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,

Granta’s Best Young Spanish Writers at Three Percent

The ever interesting blog Three Percent from Open Letter Books is publishing bios of all 22 of the writers featured in Granta’s Best young writers in Spanish. So far they have put up bios of Andres Barba and a short story in English, Andres Neuman, Carlos Labbe, Federico Falco, and Santiago Roncagliolo amongst others. Definitely worth following if you are interested.

I’ve always had a thing for Spanish literature. Not sure exactly why or how this started, although I do remember struggling my way through Cortazar’s “A Continuity of Parks,” thinking holy s— this can’t actually be what’s happening, then reading the English version, finding myself even more blown away and proceeding to devour his entire oeuvre over the course of the ensuing year. (The next tattoo I get will likely be a reference to either Hopscotch or 62: A Model Kit.)

There’s something special about the great Spanish-language works . . . They can be as philosophically complicated as the French (see Juan Jose Saer’s Nouveau Roman influenced novels), while still remaining very grounded, emotional (see all of Manuel Puig), and others represent the epitome of wordplay and linguistic gamesmanship (see Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers).

Not trying to say that Spanish-language literature is better than that of other languages—I’m just trying to explain why I’m so drawn to it, why we published Latin American authors make up such a large portion of Open Letter’s list (Macedonio Fernandez, Juan Jose Saer, Alejandro Zambra, Sergio Chejfec, not to mention the Catalan writers, which, though vastly different in language, have a sort of kinship with their fellow Spanish writers). And why I read so many Spanish works in my “free time,” why I love Buenos Aires, the tango, etc. . . .

Regardless, when I found out that Granta was releasing a special issue of the “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” I was psyched. (This really hits at the crux of my obsessions: Spanish literature and lists.) I tried to tease names from the forthcoming list out of the wonderful Saskia Vogel and the multi-talented John Freeman, but neither would give away any secrets. So when the list was finally announced, I was doubly pleased to see that six of the authors on there either already are published by Open Letter or will be in the near future.

Granta en español Announces Its Best Young Novelists in Spanish

Grant en español has announced their take on the best young novelists in Spanish. You can see a complete list plus links to interviews and other information at El Pais’s blog, Papeles Perdidos. Here is the list of names:

Andrés Barba (España), Oliverio Coelho (Argentina), Federico Falco (Argentina), Pablo Gutiérrez (España), Rodrigo Hasbun (Bolivia), Sonia Hernández (España), Carlos Labbé (Chile), Javier Montes (España), Elvira Navarro (España), Matías Néspolo (Argentina), Andrés Neuman (Argentina), Alberto Olmos (España) Pola Oloixarac (Argentina), Antonio Ortuño (México), Patricio Pron (Argentina), Lucía Puenzo (Argentina), Andrés Ressia Colino (Uruguay), Santiago Roncagliolo (Perú), Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), Andrés Felipe Solano (Colombia), Carlos Yushimito del Valle (Perú) y Alejandro Zambra (Chile).

I have heard of several of these writers and some are in English. I know I have read a story by Samanta Schweblin and I think I liked it. She had something in the Latin American issue of Zoetrope. I haven’t read Andres Nueman yet, and I’m a little disappointed I didn’t buy one of his books when I was in Barcelona; he was on my list. Alejandro Zambra has been translated into English. You can read both Bonsai and the Private Lives of Trees. Santiago Roncagliolo has one book in English and as I noted earlier this week he will be on El Publico Lee. Jorge Volpi has noted his writings as a way forward with the political novel. I don’t know about the rest of the authors, but I guess that will give me an excuse to read the issue.


Read about some of them in English.