La vuelta al día (Around the Day) by Hipólito G. Navarro – A Review

CORREA_LCA_C_La vuelta al día (Around the Day)
Hipólito G. Navarro
Páginas de Espuma, 2016, pg. 251

La vuelta al día (Around the Day) is Hipólito G. Navarro’s 2016 return to print after a long, eleven year absence. Navarro is a Spanish writer, mainly of short stories, who has been one of the seminal short story writers who began publishing in the 1990’s. His 1996 collection El aburrimiento Lester (The Boredom, Lester) is a virtuoso exploration of the short story form, both in terms of style and structure. He latter followed up with Los tigres albinos (2000) and Los últimos percances (2005), each of which continued his explorations of the short story form. (I’ve reviewed all three works here and his collection El pez volador, which takes stories from each of these collections.) Given the long absence from publishing, La vuelta al día is a much anticipated work.

At the core of much of Navarro’s work is humor. It is often dark or colored with a sense that the joke is some misfortune of one’s own making that is impossible to escape. Even in the length introduction to the collection he remarks that his mother, when he gave her a copy of his last book, Los últimos percances, as she was dying said,

¡Los últimos percances! ¿Por qué no le has puesto penúltimos, al menos?
The last misfortunes! Why didn’t you call it the penultimate, at least?

You most often see this sense in the Navarran unfortunate, usually it is the narrator, but occasionally it is just the main character of the story. The Navarran unfortunate is a man (it’s never a woman, although they can be the narrator) who through some obsession, large or inconsequential, has screwed up somehow. They are aware of the mistake and describe themselves in self depreciating tones that both show an acute self awareness and a deep fatalism about their future. Generally, the unfortunates reveal this desperation in a wildly verbal prose full of racing thoughts that are hard to control. Navarro is a rich stylist of the language and uses these monologues to full effect. Some of the unfortunates have a happier ends, but even they know that they are idiots and lucky to have gotten what they did.

In the latter category falls Ligamentos (Ligaments). A kind of love story, the narrator has an injured leg, but he meets a friend of a friend and is so taken with her he goes on a long walk with them in the woods. He knows nothing about nature, but he fakes as much as he can. The humor comes in his confessions to the reader about how little he knows about the world and his desperate, boyish attempts to keep up with her on the walk, which results in his further injury. The narrator is self aware of how silly he is, how every thing he does makes him even more ridiculous, and it gives him a sacrificial charm when finally wins her admiration by covering himself in remnants of the forest floor.

Verruga Sánchez takes the self obsessed male even further. Narrated by Sánchez’s wife, it’s the story of a Professor who is extremely popular with his students and well respected with his colleagues. The only issue is he has a distinctive mole near his eye. He can’t stand it any finally has it removed. Of course, it doesn’t go as he wishes and looses the adulation he’d grown accustomed too. He mopes around on the couch. It’s his wife who tries, unsuccessfully, but loyally to get him to forget it. It’s dark without the usual self pity: vanity allows no self reflection. Sánchez, like all of the unfortunates, has brought this on himself and has paid the price. What is notable is this is one of Navarro’s female narrators. It stabilizes the story, keeps the manic obsession at bay and makes it even sadder to know she still loves him.

Included are three much darker and riskier stories that I think may have gotten away from Navarro. La escusa termodinámica (The Thermodynamic Excuse) is narrated by a cuckold who’s wife has gone to a cabin in the woods with his brother. The desperate rant is a series of questions that the narrator asks himself about why he couldn’t start a fire. On its own the story has commendable aspects. Its when you get to something like Las estampas del timo with its light harted story of infatuation that includes incest, though, all these men become a little too much. Where it is the most distributing is the ultimate unfortunatein En el fondo de la memoria (In the Depths of Memory). Here Navarro creates his most manic character, a man who is pacing his small apartment, describing it as a kind of cell as he waits for his wife to bring her son home. The son does not live with them and he has never met the child. Yet he is afraid of the boy because he knows he is the father: he was the one who raped his wife. It is such a complicated statement, one that opens so many questions, some of credulity. I’m still not sure I can even contemplate the idea that the woman he raped would not know it was him somehow, or hadn’t seen the likeness already.

Whatever the case, all these stories give much of the collection a male-centric view of the world that is both self pitting and self obsessed, and leads to self destruction. When done right, as in Ligamentos and Verruga Sánchez, they are tragicomedies; when they misfire they are off putting.

Even though the Navarran unfortunate is heavily present, the real standouts, are his elegiac stories, stories that look to the past and find a restrained melancholy. The two standouts are El infierno portátil (The Portable Hell) and Tantos Veces Huérfano (So Many Times an Orphan). The former is the memory of a boy who worked in his grandfather’s blacksmith shop. Some nuns come down the hill from the convent to ask for hand outs. He notices the younger nun and as they look at each other for a moment he finds himself attracted to her. The story is handled deftly, the attraction is brief, subtle, as is the punishment the boy thinks he receives when the nun leaves. He is able to capture the sense of something new and uncontrolled in the briefest interlude. It’s in the unguarded moments that these realizations come.

Tantos Veces Huérfano, for me, is the best story of the collection. In it an old man remembers a journey to his father’s home town for the arrival of electric lights. It’s an awakening both in terms of sex and violence, all happening within his extended family. And it’s as memory is, unclear. Why was his father murder? The narrator doesn’t know. It’s the strength of the story that the narrator’s memory comes and goes, and an exact clarity of the events is illusive. Along with La vuelta al dia and La poda y la tala de los arboles (The Pruning and Triming of Trees), there is a sense of the past as both something alluring and melancholic, a place one would like to be, but a world that not only doesn’t exist, but in which one does not belong.

Finally, if humor and great verbal ability are two hallmarks of Navarro’s writing, the last is a playfulness. Los k (The ks) is a perfect example of this. The ks refer to kilobytes and the narrator imagines them as living creatures who have a mind of their own. They escape and he loses part of his novel. With this comes the sense that writing is something alive, something not only exists, but has its own independent life. He’s used stories like these to explore the short form and his earlier work was marked with this playfulness. In La vuelta al día we get a glimpse of this skill. I wish there had been a little more of this as they are delightful.

In all, the collection is a welcome return publication. There were certainly some misfires. The stories that dealt with the past were the strongest and most compelling, while those of the Navarran unfortunates show that Navarro is still in command of his verbal powers. Hopefully, it won’t be eleven years for the next collection.

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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.

The State of the Short Story in Spain

La Verdad has an article about the state of the short story in Spain. It quotes critics such as Sergi Bellver who I have mentioned before. Essentially, the short story has the same problems it does in the US: low readership, publishers who prefer novels, and not good way to support yourself while writing them. Not an unknown phenomenon. At least they have the new short story prize with the € 50,000 prize and all the prizes from little towns and clubs that help keep writers going, as it did for Bolaño. The article talks about various projects by editors to publish short story collections.

Also the article mentions a few names worth following that I have mentioned many times in this blog:

Un punto que destaca Casamayor es que esta hornada de autores jóvenes y no tan jóvenes no reniegan de su condición de cuentistas sino que se sienten «orgullosos» de serlo. El editor de Páginas de Espuma cita tres nombres como figuras a las que seguir en el universo del cuento. Uno, Hipólito G. Navarro, publica en su editorial y su ‘El pez volador’ ha concitado muy buenas críticas. El segundo, Eloy Tizón, es profesor en la escuela madrileña Hotel Kafka y autor habitual de Anagrama. El tercero que destaca Casamayor es Andrés Neuman, conocido por obras de ‘largo aliento’ como ‘El viajero del siglo’, pero que ha hecho una importante contribución a la buena salud actual del género corto. Como creador, pero también como director de la colección, antes citada, ‘Pequeñas Resistencias 5’.

Otro nombre que comienza a hacer ruido es el de Matías Candeira, presente en la selección de ‘Chéjov comentado’ y que, pese a su juventud (nació en 1984) está demostrando maneras. Se estrenó en el año 2009 con ‘La soledad de los ventrílocuos’ y acaba de publicar ‘Antes de las jirafas’, un conjunto de relatos que huye de lo solemne. José Luis Pereira, responsable de la librería madrileña Tres Rosas Amarillas, la única de España dedicada en exclusiva al cuento, reconoce su talento.

Los nombres son muchos más: Jon Bilbao, Carlos Castán, Esther García Llovet o Víctor García Antón, Patricio Pron, Norberto Luis Romero, Sergi Pàmies, venerado por Enrique Vila-Matas, y todos los que vendrán.

(hat tip)

The Last 20 Years of Spanish Literature as José-Carlos Mainer Sees it

El Pais has an overview of Spanish Literature of the last 20 years. It is an arbitrary number, as José-Carlos Mainer notes, but it also a period of many changes and some exciting new authors. It is a bit of a mixed article, but it has moments where he picks out authors worth reading. At the bottom of the passage he notes 2 that I have been extremely impressed with, Navarro and Fernandez Cubas whose short stories deserve to be translated some day.

La norma constituyente de muchos de estos libros es la inclusión, la bulimia. Algunas memorias de escritores (pienso en las de Josep Maria Castellet y Rafael Argullol) ceden buena parte del espacio legítimo del yo a viajes, historias, personajes conocidos: son demoradas galerías de espejos. Y otras, sin embargo, se adelgazan hasta convertirse en un provocativo y fibroso ensayo de antropología cultural: la autobiografía de Félix de Azúa. Hay dietarios en los que habita fundamentalmente el mundo exterior, golosamente gozado, como fueron los de Antonio Martínez Sarrión, y hay otros en que los muchos acontecimientos nunca acaban de desplazar al terco “yo” que los trae y lleva: el Salón de pasos perdidos, de Andrés Trapiello. Y hay literatura que se alimenta de literatura, como le sucede fecundamente a la de Enrique Vila-Matas, Sergio Pitol y José Carlos Llop. Y a su manera paródica, a la de César Aira… Ricardo Piglia acaba de publicar la novela que nunca escribió Borges pero que le hubiera gustado leer al autor de El Sur. Por eso, los libros suelen ser tan dilatados como la dieta bulímica que los alimenta, pero también la vivencia del mundo ha aconsejado a otros agazaparse en las formas breves: el microrrelato se ha convertido en una experiencia de nuestro tiempo y un plante desdeñoso a la sobreabundancia (siguen siendo referencia las actitudes al respecto del inolvidable Augusto Monterroso). Otros han encontrado la proporción áurea del cuento de diez páginas y las columnas de a dos, artefactos de precisión que condensan y ejercitan el ingenio mediante el arte de prescindir: cada cual a su modo, lo hacen Cristina Fernández Cubas, José María Merino, Luis Mateo Díez, Quim Monzó, Manuel Rivas, Hipólito García Navarro, que han hecho del cuento un género imprescindible. Las columnas son el dominio de Manuel Vicent, por ejemplo. Juan José Millás respira por igual en el cuento, el artículo y el reportaje.

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: http://www.elpais.com/articulo/revista/agosto/Emmanuelle/Allen/elpepirdv/20100814elpepirdv_6/Tes

Hipólito G. Navarro (El pez volador) in Público:. http://www.publico.es/culturas/331534/vuelta/dia

In Público by Clara Obligado: http://blogs.publico.es/libre-2010/2010/08/03/el-azar-por-clara-obligado/

In El País by Andres Neuman: http://www.elpais.com/articulo/revista/agosto/pequenas/perversiones/elpepucul/20100716elpepirdv_9/Tes

In Público by Patricia Esteban Erlés: http://www.publico.es/culturas/330839/your/name/relatos/verano

Interview with Etgar Keret at Words Without Borders

Words Without Borders has an interesting interview with the short story writer Etgar Keret about his process and what he thinks of creative writing programs and craft. I am a big fan of his stories and he has been one my most interesting finds in the world of short stories over the last year or two along with Amanda Michalopoulou and Hipólito Navarro. Because his works deviate from the more American tradition of epiphany and craft, I find his work quite refreshing. His take on craft, something I was taught in my earliest creative writing classes and still seems to haunt me like some tedious specter, was interesting. 

DH: Do you think there is an essential difference between what people think a good story is in contemporary American literature and in other parts of the world? I mean, do you see a difference between what is considered a good story here and, say, in Israel?

EK: I can’t speak for the rest of the world, but what I can say about the US is that there are many readers and creative writing professors who are into the tradition of the “well written story,” which is something I completely dislike because it focuses on the craft machine. I tell my students that they should focus on writing “the badly written” good story. There is something paralyzing if you are thinking all the time about the form; it can stop you from focusing on the true passion and emotion. Here I can see that some people could characterize my stories as “shaggy dog stories” because they say, “OK, this is about a guy who went to a bar, etc., but this is not literature” because I don’t write the typical New Yorker story. I think this is very American because it goes with the Protestant work ethic: when you read a story you should see that someone worked very hard on it. But when I write something I want to hide my effort. I want people to feel that I am speaking to them. If it took me two months to write it I want it to look as if I didn’t make any effort. This is something that clashes with the American tradition. If you compare Bob Dylan singing a song with someone from American Idol, the latter sings better, he has a better voice. But the guy from American Idol is thinking about “singing well,” while Bob Dylan is thinking about the song. So the American kind of “well written” story is about creating an American Idol kind of story.

DH: I believe in that, and it makes sense, given the fact that your stories are not premeditated, but they start based on sound or rhythm. Now, you are a writer that in this country we read in translation, so there is problem with that.

EK: The problem is that English is 30/% longer than Hebrew. In Hebrew you can really construct very short sentences. In know this because I work with two very, very creative translators. And many times I don’t want them to be loyal to the text, but to the meter. For example, I have a story that begins with a series of compliments about a guy; but when my translator translated the story, it didn’t work because she wanted to translate the word, but the rhythm didn’t work. So, I told her, “Forget about the word! It should be ta-ta-ta.”

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.