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.
Guadalupe Nettel has won the Ribera del Duero prize for short stories. The judging panel was Enrique Vila-Matas, Cristina Grande, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, Samanta Schweblin, and Marcos Giralt Torrente. I’m not familiar with her work but if a panel of authors I respect have selected her, I think her work might be worth looking at. The Press release says the book is 5 long short stories that uses a structural device to tie the stories together: the presence of a domestic animal which partly represent the complex links that exist between humans and animals. This is from the press release at Paginas de Espuma:
Cinco relatos extensos forman Historias naturales, un libro con una excusa estructural: en todos ellos coincide la presencia de un animal doméstico (desde peces a insectos, pasando por gatos o serpientes), que intenta por una parte representar los complejos vínculos que existen entre animales y seres humanos, pero que, sobre todo, sirven como metáfora o comparación de determinadas actitudes de los personajes
El Pais has a little more about the book. I think the invasion of cockroaches that starts a class war sounds funny:
Un matrimonio convive en un pequeño piso de París mientras espera el nacimiento de su hijo. Ella pasa las horas mirando a sus dos peces. Es tan exhaustivo el ejercicio que termina por encontrar una serie de paralelismos entre sus mascotas y su vida de pareja. Una familia burguesa y mexicana sufre una invasión de cucarachas. La epidemia termina por convertirse en una lucha de clases en una gran casa-laboratorio social. Estos dos relatos forman parte de Historias naturales, la obra –de título provisional- con la que la escritora mexicana Guadalupe Nettel (Ciudad de México, 1973) ha ganado el III Premio Internacional de Narrativa Breve Ribera del Duero que organiza la editorial Páginas de Espuma, especializada en el género del cuento en español, y que entrega al ganador 50.000 euros. La obra se publicará a comienzos de mayo y se presentará oficialmente en la Feria del Libro de Madrid.
“Aún sigo atónita”, dice la escritora. “Supongo que me presenté por el prestigio que ha adquirido el premio en pocos años y por el dinero, claro”, ríe. Nettel no tenía muchas pistas del jurado y tampoco confiaba mucho en poder ganarlo, menos cuando se enteró de que en esta convocatoria se habían presentado 863 trabajos, provenientes de 26 países diferentes. Luego descubrió que entre los encargados de juzgar sus cinco relatos largos estaría Enrique Vila-Matas, acicate suficiente para correr el riesgo. “Los cinco relatos destacan por la alta calidad de su prosa, impecable tensión narrativa y unas atmósferas en las que lo anómalo se aposenta en lo cotidiano”, ha dicho el escritor, a la postre, presidente del jurado.
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.
El Pais post a chapter from the newest Enrique Vila-Matas book a few weeks ago. I’ve been a little late on getting it up, but you can read it here. The book came out last week (3/14). Here is a brief overview:
Uno de los mayores fracasos puede ser fracasar en el empeño de fracasar. Otro podría ser el vivir pareciéndose a alguien, imitándolo y propiciando la impostura. Con esta idea comienza Enrique Vila-Matas su nueva novela Aire de Dylan (Seix Barral). Una obra que se publicará el 14 de marzo pero cuyo primer capítulo avanza hoy EL PAÍS en exclusiva.En ella, el joven Vilnius, que explota su parecido con el cantautor estadounidense, asiste a un congreso literario sobre el fracaso, mientras cree que su difunto padre le empieza a traspasar sus recuerdos.
El anonimato, la máscara, la impostura, la búsqueda y sus alrededores están presentes en Aire de Dylan. El joven Vilnius protagoniza estas páginas en las que el escritor barcelonés despliega sus mejores armas y elenco literarios con humor, ironía o sarcasmo pero siempre desde el conocimiento del mundo de la creación literaria. A partir de ahí, la novela se va transformando en un homenaje al mundo del teatro y una crítica al posmodernismo.
Scott Esposito of the Quarterly Conversation has an interview with Enrique Vila-Matas. Although this came out a little while ago, it is definitely interesting and worth a read. I have yet to read his works, although I have many around the house, but I’m looking forward more and more to doing it.
Decorated with numerous awards in his native Spain—including the same Premio Rómulo Gallegos that catapulted his friend Roberto Bolaño to international renown—Enrique Vila-Matas has pioneered one of contemporary literature’s most interesting responses to the great Modernist writers. Taking the Modernists as towering giants that will never be equaled, Vila-Matas works to inscribe himself—at times literally—in the margins of their works. His tools are irony, parody, paradox, and futility, and his goal is to mix fact, fiction, and autobiography in order to depict not reality but truth. I asked him about his newly translated novel Never Any End to Paris—his third in English—based on the time he spent in Paris as a young writer attempting (and gloriously failing) to triumph as Hemingway did.
Never Any End to Paris uses your youth in Paris to explore ideas of creativity, influence, and identity. The narrator is a writer whose facts and dates are similar to yours, though—I think—he both is and isn’t you. Do you think art requires certain compromises with reality?
Which reality? If you mean the conventional “consumerist reality” that rules the book market and has become the preferred milieu for fiction, this doesn’t interest me at all. What really interests me much more than reality is truth. I believe that fiction is the only thing that brings me closer to the truth that reality obscures. There remains to be written a great book, a book that would be the missing chapter in the development of the epic. This chapter would include all of those—from Cervantes through Kafka and Musil—who struggle with a colossal strength against all forms of fakery and pretense. Their struggle has always had an obvious touch of paradox, since those who so struggled were writers that were up to their ears in fiction. They searched for truth through fiction. And out of this stylistic tension have emerged marvelous semblances of the truth, as well as the best pages of modern literature.
El Pais hasan article on the two books of stories that Enrique Vila-Matas is going to publish this year. These are reprints of earlier works with prologues. Chet Baker is also a form of “critical fiction” that tries to explore literary criticism through fiction.
Se publican dos libros de Enrique Vila-Matas, dos antologías de novelas breves y relatos. Se titula el primero En un lugar solitario.Narrativa 1973- 1984 y el segundo Chet Baker piensa en su arte. Relatos selectos. La importancia de estos libros es doble. Por una parte nos permite volver a sus primeras novelas, una década de preparación en toda regla de su futura narrativa de madurez. También se nos da la oportunidad de releer sus relatos (he vuelto a leer ‘El hijo del columpio’, mezcla genial de folletín y Kafka, y no pude parar de reírme). Pero, además, cada uno de estos libros lleva un texto inédito. Para las novelas breves, el autor escribe uno a manera de prólogo. Es un texto autobiográfico donde se nos consignan aspectos relevantes de la biografía de Vila-Matas, diríamos del joven Vila-Matas, además de algunas consideraciones de naturaleza estrictamente literarias que ayudan a comprender la génesis de su producción narrativa. En el segundo libro hay un relato, ‘Chet Baker piensa en su arte’, escrito en primera persona y en el cual la voz narradora airea sus dudas metodológicas: es la voz de un crítico que busca en la espesa selva de las teorías literarias su propia idea de la literatura.
The 2010 Moby Awards to celebrate the best and worst of book trailers are just around the corner. I watched several of them and had the same thought I had when I watched the Spanish trailer for Enrique Villa-Matas’ latest book: why? I understand publishers are looking for new ways to engage the audience, but these stilted, often unimaginative readings of the author’s works don’t really sell the work. They don’t compel me to read the books, but, instead, suck the life from them. The publishers seem to mistake the book, its plot, its characters, its style, its feel for something that can be reduced to drama or an impressionistic musing on the author’s wittiness. Seldom do they actually give me a sense of the book. Unlike a film trailer where you watch snippets of the actual film and have some sense of what the film will look like, a book trailer at best gives you a plot summary. Perhaps for one of the countless zombie books it doesn’t really matter, but if you come an author who shows a clip from a Hindi film that the author consciously acknowledges has nothing to do with the book, what does that say about the book? I have an idea of what it says about the author and perhaps that might be sufficient to do more research, but I’m doubtfull. Moreover, the book trailers, unlike film trailers, don’t actually come with other books. They are separate from the reading experience. You have to seek them out. Perhaps when the Kindle, the iPad and the other readers have the ability to show videos publishers can package the videos with their books. For the time being, it is a bit of a stretch.
Perhaps I’m the wrong person for these things. I have seen so many film trailers that looked horrible and didn’t sell me on the film, even if I had heard about the film and was eagerly looking forward to it. The trailer is an art and if these book trailers last they will change. Hopefully, they can look more like this first example than the second.