El menor espectáculo del mundo (The Smallest Show on Earth) by Félix J. Palma – A Review

El menor espectáculo del mundo (The Smallest Show on Earth)
Félix J. Palma
Páginas de Espuma, 2010, pg 203

Félix J. PalmaThe Spanish novelist and short story writer Félix J. Palma is probably best known as a thriller/sci-fi/fantastical/historical fiction writer who’s The Map of Time spent some time on the NY Times best seller list. I’m not sure if how well any of those categories work in describing him, but his 2010 collection of short stories El menor espectáculo del mundo (The Smallest Show on Earth) is in a different vain, focusing on the little details of life, the smallest show on earth. However, that smallest show tag is a little misleading because several of the stories are adventures that are just confined to a small space. Still, Palma is attentive to the disappointments and unsaid despair that surround his characters and command of language, expressed in elegant sentences and solid images mark him as a skilled writer.

His skills as a writer are apparent from the opening story, El país de lasMuñecas (The Country of Dolls):

A aquellas horas de la noche, el parque infantil parecía un cementerio donde yacía enterrada la infancia.

At that time of the night, the playground looked like a cemetery where childhood had been buried.

It is an arresting image that begins a story of a girl who looses her doll and her father, like Kafka, writes the daughter a letter each day as if he were the doll. His reinvention of the doll story parallels the story of his failing marriage and the fable for the girl becomes not only the dream that will never be realized for the child, but it is an illusion the father would like to have also. But the doll story is just a story and the narrator can only wish for what he cannot have. It is a typical strategy for Palma to show the illusion of these little shows and then leave the characters aware that those illusions are not real. While The Country of Dolls blends his power of language and his appreciation for literary culture, it also ends disappointingly as the narrator, in crime fiction fashion, destroys the destroyer of his illusions and kills his wife.

Palma also has a good sense of humor which he shows quite well in Margabarismos. The narrator is a looser who has taken to spending his time in  La Verónica a dive bar near his home that his wife will never search for him in. One day, he sees a note on the bathroom wall that says he will be hit by a car. He doesn’t believe it, but as he leaves the bar a car hits him. He wakes to see his wife waiting for him and he realizes they have grown apart and he would like her back. Once he gets out of the hospital he returns to the bar’s bathroom to look for the message. It has changed, though, and the writer is his late uncle who has the power to see the future six months of the narrator. They hatch a plan to win his wife back and each step displays a humor based on the clumsy desperation of a man who wants his wife back and has to depend on an unreliable ghost. Without the humor–the idea of finding messages in the bathroom–the story would be flat. Again, Palma takes the desperation of the lonely man and turns a comic ghost story into a moment to explore relationships.

He develops that same theme in Una palabra tuya a story that starts with the narrator’s wife’s last words before leaving the house: can you fix the lamp. When he goes into the closet he gets trapped and through a series of events his daughter ends up being the captive of the desperate upstairs neighbor. Ultimately, he performs his role as a father and saves the child. When his wife returns she says, couldn’t you have fixed the lamp? Of course the joke is he has scaled a wall, saved his daughter, and evaded a crazy woman, just like a superhero. And like the smallest show on earth, the narrator has gone unnoticed.

The best story of the Bibelot  takes that hidden heroism of the every day and gives it a less adventurous spin. An encyclopedia sales man finds himself mistaken for the son of an old woman. He doesn’t want to play the role but when she said he hasn’t been by for her last few birthdays he relents. He knows he’s making her happy until her daughter calls. She tells him to leave immediately because her son is dead. He agrees and apologizes and on his way out he meets a neighbor who tells him the daughter also died. Here, again, he has a character doing a simple act, one that is inconsequential to everyone but the old woman. In this story it is not just one person participating in these little shows. It is the most successful story because it avoids the episodic feel that some of the earlier mentioned stories. It also has an excellent ending that is neither a twist or a joke. It is his most humane story.

All of Palma’s stories have excellent writing and show a good story teller in action. His ability to show the human failures that go unnoticed, although occasionally hit with a misplaced levity, is strong. With these strong stories it would be great to see more of his non “genre” writing.

Félix J. Palma a Profile from El Cultural

El Cultural has a profile of Félix J. Palma, an author who among other things has had a New York Times best seller. I haven’t read him yet (I have a collection of his short stories La menor espectacular del mundo), but the appearance on the best seller list makes me a little nervous. Given the success of Carlos Ruis Zafón, it doesn’t bode well for the quality of his work, or to put it another way, the best seller list doesn’t tend to reward literary fiction these days. Despite his appearance on the list I haven’t heard much about him in the American press.

Esta voz narrativa que proporciona al lector recién llegado las pistas necesarias para que no se pierda, es la misma que le escamotea información, que salta en el tiempo y el espacio según se le antoje -y se regodea por ello-. “Es un homenaje al narrador victoriano. Es como un prestidigitador, un ilusionista”. En definitiva, una herramienta eficaz para hilvanar una trama compleja poblada de paradojas temporales y universos paralelos que se desarrolla a lo largo de 744 páginas. Pero el componente fantástico es casi una excusa para abordar el tema más universal de todos: una historia de amor. “Los viajes en el tiempo o la visita de seres del espacio quedan en un segundo plano”.

El estigma de las etiquetas

Palma abraza la etiqueta “bestseller” de buen grado pero con ciertos reparos: “Mi literatura es eminentemente lúdica, apuesto por la trama y la peripecia, pero a diferencia de muchos autores de bestsellers, intento que la prosa tenga valor en sí misma, que no sea una mera herramienta de transmisión del relato”. El espejo en el que se mira son, además de Wells o Verne, contemporáneos de éstos como Dumas, Salgari o Stevenson. “Todos ellos practicaron una literatura popular culta. Se dirigían a un nuevo tipo de lector burgués que demandaba aventuras, pero no le tomaban por tonto. En definitiva, hay dos tipos de escritores: los que hacen pensar y los que hacen soñar. Yo me considero dentro del segundo grupo”.

Results of Book Shopping in Barcelona: Sada, Moya, Palma, Abirached, Munoz, Ndongo, Letelier

I had the luck to have a couple of days to do some book shopping in Barcelona and came back with 7 books. It was hard to limit myself because I recognized so many authors that I’d seen on El Publico Lee. And when I found the display of books from Paginas de Espuma on my last day I was tempted to buy a couple more books. In the end I settled on the following, a mix of Latin American, Spanish, African and Lebanese books. I normally don’t buy books translated into Sanish but Zeina Abrached’s books are unavailable in English so I could justify it.

  • Felix J Palma -El menor espectaculo del mundo
  • Miguel Angel Munoz – Quedate donde estas
  • Zeina Abrached – El juego de las golondrinas
  • Zeina Abrached – Me acuerdo Beruit
  • Daniel Sada – Ese modo que colma
  • Horacio Castellanos Moya – Con la congoja de la pasada tormenta
  • Hernan River Letelier – El arte de la resurrecction
  • Donato Ndongo – Las Tinieblas de tu memoria negra

Félix J Palma’s English Debut and New Short Story Collection

Last month Spanish novelist and short story writer Félix J Palma published a new book of short stories, The Smallest Show in the World (El menor espectáculo del mundo). In it he mixes the fantastic with the comic to explore “human relations, most of all those of love, are microcosms inhabited only by those who are living it” (relaciones humanas, sobre todo las amorosas, son microcosmos habitados únicamente por los protagonistas de la historia.  Revista de Letras Spanish only.) He treats the subject with humor and his use of the fantastic sounds interesting. In one story, a character doubles every time he has to make a decision (via Spanish only) . Instead of the Garden of Forking Paths, the character becomes the path, turning the Borges classic on its head. As Palma notes in an interview at Canal-l (Spanish only) many Spanish short story authors follow one of two paths, either those of Borges, Cortizar, and other Latin American authors who tended towards the fantastic, or those of Americans like Raymond Carver. He, by his own accounting, is in the first camp. While I’m not sure if he is one of Spain’s best short story writers as the Revista de Letras article says, I am sufficiently intrigued to get a copy of his book.

For those of you who can only read English, his successful novel The Map of Time will be coming out in English sometime this year. I don’t know much about it and from the description Publisher’s Weekly gave I’m not sure if I should be afraid or hope for something interesting. Given that it got a six figure deal, I’m a little leery.

From Publisher’s Weekly

Johanna Castillo at Atria won an auction for Felix J. Palma’sThe Map of Time via Thomas Colchie, who sold North American rights for six figures (in collaboration with Palma’s principal agent, Antonia Kerrigan, on behalf of Algaida in Spain). Set in Victorian London with characters real and imagined, Palma’s English-language debut features three intertwined plots, in which H.G. Wells is called upon to investigate incidents of time travel and save the lives of an aristocrat in love with a murdered prostitute from the past, a woman attempting to flee the strictures of society by searching for her lover somewhere in the future and Wells’s own wife, who may have become a pawn in a plot to murder him as well as Henry James and Bram Stoker. The book was just published in Spain.