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.

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Fabio Morábito Short Story at Literal Magazine

Literal Magazine has a short story from Fabio Morábito. For those of you don’t know who he is, he is a Mexican poet and fiction writer. He is well known for his poetry, although I haven’t read any of it, and received unending praise for his novel Emilio, los chistes y la muerte  which I reviewed some time ago. This story is interesting and in someways funny. Worth a read if you can read Spanish (I’m not sure how Google Translate would do, it still has problems with getting the gender right in pronouns.)

Está lejos de la parte más concurrida de la playa y, como de costumbre, mientras camina, mira las huellas de los bañistas en la arena. Le gustan los sitios apartados, donde las huellas son escasas y puede observarlas mejor. Mira el rastro de una madre y de su niño, que va en sentido contrario al suyo. Son pisadas de dos o tres horas atrás. Piensa que una mujer no se habría aventurado sola cargando a su niño hasta ese punto de la playa, así que también debió de acompañarlos el padre, cuyas huellas han desaparecido porque seguramente caminaba más cerca de la orilla y han sido borradas por el agua. Las del pequeño, que aparecen y desaparecen a intervalos regulares, indican que su madre lo cargaba, lo bajaba durante un rato y volvía a cargarlo. Donde sus huellas están ausentes, las de la madre se ven más delineadas por el mayor peso que sus pies soportaban en ese momento y el arco dactilar de ella se observa dilatado a causa del movimiento instintivo para proporcionar al cuerpo una mejor base de equilibrio. Él nunca se cansa de ver las alteraciones que tienen lugar en la anatomía del pie de una madre cuando ésta carga a su crío; incluso ha observado que la dilatación del arco dactilar se da espontáneamente en muchas mujeres con sólo mirar a un bebé.

Fabio Morabito Interview

Ever since I read Emilio, los chiste y la muerte I have been trying to decide what I think of him. He still seems illusive, despite the articles I’ve read about him. The following interview makes it a little easier, but I’m still not sure. I would like to give his stories a try. This link is to the interview, and this one is to Moleskine Literario which pointed me to the interview.

LOS INSATISFECHOS. Un escritor es el que, en rigor, no sabe escribir. Nadie sabe escribir, pero un escritor es el que se da cuenta y convierte eso en un problema. El escritor norteamericano E. L. Doctorow cuenta una anécdota sobre la vez que tuvo que escribir un justificativo de la ausencia de su hijo a la escuela. Lo escribió muchas veces, porque quien es verdaderamente escritor, hasta cuando escribe algo banal se enfrenta al problema del lenguaje. No resiste un mal adjetivo, un problema sintáctico, una coma mal puesta. En cambio quien solamente redacta, no pasa por ese problema. Redacta de manera clara, comunicativa. Esa es la gran diferencia, entre ser alguien que lucha contra el lenguaje y siente una gran insatisfacción, y la redacción que simplemente sirve para fines prácticos.

PROBLEMAS. Cada vez más hay obras de escasa calidad. Pero un escritor sigue enfrentándose a los mismos problemas a los que se han enfrentado todos. Cambia el estilo, cambia la forma de comunicación, por supuesto. Pero el compromiso artístico –escribir con cierta originalidad, cavar en profundidad – eso no cambia.

AQUÍ, LATINOAMÉRICA. Cuando un libro atrapa, qué nos importa si el autor es mujer, hombre, viejo, joven, exitoso, desconocido, checo. Me considero latinoamericano porque estoy aquí, y por la lengua. A mí me dio gusto el premio a Vargas Llosa porque en muchos sentidos representa un tipo de escritura que ya ha caducado, y no todo lo que él ha escrito a mí me interesa. Me parece que si esta literatura de aspecto decimonónico se puede sostener, ¿por qué no? Una parte nuestra necesita todavía un tipo de secuencia y de narración más tradicional. No es como con otros Premios Nobel que uno se pregunta: “Caramba, ¿por qué se lo dieron a Dario Fo, un excelente actor y un escritor mediocre? Pero ojo, porque la nueva literatura, a veces puede tener los visos exteriores de mucha modernidad y los contenidos pueden ser terriblemente añejos, con imaginarios muy desfechados.

ETERNO EN SU CADENCIA. Uno tiene que saber de qué está hecho. Yo no soy Vargas Llosa ni García Márquez. Yo pertenezco a una franja numerosa de escritores que también hacen literatura seria pero que no viven de la literatura. Eso es muy importante para decir: “Bueno, ¿qué espero yo de un editor?”Un trato personal: simplemente, que no sea un gran fábrica de libros, sino donde sienta que hay respaldo y afinidad. El editor es el primer lector oficial. Yo creo que los grandes editores han sido siempre capaces de mantener eso. Sentirse en casa. Las editoriales chicas tienen la ventaja de prestarle más atención a cada escritor.

Emilio, los chistes y la muerte – A Review

Emilio, los chistes y la muerte
Fabio Morabito , 173 pg

I read this because of a review—a good one—but a review that focused on the style of the writing whose clarity and precision showed a master stylist at work. Emilio is certainly sparse and there are few pharagraphs of more the five sentences. Most of the book is given over to short moments of dialogue, a dialogue of inquisitiviness that makes the book concise and interesting.

The book follows Emilio a 12 year-old boy who has moved to a new neighboorhod in Mexico City and as he doesn’t know anyone, he begins to spend time in a cemetary looking for his name on the grave stones while carrying a joke detector (a metal tuble that plays recorded jokes). He meets a woman who has lost her son and comes weekly to place flowers on his grave. Her son was about the same age as Emilio so they strike up a friendship after Emilio guards her emgerency trip to the bushes to urinate. From the story continues as a strange menalnge of youthful infatuation as Emilio falls in love with the woman, the loneliness of devorced women as Emilio’ mother and the woman began a tentative friendship initiatied by a message, and a sexual discovery. Yet in the same maner that the language is brief, the exploration of these themes is brief. It is as if the novel is the unfolding of a child’s understanding, which leaves the same questions that the child has, but unlike the child has a few ideas of what is happening. Unfortunately, that approach, too, can lead to a fractured story that doesn’t quite seem to finish.

The growth of the child is evident when he and the woman slowly draw closer and he asks to kiss her and latter touch her breasts to ‘see if they are bigger than his mother’s’, which he saw during the message. The boy’s curiosity is understandable, but what makes the woman let him touch her? Is Emilio the surrogate for her late son, and if so what was their relationship? It is never clear what drives her friendship—it is one of the many intriguing mysteries of the novel—but it is fairly clear that Emilio has begun to leave boyhood. Yet as the story ends it takes a different turn as Emilio descends into a cave under the cemetery with the androgynous altar boy he has seen at all the interments.  The altar boy who has been sexually abused in some manner by the local priest asks if Emilio wants to kiss him. The altar boy who knows what the joke detector really is and likes to smoke, is older than his years. But Emilio, too, is searching and he wants to kiss the boy to see if he is gay. They kiss, but it is inconclusive and when the altar boy falls in the river the novel closes as Emilio is running from the dark cavern to the light of the cemetery.

The novel leaves many questions unanswered, but many of those are intriguing, such as what motivates the woman. But the ending seems a little week. Sure, one could say that as he leaves the cavern he is moving into a new phase of life. And what can one say at the end of a coming of age story: he triumphed in the end? However, its concision is a puzzle that leads to a strange novel, yet one that seems to end abruptly. You can’t help but wanting to know more about Emilio’s adventures. He is such an intriguing boy.

Emilio, los chistes y la muerte, By Fabio Morábito in Letras Libres

Letras Libres reviewed Emilio, los chistes y la muerte, By Fabio Morábito recently and for those who like to read fiction as much for the style as the story it looks like an interesting book. If you read Spanish the review is worth a look.

The style of this novel is that of his stories and that is a good thing: we are before one of the stellar writers of our literature. Before anything, it is his self control. It is known that Morábito did not learn Spanish until he was 15, and it is noticeable: his relation with Spanish is adult-like, lacking the natural childishness fascination, marked with a distrust that obliges him to ponder every word. There is not, nor does it seem like there is, artificial nor capricious lyrics. If there is poetry, it is the poetry of Mondays: “Mondays/ they take apart the platforms/ and the bandstands, / they remove the nails / and the promises,/ reality returns / to its brutish state, / to poetry.” (from From Monday All the Year) There is a simplicity but not it is not simplistic, an economy but not a coldness. The sentences-he doesn’t stop to hide their elegance-are the remains of a fight we don’t see. Because there is a struggle:  Morábit’s struggle to purge the language.

El estilo de esta novela es el de sus cuentos, y eso es buena cosa: estamos ante uno de los prosistas estelares de nuestra literatura. Ante todo, su contención. Se sabe que Morábito no aprendió el idioma hasta los quince años, y se nota: su relación con el español es adulta, como desprovista de la natural fascinación infantil, como teñida de una desconfianza que lo obliga a ponderar cada palabra. No hay, no parece haber, artificio ni caprichos líricos. Si hay poesía, es la poesía de los lunes: “Los lunes/ se desmontan las tarimas/ y los estrados,/ se desclavan lo clavado/ y las promesas,/ la realidad vuelve/ a su estado bruto,/ a la poesía” (“De lunes todo el año”). Hay sencillez pero no simpleza, economía de me-
dios pero no frialdad. Las frases –no termina de ocultarlo su elegancia– son restos de una lucha que no observamos. Porque hay una lucha: la de Morábito purgando el idioma.

Emilio, los chistes y la muerte, By Fabio Morábito in Letras Libres