El corazón de los caballos (The Heart of the Horses) by Miguel Ángel Muñoz – A Review

El corazón de los caballos (The Heart of the Horses)
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Alcalá, 2009, 145 pg

El corazón de los caballos is the Spanish short story writer Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s first novel. A refreshingly short novel, it is a continuation of a story that first appeared in his collection Quédate donde estás (Stay Where You Are), called El reino químico and which was my favorite of the collection when I reviewed it a year or two ago. As in the short story, the novel opens with unspoken tension between  the narrator’s father and grandfather. It is a tension that has populates the world of the grandson, Victor, who doesn’t understand why his father does not like his grandfather. It is a relation that in the novel is distant and still remains unexplained, but it sets the tone of the novel. What seemed like the eccentric behaviors of a loving grandfather in the El reino químico, are actually the foundations of Victor’s problems.

Victor’s life hasn’t quite worked out as he wanted. He was a promising mathematics student but when he fails to get a scholarship after years of graduate study, he loses his patience and attacks the professor. He loses everything and on his journey to his final court date he goes to a Pyrenean town with his boyfriend Andrés, who is going to receive a literary award. It is a journey that begins to trigger a series of memories that he has if not suppressed, avoided. The first is of Eva, his former student, an anorexic and troubled girl who intrigued him. It isn’t so much as sexual, although there is some sort of tension, but one of shock, fear, confusion or even disappointment. When he does discover that she binges at night he is angry and like the mystery of his father and grandfather, she disappears and he hears nothing of her again. The second, darker memory is of a drug addict who likes to climb from balcony to balcony. Scared, a knife in his trembling hand, he watches as the man loses his balance on his porch and falls to his death without doing anything. He’s accused of pushing him, but he’s released because the man was a druggie known for that dangerous game.

With those incidents in the background, Victor and Andrés enter the Pyrenees. The awards ceremony is really just a chance for the town to feel important, but they meet two people of interest: the previous winner, Ines, a mysterious woman who has not let her photo appear on the cover of her books since her first book; and an old man and his granddaughter.  Each has a story that Andrés, a man who lives to gather stories and rewrite them as he sees fit, as if he is reconstructing the reality of those he has stolen from. And it is a form of theft, because he is unrepentant in his using of other people’s lives. The old man talks about a Portuguese man he met during the Spanish Civil War and who had been wrongly accused by the old man’s comrades of being a traitor. The story captivates both Andrés and Victor, and the old man promises they can see a photo of him the next day. From then on Victor’s life begins to get worse and over the next few hours he descends into darkness and violence as Andrés  dumps him, and Victor begins a search for the photo the old man promised. Ultimately, ending in a desperate moment of hate.

What makes the novel interesting is the interplay between the stories that the characters tell, and the way Andrés uses them to recreate Victor’s existence. A week man, Victor is at the mercy of Andrés ability to rewrite his own story, and when that story has ceased to be interesting, he leaves him; thus, rewriting his life again. It is that interweaving of Andrés power to draw a story from a character that creates Victor’s experience. It is as if, Andrés were actually the author of the book. It is a nice play on the journey narrative, and takes the reader deeper into the layers of story than just the Heart of Darkness references (in Spanish it is translated as El corazon de las tinieblas).  Muñoz is an author who is very interested in the interplay of story, reality, and how they construct each other and that playfulness is what makes him an interesting story teller and El corazón de los caballos a book worth reading.

You can read the first chapter here (pdf).

The Death of Fiction? Or Just a Change in the Landscape

Ted Genoways’ Mother Jones article on the death of fiction isn’t particularly new in its publication (from January), nor its subject manner, but it is does have some valid points and is worth looking at. Yet before I mention the good points, let me get to the tired element: too many schools graduate too many writers, be they poets or prose writers. I think this is true (it happens in other fields, so it can certainly happen in creative writing) and after a certain level of schooling I’m not sure how you can be taught to write fiction. While one of the problems he identifies is an over supply of writers who have turned inward, writing things that only other writers want to read (poetry gets this criticism all the time), he doesn’t ask if there are other reasons. What happened to the readers? Did they all turn into James Paterson swilling boobs or do they have other issues or has other media pulled them away? In many ways Genoways is making the B R Myers argument about not reaching out to readers with readable and interesting fiction.  I’m sympathetic to the criticism. There are certainly modern books I can’t stand, such as White Noise, yet I love Thomas Bernhard who is much father from White Noise in accessibility. What ever you interests, saying there is an over abundance of creative writing programs which has led to an insular, dull, and engaged literary culture is not enough. At least Genoways is savvy enough to know that it is up to the writer to get out there and connect. I wonder, though, if the last 50 years was more of an aberration and writers will be returning to working in fields that have nothing to do with literature just to make a living, like Stevens or Kafka or any number of writers before general interest magazines and latter the university made it possible to live on writing fiction. I don’t want to see it, and hopefully an iTunes model might work and save the us from the Death of Fiction.

Little wonder then that the last decade has seen ever-dwindling commercial venues for literary writers. Just 17 years ago, you could find fiction in the pages of national magazines like The Atlantic, Elle, Esquire, Glamour, Good Housekeeping, GQ, McCall’s, Mother Jones, Ms., Playboy, Redbook, and Seventeen, and in city magazines and Sunday editions like the Boston Globe Magazine, Chicago, and the Voice Literary Supplement. Not one of these venues (those that still exist) still publishes fiction on a regular basis. Oh, sure, The Atlantic still has an annual fiction issue (sold on newsstands but not sent to subscribers), and Esquire runs fiction online if it’s less than 4,000 words. But only Harper’s and The New Yorker have remained committed to the short story.

One would think that the rapid eviction of literature from the pages of commercial magazines would have come as a tremendous boon to lit mags, especially at the schools that have become safe harbors for (and de facto patrons of) writers whose works don’t sell enough to generate an income. You would expect that the loyal readers of established writers would have provided a boost in circulation to these little magazines and that universities would have seen themselves in a new light—not just promoting the enjoyment of literature but promulgating a new era of socially conscious writing in the postcommercial age. But the less commercially viable fiction became, the less it seemed to concern itself with its audience, which in turn made it less commercial, until, like a dying star, it seems on the verge of implosion. Indeed, most American writers seem to have forgotten how to write about big issues—as if giving two shits about the world has gotten crushed under the boot sole of postmodernism.

In the midst of a war on two fronts, there has been hardly a ripple in American fiction. With the exception of a few execrable screeds—like Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint (which revealed just how completely postmodernism has painted itself into a corner)—novelists and story writers alike have largely ignored the wars. Even our poets, the supposed deliverers of “news that stays news,” have been comparatively mum; Brian Turner is the only major poet to yet emerge from Iraq. In this vacuum, nonfiction has experienced a renaissance, and the publishing industry—already geared toward marketing tell-all memoirs and sweeping histories—has seized upon the eyewitness remembrances of combatants and the epic military accounts of journalists. That, combined with the blockbuster mentality of book publishing in the age of corporate conglomeration (to the point of nearly exterminating the midlist), has conspired to squash the market for new fiction.