In this review
Mi hermana Elba (My Sister Elba)
Los altillos de Brumal (The Attics of Brumal)
from Todos los cuentos (All the Stories)
Christina Fernández Cubas is considered on of the most important Spanish short story writers since the end of the Franco era. Starting with her first book, My Sister Elba, published in 1980, she has been continually praised as important author by authors such as Enrique Villa-Matas (Spanish only) who recently said, “as everyone knows, her book My Sister Elba was decisive in the revitalization of the genre of the short story in Spain at the end of the 70s.” Her work is lauded for its inventiveness and the originality of her imagination, and a reading the relatively little she has published, bares out the praise. While it can be hard for an someone not familiar with the history of the Spanish short story to know if her impact was that great, her stories transcend any historical moment and are gems of story telling.
Cubas’ stories all fall within the genre of fantastic literature, yet in the same way that Poe, one of her favorites, is more than just spooky stories for Halloween, her works transcend genre. Often she focuses on the border lands between childhood and adulthood, creating a worlds were the impossible exists for children, and is unimaginable by adults. These dualities also intersect age and class, so that the modern, educated adult may look for rationality where there is none.
El reloj de Bagdad (The Clock from Baghdad) is probably the best example of this tension. In the story, the father of two young children brings home an antique clock one day. It is a beautiful clock with exquisite complications, yet the two old women who live in the house and have taken care of the family for years, don’t trust it. They think it is cursed. One won’t even go near it and leaves the house after years of service. The children, too, are scared of it. Yet the clock hasn’t done anything specific. The narrator, one of the now adult children, only can give us a sense of its immensity, as if that presence alone was enough to scare. When the family returns from a vacation the house is on fire and one of the few things they can save is the clock. The fire seems to confirm the curse. And when the father wants to sell it, the antique dealer refuses to take it back. Ultimately, the family moves out of town on the Day of San Juan, and the old women burn the clock in one of of the many pyres that mark the day.
The Clock from Baghdad has all the elements that mark her work. First, the story has an uncertain narrator who is always looking back into a past that is not only hazy, but a way of thinking that doesn’t exists for her anymore. Second, it is peopled with children who don’t understand the grown up world, and who make their own world, which creates a tension that is often mysterious, but can also be a possibility that is no longer possible to express. Her stories, however, do not rest on simple platitudes of the incorruptibility of children or their innate goodness. Cubas is too inventive to let her stories conclude so easily.
Mi hermana Elba, the title story of her first work, shows how she uses childhood as a distant place that has different powers, but can be as terrifying and cruel as the adult world. The narrator opens the story looking at an old note book and wondering how she wrote it. It appears as something unconnected to her. In its pages are one year of her life when when she attended at Catholic boarding school with her younger sister, Elba. It is a lonely experience at first, but then she meets an orphan from the neighboring village who lives in the school. Together they explore the off limits quarters where the nuns live. One day when a nun returns suddenly to her room, the girls hide in a corner where the nun should have seen them, but for some reason does not notice them. It is here that the orphan reveals the secret pockets throughout the school where one can hide in plain sight. They explore all of these together. Elba, though, is the best at them and often can go deep into the secret spots so that her voice sounds plaintive, lost. Then summer comes and when the orphan returns, she is no longer interested in the hiding spots and has changed her interest to boys. Elba continues with the hiding spots and the narrator often will hear her pleading for her even though she isn’t around. It is a haunting feeling and the story is at it strangest at these moments. Yet like the orphan, the narrator ages at and the next summer she is more interested in boys, finding her first boy friend amongst the kids who hang out on the beach. When a tragedy suddenly befalls Elba, the narrator is shocked to learn twenty years latter, that the only thing she could think to write in her diary is “this is the best day of my life.”
Mi hermana Elba mixes the fantastic with coming of age in away that is both haunting and disturbing. What could those spaces be? And more importantly, why is Elba disappearing into them so easily that she sounds lost? A fascicle read could make the spaces the lack of wonderment adults often have, but it is more interesting to ask, what if they existed, and latter you lost interest? Is an adulthood even in a world with such places that dulling that you would leave them to childhood? The narrator’s reaction to the tragedy, both in its callousness as a teen, and as an uncertain adult suggest even when they were at the school, Elba was lost already, as if she knew this was coming but didn’t understand it. The blending of the mysterious and coming of age makes this one of the best stories in the collection, and one that is sure to stay with someone after reading.
Los altillos de Brumal isn’t metaphysically fantastic, instead, it suggests a place that really could exist and would be terrifying. The narrator is the host of a radio show and asks people to send her samples of their homemade jam so she can put a book together. She receives and unmarked jar of a blackberry like jam and when she tastes it she is reminded of the village she lived in as a child. She can’t stop eating the jam and before she knows it she has eaten the whole jar. Inspired, she returns to the village even though her mother had said only pain comes from the village. Once there, everything seems familiar, but out of place. She meets the town priest who shows her where the jam is made in a small attic. He tells her that the woman who used to make it passed away and he sent her the jam because he wanted her to do it. What was at first a voyage into memory now becomes something dark. While her mother’s warnings were unspecific, the narrator leaves you with the impression that the village is some sort of feudal throw back, where the priest has complete power over everything. It hints at darker times in Spain’s past. The question remains, though, is the jam powerful in a Proustian sense, a magical sense, or does it even matter what has drawn her back? The genius of Cubas to give the reader just enough to puzzle with these mysteries and leave one debating if the realities of these stories are just another manner of living.
Christina Fernández Cubas’ work is taught, concise and yet mysterious. She uses the fantastic not only to intrigue, but to play with reality. These games that often seem to contain supernatural elements leave the reader wondering which reality really exists. It is the mark of her great skill that the search for explanation only leads to deeper mysteries that keep one returning to them. I still don’t know how she marked a transition in Spanish short stories, but her works definitely warrants a translation to English.
Note: You may also want to see my article on four untranslated Spanish short story writers which includes a section on Cubas.