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.

Fernando Iwasaki’s Newest Collection of Short Stories – Papel Carbón – With Excerpt

The Peruvian author Fernando Iwasaki has release a new book of short stories which collects his early works in one volume. The stories were written between 1987 and 1993 and published in two volumes. The ever interesting Paginas de Espuma has just reissued them. An excerpt from the publisher is available here. The story, in many ways, shows themes that he has mined since, especially in España, a parte de mi estés premios. It is about a Peruvian of Japanese descent who is given a Samurai sword that belonged to his grandfather, the last of the great Samurais. He uses the fabulistic and pop cultural images  of Japan to tell an emigrant’s story. For what I’ve read of Iwasaki, he tends towards the comical and plays with perceptions in his writing, avoiding the more realistic, something that can be refreshing.

You can also listen to an interview with him on El ojo critico and read about his method of writing short stories. He generally writes thematic collections, but the ones in these volumes are more disparate. (Via Moleskine Literario)

El escritor Fernando Iwasaki saca a la luz sus primeros relatos en el libro Papel carbón, en el que incluye los volumenes Tres noches de corbata y A Troya, Elena, en los que se incluyen los cuentos que el autor escribió entre 1987 y 1993. Este libro responde a “una época en la que acumulaba los cuentos que escribía y después decidia si tenía el número suficiente para reunirlos en un volumen”, ha explicado este lunes, en declaraciones a Europa Press.

Por tanto, a diferencia de lo que hace ahora, no tenía un “plan” establecido. “Era un método un tanto maternal: estaba de siete cuentos e iba a tener un libro”, indica. Según explica el autor, se trata de relatos que escribió entre los 22 y 32 años. “A esa edad no te ha pasado nada especialmente importante, las cosas relevantes ocurren en la adolescencia y después de los 40”, subraya.

Fernando Iwasaki’s Ajuar funerario (Funeral Dress) Profiled in El Pais

El Pais has a profile of Fernando Iwasaki’s Ajuar funerario, a collection of short stories that has sold the relatively phenomenal 60,000 copies over multiple printings. The stories are in the horror genre, but with Iwasaki there is always humor, and so I doubt the stories are particularly gruesome. If his España, a parte de mi estes premios is any indication the book aught to be rather funny.

Ahí va un ejercicio para los lectores. Imaginen a un escritor latinoamericano, peruano de nacimiento, japonés de origen, sevillano de facto (casado desde hace veinticinco años con una sevillana), director de una fundación de arte flamenco, que escribe un libro de microrrelatos de terror con retrogusto de humor y que se vende como churros en las dos orillas de Atlántico. Es Fernando Iwasaki y su Ajuar Funerario, de la editorial Páginas de espuma, un longseller que lleva más de 60.000 ejemplares vendidos desde 2004 sin perder el ritmo, y acaba de lanzar su séptima edición. ¿El secreto del éxito de sus microrrelatos? Contienen historias… de miedo.

“Empecé con este género de minificción hace años, cuando me encargaron lecturas y conferencias para la universidad. Verdaderamente me sentía incapaz de leer textos míos de ocho o diez páginas, el público no merecía que le aburriese, así que decidí escribir estas pequeñas historias. Pero para que sean microrrelatos tiene que haber historia, y si no lo hay entonces podrá ser un poema en prosa, una anécdota, un aforismo estirado como un chicle… Pero no un microrrelato”. Iwasaki afirma que vivimos en un mundo invadido de ficción aunque no nos demos cuenta. “Ficción son los currículum vitae, son las esquelas de los periódicos, son los anuncios por palabras… Esa persona que publica: ‘Licenciado, 42 años, culto, encantador, desearía conocer señorita…’ ¡Eso es ficción!, ¿Cómo es posible que nadie haya llegado a esa situación de abandono a los 42 con todas esas cualidades?” Bromea el escritor.

Libro de mal amor by Fernando Iwasaki – Reviewed at La Jornada

La Jornada has a review of the Mexican republication of the Libro de mal amor by Fernando Iwasaki. The book was originally published in Spain, where Iwasaki lives, in 2001. Iwasaki can be quite funny and I have read one of his more recent books, España, aparte de mi, estes premios. This book sounds funny and interesting.

Fernando Iwasaki (Lima, 1961) es un autor que no goza de la fama que merece. Tal vez porque siempre ha escrito lo que le ha venido en gana sin afán de satisfacer a los lectores. Él mismo nos dice que “no cree en la escritura como texto de representación, sino como texto de presentación”.


Primero: cada una de las diez veces Fernando se enamoró de la mujer más bella del mundo. ¿Hay forma de que no sea así? Enamoradizo a más no poder, el personaje y narrador siempre supo entregarse por completo. Para ello requería ser seducido por una mujer que valiera la pena. Cada una de ellas lo valía por completo. ¿Se puede amar de otra forma? Parece ser que no.


La lista continúa. Pero la suma de las virtudes de este libro sólo sirve para evidenciar algo: reírse de uno mismo sirve para hacer literatura, para desmitificar el amor y para, en una de ésas, lograr presentarlo como sólo las palabras lo pueden hacer.

Fernando Iwasaki on the 1000 and 1 Nights and Spanish Language Literature

Fernando Iwasak has an article on the 1000 and 1 Nights and Spanish Language Literature in El Pais. It is worth a quick look.

Sin embargo, es en nuestro idioma -el castellano- donde he hallado los testimonios más rotundos de la devoción por Las mil y una noches. Pienso en Cuando el viejo Simbad vuelva a las islas (1962), de Álvaro Cunqueiro, una novela de estirpemilyunanochesca, mas no por la presencia de Simbad sino porque está construida con relatos de relatos. Hasta los artículos periodísticos de Cunqueiro remiten a Las mil y una noches, como podría comprobarlo cualquiera que lea La bella del dragón (1991) yFábulas y leyendas de la mar (1982). ¿De dónde viene la amena y fastuosa erudición de Cunqueiro en placeres y fornicios? Marchando una ración de metaliteratura: “En muchos países de Oriente Próximo el primer coito matrimonial es matinal. En España, por ejemplo, es la noche de bodas, porque los novios se han pasado al día en la ceremonia nupcial, en el almuerzo o en la comida, y se van a la cama tarde, a lo mejor tras cien kilómetros o más de viaje”. O sea, una birria de polvo.

Todavía en la literatura española contemporánea abundan los adoradores de Las mil y una noches, como Antonio Muñoz Molina en La realidad de la ficción (1992) o Ernesto Pérez Zúñiga en El juego del mono (2011), aunque son los escritores latinoamericanos quienes más han contribuido a la entronización de la lectura en lengua española del clásico árabe, destacando por encima de todos el argentino Jorge Luis Borges.

Mario Vargas Llosa and the Nobel – the View From Spain

As you might expect, Spanish speakers are quite excited about the award. For the Spanish, Llosa gave a special shout out, noting they have done more for him than any other country in promoting his works than any other country. And naturally, the Real Academia (the group that confers definitions on what is Spanish and not) is quite happy, since he is their fifth member to win the award.

A few comments by Vargas Llosa.

An overview. Even if you don’t read Spanish, there is a slide show of 27 photos through the ages.

A profile of his agent Carmen Balcells, who has represented some of the greatest Spanish language writers: Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, etc.

Thoughts from the director the Real Academia.

An editorial about why he deserves the prize.

And a special edition with a huge number of tributes from the likes of Antonio Muñoz Molina, Javier Cercas, Santiago Roncagliolo, and Fernando Iwasaki.

Short Stories From Andres Neuman, Fernando Iwasaki, Hipólito Navarro, Clara Obligado, Patricia Esteban Erlés

For your end of summer reading pleasure: short stories from Andres Neuman, Fernando Iwasaki, Hipólito Navarro, Clara Obligado, and Patricia Esteban Erlés. These are all in Spanish and unfortunately I doubt Google translate will help. All of these links are via the publisher Paginas de Espuma.

Fernando Iwasaki in  El País titled Emmanuelle Allen:

Hipólito G. Navarro (El pez volador) in Público:.

In Público by Clara Obligado:

In El País by Andres Neuman:

In Público by Patricia Esteban Erlés:

The Spanish Short Story – A Quick Overview at El Pais

El Pais has a story about the dynamism in the Spanish short story of the last 30 years and naturally it is brief. It mentions some of the authors, blogs and presses I have mentioned in these pages over the last few months. I don’t have time to translate anything from it, but you can always use Google translate or read my thoughts on Hipólito Navarro or Fernando Iwasaki.

Para Valls, su nueva antología certifica un hecho insólito hasta ahora: “La continuidad desde los años setenta de un género que en el panorama español ha sido guadianesco”. Ello pese a la calidad de figuras como Ignacio Aldecoa, Juan Eduardo Zúñiga o Medardo Fraile. Para Eloy Tizón, por su parte, la gran muestra de la vitalidad del género es, en lo literario, el hecho de que estos dos últimos sigan activos a la vez que los 35 nuevos autores antologados por Valls: de Carlos Castán, de 47 años, a Matías Candeira, de 26, pasando por Hipólito G. Navarro, Pilar Adón, Ricardo Menéndez Salmón o Elvira Navarro.

“Están a la altura de los autores latinoamericanos de cuentos de su generación. Eso es algo que podemos decir pocas veces”, afirma Fernando Valls de unos autores cuya “melodía de época”, dentro de una gran variedad de temas, sería su pertenencia a “la tradición del realismo” y una “asimilación no mimética de las vanguardias”. Más que boom del cuento, apunta Casamayor, lo que hay es “un crecimiento sostenido”. Un crecimiento al que han contribuido tanto las ediciones de cuentos completos de grandes clásicos por parte de Alfaguara, Lumen, Anagrama o Alba como los minilibros con uno o dos textos lanzados por Alfabia, Gadir o Alpha Decay.

Celebrating the Small Press: Spain’s Páginas de Espuma

Recently I read two books from the publisher Páginas de Espuma, a Spanish press devoted to the art of the short story. Both España, a parte de mi estos premios (Fernandow Iwasaki), and El pez volador (Hipólito G. Navarro) are very good and are part of the resurgence of the Spahish short story. Páginas de Espuma has published many of the writers that are part of the resurgence and fills an important role in celebrating an art that is often held in less esteem than the novel. But the catalog doesn’t stop at modern Spanish writers, but includes thematic collections and republications of older writers. Recently they published an edition of Poe’s stories with an introduction for each story written by a different author. With El pez volador they have introduced a new series, Vivir del Cuento (Living with stories) that I hope they continue with. The books is divided into three parts: a long overview of the work of the author; a representative sample of the author’s stories; a long interview with the author. It is a great way to get an introduction to an author’s work, especially if you are not familiar with his or her milieu. Hopefully, next time I get to Spain I can pick up a few more books of theirs.

Too Many Prizes: España, aparte de mi estos premios by Fernando Iwasaki – A Review

España, aparte de mi estos premios (Spain, Besides Me These Prizes) by Fernando Iwasaki is a very Spanish novel, one whose humor and satire is directed at the literary prizes that fill Spain’s literary scene and Spanish customs as if they were carried out by the Japanese.  The affect is often humorous for one who knows Spanish culture and he manages to create a parody that is often insightful, although a little  repetitive.

The book is structured around 7 literary contests. Each chapter, which is a self contained story, is prefaced by the rules of the contest, followed by the story, and then the results of the judging panel. It is helpful to know before going any farther that Spain has more literary prizes per capita than any other country, so many that it seems as if everyone has one a prize, even if they are from the most obscure organizations. The contests are meant to celebrate whatever body is sponsoring the award, some are nationalist such as the prize for the best story that celebrates Basque food, others are completely ridiculous, such as the Seville soccer team that sponsors a prize for a story that must include something about the team.

The stories all feature at least one Japanese person who has some sort of link with Spain. In the first story, a Japanese soldier in the Republican army during the Spanish Civil War hides in a cave in Murcia for 70 years until he makes a sudden appearance on a Survivor like reality show that takes place in a cave, killing several of the contestants with his samurai sword. At first he is treated as a criminal, but when he is found to be a veteran the parties of the left celebrate him as a heroic veteran and he becomes a national phenomenon. Books about him become best sellers and the media follow him 24 hours a day, showing him when he falls into a coma, on TV on a live feed. He is given awards by the local government for his service. When he wakes from the coma and learns about the last 60 years of history he commits suicide. On finding that he has written hundreds of haikus in the cave, the local government is quite happy because they can now build an amusement park of Japaneses tourists.

The story then ends with the judging. As with all the stories, the story wins, but the judges note that the story has not really celebrated the group’s interests and has only set the story in Spain. For next years contest, they would like the ability to not have a winner, something that is specifically outlawed in the rules of the contest.  In latter stories, the judges will complain that the story had almost nothing to do with the sponsoring organization. In the story about the soccer team in Seville, the story actually celebrates the team rival.

Iwasaki uses these frame stories to make fun of contemporary society and its obsessions. Whether skewering reality TV shows, molecular gastronomy, soccer fanatics, governments only interested in looking good, or the vanity of literary prizes Iwasaki is able to paint a telling portrait of modern Spain. Mixing in the Japanese characters allows him to both show the history of the Japanese in Spain, and to offer the outsider’s view of Spain. While the Japanese act in the same extremes of national character that his Spaniards do, the ludicrous things that become nationally celebrated, such as frying sushi leftovers in oil and serving that only, raise the question, why is this Spanish thing we do so celebrated? If someone use shrimp shells, as one character does, to create flan, is that breaking some sacred culinary tradition and is the opposite, fried sushi leftovers, actually more pure because of its simplicity?

Iwasaki, like a good parodist, doesn’t give any answers, but it is obvious he thinks that the culture of literary prizes has gone to far. At the end of the book, he gives several commandments for creating stories:

The stories that you send to the contest will never be important to the history of literature. In reality, not even for literature.

Los cuentos que envíes a los concursos nunca serán importantes para la historia de la literatura. En realidad, ni siuiera para la literatura.

Write a story that can be like a literary mother cell that you can clone for every contest. Don’t worry. Clones always are better than the original.

Escribe un cuento que sea como una <<célula madre>> literaria que puedas clonar para cada concurso. No te preocupes. Los clones siempre salen mejores que le orininal.

If you characters are going to be divorced, make the divorce happen before the story starts. People don’t like it when you only write about problems. In addition, four out of five literary judges are divorce or soon will be.

Si tus personajes van a estar divorciados, procura que el divorcio se haya producido antes de que comience el cuento. La gente ya lo está pasando muy mal para que encima tú sólo escribas sobre problemas. Además, cuatro de cada cinco miembros de jurados literarios están divorciados o les falta poco.

My only complaint in an other wise fun book is the repetitiveness of some of the stories. Every story includes a passage about the Japanese soldier that was found on a Pacific island in he 1970s who didn’t know the war ended. While that statement fits within his overall parody and his notion of the mother cell, it practice it is a little tiresome. If he could have found a different way to approach the idea it would have been better.

Over all, España, aparte de mi estos premios is a fun read by one of Spain’s newer generation of writers. I’m sure the book will never make it into translation because it is not universal enough, it would good to see one of the chapters in a collection some day.

Spain – the Land of a 3500 Literary Prizes

El Pais has an article that notes that Spain has 3500 literary prizes, 10 for every day of the year. I have always thought there were a lot of prizes floating around Spain. Every time I watch El Publico Lee it seems the invited author has won some prize, often from one of the provinces. It would be as if each state had its own literary prize (and some do). Of course, there are the publishers who have their own prizes. There are some uses, but I’m not sure it signifies much about quality.

“The quantity of prizes in Spain is something that surprises foreigners, especially those from Peru where there are only three,” says Fernando Iwasaki. In his opinion, the awards serve three purposes: sustain a vocation, to establish a career, or to directly retire someone before their time.” 

“La cantidad de  “>premios que hay en España es algo que sorprende a cualquier extranjero, sobre todo si viene del Perú, donde sólo hay tres”, dice el escritor limeño. En su opinión, los galardones sirven para tres cosas: sostener una vocación, consagrar una trayectoria o “directamente, prejubilarte”.

Javier Sáez de Ibarra Wins the First Internacional Prize for Short Stories

El País reports that Javier Sáez de Ibarra has won the first Premio Internacional de Narrativa Breve Ribera del Duero (International Prize for Short Stories Ribera del Duero). I don’t know what weight to put in awards, even ones that come with €50,000. However, the article and accompanying interview has some interesting items that makes me want to find an example or two of his writing.

The short story is a genre that is not well esteemed by editors, little ready by readers, and not well understood by critics: there still are those who criticize a story that doesn’t have a surprise. Inovations are not well received.

“El cuento es un género poco estimado por los editores, poco frecuentado por los lectores y mal comprendido por los críticos: todavía hay quien le reprocha a un relato que no tenga efecto sorpresa. Las innovaciones no son bien recibidas”.

He also said that the Internet is helping to save the shor story.

In a certain sense the short story has taken refuge in the Internet. There are many blogs that publish stories and those that criticize stories. An example? El síndrome de Chéjov, Vivir del cuento, Café y Garamond, La luz ténue or the critic Fernando Valls’s.

“En cierto sentido, el cuento se ha refugiado en Internet. Hay muchos blogs que publican cuentos y en los que se hace crítica de cuentos. ¿Algún ejemplo? El síndrome de Chéjov, Vivir del cuento, Café y Garamond, La luz ténue o el del crítico Fernando Valls”

I’m not sure if I believe that in the US we pay more attention to short story writers. He did list a few other autors of note: Hipólito G. Navarro who was on El publico lee and sounded interesing; from Peru Fernando Iwasaki; from Guatemala Eduardo Halfon; from Mexico Pedro Ángel Palou; and from Spain Luciano G. Egido y Juan Carlos Márquez.