The Portable Museum Vol 1 featuring Ortuño, Morábito, Bisama, Vila-Matas – A Review

The Portable Museum Vol 1
Featuring Antonio Ortuño, Fabio Morábito, Alvaro Bisama, Enrique Vila-Matas
Ox and Pigeon, 2013

Ox and Pigeon is a small press dedicated to publishing international literature in translation. So far they have brought out two e-books with short stories from the Spanish. In this volume they have short stories from Antonio Ortuño, Fabio Morábito, Alvaro Bisama, and Enrique Vila-Matas. Vila-Matas is the most famous on the list with several books already translated into English. I have read one of Fabio Morábito’s books (review here) and enjoyed it and was looking forward to reading his story. From all the criticism I’ve read his style is always heralded as very clean and pure. Antonio Ortuño and Alvaro Bisama I was unfamiliar with. The stories are varied, from the fantastical to the more meta, all revolving around the theme of relationships.

From the start the authors show a willingness to expand the idea of a relationship. In The Japanese Garden, Antonio Ortuño writes of a man whose father hires him a prostitute when he is 9 years old. From there his life is consumed by the thought of the prostitute and into adulthood. The story, though, is not a warning about the dangers of such an early encounter, but a study in eccentric longing. While one might suggest his longing is damaged goods, there is a humor to the story that suggests that while he is wasting his time and money pursuing her, the kind of attachment he has is just as normal as a man might have for a long lost love that was not a prostitute.

Fabio Morábito’s story The Mothers (download the pdf) is a fantastical piece that depicts “the mothers” as a creatures who take to the trees at the beginning of June and become a type of plague, threatening the inhabitants of the town. They spend their time capturing men and doing as they wish for the month. When the mothers have spent their energies laying fruit in the trees they return to their homes where their families, exhausted, their work done. It is a fascinating renvisioning of procreation that shows the dynamics that underlie those of reality. The mothers are at once needed, both in the home and for the creation of the fruits, but also a bother that one must put up with. It is dark cometary and Morábito’s story is the strangest of the four.

Alvaro Bisama’s Nazi Girl is the most transgressive of the bunch. Narrated by a Chilean woman who was raised by parents who were Hitler fanatics, and who were also Catholic supporters of Pinochet. Bisama creates a world in which the martial aesthetics of Nazi Germany, in part personified by the eroticism that can be found in the likes of Leni Riefenstahl, become an intoxicating mix of sex and domination. It is a disturbing image and at first look the transgression looks like glorification, but Bisama is criticizing the glorification of dictatorships and the objectification of power that comes with it. It is a delicate balance to try and avoid glorying Hitler. I think Bisama has succeed.

Finally, Enrique Vila-Matas’ story about a man caught in a love triangle is interesting not so much for the triangle, but the way the story is told. All through the story the narrator has to battle with her grandmother over the veracity of her story. It is an interesting approach to story telling that I think is, from what I’ve read, an window into his style in general.

All the stories in the collection very good and highlight interesting work. Of the authors in the collection, I’m most interested to see what some of Bisama’s other work is like.

FTC Notice: The publisher gave me the book. I thank them for that.

Granta’s Best Young Spanish Writers at Three Percent

The ever interesting blog Three Percent from Open Letter Books is publishing bios of all 22 of the writers featured in Granta’s Best young writers in Spanish. So far they have put up bios of Andres Barba and a short story in English, Andres Neuman, Carlos Labbe, Federico Falco, and Santiago Roncagliolo amongst others. Definitely worth following if you are interested.

I’ve always had a thing for Spanish literature. Not sure exactly why or how this started, although I do remember struggling my way through Cortazar’s “A Continuity of Parks,” thinking holy s— this can’t actually be what’s happening, then reading the English version, finding myself even more blown away and proceeding to devour his entire oeuvre over the course of the ensuing year. (The next tattoo I get will likely be a reference to either Hopscotch or 62: A Model Kit.)

There’s something special about the great Spanish-language works . . . They can be as philosophically complicated as the French (see Juan Jose Saer’s Nouveau Roman influenced novels), while still remaining very grounded, emotional (see all of Manuel Puig), and others represent the epitome of wordplay and linguistic gamesmanship (see Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers).

Not trying to say that Spanish-language literature is better than that of other languages—I’m just trying to explain why I’m so drawn to it, why we published Latin American authors make up such a large portion of Open Letter’s list (Macedonio Fernandez, Juan Jose Saer, Alejandro Zambra, Sergio Chejfec, not to mention the Catalan writers, which, though vastly different in language, have a sort of kinship with their fellow Spanish writers). And why I read so many Spanish works in my “free time,” why I love Buenos Aires, the tango, etc. . . .

Regardless, when I found out that Granta was releasing a special issue of the “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” I was psyched. (This really hits at the crux of my obsessions: Spanish literature and lists.) I tried to tease names from the forthcoming list out of the wonderful Saskia Vogel and the multi-talented John Freeman, but neither would give away any secrets. So when the list was finally announced, I was doubly pleased to see that six of the authors on there either already are published by Open Letter or will be in the near future.

Granta en español Announces Its Best Young Novelists in Spanish

Grant en español has announced their take on the best young novelists in Spanish. You can see a complete list plus links to interviews and other information at El Pais’s blog, Papeles Perdidos. Here is the list of names:

Andrés Barba (España), Oliverio Coelho (Argentina), Federico Falco (Argentina), Pablo Gutiérrez (España), Rodrigo Hasbun (Bolivia), Sonia Hernández (España), Carlos Labbé (Chile), Javier Montes (España), Elvira Navarro (España), Matías Néspolo (Argentina), Andrés Neuman (Argentina), Alberto Olmos (España) Pola Oloixarac (Argentina), Antonio Ortuño (México), Patricio Pron (Argentina), Lucía Puenzo (Argentina), Andrés Ressia Colino (Uruguay), Santiago Roncagliolo (Perú), Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), Andrés Felipe Solano (Colombia), Carlos Yushimito del Valle (Perú) y Alejandro Zambra (Chile).

I have heard of several of these writers and some are in English. I know I have read a story by Samanta Schweblin and I think I liked it. She had something in the Latin American issue of Zoetrope. I haven’t read Andres Nueman yet, and I’m a little disappointed I didn’t buy one of his books when I was in Barcelona; he was on my list. Alejandro Zambra has been translated into English. You can read both Bonsai and the Private Lives of Trees. Santiago Roncagliolo has one book in English and as I noted earlier this week he will be on El Publico Lee. Jorge Volpi has noted his writings as a way forward with the political novel. I don’t know about the rest of the authors, but I guess that will give me an excuse to read the issue.


Read about some of them in English.