Mirar al agua (Looking at the Water) by Javier Sáez de Ibarra – A Review

Mirar al agua (Looking at the Water)
Javier Sáez de Ibarra
Páginas de Espuma, 2009 pg 187

Javier Sáez de Ibarra is a Spanish high school teacher and author of several short story collections, including the 2009 prize wining Mirar al agua (I Premio Internacional De Narrativa Breve Riberea del Duero). Very little of his work has been translated. So far as I know, only one story in The Portable Museum Vol 2. Stylistically his work is hard to classify because it is so varied, moving from traditional narrative approaches that are easily recognizable as stories to the more experimental works that might not even be a story, lacking all notion of plot or character. Mirar al agua at its best mixes forms to explore different story telling approaches and leaves the reader with a collection that can both be moving and full of literary games.

Thematically, the collection explores the plastic arts, particularly painting, and finds in them a richness of material that is quite unexpected. The first story, Mirar al agua, shows Sáez de Ibarra as a deft and subtle observer of relationships. The story, as if it is a warm up to the collection, has a relatively traditional structure. A man goes on a boring date, or at least what he thinks will be. He insults the woman, but then in an act of shame and contrition begins to walk along with her, not as a friend, but as if he were looking for an invitation to show he isn’t as bad as she thought. In the end a bond forms between them as they work their way through the exposition of modern art. He knows nothing about art and is frustrated by what he is seeing. Only when they come to the end and he sees the word Water reflected in reverse. In that image he sees a metaphor for how images fail, and the water ever shifting is more real. It gives him peace and that first unsettling bits of the walk are over. The two of them just stand there. What makes it work is Sáez de Ibarra’s ability to capture the awkward frustration that acts out and yet is quieted in subtle understanding, a momentary bit of friendship.

In the second story Un hombre pone un cuadro (A Man Hangs a Photo), he uses a style akin to the New Novel. A man is trying to hang a painting in his flat. He goes over the steps, going back and forth between false starts with the hammer and the nail to slowly find in his actions what is driving the need to hang a photo. Slowly it becomes apparent that the photo is of his family and that the act of hanging it is an act of desperation, as if in hanging a representation of them he will actually have them. It is a beautiful story that both explores our relationships to objects and one man’s suffering.

Perhaps his best story in the collection is Una ventana en Via Speranzella (A Window on Via Speranzella) which describes an artist who on finding herself at age 23 trapped with children and the disappointments that come with letting one’s dream slip away, decides one day to open the window of her bedroom and show one of her breasts for a few moments. It’s an act she continues to do the same day every year, an act that becomes something that her neighbors come to expect and look forward to each year. It is not a prurient act, not for her and many of those who watch her every year. It is a liberation from the constraints of becoming a señora whose life has not turned out to be what she wanted it to be. The narrator, a kind of historian who is investigating what is known of the artist and her performance art, notes that it is liberation because it is an act completely counter to what she should do. It is also a private act done in public, one where she acknowledges no one, never looking at anyone while she does it. Nor does she speak to anyone about the act. It is hers to do and control and surprisingly her neighbors give her that space. It is this subtle mix of art theory (most of the stories include epigrams on art) and emotion that makes many of Sáez de Ibarra’s stories remarkable.

In his more experimental vein is Caprichos a play on Goya’s Caprichos. Caprichos contains 21 one or two sentence satirical descriptions of people, often with caustic titles. Much like Goya, these are biting criticism of society and were a welcome change to some of the short story collections I’ve read lately that lack a sense of social criticism. Sáez de Ibarra’s criticism are open ended, but sharp and biting. The following example is indicative of his humor.

Dos negros regresan caminando por la carretera, sus zapatos rotos, los miembros cansados; un escucha lo que el otro le cuenta. En un lado tres furcias, una jamona les enseña su escote
De cada cual según su capacidad.

Two black men return walking along the highway, their shoes are in tatters, their bodies tired; one listens to what the other is telling him. On one side three whores, one a buxom woman shows them her cleavage.
Every one according to their abilities.

Escribir mientras Palestina (Writing While Palestinian) is perhaps his most political work in the collection and one that may have the littlest to do with art. It examines the journey of a journalist to Palestine in 2008, around the time of the Rachel Coury death. In the search he doesn’t find much in the way of answers, just questions about how you approach writing about the problems without becoming a cliche. Ultimately, he comes to the wall that separates Palestine from Israel and sees in the graffiti voices that have lasted, that continue to exist even when people like him come and go.

In the playful Hiperrealismo / Surrealismo (Hyper realism / Surrealism), he takes clips from a Madrid newspaper and constructs a story. The clips are the typical official announcements and routine news that masks a different world, one that is perhaps more true. He then rewrites the clips mixing the ideas into funny combinations. For example, in the realism there are issues with recycling and the economic stability of families. Sáez de Ibarra coverts that into an official pronouncement from the government that children who cannot be cared for will be collected on the streets. The story, much like Caprichos, has a biting humor that is refreshing. The story also plays with form, eschewing plot and charter, and creating a picture of a world that is anything but realistic.

Mirar al agua is an impressive book full of ideas, both in terms of short stories and art, and has at least one story that will interest most readers. The breath of forma and structure is commendable and delightful, although it might be a barrier for some readers. Javier Sáez de Ibarra is a writer that I want to read more of and who should have a few more stories translated.

The Portable Museum Vol 2 – featuring Uhart, Levrero, Sáez de Ibarra, Salvatierra, Villoro – A Review

The Portable Museum Vol 2
featuring Hebe Uhart, Mario Levrero, Javier Sáez de Ibarra, Dany Salvatierra, Juan Villoro
Ox and Pigeon, 2013

The second volume of The Portable Museum is another interesting collection with a couple revelations. Of the authors included, I was the most familiar with Javier Sáez de Ibarra because he is well know in the Spanish short story circles that I read. Surprisingly, though, I’ve only read one of his stories. His piece, The Gift of the Word, was as interesting as I hoped. Told in a series of brief paragraphs from seven repeating narrators, the story describes the power and weakness of love. The story is not a typical  love story, especially given that one narrator describes Nietzsche’s philosophy. Instead, Sáez de Ibarra writes of the words people use to describe love and how it is constructed. Of the two collections, it is the most experimental story and shows a writer who takes real risks. I definitely want to read some more of his work.

The real revelation of the collection was Mario Levero. According to the bio, he is a bit of a cult writer and I can see why. Still, his work is fascinating and I would like to see more in English and of course I think I’ll track some down in the future. The story, The Boarding House, is a long monologue about a strange boarding house in a corrupt or totalitarian state where strange things happen, such as a phone is suddenly installed after a year of waiting. What makes his work intriguing is not only the byzantine world he creates, but his writing style which flows in fantastical impressions that are hard to grasp at first, but slowly create a dystopian view of the world. For my money, the story is worth the price of  the issue.

Conversation by the Pond from Dany Salatierra was also interesting in its fantastical story of a daughter trying to escape her mother’s control. What made it notable was the daughter burned the mother in a rage, but then was forced to take care of her charred body that is given to over heating. It is a nice play on the rage and fury that was in their relationship before the fire.

The Juan Villoro piece is a humorous piece about Mexican macho culture told through a mariachi who makes an independent film. The film gives him cache as a hip singer, but it also turns him into a sexual image that he is unable to sustain and uncomfortable. It wasn’t as compelling a story as I might have liked, but I it is a window into Mexico similar to Down the Rabbit Hole.

I should mention there was also a story from Heve Uhart, but it was least interesting of the stories, mostly because I don’t have too much stories for anything related to academia in my fiction.

In all, another good collection.

FTC Notice: The publisher provided me with this book. Thanks for the book.


The Best Short Story Collections in Spanish Over the Last 5 Years

The ever excellent blog El sindrome Chejov recently polled a series of Spanish language short story authors about what they thought were the best collections of short stories to be published over the last five years. It is a broad ranging list that includes authors English speakers would probably be familiar with, such as Alice Munro and Lydia Davis. Of interest to me were the books originally written in Spanish (I’m already sufficiently familiar with the English speakers). Some of these I’ve heard of and in a few cases I’ve even read some of the books. I certainly agree with some of the choices and am looking forward to finding some new authors.

The three most cited authors were Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, Alice Munro and Ángel Olgoso. However, I saw many references to Javier Sáez de Ibarra, Andres Neuman’s Hacerse el muerto (read my review), and Smanta Schweblin’s Pajaros en la boca, a book that I am looking forward to reading soon. Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s list is of particular interest especially since he has read 250 collections over the last 5 years. I also thought Miguel Ángel Zapata’s was interesting because it listed the writers and their approaches which gives you a little context. Lest the embarrassment of riches make you think things are all rosy over there, Muñoz does end his survey with a complaint that could be easily leveled here in the states:

Buenos libros y buena labor editorial. Mejora sensible en la atención de los medios. …Y pocos lectores. En un país con desesperantes bajos índices de lectura -disfrazados por la atención mayoritaria a unos pocos libros populares- pero con una media de cuatro horas diarias ante la televisión, el cuento, que requiere de un predisposición particular y una educación del gusto para disfrutar de sus resortes narrativos, tan distintos a los de la novela, no puede salir bien parado. Aun así, sigo pensando que el cuento posee un poder que nuestro sistema educativo no ha sabido aprovechar. Aún. Confío en centenares de profesores de bachillerato que van descubriendo, y difundiendo, las posibilidades que el relato corto ofrece para introducir a los alumnos en el placer de la literatura y, todavía más, en el mejor conocimiento y explicación de materias distintas de las estrictamente literarias. Historia o Filosofía, para empezar (¿se sigue estudiando eso en Bachillerato?).

From Zapata’s comment:

En la última década, el cuento español abandona las trincheras incómodas del gueto y comienza el lento acomodo en las mesas de novedades y en las reseñas de los diarios nacionales. Eso es un hecho; lento y a gotas, pero un hecho: llueve. Ya se ha apuntado muchas veces antes la labor encomiable y de zapa de editoriales especializadas en el género como Menoscuarto, Páginas de Espuma, Salto de Página, Tropo, Traspiés o Cuadernos del Vigía. Pero cabe anotar igualmente la proliferación de espacios en la blogosfera que promueven la expansión de los géneros breves y su rápida recepción por un público silente aunque masivo tras la pantalla del ordenador. En cuanto a las direcciones que asume el cuento actual, es precisamente la heterogeneidad de propuestas la clave para entender su auge: el terror contemporáneo entreverado de cierto apego a la sobriedad realista del cuento norteamericano en la obra de Jon Bilbao, la relectura del fantástico desde posiciones especulativas o metafísicas (en tres maestros del género en su estado más puro: Ángel Olgoso, Juan Jacinto Muñoz Rengel, Manuel Moyano), la experimentación formal en la renovación que parte del fantástico hacia territorios que lindan con lo telúrico (la portentosa cuentística de lo inaudito plausible que desarrolla David Roas), la orfebrería impresionista de altísimo octanaje literario (Óscar Esquivias, Jesús Ortega), lo cotidiano transfigurado (Miguel Ángel Muñoz, Andrés Neuman y Ernesto Calabuig, que hacen virtuosismo genuino de la lectura entre líneas y la fuerza emocional de las historias), el lirismo surreal (Juan Carlos Márquez en su estupendo “Llenad la tierra”, todo un despliegue talentoso de recursos y técnica)… Si a ello sumamos el trabajo de fondo de maestros contemporáneos que siguen trabajando el género aportando periódicamente nuevas obras de impronta clásica y generosos ejercicios de estilo (Merino, Calcedo, Aramburu, Díez, Aparicio, Fernández Cubas, Peri Rossi…), da la sensación de políptico generacional completo, de relevo asegurado y estupenda salud del género, como certifica el análisis que hizo del cuento en 2011 el artículo del crítico Ricardo Senabre para el último número del “El Cultural” el año pasado. Otra cosa, por supuesto, es la flexibilidad de mercado, distribuidores y librerías en el sostenimiento de títulos suficientes de un género que siempre supone un quebradero de cabeza para las editoriales que funcionan con la calculadora y la cuenta de resultados ante la mesa. Mientras siga chispeando…”

If you are interested in the short story, these 7 posts are worth skimming through.

  1. First
  2. Second
  3. Third
  4. Fourth
  5. Fifth
  6. Sixth
  7. Seventh

Finalists for the Short Story Prize II Premio de Narrativa Breve “Ribera de Duero”

The finalists for the second prize for the short story  Ribera de Duero (II Premio de Narrativa Breve “Ribera de Duero”) was announced last week.  via Moleskin Literario). I’m not familiar with any of them, but neither was I with Javier Sáez de Ibarra who won last year and I liked the story that was in El Pais. The winner is announced on the 31st of March.

Convocado por el Consejo Regulador de la Denominación de Origen Ribera del Duero y la editorial Páginas de Espuma, la segunda edición del Premio Internacional de Narrativa Breve Ribera del Duero ya tiene a sus finalistas. Las obras que entran en la selección final, seleccionadas de entre seiscientos sesenta libros de cuentos presentados por escritores de veinticinco nacionalidades, vienen firmadas por siete primeros espadas “de perfil muy heterogéneo”, según el comité de lectura, “aunque todos ellos están ligados desde hace tiempo al mundo de las letras”. Los miembros del jurado, cuya identidad se desconoce, dará a conocer el nombre del ganador el próximo 31 de marzo, día en que se celebrará el acto de entrega en el Círculo de Bellas Artes de Madrid.

El ganador de la edición anterior fue Javier Sáez de Ibarra por su obra Mirar al agua.

Finalistas del II Premio Internacional de Narrativa Breve
“Ribera de Duero”

– Dioses inmutables, amores, piedras, de Lolita Bosch

– Cuatro cuentos de amor invertebrado, de Marcos Giralt Torrente

– Ensimismada correspondencia, de Pablo Gutiérrez

– No hablo con gente fea, de Marcelo Lillo

– Ideogramas, de Juan Carlos Méndez Guédez

– El libro de los viajes equivocados, de Clara Obligado

– Los constructores de monstruos, de Javier Tomeo


Short Videos of Spanish Authors at Conocer Al Autor

Concer Al Autor has nearly a hundred short videos of Spanish authors talking about their books. Some of it is a little short and of course about their most recent book, but interesting nonetheless. The Paginas de Espuma subsite is filled with authors I am much more familiar with including Javier Saéz de Ibarra y Andres Neuman. http://www.conoceralautor.com/paginasdeespuma/

Short Stories from Spain At Cuatro Cuentos – Hipólito G. Navarro, Pilar Adón, Iban Zaldua y José Manuel Martín Peña

The on-line journal Cuatro Cuentos’s newest edition is about Spain and has a story from one of the writers I’ve discovered recently and have enjoyed immensely, Hipólito G. Navarro. His story comes from his 2000 book Los Tigres Albinos. I haven’t had a chance to read the stories yet but I look forward to giving them a read soon.

Cuatrocuentos #12. Edición Especial España, a cargo del editor invitado Javier Sáez de Ibarra, con cuentos de  Hipólito G. Navarro, Pilar Adón, Iban Zaldua José Manuel Martín Peña.

“Ahora los críticos españoles –dice Sáez de Ibarra– y también los periodistas, afirman que el cuento vive aquí un momento extraordinario y hasta empiezan a igualarlo a la consagrada entre nosotros generación del medio siglo (Aldecoa, Fernandez Santos, Martín Gaite, Rodoreda, Matute, Fraile). Quien esto escribe sabe que no verá el veredicto del futuro, que dicen que es el bueno, en tanto discrepa de las competiciones. Así que me complace el gusto de presentar a los lectores de Cuatrocuentos, a estos autores que espero muestren una diversidad de estéticas posibles y un rato suficientemente extenso para el placer lector. Conque allá van:
Hipólito Navarro, que ha ido ganando crédito como patriarca de lo breve, entre otras cualidades exhibe la de la construcción del relato. Las escenas se suceden con maestría, ofreciendo momentos y perspectivas que se suman, se comentan, se corrigen. Esto da lugar a la posibilidad de lo complejo, espacio a lo imaginable, silencios elocuentes y opciones para la interpretación; así como el sumo deleite de ir descifrando lo que se lee, o incluso después, cuando las páginas se han apagado y nos quedamos solos.

Short Stories From Ines Mendoza, Ronaldo Menendez, Javier Saez de Ibarra (Spanish Only)

A few more short stories from Spanish authors (in Spanish only) . Javier Saez de Ibarra won the first International Prize for Short Stories Ribera del Duero in March of 2009.

Debutantes, Javier Saez de Ibarra

Mohr, la que huye de la luz, Ines Mendoza

Paralelamente, Ronaldo Menendez

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.

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.