La habitación de Nona (Nona’s Room) by Cristina Fernández Cubas – A Review

La habatación de NonaLa habitación de Nona (Nona’s Room)
Cristina Fernández Cubas
Tusquets, 2015, pg 186

La habitación de Nona is Cristina Fernández Cubas’ first collection of stories since the 2008 publication of Todo los cuentos. She did publish a novel under the pseudonym Fernanda Kubbs and while it returned to familiar territory of the fantastic, it was a less introspective work, one that felt more like a release than a confrontation. With La habitación de Nona she returns to form, employing the fantastic to navigate the space between realities. La habitación, like some of her other collections, mixes stories that have a strong emphasis in a social reality, although fantastical, and stories that are complete fables or tales of horror in a classic sense. In each she is successful, as always.

The title story is indicative of her work, where the young narrator presents her sister as her enemy, someone whose behavior is so strange, perhaps on the autistic spectrum, that she is both jealous of the attention her parents give her and intrigued by her customs. Naturally, Cubas does not give us a clinical description of Nona, more a series of behaviors that upset the narrator. The story feels as if it is one of simple jealousy, or perhaps a story of the fantastical sister, but Cubas rarely gives such simple motivations. Instead there the question is not who is Nona, but who is the narrator? It’s made all the more enigmatic by the repeated phrase, quien yo me sé (who I know, but with a sense of something more complete) that suggests there is more to the story than the narrator’s claimed interests, which as the story draws to its conclusion sees the power of the narration switch from the narrator to Nona. While it doesn’t quite have the enigmatic power of Mi hermana Alba, there are some similarities in how the strange perceptions of children point to something more profound.

She again uses the perception of children in Interno con figura (Interior with figure). The narrator goes to an art museum where a group of school children are taking a tour. They stop in front of a painting, the one that is part of the cover art of book. When asked what is going on in the photo, one child becomes scared and suggests it is something horrible. The narrator takes this to mean that the child is seeing in the painting her own life and is not narrating what is in the painting. The narrator is never quite certain what to do. Should she talk to the teacher, the police, follow them? She does that for a little, but ultimately she cannot do anything. Her only option as she ends the story is to write a story, an act that brings the interplay between art and reality to another level. Did Cubas witness this? The painting is real, so why can’t this be true? And if it is true is what the child said true? This is not an unknown phenomenon. In Cubas work at its best we’re often left with question, or better said, forced to make a decision: which narrative line do we want believe, and, thus, follow?

El final de Barbero (The end of Barbero) recounts the arrival of a stepmother who becomes the ruling force in the family, much to the frustration of the three daughters. While there is a touch of the wicked stepmother in the story, it does not follow the familiar pattern of abuse. Instead, Barbero steals the daughter’s father and leaves them behind. The enmity she engenders is that of remaking the family, erasing a future that the daughters thought they would have and leaving them in the dark. Barbero is a strange woman. After marring the father a week after meeting the daughters she begins to distance the father from the children. Ultimately, she and the father move out, taking anything of value, including the picture frames, leaving the photos of their late mother on shelves in the office. It is these kind of touches that make Barbero at once an object of hate and pity, a woman who is trying to control, but is so strange that her victories are really pyrrhic. Ultimately, the fate of Barbero is uncertain and in true Cubas fashion, what the daughters find out lesson her power, making the whole marriage a tragic-comedy. It is one of the more successful stories in the book.

La Nueva Vida (The New Life) is one of her few stories written in the third person and is the most obviously personal story of the collection. Cubas lost her husband of many years several years before the publication of the book, and that experience is reflected here. In the story a woman is walking through Madrid and finds herself in the past, meeting with her friends, with her husband. It is a stripped down story, one that is more interested in the emotion of loss. There is no magical jam as in Los altillos de Brumal; she is just there. It is the confusion of memory that is the subject, the way that memory lives, and can bring one to a past as if it really is now. The use of third person here is instructive as to her approach. Typically in the first person, she leaves open doubts, missperceptions, but here it is the complete enveloping experience of a memory that she wants to show. The doubts come via a waitress who sees an older woman having problems. It also makes the story one of her most realistic, even though it feels at first if this is some sort of strange time travel story. It is surprisingly effective and impactful story.

Finally, Días entre los Wasi-Wano (Days Among the Wasi-Wano) returns to the interplay between story and reality. Again, the narrator is a girl who, along with her brother, is shipped off to her aunt and uncle’s for the summer. The aunt and uncle are a strange pair and live in the country side in a little village. The uncle is given to telling stories of his adventures in Brazil exploring the jungle and meeting the Wasi-Wano tribe. It is a fascinating story that the narrator loves. It is also a story that is only real because of the commitment of the uncle. The narrator, though, is hooked and for her the uncle is the most interesting person. However, there are things behind the facade of the marriage. It leaves the narrator both enjoying the beauty of story that Brazil presents and facing cracks in the dream that is her aunt and uncle’s marriage. Cubas brilliantly plays with both ideas, making the fantastical, Brazil, the more solid, while the real becomes unstable. Of course, that instability colors everything about the uncle and suggests that there is more to a story than its credibility. It is a surprisingly effective story, full of dead ends and questions that can never be answered and leave a sense of melancholy that often comes with Cubas exploration of the fantastic, as if the euphoria of the glimpse of what cannot be deflates one.

La habitación de Nona is one of her better collections, and I think rightly called out as one of 2015’s best books (in Spain).


La Puerta Entreabierta (The Half-Open Door) by Fernanda Kubbs aka Cristina Fernandez Cubas – A Review

La Puerta Entreabierta
(The Half-Open Door)
Fernanda Kubbs (Cristina Fernandez Cubas)
Tusquets, 2013, 221 pg
La Puerta Entreabierta (The Half-Open Door) is Cristina Fernandez Cubas’ latest book and finds her assuming a pen name, Fernanda Kubbs, to create a much more fantastical novel that celebrates famous stories of mystery while creating her own. Cubas’s work has always dealt with the fantastic, but La in Puerta Entreabierta the fantastical becomes almost the primary focus of the novel making the mysterious less an element of suspense, but exploration. Avid readers of her work, as I am, will find the book, dare I say it, a little lighter than some of her other work. Her writing style is still as good as ever and it is a pleasure to read some one of her talent write was is, for all intents and purposes, an intelligent fable.

The story follows Isa a human interest story reporter for a newspaper. She’s not particularly good and doesn’t know how to dress well either, wearing bermuda shorts to a reprimand by her boss. Her assignment is to write an article on fortune tellers. She finds a stereotypical fortuneteller dressed as gypsy and using a crystal ball. Sometime during the reading she is transported into the crystal and is trapped inside. The fortuneteller is a fraud and has no idea how she ended up in the ball. Thus begins Isa’s journey in the sphere, landing ultimately in the shop of an antiquarian dealer who on learning of her predicament tries to helper escape from the sphere.

Interspersed between Isa’s narrative are stories, told as examples, of famous frauds who fooled people with illusions and tricks. Readers of Poe might be familiar with Von Kempelen and his chess playing machine. Here, as in the other stories, she reworks the stories, playing with the legends of the frauds, both showing them as ridiculous and compelling, as if there is something in the stories that is true. It is a typical move for her, but in this book it is more playful and the stories remain what they have long been: fables.

What makes the book enjoyable are two things: the interaction between Isa and her protector; and Cubas’ ability to make what might otherwise be a light story something that shines with her strong language. Moreover, Cubas is a clever writer and her decision to leave the story open ended makes this detour into the magical quite interesting. While this will not be my favorite work of hers (hence the short review), I enjoyed it for what it is and given that it is Cubas it is much better that most books.

8 Untranslated Spanish Authors at Words Without Borders

Words Without Borders has a great edition this month featuring 8 untranslated Spanish authors. This is an exciting edition because it features one of my favorites, Cristina Fernández Cubas. It has several I don’t know well, but Juan Eduardo Zúñiga is someone I’ve been looking forward to for some time and will be reading this year. I think they missed a few which you can read about here.
This month we present poetry and prose by twelve Spanish masters whose dazzling work has been unavailable to the English-language world. Exploring scenes ranging from the devastating Madrid subway bombing to the idyllic coastline of Greece, in rhapsodic poetry and anguished prose, these writers provide new insight into Spanish literature today. Read Fernando Aramburu, Cristina Fernández Cubas, Miquel de Palol, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, Antonio Gamoneda, Pere Gimferrer, Berta Vias Mahou, César Antonio Molina, Juan Antonio Masoliver Ródenas, Olvido Garcia Valdés, Pedro Zarraluki, and Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, and discover the breadth and depth of contemporary Spanish writing. This issue is part of the SPAIN arts & culture program and was made possible thanks to a charitable contribution from the Spain-USA Foundation. We thank the Foundation for its generous support, and our guest editors, Javier Aparicio, Aurelio Major, and Mercedes Monmany, for their excellent work in selecting the authors and pieces presented here.

Elsewhere, we present writing from Syria, as Zakariya Tamer tells tales of djinns and talking walls, Abdelkader al-Hosni reflects on friendship, Golan Haji considers magic and loss, and Lukman Derky mourns a history of war.

Cristina Fernández Cubas Has Published a New Novel – La puerta entreabierta

One of my favorite short story writers, Cristina Fernández Cubas, has published a new novel called, La puerta entreabierta (The Half Open Door). It is her first work since the death of her husband several years ago, and marks a bit of a transition for her. When she was trying to write after her husband’s death she found it difficult and melancholy work. At a certain point she hit on writing with a pseudonym, Fernanda Kubbs. It is a fascinating thing to do. It isn’t uncommon, but usually using a pseudonym is to hide or create a marketing line between two different literary personalities. Here, though, it is something more. The review from El Pais sounds interesting and not too dissimilar to the short stories collected in Todos los cuentos (See my reviews here and here).

If you understand Spanish there is a good interview at Pagina 2 that I would recommend you watch.

A good overview of her recent struggles at her conceptualization of her work can be found at El Pais.

A veces para cicatrizar la herida que supone una gran pérdida necesitamos un cambio que nos distraiga del dolor. A Cristina Fernández Cubas (Arenys de Mar, 1945, Barcelona) le llevó un tiempo abordarlo. Perdió a su esposo, el escritor Carlos Trías, de un cáncer de pulmón en 2007. La pareja, entre otras complicidades, compartía la pasión por la lectura y la escritura. A medida que pasaban los días, el placer se tornó en martirio. “No podía seguir como si nada hubiera ocurrido. Todo lo que tenía a medio hacer lo mandé a la porra”, cuenta la escritora en un céntrico hotel de Barcelona, decorado en ese estilo minimalista que tanto abunda. La puerta entreabierta, su nueva novela, firmada con el seudónimo de Fernanda Kubbs, rompe un largo silencio en el terreno de la ficción e inaugura una nueva etapa en su carrera que va a mantener en paralelo con su etapa anterior.

Entre la inestabilidad que proporciona uno de esos asientos en los que te hundes, Fernández Cubas alisa su melena revuelta por el viento. De negro, de la cabeza a los pies, solo la espina de una sardina, tallada en plata, pone un destello de color en su atuendo. Habla con voz neutra de su melancolía: “Lo de leer lo solucioné pronto a base de disciplina, pero escribir me inducía a la tristeza. No podía con ello. La bola de cristal (en la que queda atrapada precisamente la protagonista de su novela) estaba allí, de manera perversa en mi cabeza; escribía en círculo y no hacía más que ahondar en la tristeza y, bueno, un poco de melancolía vale, pero no podía seguir con aquello”. La puerta entreabierta no nació como un proyecto, sino como un juego que le permitió “salir, disfrutar y gozar. De repente, surgió Isa, una joven periodista, y la magia. La magia siempre me ha gustado y fue ahí donde me di cuenta de que ese cambio de registro o de mirada me había envuelto y recuperaba las ganas de levantarme. Casi enseguida, creo que al final del primer capítulo, pensé en dos cosas: una, yo tiro para adelante, ya veremos dónde me lleva y, otra, que me llamaría Fernanda Kubbs”.

There is also a review at El Pais.

En Fernanda Kubbs está Cristina Fernández Cubas como en La puerta entreabierta están las múltiples sendas narrativas transitadas por la autora en un buen puñado de cuentos inolvidables, la aventura y actualización de un tema clásico pasado por el peculiar tamiz del sueño en la novela El año de Gracia (1985) o los recuerdos y evocaciones de las Cosas que ya no existen (2001) que acaban imponiéndose como un libro de memorias y a la vez conforman un conjunto de relatos sobre la vida de los otros: en apariencia historias sueltas, retazos de memorias, anécdotas de viaje, fotografías que se animaban de repente y, “acabada la función, regresaban a su engañosa inmovilidad de tiempo detenido”. Pero no nos confundamos. No es un totum revoltum lo que ahora nos ofrece la escritora barcelonesa sino un viaje —muy bien organizado pese a la frontera que traspasa y los múltiples territorios de la ficción por los que transita—, a través de sí misma en su faceta de impar fabuladora. Y es también un homenaje a quienes la invitaron —o enseñaron— a recorrer el territorio de la fantasía y la invención literarias: los Grimm, Andersen, Hoffmann, Lewis Carroll, Edgar Allan Poe, Conan Doyle… y Ana María Matute.

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”.

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.

My Article on Four UnTranslated Short Stories Is Up at the Quarterly Conversation

My article about four untranslated Spanish short story writers is now up at the Quarterly Conversation. It turned out really well and is a much longer form article than I normally write coming in at a little over 3K words. While I think the stories mentioned in the article are great I had to leave out so many different ones that it seems at times I haven’t written that much. Writing about short stories is always hard because you end up with some many different ones and you have to try come up with some sort of thematic element to link them together. This was esspecially the case with these four, but I think I was able to do it.

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.

I  have also commented on other stories from Navarro and Cubas. The rest of the Quarterly Conversation looks very good, too, and definately worth reading. They have a nicely timed overview of the works of Mercè Rodoreda. (You my reviews of Death in Spring and her short stories)