Essay Published on March 5, 2012 in the Quarterly Conversation.
Todos los cuentos by Cristina Fernádez Cubas. Tusquets, 2008.
Los últimos percances by Hipólito G. Navarro. Seix Barral, 2005.
Parpadeos by Eloy Tizón. Anagrama, 2006.
La vida ausente by Ángel Zapata. Páginas de Espuma, 2006.
La familia del aire: Entrevistas con cuentistas españoles by Miguel Ángel Muñoz. Páginas de Espuma, 2011.
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.
The renaissance of the Spanish short story is generally considered to begin with the 1980 publication of Cristina Fernádez Cubas’ Mi hermana Elba (“My Sister Elba”). Defining literary movements and influence is rather tricky, but contemporaries such as Enrique Vila-Matas have noted, “she gave us a brilliant book, outside the fashions of the moment, that opened a road for the rebirth of the short story among us.” (La familia del aire, pg 54) That shift, coming a few years after the death of the dictator Franco, helped writers open the form and break with the past both in terms of style and content, moving away from social realism and toward new and freer structures with greater expressive possibilities.
The brilliance of Cubas’ stories springs from the use of the fantastic, the small elements of unreality that exist alongside otherwise commonplace events. The result is a narrative logic that is slightly askew. With this logic she creates strange physical transitions that mirror the ephemeral but seemingly real transitions from youth to adulthood, or from conventionality to independence.
In the story“Mi hermana Elba,” the adult narrator rediscovers her childhood diary, leading her to describe the years she and her sister Elba spent as isolates at a convent school. One night while sneaking through the nun’s quarters with her only friend, Fatima, a nun approaches. The narrator panics, but Fatima leads her to the corner where they hide. The nun walks by, staring right at them but not noticing; the girls have entered one of the mysterious spaces where you can disappear and yet still be there. It gives a certain power to them as long as they are uninterested in the adult world. Elba, the youngest, always trails behind, sometimes lost, her voice pleading for her sister, as if she is haunted by what is to come. Later, after the narrator has turned her attention to boys, Elba dies in an accident. In the shocking last paragraph the narrator reads from her journal entry on the day of the funeral.
Era el 7 de agosto de un verano especialmente caluroso. En esta fecha tengo esritas en mi diario las pablabras que siguen: <<Damián me ha besado por primera vez>>. Y, más abajo, en tinta roja y gruesas mayúsculas: <>.
It was the 7th of August of an especially hot summer. On that day I had written in my diary the following words: “Damián kissed me for the first time.” And farther down in red ink and thick capital letters: “TODAY IS THE HAPPIEST DAY OF MY LIFE.”
In that one brief paragraph Cubas perfectly captures the transition from childhood with its attendant self-absorption. At the same time she lets Elba’s haunting voice hover, unexplained, a kind of phantom. Whatever it is, the narrator, who refrains from giving her adult reaction to the experience, seems uninterested in examining it, and the reader is left to wonder what that adult has thought of the events since then.
In addition to considering the transition to adulthood, many of Cubas’ stories follow women as they find their independence. In “Los altillos de Brumall” (“The Attics of Brumall”) a young woman must regain her independence from her old village priest as he tries to control her with a blackberry jam that makes her long to return a forgotten place where the church is the only institution. Or in “El lugar” (“The Place”) a young bride suddenly transforms into a model housewife, but that transition, and each of the increasingly strange ones she makes, are but a search for an unavailable freedom. It is only when she dies and is put in the great family vault with its gothic statues of angels that she finds a peace of her own. Each of these stories shows how, during the escape from youth or from the powerful forces of convention, Cubas forces her characters to interpret the strange effects of those confrontations.
Cubas’ prose is elegant, and there is a calmness to the pacing that evolves at a novelistic pace. That careful attention to detail also means that over 30 years she has published just the five collections contained in Todos los cuentos, (each collection containing but 4 long stories). The expansive framework allows her to create little worlds filled with the strange and grotesque. From the abbey of nuns who kill unwanted village cats in “Mundo” (“World”) to the pale young shut-in who is an idiot around his parents but completely lucid when the narrator sneaks into his room “La venta del jardín” (“The Garden Window”), her command of the short story form is masterful.
Hipólito G. Navarro’s work is marked by a deep devotion to the short story. For Navarro, the critical element to each story is to tell the same things in ways that, at least in appearance, seem completely different. In each story in 2005’s Los últimos percances (“The Latest Misfortunes”), he continually explores the short story, either restructuring the form, describing the process of its creation, or playing with its actual role outside the literary. But it’s important to note that Navarro’s playfulness is not limited to the metafictional realm. His work is also full of humor that underlies the disappointments his characters often experience.
El aburrimiento, Lester (“The Boredom, Lester”), often cited by writers and fans of the short story as one of the more important collections of the new Spanish short story, continually reworks the form so thoroughly that none of its stories resemble one another; of all Navarro’s collections, it also contains his most intricate stories. “Semillas, simientes y pilatos” (“The Chinese Chest”) is about a Chinese chest with a lacquered landscape on the side of it. The only way to open the chest is to know the correct order to press the elements of the scene. A grandfather explains to his grandson how it works and then begins telling a story that explains the order of the buttons one must click. The grandfather’s fantastical story is funny, full of non sequiturs and comments his daughter has to shout down lest he give the boy bad ideas. Finally, in a typically Navarro turn of the comically futile, the chest is opened, and after all the involvement of the story within a story, the reward turns out to be three magic seeds that are thrown away by the daughter. The reward, clearly, is not really important, it is the search via narrative that is the key. “Semillas” is the best example of Navarro’s love of story. The game shows how stories encode knowledge, in this case the combination to the chest, and how that knowledge shifts as stories shift according to the whims of the teller.
While Navarro’s interest in playing with language and structure is always evident, his stories can also have a personal edge that burrows into his characters and finds them alone, never quite getting what they want, as if some great joke has been played on them. “El tren para Irún, por favor?” (“The Train to Irún, Please?”) is one of his most personal stories. The linguistic game here is that every sentence is a question, but each question leads the narrator closer and closer to his father, whom he will meet when the train he is on arrives in Irún. The rhetorical search of the narrator’s internal monologue parallels the train journey, and each of these parallel the search for meaning within a story.
Los tigres albinos (“The Albino Tigers”)and Los últimos percances, continue with the inventions of El aburimento, but instead of longer and elaborate stories, Navarro condenses his stories into dense mediations that find the characters closed in, isolated. “Base por altura por dos” (“Height Times Width Times Two”) interweaves two narrators, one a painter the other a writer. Both remember a summer years ago when they pushed their twin off a balcony to his death. The writer notes that his twin loved to paint, and their mother still has his paints; the painter notes his twin loved to write and their mother still has his stories. In the game of doubles the question becomes, which twin fell; likewise, one can also ask who is really constructing this story? Has one twin become the other in an act of guilt? It is the back and forth between the two twins, each melancholy in their descriptions, that makes this characteristically open-ended story a dark re-envisioning of survivor’s guilt.
Y, claro, ahora, desde esta posición de privilegio, nosotros, los de hoy veinticinco o treinta años después, completos y enteros el uno con el otro afortunadamente, uno pintando—no importa cuál—,el otro con los folios—no importa quién—, constuimos a nuestra manera similar y diferente el justo muro que eleve las barandillas para que esos niños que retozan hoy en otra arena terminen sus juegos sin los accidents previsibles, y continue sin mancharse de tragedia el porche bajo las acacias donde a veces se aburren las parejas por las noches atravesadas de grillos del verano, y donde en otro tiempo, quién lo diría, hilvanan los abriles con los mayos los pespuntes musicales de los ruiseñores.
And, clearly, now, after that privileged position, we, twenty or thirty years later, fortunately complete and made whole one another, one painting—it’s not important which—the other with the papers—it’s not important who—we made in our own way, similar and different, the proper wall that raises the railing so that those children who today play in their own sand finish their games without incident, and continue without staining with tragedy the balcony below the acacias, where from time to time the couples are bored during the summer nights filed with crickets, and where in other times, who’ll say, sew the Aprils to the Mays with the musical backstitches of the nightingales.
Despite all the narrative games and metafictional constructs, there is always a sense of humor. In “Las notas vicrias” (“The Vicar’s Grades”), two teenage boys are given an old piano, and they spend hours practicing with it. At the same time, the father of one of the boys, who gave them the piano, rents out an old cabin to a stranger who no one in town knows. One day the boys go to the piano to play it, but it sounds terrible, and everything they learned to play sounds wrong. Then they see the card of the piano tuner, and it is obvious they had learned to play on an out of tune piano—everything they know is now wrong. One of Navarro’s cosmic jokes has been played, but the boys get their revenge: the old cabin where the stranger/piano tuner lived mysteriously burns down. The balance between the experimental, the experiential, and the humorous are what make Hipólito G. Navarro’s stories so original.
Eloy Tizón first came to prominence with his collection Velocidad de los jardines (“The Speed of the Gardens”), which was known for its lyric and perhaps even baroque writing style. Parpadeos (Blink), on the other hand, is stripped down in its language, and from the first story, “Pájaro llanto” (The Crying Bird), the focus is on something desperate. As the story opens the narrator says that for the first time in his life he has heard a bird crying. The narrator takes it as an emblem of his daily isolation, a life lived amongst millions of anonymous people. In a moment that sets the tone for the collection the narrator says,
No moriré por esto, lo sé; apretaré los dientes y seguiré adelante con mi vida espartana, y después de unos cunatos meses de soledad seré como todo el mundo; seré tan feliz y desgraciado como el resto de la gente en los álbumes de fotos, ni más ni menos, y seré único y no me diferenciaré en nada de los demás. Seré una foto.
I will not die that way, I know that; I will grit my teeth and continue on with my spartan life, and after a few months of solitude I will be like the rest of the world; I will be so happy and unhappy like the rest of the people in photo albums, neither more nor less, and I will be the only one and I won’t be able to tell the difference between myself and anyone else. I will be a photo.
The routine that hides one’s life is evident in El inspector de equipajes (“The Baggage Inspector”), where for ten years a cuckolded, then divorced, airport baggage inspector lives a life of complete frugality so he can put on his finest suit and deposit his meager savings every Saturday in a bank. After ten years he decides to withdraw the money little by little, living his life in reverse. But one does not recover the past that way, and in one moment he sees the teller, the one he has visited every Saturday for ten years, age instantly. He sees that his emotionless life is actually the reconstruction of it through surrogates,
Él le está agradecido por ocuparse de la contabilidad y del estado de sus ahorros que Iriarte fue entregándole como un pretendiente cada sábado a lo largo de nueve años sin tregua, sin saber que eran para esto y la vida en común de señales de que ha comenzado a arreglarse.
He was grateful to her for looking after the accounting and the state of his savings, which Iriarte had delivered to her like a suitor every Saturday during nine years without a purpose, without knowing that they were for this, nor that a clandestine life of signals had begun to arrange itself.
Tizón applies that everydayness to old stories too, imagining the characters in the Heidi series as adults. Heidi is an administrative assistant, Clara an artist, and her father on trial for fraud. The lives are disappointments. In another continuation of a popular work, Mr. Spock is a confused bisexual condemned to penal colony on a moon because he accidently saw his captain naked. In some way or another these characters overcome their solitude, and whether it is of Vulcan logic, Swiss mountains, or big cities, what remains is more than just a photo. The great strength of Tizón is to capture that idea with such disparate stories.
Ángel Zapata is a surrealist, a theorist of the short story who also works as a professor of creative writing (the only one of the four), and his writing is informed by a tight adherence to his theories. For Zapata, clever, well-crafted stories from specialists are just one more product to sell. What he is looking for is an “aperture, and engagement and a mode of experience that allows one to enter the life that another is giving you.” (La familia del aire, pg 125) His theoretical ideas are evident in “Días de sol en Metrópolis” (“Sunny Days in Metropolis”), where a frustrated man narrates the preparations for a party. He doesn’t want to do it, feeling he’s being emasculated, and between arguments with his wife he compares himself to Superman, who, of course, doesn’t have to put up with party preparation. But that rage turns the story inward, and the two stories merge and grow strange: Superman has to fight an invasion of mutant geese because the people are afraid of everything. In the end, after making foie gras factories for the geese, Superman, with nothing left to do, ends up using his laser vision to open cans of fish, just as the narrator does with his hands. The trick here is that the story, although apparently in third-person, is actually in first; just as he has been since Sigel and Shuster created him, Superman here is a projection of the author’s weaknesses. The narrator becomes Superman, but since he is still the narrator, nothing really changes.
“Mientras dicen adios” (“While They Say Goodbye”) is a Beckett-like experiment that from the first line asks the reader to imagine something they are already imagining:
Imaginen la estepa. ¿Qué estepa? Igual me da: una estepa cualquiera.
Imagine the steppe. Which steppe? It’s all the same to me; any steppe.
Zapata puts the reader on guard—reality is not here, but this isn’t reality in the first place. On the steppe is a truck driver in his cab, and he sees a man on the horizon, his arms outstretched like a sleepwalker. He is not one, however, “just an imbecile that looks like one,” and he comically keeps his arms outstretched at all times. Zapata replaces the first illusion with another. The two of them sit in the cab and attempt to say something concrete about themselves, but all they can arrive at is the idea that not having an answer is the most truthful answer one can have. In that deep isolation that the narrator continues to remind the reader to imagine, the best the two men can say is, “hope is the last thing you can lose.” Yet the statement is also an empty truism, especially since they are not hopping for anything. Only when a circus troop passes by are they able to escape the steppe and transform from stagnant to restless. But that restlessness is unsaid—the narrator tells the reader not to imagine it. The story after the story, a common literary device, is not important, yet obviously for Zapata to explicitly say that makes the emphasis even more pronounced. It is that kind of emphasis that make Zapata’s work the most challenging of any of these authors and a find for lovers of the surreal.
While there are many others Spaniards currently focusing on the short story, Cubas, Navarro, Tizon, and Zapata are considered among the most important. It is difficult to find one uniting principle to their work, which is for the good. Reading any one of these authors will expose the reader to a masterful range of ideas that are marked with a great devotion—to not only to the short story as a genre but its expansion and rejuvenation.