rein). In El reino a young boy goes with his parents to visit his grandfather who he has no memory of ever seeing. His father hates his grandfather so until this one summer they have never met. From the start the visit is mysterious and plagued with troubles, the car breaks down and when they arrive he wakes up from a long nap and all he sees are stars, as if the whole world had disappeared. Quickly, though, the boy sees that the real problem is in the strained relationship of the grandfather and dad, which can’t even bear a week long visit. After an argument, of which the origins are never clear, the father demands they leave right away. The grandfather, taking his only opportunity to really get to know the boy, takes him to a secluded cove on his property where he has a little roller coaster suspended over the water which dumps the passenger into the water at the end of the ride. The boy at first says he’ll do it, then he struggles and fights, afraid to go down the track. When the grandfather is knocked into the water during the struggle the boy thinks he has killed him. Instead, the grandfather stands up and says, you’ve got more balls than you father. You’re alright. The strange reaction of the grandfather is what makes the story so interesting. Too often when a character is domineering any deviation from his rules is a weakness, but when they grandson says no, he is congratulated. What, then, did the son do that he hates his father so much? It is that open question that makes it one of the better stories in the collection.
Finally, I should touch on Muñoz’s style, which is clear and analytical, especially in his third person stories. However, he can shift styles as he does in Quédate donde estás, the eponymous story, where he shifts to a stream of conscious-like narration to examine the decisions a young makes when his girlfriend is found to have skin cancer just as he is leaving for university. The way he obfuscates, and reveals the story so that what ever decision he makes, is sure to be painful, if not wrong, is impressive.
Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s Quédate donde estás is a solid collection of stories, ranging from the funny to the painful to the intriguing. All of his stories are clever and well written and I hope to read some more of his work sometime. In the meantime I will continue to read his blog avidly. Hopefully, someday a few of his stories will make it into English.
You can read an interview in Spanish with him about Quédate donde estás.