La guerra (The War) by Ana María Shua – a Review

la-guerra
La guerra (The War)
Ana Mariá Shua
Páginas de Espuma, 2019, 164 pg

If the short story, in relation to the novel, is an underappreciated form, then flash fiction, or it’s better sounding name in Spanish, the Microrrelato, is even in an even worse state. There are imaginative authors who’ve dedicated whole works, even careers, to the art. I’ve covered writers such Javier Tomeo, Ángel Olgoso, or Zakaria Tamer, and to that group belongs the Argentine writer Ana María Shua. She has writes longer, more conventional length novels and short stories, but one of her hallmarks is the micro story. In her sixth collection, she explores war through its contradictions, failures, and ironies.

Before looking at a few of the pieces, it is important to discuss genre. La guerra is not necessarily a collection of stories. There is narrative in some of the pieces, but that is not really the focus of the work. Instead, they might be better understood as aphorisms. They don’t fit the strict definition of an aphorisms  since each pieces is several sentences long, but the effect is similar: a principle idea is announced, the some form of contradiction appears, and a koanic idea is expressed. The basis for some pieces is history, and in others it is purely fictional. In the latter case, the genre takes the form of a fable.

The success of a work like La guerra rests not in the narrative surprises or the characters, but in the insights one can add to the already well trod paths through history and its action adventure section, war. One of the better examples is in the piece La carga de la Brigada Ligera (The charge of the light brigade)

La famosa carga de la Brigada Ligera, durante la guerra de Crimea, fue una masacre. A los altos oficiales que comandamos la caballería británica y la lanzamos contra los rusos, se nos consideró incompetentes. Se habló de la disorganizatión, de los errores. En fin, se nos acusó injustamente, sin convalidar tanto esfuerzo. Sin nuestra incompetencia, nuestra disorganizatión, nuestros errores, jamás se hubiera inscrito esa página de salvaje heroísmo en la historia del ejército británico. Sin el tesón y el sacrificio de los inútiles, ¿qué sería de los héroes?

The famous charge of the Light Brigade, during the Crimean War, was a massacre. For us high officials who commanded the British carvery and threw them against the Russians, they consider us incompetent. They talk of disorganization and errors. They accuses us unjustly, without checking with much effort. But without our incompetence, our disorganization, our errors, there never would’ve never been written in the history of the British army such a page of savage heroism. Without the tenacity and sacrifice of the useless, what would happen to our heroes?

The piece takes on the fictional narrative voice of the leaders of the British army during the Crimean War. From there, he attempts to justify the disaster which over the years, thanks to Tennyson’s poem among other things, has become a piece of legendary heroism. Of course, it was also pointless and the generals, in this telling, don’t care what so ever about the soldiers. The idea of unintended consequences and legends they grow up around an event.

A more fanciful story is in Los olores (The Smells).

Entre las ideas menos prácticas de la inteligencia militar de Estados Unidos durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial, se inventaron bombas que no mataban pero que provocaban al estallar un violentísimo mal olor. Las flatulencias y la halitosis fueron los aromas elegidos para los ensayos, como si el olor a cadaverina no hubiera embotado ya los sentidos de los soldados amigos y enemigos. Tuvieron más éxito, en cambio, las bombas con olor a cebolla frita y pan caliente, capaces de provocar epidemias de nostalgia, pero nunca se usaron porque eran peligrosas incluso para la tropa propia.

Among the least practical ideas of the United States military intelligence during the Second World War was the invention of bombs that didn’t kill, but which on exploding let out a violently bad odor. Flatulence and halitosis were the chosen for the tests, as if the smell of rotting flesh had already confused the senses of the soldiers, both friend and foe. The bombs would’ve had more success with the smell of fried onion and warm bread, both capable provoking epidemics of nostalgia, but they would never be used since they would’ve been dangerous even for US’s own soldiers.

Here the story seems pure fiction, something so ridiculous it is parody. But Shua balances the humor with a couple truths about war: everyone gets used to the killing, and nostalgia, fist observed in soldiers, and renamed morale, is something strong. The story is also a good example of her style. While this seems fictional, other pieces are based purely in fact and lead to a similarly constructed conclusion. In this one, she plays with the violence of war and the stupidity of the ideas that often are applied to it.

A collection like this is tricky to pull off. In general, Shua does, but there are the occasional miss. In general, the success hinges on the last sentence. Does it flip the story, break out some ironic insight? If not it can lay flat. I was impressed with the number of these that worked. War is a subject that is to oversimplify and easy to make trite. Shua has done the opposite.

 

New Collection of Ana María Shua Short Stories, Contra el tiempo, Edited by Samanta Schweblin

Páginas de Espuma recently published a collection of short stories from the Argentine writer Ana María Shua. What caught my interest is Samanta Schweblin, one of the short story writers I mention on this blog with a certain frequency is the editor. The collection is the third in the Vivir del Cuento series from Páginas de Espuma. The series title means both to live by telling stories, but also to be lair or teller of tall tales. I’m quite interested and look forward to reading Schweblin’s introduction. You can read it here (pdf). If you are interested you can also listen to an interview with the two of them of Spanish radio. And read an interview in El Pais:

A través del email y por mediación de Vivir del cuento, la colección que ideó su editor Juan Casamayor, estas dos cuentistas convinieron una antología que “permite ver todos los colores de Shua”, afirma Shweblin. El resultado es una selección de representantes de los narradores en los que se traduce Shua, sus personajes cotidianos que al girar la esquina se transmutan en inquietud, y la mezcla de humor –“del negro”, adjetivan- y mortalidad que estiliza su narrativa. “Este humor es bastante difícil de lograr, camina en una cornisa muy delicada, siempre está al límite”, opina la joven antóloga. “Este mundo me parece un lugar muy absurdo, loco, raro y disparatado”, continúa Shua. “Los seres humanos tratamos de traducirlo a la racionalidad. Hay algo falso en creernos que todo lo podemos entender desde la lógica. En esa conciencia del disparate es por donde yo encuentro mi humor”.

And most importantly you can read the first story of the collection, Como una buena madre, at Culturamas. And finally, there is a long and in depth interview at Lecturas Sumergidas:

¿Estás convencida de que con la felicidad no se puede construir un relato de ficción? Muchas veces tus historias empiezan de un modo muy placentero, muy luminoso, pero siempre hay algo que las tuerce, que las conduce hacia lo oscuro, por decirlo de algún modo.

– Sí. Estoy convencida de que no se puede escribir desde la felicidad. No la encuentro narrativa. La felicidad es puntual, no tiene desarrollo en el tiempo. Con ella se puede construir un hermoso poema lírico, pero en un relato siempre ha de pasar algo malo. Si no es así nos quedamos sin cuento (risas).

– Otra cosa que te gusta mucho es jugar al contraste, ya sea de planos temporales (el pasado y el presente vistos a través de la mirada de una persona que recuerda, que rememora instantes vividos), ya sea a través de los estados de ánimo enfrentados que buscas provocar en el lector: La risa que se congela ante situaciones que estremecen, que llegan a poner los pelos de punta…

– Aquí hay dos preguntas en una. Por una parte, respecto a lo primero que se plantea, creo que los seres humanos estamos hechos de recuerdos. La memoria nos constituye, y el recordar, el vivir simultáneamente en varios tiempos, es una característica tan humana como saber que alguna vez vamos a morir. Sí, evidentemente, es un registro que me gusta mucho, aunque no sea muy consciente de ello cuando me pongo a escribir. En cuanto a lo de la conjunción entre humor y horror, resulta que para mí están absolutamente entrelazados. Las circunstancias más terribles pueden hacernos reír en un determinado momento. El humor es, además, una característica muy mía, forma parte de mi personalidad. No puedo escribir sin humor y al mismo tiempo tengo una suerte de placer infantil en relatar acontecimientos truculentos (carcajadas). Me gusta que a mis personajes les sucedan cosas tremendas, espectaculares. Como lectora admiro muchísimo a los autores que crean climas sutiles a partir de una situación en la que no pasa prácticamente nada. Arrancan de ahí y son  capaces de montar catedrales, término que nos hace recordar a Carver. Pero cuando yo me pongo a escribir prefiero, sin duda alguna, los acontecimientos truculentos, las escenas terribles, las situaciones muy violentas. Y, al mismo tiempo, todo eso lo puedo contar con un cierto humor, porque lo veo así. En la peor situación encuentro siempre algo con lo que reírme.

Merino, Fernández Cubas, Shua, Peri Ross, Hidalgo Bayali and Marsé on the Best Short Story Writers

El Pais has an article where short story authors Merino, Fernández Cubas, Shua, Peri Ross, Hidalgo Bayali and Marsé discuss the best short story writers of today, including those in Spanish. Perhaps it could be a more insightful article, but it does have a few points of interest.

“Poe, Maupassant, Kafka, Borges, Cortázar… ¿Cómo elegir? Y, sobre todo, ¿por qué elegir, si puedo tenerlos todos?”, responde Ana María Shua a la pregunta sobre su clásico básico. Prolífica autora de cuentos y microrrelatos, con títulos como la colección Que tengas una vida interesante (Emecé), la escritora argentina acaba de cruzarse con la obra de tres autores que, en breve tiempo, han sido capaces de imprimir una huella en su memoria: “Edgar Keret, el israelí loco que inventó otra manera de contar; Alice Munro, una vieja canadiense que se cree que un cuento se puede contar como si fuera una novela, ¡y lo consigue!, y Eloy Tizón, el cuentista español que toma al lector de sorpresa y lo derriba en cada párrafo”. Entre los jóvenes talentos que despuntan en lengua castellana, señala dos nombres: “En España, Isabel González, sin duda, con su libro Casi tan salvaje, escrito a estocadas salvajes sin el casi. En Argentina (pero publicada también en España), Samanta Schweblin, una genio, no se la pierdan, nieta literaria de Dino Buzzati. Con menos de 35 años, las dos ya son más que promesas”.

Best Book of 2011 from Elvira Navarro, Carlos Yushimito, Ana María Shua and other Spanish Language Authors

Canal-l has put together a blog that lists the favorite books of 2011 by various Spanish Language authors such as Elvira Navarro, Carlos Yushimito, Ana María Shua. It is an interesting list and I have even read one book, Alberto Fuget’s Missing. Una investigación which I thought was a great book and one of my favorites of the year. Another I have been reading for a while, The Complete Short Stories of Lydia Davis. As with all the lists from outside of the US it is always fascinating to see how many books from outside the Spanish speaking world they choose.

Ana María Shua’s Death as a Side Effect Reviewed at Three Percent

Emily Davis at Three Percent has a nice review of Ana María Shua’s Death as a Side Effect. Shua’s work has caught my attention of late and this book sounds interesting.

If we were to ignore for just a moment the fact that Death as a Side Effect was originally published (in Spanish) in 1997 in Argentina, we might be tempted to read it in the context of recent healthcare reforms and debates in the United States, with the world painted by Ana María Shua nestling easily among the nightmares of death-panel-phobes. Luckily, this book is much more than that.

As Ernesto struggles to come to terms with his dying father, he discovers that the world he lives in is ruled not only by violent gangs of vandals and professional thieves who make even simple activities like walking outside so dangerous as to be unthinkable, but also by the medical professionals at state-run hospitals and Convalescent Homes that strip their patients—or maybe more like prisoners—of any say in their own healthcare. In the meantime, his mother is going crazy, his sister is of little help, and his girlfriend has left him. Add to this the fact that the entire narrative is told by Ernesto and is explicitly directed toward his absent (read: already lost) lover—think one-sided epistolary tale, or a novel-length version of Elena Poniatowska’s “El Recado” (in a somewhat less neurotic voice and with much more really going on)—and you have a main character buried in layers of complications that make his world difficult, if not nigh impossible, to navigate. (No wonder he occasionally flips to the Suicide Channel on the television.) It is, in part, precisely these multiple layers and their expert unfolding in narrative time that make this novel so compelling. Having read the book with only the jacket copy as preparation, I found it to be far more intriguing—and on many more levels—than I had expected.

Short Stories from Francisco Antonio Carrasco and Ana María Shua

You can read a couple of very short stories from Francisco Antonio Carrasco over at El sindrome Chejov. I’m not convinced this is an interesting collection especially after the first story.

Francisco Antonio Carrasco sobre Taxidermia:

Taxidermia es una colección de veintiún cuentos actuales de corte realista en los que la fantasía acaba muchas veces imponiéndose a la propia realidad, en los que la obsesión triunfa generalmente sobre la cordura; veintiún cuentos de desconcierto y desajuste ante la vida, de impotencia ante un mundo que no podemos controlar. En fin: una metáfora de la incomunicación humana. Y es que, en el fondo, todos necesitamos un taxidermista para naturalizar la vida a nuestro antojo.
An La nave de los locos has another short one from Ana María Shua (A book of hers is in English so if you can’t read this you can still check out her work).

Ana María Shua – Interview Video in English, Short Stories, and Other Things

Now that I’ve read a little of Ana María Shua’s newest book, I can say I liked some of it. Some of the circus stories were OK, others such as Evolución del Circo were quite interesting. The blog La nave de los locos has a couple more excerpts of her work.

The Spanish culture program also had an interview with her: El ojo crítico – Ana María Shua y su circo de relatos breves – 09/09/11 . It was a good interview and they go over why she wrote a circle of stories about circuses.

Finally, Revista de Letras has this video from Shua explaining her early life, especially the dictatorship in Argentina. It is in Spanish with English subtitles.