Spanish Short Stories – The Forgotten Greats and the New Voices

El Pais has an excellent article on short story writers from the 20th century and beyond, with special emphasis on the forgotten during the post war and the new young writers. If you are interested in short stories the article is a must. What is fascinating from my own reading and notes of the author is the interest in playing with reality. Despite the oft cited interest in Americans like Carver, there is a definite interest in authors like Poe, Borges and Cortazar.

One could spend a year reading all these books:

Para estar al corriente de los tiempos que se avecinan, Gemma Pellicer y Fernando Valls nos proponen Siglo XXI (Menoscuarto), subtitulado Los nuevos nombres del cuento español actual. Siguiendo la pauta de un libro anterior a cargo de F. Valls y J. A. Masoliver, Los cuentos que cuentan (1998) (con el que este reciente volumen dialoga), se recoge aquí también una breve reflexión sobre el género firmada por cada uno de los autores escogidos. Sin ánimo de entrar a debatir algunas de las afirmaciones vertidas en la presentación del volumen ni matizar el tono de regusto canonizante que preside esta gavilla de relatos, sí quiero apuntar un par de cuestiones. Al margen de la fecha de publicación de los relatos aquí reunidos (todos posteriores a 2000, en efecto), a menos que admitamos que el siglo XXI empezó en 1989, aproximadamente la mitad de estos “nuevos nombres” pertenece al último tramo del XX, no sólo por haber empezado a publicar a principios de los noventa sino por su específica filiación literaria; en este sentido, faltan autores incontestables. Por eso del subtítulo me sobra el “los” y cuestiono la pretendida novedad, aunque es cierto que la nómina de autores de trayectoria más breve y reciente está más equilibrada, destacando la justa y merecida presencia de escritoras como Berta Vias Mahou, Elvira Navarro, Berta Marsé o Cristina Grande.

Esta última publica Agua quieta (Vagamundos): 36 narraciones próximas a la intensidad y el lirismo de la prosa poética, que apuntan el latido cotidiano del presente al modo diarístico (una breve escapada a Escocia o la lectura sosegada de la vida de Chéjov según Natalia Ginsburg), o se desplazan en el tiempo evocando historias de familia y los juegos y paisajes de la niñez.

Al modo de novela de formación o aprendizaje podría leerse Conozco un atajo que te llevará al infierno (e.d.a. libros), del valenciano Pepe Cervera: dieciocho estampas que atraviesan la adolescencia, juventud y primera madurez de Andrés Tangen, de las cuales en Siglo XXI se recoge la penúltima, ‘Como un hombre que sobrevuela el mar’.

Una de las autoras-revelación incluida en Siglo XXI es Patricia Esteban Erlés, que publica su tercer libro de relatos, Azul oscuro (Páginas de Espuma), cuentos de un gran despliegue imaginativo en los que la realidad o la vida cotidiana queda alterada por la irrupción de un elemento extraño, de un acontecimiento tan inesperado como incomprensible o de un comportamiento ingobernable. Algunos textos alcanzan grados de condensación casi poéticos y por lo general ocultan más de lo que dicen, con finales abiertos, tan inquietantes como sugestivos, o un cierre sorpresivo en el mejor estilo de Poe. Destacaría el que da título al libro, ‘Azul ruso’ -donde encontramos a la nueva Circe Emma Zunz, que “fue convirtiendo en gatos a todos los hombres que cruzaron la puerta del viejo edificio con aires de teatro cerrado donde vivía”- y ‘La chica del UHF’ -protagonizado por Antonio Puñales, un “técnico en pompas fúnebres” que se desvive por crear amor y belleza allí donde dominan el horror o la avaricia.

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Sheppard Lee Written by Himself – by Robert Montgomery Bird – A Review of an American Satire

Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself
Robert Montgomery Bird
New York Review of Books, 425 pg

Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself is a forgotten American classic from the early part of the nation’s history, one that revels in poking fun at the contradictory tendencies in the young democracy. Bird’s vision of its inhabitants isn’t so much caustic, but a distaste for the pretentious idlers who only want to be aristocrats. His writing, though, is not dull and full of scolding, rather in the tradition of satire he makes fun of his characters, who, despite their striving, never quite achieve what they long for. His take on antebellum society (with one exception) is filled with humorous touches that both make fun of and describe the country.

Shepard Lee is the lay about heir to a large farm in New Jersey whose only ambition in life is to do nothing because nothing interests him. Since nothing interests him he knows nothing about money and is slowly swindled out of his land, trusting in people too much mostly because it is the easiest thing to do. Finding that living well and not working only leads to poverty he becomes desperate as his income (his land holdings) dwindles and he begins to dream of finding pirate’s treasure. He descends into superstition as his black servant explains how if one dreams about Captain Kid’s treasure three times in a row, one can find the treasure at midnight. Complaining all along about the indignity of digging for the treasure at the middle of the night, he sets out to find the treasure, and, of course, only experiences mishap after mishap. He is a useless shovel man and only manages to injure himself in the process, something Bird draws quite comically.

It is at this moment he accidentally kills himself and the book takes its strange and fantastical shape. Looking at his dead body Lee wonders what to do next when he sees a dead hunter near by. He is a rich man and Shepard Lee wishes he could be like that man and as he does so he suddenly finds his spirit sucked into the man’s body, reanimating it and partially taking over his life.

The ability to go from dead body to dead body is the defining feature of the book and animates the satire. Bird constructs the reanimation so that when Shepard Lee enters the body of the dead person he only partially controls it, the rest comes from the formerly dead person, who magically returns to life and resumes his life as before. Letting the dead person live his life lets Shepard Lee both comment on the strangeness of the life and see how that person lived his life. While Bird doesn’t stick to the device completely and Lee seems to be in control at times, the device is clever and lends itself well to the satire.

Once Lee takes over the body of the hunter he finds he is a rich man, which thrills him to no end. Quickly he realizes, though, that being rich isn’t everything. The man has painful gout and has a combative wife. Lee spends little time in the man’s body, which is fortunate, because the satire in this section of the book isn’t particularly interesting, especially the relationship with the wife. How many henpeck husband jokes can one take, really? However, it does introduce us to Sheppard Lee’s first of many disappointments as he learns that lives are seldom as they appear.

He next reanimates a young dandy and Lee is excited to live the life of a young, handsome man. If Lee wasn’t so rash with his choices, though, he might have thought twice before entering the body of someone who has just commuted suicide. But Lee doesn’t think about those things and when he returns home he finds himself surrounded by creditors. He tries to convince them he is going to get married soon and will be able to pay them all off, and for the remainder of the dandy section his only goal is to get married to a wealthy woman. The dandy is one of the better pieces of the book and in it you see the conflicting impulses of the young country. On the one hand you have the dandy, a man who is too good to work and yet has no money and spends all his time trying to figure out ways to marry into wealth. It is quite reminiscent of Vanity Fair, especially the chapter How to Live on Nothing a Year. On the other hand the dandy’s uncle is a country bumpkin and a rich man, but who at the first opportunity to enter society is willing to spend his fortune on clothing, houses, and carriages all because that is what one has to do. Bird takes great pleasure in showing all these people, the dandy with his hustler like mentality, and the new rich with their over whelming desire to buy respectability, as either selfish or gullible, the dark side of the wide open society of the United States.

In another funny section, Bird gives us the Quaker philanthropist, which he uses in the broader term of do-gooder. The philanthropist is a man who always believes there is good in man. The bad are just victims of society and need a second chance. The philanthropist, of course, takes it on himself to provide these second chances to everyone. His only interest in life is in helping people and he drives great pleasure from this, something the Sheppard Lee, after a series of miserable hosts, takes  delight in. However, the philanthropist is not much of a realist and everyone he tries to help either turns against him or cheats him. In one chapter he summarizes his failures:

I. Beaten by a drunkard whom I had taken out of prison, and bailed to keep the peace.

II. Mulcted out of $100 surety-money, because my gentleman broke the peace by beating me.

V. Rolled in the mud by the boys of my own charity-school, who I had exhorted not to daub the passers-by.

XI. Whitewashed and libeled on my own back by the stone-cutters, for buying wrought marble out of the prison.

The philanthropist always wants to help, but his help is either an unwanted intrusion in other people’s affairs, or is rejected by ungrateful people who want something better than the paltry sums he hands out. Shepard Lee realizes that it doesn’t pay to help anyone and the satisfaction the philanthropist gets when he helps people is just a selfish desire to feel good. It is a funny and probably the best section of the book. Bird’s take on selfish hucksterism of city life leaves few people unscathed.

The philanthropist is then captured by fugitive slave catchers and taken to Virginia. He is a wanted man because he has helped too many slaves escape. Just as he is about to be lynched by a mob in Virginia Lee sees a slave fall from a tree and die. At that moment he reanimates the slave’s body. The depiction of slavery Bird gives is something along the lines of my old Virginia home, where the master is a happy and generous man, and the salves are well fed and contented. Trouble only comes when the slaves find an abolitionist pamphlet in some goods they are unloading and begin to learn they are captives. Worse, Lee reads what the paper says and makes them even more dissatisfied. The salves then plan a revolt and in the process kill members of the master’s family.

The slavery potion is the worst part of the book and obviously the most dated section. Bird is almost an apologist for slavery here, essentially saying that the slaves are happy and contented as long as they don’t know anything about their servitude. In certain contexts the notion that knowledge is disturbing might be interesting, but here it elevates slavery to some exalted type of paternalism, a better form of philanthropy that is best left as it is. Throughout the book Bird doesn’t hesitate to show people as greedy, selfish, misguided, and yet the only people who are not that way are the masters and the slaves. At best it is a weakness of the story, but I think it reflects a way of thinking that is racist. The plantation was not the garden of Eden and to paint is as one even in satire is ugly. Had the satire actually shown the dark side of slavery, in much the same way that he takes on stock trading, for example, then the slavery section might be interesting. As it is, it is a legacy from a darker time in the young United States.

Sheppard Lee Written by Himself is a book that takes great pleasure in making fun Americans as they strive to remake themselves and often find they are making hypocritical and self defeating decisions. For those who wish to make money or enter high society, Bird places even more scorn, holding, instead, the life of the gentleman farmer, as Sheppard Lee eventually learns, in high esteem. It is a conservative position, a throw back to Jeffersonian in the age of Jackson. Part of the fun of the book is to see just how rambunctious the schemes to get rich are, and it presents an America, at this distance, that is rough and wild and even though some people strive to make themselves respectable, it is impossible to escape that striving character. It obviously has problems when questions of race and slavery come up, but otherwise it is a highly readable and funny satire about the early United States.

La Semana De Colores, by Elena Garro – A Review

Elena Garro is not well known in the English speaking world, or if known, she is unfortunately known as the wife of Octavio Paz. She has been called the most important Mexican woman writer after Sor Juana, but for the most part her importance has dimmed over time so that only two books are in print in English.  La semana de colores is not one of those books, although the story Es la culpa de las tlaxcaltecas (It Is the Fault of the Tlaxcaltecas)is quite famous.

The stories in La semana range in style from magical realism to stories of criminal twist. Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas is the best story in the book and shows a mastery of the magical and historical in a story that blends 500 hundred years of history. Garro tells the story of a woman who meets an Indian on the side of the road. He is dressed for battle and keeps mentioning battles of in the distance. Margarita, a woman domineered by her husband, talks with him, but doesn’t understand what he is doing on the side of the road. Latter she sees him in Mexico City and around her home. The Indian, though, is just more than an aparation of the past, he is her cousin and husband, and Margarita continually says she has betrayed him. Yet she has to wait for him in the home of her husband in Mexico City and even tells him about the Indian, which makes him think she is crazy. Throughout the story Margarita shifts between these two realities: the modern Mexican life, and the Indian who is running from a defeat in battle; a loveless and violent marriage, and the true husband. Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas plays with the idea of a golden past, the past before the Spaniards came, to create a work that criticizes the macho world Margarita lives in. In the house she is a prisoner; outside she is free. The link is made all the more clear by the repeated references to the Tlazcaltecas who were the tribe who helped Cortés defeat the Aztecs. And when she says she was a traitor she plays on the story of La Malinche who helped Cortés and became his mistress. Garro uses these elements to create an opposing world where she would be free from the machismo of her house in Mexico City. There is also a longing to correct the mistake La Malinche made in becoming Cortés mistress. For Margarita to free herself of her husband, to do what she wants to do, is the way to break with the last 500 years of history and return at once to the past and the future.

If Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas masterfully blends the magical and the historical, some of the other stories are not quite as well rounded and tend towards a mix of peasants and ghosts or peasants and crime that is tiring. More than a few times I thought I was reading a mix of Juan Rulfo and Edgar Allen Poe. An example of the latter is Perfecto Luna where a man who was so overcome with guilt about killing a friend and disposing of the body parts in the adobe of his home he begins to hear him everywhere. Finally, he has to flee his home and town. As he is fleeing he finds a man on the side of the road and tells him everything. The next morning they find the killer dead. Perfecto Luna like other stories has several elements that run through many of the stories and grow a little tedious: peasants who believe in spirits and which manifests itself as a simple mindedness. While these stories were written in 1964 before Magical Realism became the dominant style, at this point to read stories about ghosts or devils or superstitious people who believe in them seems to insult the characters.

The other story that had some real merit was El arból. El arból while using a twist device at the end shows class tensions between an upper class woman and an illiterate woman from the country. The story, of course, shows the classest and racist attitudes of the rich woman, but it dwells more on how those fears become self fulfilling. However, there is, as always in these stories, a question of whether the attitudes bring on the rich woman’s violent end or was it something super natural. Where as some of the stories rely on the simplicity only of the characters, El arból allows for a broader range of thoughts and emotions between the two characters which makes it a richer story. Unfortunately, the ending is a little bit of a one liner that seems a little easy.

While the stories seem uneven, except for the Es la culpa de las tlazcaltecas, there are sufficiently well written to warrant reading one of her few works that are translated into English.