Granta Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists – A Review (Part II)

I learned something in reading this collection: with certain exceptions, I find novel excerpts irritating. Either they are too short to say anything, or just when they get going they stop. I also relearned that my antipathy for best of youth collections seldom live up to the word best. That is unavoidable, of course, with any collection, but with youth comes promise and it is the let down that makes it worse. That said, of the works remaining works that I had left to read (see my review for the other authors), and those that I did not skip because they were novel excerpts and I’d rather just read the novel (this is especially the case with Zambra, Roncagaliolo, Oloixarac, and Navarro), I found some of these works readable, and occasionally intriguing, but on the whole uneven.

The Andrés Neuman short stories showed some real inventiveness and suggest he has quite a range as a short story writer. I should say, he was someone, who before I had read the stories, I was interested in reading. His work seems to have an expansiveness to its approaches and breaks out of of certain story telling traps. I did find, however, that the story about the nun was perhaps a bit cliched. Still his portrait of a nun who in having an affair with a womanizer, turns his world into a hell without her. It has that kind of religious story flipped that still leads to the same result. Instead of the man going to hell just by his acts, or realizing it through a sermon, the religious figure leads the man into hell. It has a touch of that Issac Babel’s story in the Red Calvary where Jesus sleeps with a woman on her wedding night, because if her wedding is not consummated, she will be killed.

Frederico Falco’s story about a girl who has a summer crush on a Mormon doing missionary work was perhaps the funniest story of the collection. In it Falco creates a precocious teenager who announces she is an atheist to her grandmother, who of course finds the thought horrifying. Shortly after two Mormon missionaries come to the door and she is taken with one. She invites them in for the first of many visits to talk over the Mormon faith. She thinks if she keeps bringing them along, fainting interest in the religion, she’ll have more time with the cute one. But every time she tries something she finds that the boys are too committed to the faith and that even simple gestures of friendship are filtered through the mission. It isn’t a tragic end, because she doesn’t care. She’s just using them, and the boys are so committed that they just move on to the next mission. It is a warm and yet distant story, that doesn’t so much as sympathize with the girl who is looking for a little fun, but toy with the irreconcilability of two such opposing points of view.

Sonia Hernández, much like Samanta Schwiblin and to some extent like Andres Neuman, belongs to the tradition of the fantastic or perhaps surreal that seems to surface often in Spanish language short stories. Her piece about a mysterious wall with a newly installed door, is probably the most allegorical of anything in the collection. At first it isn’t clear why the organization installed the door, or even why there is a wall. The only thing you know is that people complained about the noises from the other side. Is this a social comment about unwanted immigrants? But then the story takes a turn as the narrator says a friend of hers has left and this has caused the leadership of the building to get upset. The question becomes, is this some sort of prison and those on the other side are free? Hernandez, though, has more complications as the residents of the building are mute. They speak but no one can hear them. The missing friend, who is dead, has returned and is begging the narrator to go with her and keeps talking with her but is inaudible. Is this perhaps after all, some sort of purgatory, or just a closed society where the laws of existence are so defined you cannot act freely? Of course, each of those readings leads to tyranny against the individual. Either way, the story ends ill at ease, leaving little hope for the inhabitants of the building: …ese es el castigo a su soberbia (this is the punishment for her pride).

Structurally speaking, Rodrigo Hasbun’s short story that constructs a story through constant revisions of itself had potential. But like many of the works in the volume it tended to be interested too much in writing. The same thing happened with Patricio Pron’s short story which was obviously written for the collection and suffered for its cleaver nods to Granta. I’m certainly not above reading about writing or meta fiction (see my countless posts on Hipolito G. Navarro), but the pieces in hear often seemed to be afflicted with the young writers syndrome, where the only thing the writer knows is writing so they write about writing. I once took a class where we had to write a novella in one quarter. We all accomplished the task, but the majority of the works were about either writers or some other type of artist. I wrote about a guitarist, since I also play guitar. And reading these pieces reminded me about that class which as far as I know didn’t produce any great works.

Those inconsistencies in the works are why the collection was quite uneven. Having read it, I would like to ask the editor how she picked these authors. Since, really, the collection is a reflection of the editor as much as anything. The focus on youth I think is a little misplaced sometimes. The Guadalajara book fair’s focus on unknown writers seems a little more productive.

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Miguel Ángel Muñoz, Andrés Barba, Elvira Navarro Writing About Summer in Letras Libres

Letras Libres has a series of reflections on summer by several authors I am familiar with, including Miguel Ángel Muñoz, Andrés Barba, and Elvira Navarro, the last two part of the Granta youngsters edition. Miguel Ángel Muñoz is a short story writer and owner of the blog, El síndrome Chejov (you can see my review of one of his books here). Each piece is a specie of reflections on youth in the summer.

From the Muñoz

¿No ocurrió todo durante el verano? Entendí muy pronto que “verano” no significaba viaje o vacaciones. Nadie me lo explicó, pero fue fácil saberlo. Durante aquellos meses, los hábitos se rompían para los mayores y solo para ellos. Los niños nos abanicábamos con los descubrimientos de la brillante rutina. En cada gesto, en las conversaciones, en las visitas que hacíamos o recibíamos, en cada minuto de cada día del verano daba la hora un reloj parado, con los mecanismos sumergidos en gozo. Pero no nos mientas, porque algo así ocurría siempre. En realidad, en cada minuto de cada día del año la infancia se desarrollaba ante un telón continuamente descorrido. Con ustedes, la vida, aunque no la conozcan y se presente sin avisar.

Y, sin embargo, recuerdas el verano como un resumen o una máquina que condensara en figuras de plastilina lo que ocurrió entonces. Si es verdad que en los meandros neuronales del cerebro perviven intactos aquellos recuerdos que ya han desaparecido, a la espera del invento que los ponga de nuevo ante nosotros a voluntad, quizás algún día explote otra vez aquella felicidad que hoy recuperas a retazos.

From the Navarro

Mi padre tenía una agencia de viajes. Lo que acabo de decir es inexacto; sin embargo, de pequeña creía que la sucursal de Cemo en Valencia pertenecía a mi padre, puesto que era el único que trabajaba en un despacho y daba órdenes fulgurantes, y además entre las ideas que por aquel entonces tenía yo de los quehaceres de un jefe estaban las conversaciones interminables con clientes, unos ojos entrecerrados que enfocaban un punto imposible de alguna orografía recóndita, el cigarro manchando el esmalte dental y mis idas y venidas por el suelo resbaloso, que se aceleraban cuando la vacilación y las palabras arrastradas se volvían fugaces: tenía que darme prisa para pedir el dinero de la merienda. Acechaba la siguiente llamada. Por otra parte, me digo ahora, un padre no puede sino ser jefe, y las frases generan obligaciones que hay que respetar. Si, por ejemplo, yo hubiera empezado esta narración con: “Mi padre era el gerente de la sucursal de Viajes Cemo en Valencia”, algo fundamental en la génesis del texto se habría roto, y me resultaría imposible escribir una sola palabra sobre mis vacaciones y los viajes. La expresión inexacta es la semilla, y también la llave, del ritmo con el que el magma incierto al que doy el nombre de “recuerdos” se ordena en oraciones.

Aunque solo era el gerente, Miguel Navarro se encargaba de los itinerarios de los viajes del Imserso, y se hacía acompañar, cómo no, de su oficio en las presentaciones,

A Review of Carols Labbé’s Novel Caracteres blancos at El Pais

The Chilian Granta youngster’s newwest book Caracteres blancos was reviewed in El Pais. The book is a novel composed of a series of short stories about a couple who decides to move form the city to the sea and only brings  two bottles of water and a notebook. The lack of food is art of their desire to fast. “The imagination of the lovers dueling with hunger, sand, and the sea creates or reproduces the metaphors or phantasms of the world. (And I write word because at times it seems that we are attending a story of a world the ended or is begening) /La imaginación de los amantes en duelo con el hambre, la arena y el mar produce (o reproduce) las metáforas o fantasmas del mundo. (Y escribo mundo porque a veces parece que asistamos al relato de un mundo que se acaba o comienza).” It sounds interesting, but I will wait until I finish the Granta volume before I consider reading this. (via Moleskin Literario)

Narrativa. Los límites entre el cuento y la novela están perfectamente reglados por la tradición y por los tres o cuatro autores (de Chéjov a Piglia) que sumaron a esa tradición sus propias teorías. Pero a veces esas reglas quedan difuminadas, como asimiladas por la tensión comunicativa y el poder de la invención y reconvertidas en piezas híbridas y de más difícil clasificación. A este tipo pertenece el nuevo libro del escritor chileno Carlos Labbé, un inclasificable texto organizado alrededor de once relatos independientes pero conectados entre sí por un texto que mantiene una unidad novelística. La novela que esconde Caracteres blancos cuenta una historia sencilla: una pareja decide trasladarse de la ciudad al mar. Llevan consigo sólo dos botellas de agua y un cuaderno con las páginas en blanco. Escriben los relatos que se leerán uno al otro (y junto a los lectores). La idea del agua como único alimento permite unir la experiencia de la escritura con el ayuno; por eso el libro comienza con ‘Primer día de ayuno’ y termina por ‘Séptimo día de ayuno’. Entre cada capítulo de esta experiencia de ayuno, una experiencia de inequívoco tinte religioso unida al amor, se nos van narrando relatos breves. Son las once piezas (de diferentes géneros) que brotan de la imaginación casi agónica de sus autores. La imaginación de los amantes en duelo con el hambre, la arena y el mar produce (o reproduce) las metáforas o fantasmas del mundo. (Y escribo mundo porque a veces parece que asistamos al relato de un mundo que se acaba o comienza). Desde el hombre que reescribe sin saberlo una novela de Onetti, hasta el otro que vive en la escalera de una casa de vecinos. En Navidad y Matanza(2007), Labbé trató la función de la autoconciencia narrativa: el juego de la ficción con la ficción. En Caracteres blancos este capítulo se repite, sólo que ahora no parece un juego metaliterario. Se acerca bastante más a una profunda reflexión sobre la invención y el amor. O la invención del amor.

Interview with Carlos Yushimito in El Pais

El Pais has an interview and profile of Carlos Yushimito, one of the Granta youngsters. It gives a little insight into his interests which were shaped by the war in Peru against the Sindero Luminoso. He, unlike most of the writers in the Granta collection, writes short stories, or at least his newest book is short stories.

“Me fascina lo imperfecto; la perfección siempre es una forma de violencia, de lo autoritario”. Hay algo inquietante en Carlos Yushimito (Lima, 1975): parece imposible que de ese cuerpo enjuto que refuerza su imperceptible hilillo de voz surjan esas historias con niños de tan oscuras perversiones, mutantes, gatos que hablan y escenarios de regusto posnuclear. Pero ese es el humus de la selección de sus relatosLecciones para un niño que llega tarde (Duomo), desasosegante puerta para acceder al mundo de uno de los más sugestivos de entre las promesas de la narrativa en español escogidas por la revista Granta.

“Mi generación nació entre el riesgo de coches bomba, sin agua corriente, atrapados en casa con toques de queda; y en mi caso, reforzado por mi abuelo, japonés, que emigró a Perú cuando la II Guerra Mundial y fue expropiado y a punto de ir a un campo de concentración. Ello me ha hecho muy consciente de la precariedad de la vida…”. Letras niponas en su antebrazo derecho tatúan ese episodio que alimenta la explicación de por qué sus personajes se muestran siempre paralizados ante el destino.

Seres predestinados que pueden destilar compasión, pero capaces de una muy refinada crueldad. La culpa es de la “forma perversa” con la que Yushimito lee los clásicos tras años de diseccionar literatura actual. “¿No ve en El flautista de Hamelin, llevándose a todos los niños, una gran metáfora del genocidio humano? Quería que mis cuentos jugaran con esa perversidad, por eso hago que un gato tipo el de Cheshire diga lo que dice o un robot discuta con su creador”.

Granta Youngsters Live: Barba, Olmos, Montes at Elliott Bay Books 5/16/2011

I had the opportunity to see Andres Barba, Alberto Olmos, and Javier Montes at Elliott Bay Book Co in Seattle. It is one of only two stops on the west coast and one of only 6 stops on their tour, so we were quite lucky. We were elected at the last moment because like the other stops we have one of Spain’s Instituto Cervantes in Seattle and they were sponsoring the tour.

The event started at 7ish and the first author didn’t start until 7:30 thanks to everyone who needed to introduce the authors. I don’t get what it is with people who have to go on, one after another with introductions that drone on. Rick from Elliot Bay always gives introductions and that is fine. Then came one of the editors of the edition and that was interesting to some degree, although it was mostly about the purpose of the magazine and not the specific edition, and finally came a professor from the UW who was selected to introduce them, but it was obvious he had done little more that read the bio in the book. What’s the point there?

Javier Montes, when he finally had a chance to speak, said that his piece was the opening of a novel that he had not gotten very far with. He said he had only finished the week before, so the reader, like him, should wonder what is coming.

Barba said his piece came to him when he was writing the prize winning essay, Ceromonia de Porno, with Montes. He heard a bout a French porn star who became obsessed with plastic surgery and had so man it hurt her to sleep. She began fantasizing about having a horn place on her forehead. I can’t say that makes the story in more interesting.

Olmos’ piece is also part of an unfinished novel that he has been blocked on. He went on to say he writes mostly autobiographical works. Two of his novels are about his time living in Japan. For him, it is neither charter or plot that interests him, but ideas. You can see that in his story I think.

Unfortunately, after that first round of comments, David Gueterson spoke. I don’t blame him for his awkward performance, but who ever invited him. He was supposed to be some sort of bridge between cultures because he has been translated into Spanish. He talked for a while, telling jokes about his translation experience and passing out copies of Snow Falling on Cedars in different languages. I think it was at this time I wish we had one presenter. What ever the merits of a conversation of translation, this was not the way to approach it. It was a bizarre performance to see Guterson talk, while the featured guests just sat there. The only thing he said that really felt interesting is he said American writers are really dedicated to something Akin to craft, and these writers and those in Spain were dedicated to the new.

On the subject of translation they all liked their translations. Montes said he is a pick translator and likes things as exact as is possible. But he knows that translation changes things. He said, he read his piece in English and said it wasn’t exactly what he had written, but he could like the guy who wrote it.

Barba said he likes everything that is translated of his and isn’t too picky. Then he went on to tell a story about when he was in Syria and a man said, I’m going to translate your book. Barba said, it has lots of prostitutes, and the man said, don’t worry, I’ll take care of it. When the book came out, he had a friend read it and he said the prostitutes had been changed to tailors.

Olmos on the other had has been little translated and has been happy with the Granta experience because it gives him more exposure.

An awkward question came up about academy Spanish and colloquial Spanish. While it was quickly pointed out there isn’t a correct Spanish,  Olmos said that the younger generation using a more standard Spanish so they can get published in Spain. It was the McDonaldization of Spanish. Montes didn’t care so much. Olmos went on to say that is what he most likes and reads Colombians because everything they write has style.

Finally, there was wine afterwards and a chance to talk to the authors one on one. Montes said Onetti was his biggest influence and the best author in Spanish of the 20th century. I asked Olmos if Japan had influenced his writing, but other that the two books no. I didn’t have a chance to go much farther into it. And I asked Barba what El Publico Lee is like, mostly because I was curious, but also I didn’t find his work particularly fascinating to come up with a better question.

Reviewing Granta’s Young Spanish Writers:Puenzo, Barba, Schweblin, Montes, Olmos

It is probably not the best way to start this mini review by saying, now I remember why I never buy the Grant Best American/British youngster editions. I find them uneven and while there is usually something interesting in the volume, of other writers I can only ask, why? I broke down this time because it was Spanish language authors and this blog is rather dedicated to the subject. I even went through the extra step of getting the Spanish edition, not the English translation. Yet some where in reading Andres Barba or Javier Olmos I wondered if the volume was really worth the trouble. I’m only 5 authors in so I could change my mind, we’ll see.

The Andres Barba piece was particularlly disappointing. Essentially, it is the story of a prostitute who decides to have a horn installed on her forehead. She has visions of what it will be like, interspersed with scenes of  her working life. While Barba tries to give some sort of nuance to the story, describing the revenge she imagines taking, or showing the nervousness of the clients, in the end the story is simplistic, and juvenile. Abused prostitute wants to grow horn on her forehead—how Freudian. But isn’t that what college students learn in their first year when they over apply terms like phallic symbol? That would be forgivable, but the prostitute is a fairly one dimensional character. Dimensionality isn’t always a requirement for charter development, but in a piece that tries to examine the thoughts of a prostitute, it is.  Ultimately, the story is simplistic and silly.

I next read Javier Montes piece about a professional hotel reviewer, which is part of a novel excerpt. I mention the order I read these in because Montes, too, seems to be fascinated by porn. At the first the pieces starts with potential, following a hotel reviewer as he explains what his life entails. A nice touch is the narrator’s dislike of sites like Trip Advisor with all the  free reviews. He has some nice insights about the impersonality of hotel chains. Halfway through the piece, though, the narrator is given the key to a room where they are filming a porno. The narrator watches, transfixed, confused, not sure what is happening. Finally, he flees the room. While the story isn’t as insulting as Barba’s, Motes’s feels flat: narrator explains the life of hotel reviewing, then stumbles on a porn film. So? As a stand alone piece it isn’t very interesting. It has the feels just slightly juvenile. But the piece also shows the problem with the Granta Best Young editions. Since this is an excerpt I’m not sure if it gets better or worse. It certainly has potential, but I’m left to base my opinion of something less.

Fortunately, there are some stories that are more interesting. Lucia Puenzo’s Cohiba is a funny take down of the literary world. In it the narrator goes to Cuba to attend a literary conference hosted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He is depicted as a kind of out of touch mystic who shows up to give koan-like advice to writers. It is the same kind of advice that you’ll hear in a thousand different writing workshops. The advice and the criticism he gives the story writers is in many ways useless, but all the writers give him their adoring and uncritical attention. Puenzo contrasts the privileged life of the conference participants against those of the Cubans. The writers have easy access to a film festival, while Cubans have to wait, or can’t even get in. It is obvious she is taking down the hagiography that has grown up around Marquez. I don’t know what Puenzo thinks of Marquez’s writing, but Marquez the celebrity and the industry around him is an object of ridicule. At the same time, Puenzo’s vision of Cuba is a violent country where women suffer the same indignities as they do in the west. There are several ways to go with this, but for this quick review, I’ll just say this reflects badly, again, on Marquez who has been a staunch defender of Cuba. It would be too much to blame him for what happens in the story, but Puenzo’s story makes him guilty by association.

I have written about Samanta Schweblin’s stories in several posts, and I tend to like her work, even if it is a little uneven. Her story Olingiris is typical of her work, bordering on the fantastical, a type of modern fable that usually ends without a fixed resolution. In Olingiris, the lives of two women intersect at a mysterious Institute whose sole purpose is to pay women for their body hair. When a woman is plucked she lays naked on a table and three women on each side of her pluck hairs from her body with tweezers. At the end of the day all the hairs are collected and taken away. It is never explained what the hairs are for. The story of the Institute is just a frame to explore the lives of these two women who are alone in a big city, but the hair removal, typically a beauty treatment done in one’s privacy, now becomes something sinister and even more isolating. What are the women really giving up when their hair is taken. As the story closes, it is obvious that it is a traumatic experience, and like the best of her stories, takes what seems logical, the work people put into beauty, and creates an extreme vision.

Finally,there is Alberto Olmos’s Diego and Eva. Of the three male authors in this review, his story was the best, although it had a couple of moments that felt like a man channeling Candice Bushnell. The story is about consumption, both a society that is always buying, but a society that continually consumes itself, destroying what existed only yesterday, and replacing it with something that will be destroyed in the near future. The narrator is a journalist who has trouble coping with a terrorist attack in a shopping center and fixates on consumerism, vacillating between questioning it and participating in it. Over all the story was interesting, but it wasn’t the most subtle, which I would have preferred.

A criticism: once again the percentage of women authors is quite low. There are, by my count, 5 women authors, out of 22 total, which comes out to 22%. While it doesn’t make artistic sense to demand 50/50 if the works aren’t there, I’m sure there are more women writers out there (I know there are since I’ve read some of them), at least enough to get to 60/40, if not 50/50.

Finally, Imagined Icebergs has a couple of reviews from the collection and is worth a look.

Grant Young Novelists Coming to Seattle May 2011: Barba, Montes, Olmos

The young Granta novelists Andres Barba, Javier Montes, and Alberto Olmos will be coming to Seattle in May. It looks like they’ll be having some sort of conversation since David Guterson is going to be hosting. All I know so far is below:

May 15; Granta 113 The Best of Young Spanish Novelists with ANDRÉS BARBA, JAVIER MONTES, and ALBERTO OLMOS of Spain, hosted by DAVID GUTERSON,