La máquina de languidecer (The Languishing Machine) by Ángel Olgoso – A Review

La máquina de languidecer – Micro Cuentos
(The Languishing Machine – Micro Fiction)
Ángel Olgoso
Páginas de Espuma, 2009, pg 131

Ángel Olgoso is a Spanish short story writer who often works within the fantastic. In the La máquina de languidecer is a collection of a 100 micro fiction, short stories that are no more than a page in length, probably around 500 words at maximum. Olgoso’s stories range in subject from the fantastic to speculative to the intersection of language and reality. At all times though, his writing shows a beautiful development of imagery that comes from a precise and expansive use of language. Each story, even in the ones where the subject is not fully successful, is written with an attention to the poetry that is inherit in prose, but is often undeveloped in other writers. That focus makes his work a rich exploration of the language of story that both in terms of style and subject is searching for something deeper in the deceptively short.

As the critic Fernando Valls notes in his introduction, the work of Olgoso is often haiku-like, an assessment I agree with. At his best his stories full of rich imagery, often using disparate pairings of elements to achieve fresh images. He also is skilled at finding in an image, like the best haiku, a complete idea, often a sense of loss or longing that is part of human life. In that sense the title of the book is a reflection on that sense of loss, since it the languishing machine he is referring to is the human being. And like a haiku his images are brief, fleeting, leaving just the image alone, the rest unsaid, in the background, waiting for the reader to make the associations. In El Golpe Maestro del Leñador Mágico, a story that describes the last thoughts of the last man on earth, a couple thoughts are of cuerpos desnudos tan blancos como nevada en un lecho / naked bodies as white as snow on a bed, and la fruta robada por primera vez / fruit stolen for the first time. Or in the story El Misántropo he describes loneliness of a misanthrope who is accidentally burred alive as El malentendido es la ley de gravitación de los solitarios / To be misunderstood is the gravitational law of solitary people. In these phrases it is possible to see some of his imagery at play and his precise way of describing characters, all of which gives his work an power both economic and arresting.

The themes of his stories fall into three general categories: the structures of story and language; metaphysical and meta shifts of reality; and the fantastic often seen as a shift in perspective. In the first category is a basic story such as Conjugacion:

Yo grité. Tú torturabas. Él reía. Nosotros moriremos. Vosotros envejeceréis. Ellos olvidarán.
I screamed. You were torturing. He was smiling. We will die. You all will get old. They will forget.

In the story you have a playful use of verb tenses to create a very short story about a couple of murderers. Or in Un mélange mitológico, He writes of the gods who do things extravagantly, using the dreaded Spanish equivalent of the of the adverbial ly for all his descriptions. He concludes the story:

¿por qué entonces ha de abstenerse un escriptor inexperto de yacer a voluntad con los adverbios acabados en mente?
why the must an inexperienced writer abstain from using adverbs that end in ly?

Again he plays with the language and is interested in how it can be used, such as the ly in his description which lends great weight to the power of the gods, and yet have a connotation outside of its purely grammatical role. Another story I would point the reader to in this vein, is Nudos, which uses the word nudo (knot) in as many different ways in a story, and shows an attentiveness to shades of meaning.

The stories that play with grammar can suffer, occasionally, from the one liner like nature of Conjugaction. The stories that focus more on metaphysical and meta are often his best pieces. In the story El otro Borges an author gets a chance to meet Borges and after drinking a shot Borges offers him either his first novel recently published, or a tetradracma. The writer, afraid of Borges’ wife, chooses the tetradracma. Borges also turns out to be a joker, a man who would probably be more at home in the corner bar. It is a funny story that reimagines Borges. It also makes fun of a writer whose instinct was not to take the book. And most obviously, it is a play on Borges well known story of the same name. Yet where Borges is imagining another self, one that represents an alter ego with unknown qualities, as if the he had not passed through the garden of forking paths, Olgoso plays Borges for a joke, imagining a real man who has hidden behind appearances. It is one of his many different realities.

The idea of books and literature as a living thing and also a precarious element also show up in El ultimo lector which describes the last reader left on earth remembering the scene when the last known reader was killed. Here, the power of reading is seen as something dangerous whose secrets only remain with one person. And like several of his stories, there is a sense of precariousness of something so important as reading. At the same time there is also a sadness that reading did not prevent the end of the ability to read. As important as reading and literature are, they have no force in of themselves to protect and survive human kind.

In 237 fragmentos de metralla a soldier of the Great War recounts how he almost killed a valiant solider who was rescuing wounded allied soldiers. When wounded and captured he asks in the hospital who that soldier was. It was Hemingway. Again there is the blending of the paths not taken and the importance and fragility of literature. That such an important 20th century writer’s life was at the whim of an Austrian soldier opens to question if there were other writers lost who had more to give.

In a turn towards his fantastical work, Buenos propositos is about a writer whose work no one wants to read, even when he pays them. So he does what he has to: he kidnaps them and forces them to read his work at gun point where they find, much to the writer’s surprise, the “cry at his verses, tremble at this intrigues” and overall react appropriately before each genre. Here it is the writer or the situation that makes the work so powerful for the readers, or both. The story shows both his attention to narrative but an interest in the macabre and indicates some of his approaches to writing fantastical stories that border on science fiction or even, occasionally, horror.

Cerco a la Bella Durmiente allows Olgoso to approach the most fantastical of stories, fairy tales, with in a humorous way. In one of my favorites of the collection, he describes a prince who has gone to wake Sleeping Beauty with a kiss. She doesn’t wake, though. Olgoso gives 11 possible reasons ranging from a heavy dream to not kissing her correctly according to tradition. Whatever the reason, the prince is consigned to wait for years until the right moment when his kiss will truly work. The reasons he give are perfectly logical in terms of a fairy tale, but also make great fun of the genre, breaking apart the conventions and romance and playing it for what it is: a fantasy.

Ultimately, his stories show a love of precise language and a profound interest in what makes a story. This doesn’t always make for great reading, but given the 100 stories here, not all could possibly be winners. That so many are good, twisting one’s expectations and creating worlds of meaning in phrases shows a micro story writer of high skill. I leave you, with out comment, his most poetic story:

Diadema en tu cabello / The Crown in Your Hair

Hay quien afirma que tu única vestidura es tu pelo, tu cabellera cuisadosamente cepillada y peinada y ungida con perfume, tu largo pelo negro que refulge y se ciñe como un manto real al blanco de tus huesos.

One must recognize that your only clothing is your hair, your head of hair carefully brushed and combed and rubbed with perfume, your long black hair that shines brightly and clings like a royal mantle to the white color of your bones.

A Short Story from Ángel Olgoso at La nave de los locos

The Spanish short story writer Ángel Olgoso has a collection of out called El `Almanaque de asombros´ (The Almanac of Surprises). You can read a story from the collection called Medicos de Sombras. It is in his style with its interest in non reality or fantastical situations. It also comes with some nice line drawings.I bring this up, not necessarily because it is a good story, which it is, but it is illustrative of the kind of works he likes and will help make sense of my review of his collection, La maquina de languidecer.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best Short Story Collections in Spanish Over the Last 5 Years

The ever excellent blog El sindrome Chejov recently polled a series of Spanish language short story authors about what they thought were the best collections of short stories to be published over the last five years. It is a broad ranging list that includes authors English speakers would probably be familiar with, such as Alice Munro and Lydia Davis. Of interest to me were the books originally written in Spanish (I’m already sufficiently familiar with the English speakers). Some of these I’ve heard of and in a few cases I’ve even read some of the books. I certainly agree with some of the choices and am looking forward to finding some new authors.

The three most cited authors were Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, Alice Munro and Ángel Olgoso. However, I saw many references to Javier Sáez de Ibarra, Andres Neuman’s Hacerse el muerto (read my review), and Smanta Schweblin’s Pajaros en la boca, a book that I am looking forward to reading soon. Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s list is of particular interest especially since he has read 250 collections over the last 5 years. I also thought Miguel Ángel Zapata’s was interesting because it listed the writers and their approaches which gives you a little context. Lest the embarrassment of riches make you think things are all rosy over there, Muñoz does end his survey with a complaint that could be easily leveled here in the states:

Buenos libros y buena labor editorial. Mejora sensible en la atención de los medios. …Y pocos lectores. En un país con desesperantes bajos índices de lectura -disfrazados por la atención mayoritaria a unos pocos libros populares- pero con una media de cuatro horas diarias ante la televisión, el cuento, que requiere de un predisposición particular y una educación del gusto para disfrutar de sus resortes narrativos, tan distintos a los de la novela, no puede salir bien parado. Aun así, sigo pensando que el cuento posee un poder que nuestro sistema educativo no ha sabido aprovechar. Aún. Confío en centenares de profesores de bachillerato que van descubriendo, y difundiendo, las posibilidades que el relato corto ofrece para introducir a los alumnos en el placer de la literatura y, todavía más, en el mejor conocimiento y explicación de materias distintas de las estrictamente literarias. Historia o Filosofía, para empezar (¿se sigue estudiando eso en Bachillerato?).

From Zapata’s comment:

En la última década, el cuento español abandona las trincheras incómodas del gueto y comienza el lento acomodo en las mesas de novedades y en las reseñas de los diarios nacionales. Eso es un hecho; lento y a gotas, pero un hecho: llueve. Ya se ha apuntado muchas veces antes la labor encomiable y de zapa de editoriales especializadas en el género como Menoscuarto, Páginas de Espuma, Salto de Página, Tropo, Traspiés o Cuadernos del Vigía. Pero cabe anotar igualmente la proliferación de espacios en la blogosfera que promueven la expansión de los géneros breves y su rápida recepción por un público silente aunque masivo tras la pantalla del ordenador. En cuanto a las direcciones que asume el cuento actual, es precisamente la heterogeneidad de propuestas la clave para entender su auge: el terror contemporáneo entreverado de cierto apego a la sobriedad realista del cuento norteamericano en la obra de Jon Bilbao, la relectura del fantástico desde posiciones especulativas o metafísicas (en tres maestros del género en su estado más puro: Ángel Olgoso, Juan Jacinto Muñoz Rengel, Manuel Moyano), la experimentación formal en la renovación que parte del fantástico hacia territorios que lindan con lo telúrico (la portentosa cuentística de lo inaudito plausible que desarrolla David Roas), la orfebrería impresionista de altísimo octanaje literario (Óscar Esquivias, Jesús Ortega), lo cotidiano transfigurado (Miguel Ángel Muñoz, Andrés Neuman y Ernesto Calabuig, que hacen virtuosismo genuino de la lectura entre líneas y la fuerza emocional de las historias), el lirismo surreal (Juan Carlos Márquez en su estupendo “Llenad la tierra”, todo un despliegue talentoso de recursos y técnica)… Si a ello sumamos el trabajo de fondo de maestros contemporáneos que siguen trabajando el género aportando periódicamente nuevas obras de impronta clásica y generosos ejercicios de estilo (Merino, Calcedo, Aramburu, Díez, Aparicio, Fernández Cubas, Peri Rossi…), da la sensación de políptico generacional completo, de relevo asegurado y estupenda salud del género, como certifica el análisis que hizo del cuento en 2011 el artículo del crítico Ricardo Senabre para el último número del “El Cultural” el año pasado. Otra cosa, por supuesto, es la flexibilidad de mercado, distribuidores y librerías en el sostenimiento de títulos suficientes de un género que siempre supone un quebradero de cabeza para las editoriales que funcionan con la calculadora y la cuenta de resultados ante la mesa. Mientras siga chispeando…”

If you are interested in the short story, these 7 posts are worth skimming through.

  1. First
  2. Second
  3. Third
  4. Fourth
  5. Fifth
  6. Sixth
  7. Seventh