Hi, This is Conchita and Other Stories by Santiago Roncagliolo – A Review

Hi, This is Conchita and Other Stories
Santiago Roncagliolo
Edith Grossman, translator
Two Lines Press, 2012, pg 176
(Publication Date: April 9, 2013)

Santiago Roncagliolo’s Hi, This is Conchita is a series of phone calls stripped of all narrative clutter. They exist just as voices as if one were listening to a wire tap, or as fits Conchita, voyeurs . It is a structure that served another Latin American writer, Mario Benedetti, well, and in the hands of Roncagliolo it makes for some humorous writing. It also shows Roncagliolo’s talent for comedy, which has not been as apparent in his works translated into English so far.

Composed of alternating phone calls, Conchita follows four characters in an unnamed city. Conchita is a phone sex worker and her first call opens the book with straight up porn. Within a couple lines she is already talking about how hot she is. Every imaginable cliché follows from there. Roncagliolo adds even more humor as Conchita’s clients break in mid fantasy to correct her descriptions of the act. For example, in the first call she says she is on his office desk and leaning on the coffee machine, and the caller corrects her and says the machine is across the room. From there they go back and forth negotiating what she really would be leaning on, before she returns to the act. The humor intensifies with each call because they all start the same way and have the same non sequiturs into details of the room, or what the caller looks like. For the callers, though, the illusion never fails and one caller continues to call back, falling in love with Conchita. It is a voice of loneliness that inhabits all to frequently the men who engage with phone sex. Roncagliolo does not make fun of the caller, but the situation and in the end he gives a power to change events that he does not know he has and may never realize.

Following on the humor of Conchita are the conversations of a hit man and his client. The hit man is a professional but he is also clumsy and has a philosophical outlook that leads him to question his client if he really wants to kill his lover. The client can’t stand the questions, but the hit man thinks affairs of the heart don’t need to be solved by killing. The conversations between the two are funny and create a dynamic between the passions of the client and the professionalism of the hit man that leave the reader with the impression that the hit man is of great skill. Yet when it comes to the actual hit the only thing professional about him is willingness to kill. And from that a series of humorous events ensue that tie the book together.

Two other callers are a self obsessed ex boy friend who leaves long and rambling messages on his ex’s answering machine. After the first call it seems obvious why she left him. However, Roncagliolo is playing with the reader here, because all one knows is his voice. She never speaks. All that is known is that they had something for sometime and like the Conchita’s callers he is lonely and pitiful. He’ as pitiful as the man who keeps calling the customer service agent and never gets help with what he needs. While the ex boyfriend is occasionally heavy handed, the customer service vignettes with their bureaucratic logic and employees who make one feel as if you are wasting their time, are the most common stereotype throughout the book. If it did not link in with the other stories as the book concludes it would have dragged the book down.

At first the calls are separate, unconnected, then as the story grows the characters begin to intersect. The calls between a man and his lover intersect between the hit man and his client, changing what had been the comedic episodes of two men, intrudes its true horror on the voice of a desperate woman who demands her lover respect her. Roncagliolo doesn’t tie all the stories neatly together, but they do all interrelate, if even lightly. The interrelations, though, expand the characters and adding a level of complexity to them that has not existed until then. Even the otherwise week customer service calls are reframed by the new relationships. It is this ability to shift how one looks at the stories and turns the humor from bright to dark that makes Hi, This is Conchita interesting.

Three stories are also included in the collection. While their is nothing particularly wrong with them, they are not really that noteworthy. For someone looking for a good short story, one should see the story included in The Future Is Not Ours. The stories are typical written in the realistic tradition, ones that populate so many collections of short stories that while well written, don’t really add anything new. However, if one has not read many short stories from younger Latin American writers, they will give an insight into how younger writers are looking at more international models and as such the stories can seem similar.

Hi, This is Conchita and other stories is a funny book from an up and coming star of Latin American fiction. A reader would do well to spend a little time with this short volume of freely rendered conversations.

FTC Notice: The publisher of the book provided me a copy of the book. For that I thank them.

Mario Benedetti’s The Rest is Jungle Reviewed at Powell’s Books

Powell’s Review A Day has an interesting review of Mario Benedetti’s The Rest is Jungle (I also reviewed at the Quarterly Conversation). It came out a while ago but I’ve been meaning to post it here as a way to give more coverage to this excellent book. If you read my review, you’ll probably have a sense of the stories themselves. If you read this review, you learn more about his life.

When the great Mario Benedetti passed away at the age of 88 in May 2009, thousands of people throughout his native Uruguay and the rest of Latin America mourned the loss deeply. In the United States and other English-speaking countries, however, the death of this renowned literary master garnered little but a passing mention. As the author of more than 80 books (poems, short stories, novels, plays, and essays), Benedetti was as beloved and respected a man of letters as the Southern Cone has ever produced.

In addition to his creative works, Benedetti was also a journalist and outspoken political activist. He helped coordinate the Broad Front (Frente Amplio), a coalition of leftwing political groups organized to combat Uruguay’s ruling parties. As political tensions grew during the tumultuous years of the early 1970s (as they did throughout Latin America), repressive actions by the military also grew in frequency and severity. Following the 1973 coup, Frente Amplio was outlawed, as was the magazine for which Benedetti wrote, forcing him into exile. He moved first to Buenos Aires whereupon a rightwing paramilitary group threatened him with death. From Argentina he traveled to Lima, Peru, but was soon detained and later deported, finally reaching Havana and eventually Madrid. Benedetti continued to write from abroad, heavily critical of the political oppression occurring in his homeland. It would be over a decade before his return to Uruguay, settling in Montevideo in 1985, where he lived for the remainder of his life. The political repression, censorship, and exile he endured largely influenced his writing.

With so little of Benedetti’s work to be found in English, the posthumous publication of a recently translated collection of his short stories is a welcome and well-deserved addition to what remains. Composed of nearly four dozen short stories, The Rest Is Jungle and Other Storiesspans 50 years of Benedetti’s literary career. With nary a weak piece to be found, this collection offers the full breadth of his remarkable short-story-writing prowess.

The Rest Is Jungle by Mario Benedetti – My Review Now Up at the Quarterly Conversation

My review of the short stories of Mario Benedetti has been published in the latest edition of the Quarterly Conversation, along with many other fine  essays. If you are interested in Latin American literature it is worth the effort to check him out.

The Uruguayan writer Mario Benedetti, sadly, was little translated into English during his lifetime, and most of what made it through was poetry. Perhaps this was because his fiction never quite fit the English-world model of a Latin American writer, neither writing the meta investigations of a Borges or Cortazar, nor delving into the magical realism of the Boom. Instead, his short stories were in a more realist vein, interested in urban dwellers; later, as he was marked by the turbulent history of Uruguay and its neighbor, Argentina, he reflected on the plight of the political prisoner and the exile. He was concerned with more than just 20th-century history, though, and he included in his stories moments of the fantastic and a humor that finds the foolishness in the deepest held aspirations of his characters. At his best, he combined these to draw portraits of stagnation, isolation, and the limiting power of dreams that are often funny, sometimes dark, and usually surprising.

Mario Benedetti’s The Rest is Jungle and Other Stories – A Super Brief Review

I just finished reading the short stories of Mario Benedetti in The Rest is Jungle and Other Short Stories which is now available from Host Publications. I don’t want to say to much because I’m writing a review for the Quarterly Conversation, but it is a shame that his stories didn’t come out in an English volume earlier. They are all excellent and some are quite memorable and funny. It makes me want to read some of his other works, especially La Tregua which I’ve heard so much about.

Mario Benedetti Has Passed Away

Uruguayan author Mario Benedetti has passed away at age 88. As El Pais said

Muere Mario Benedetti después de una larga vida de lucha contra la adversidad y en defensa de la alegría

Mario Benedetti died after a long life fighting against adversity and defending joy

Jose Sarmago has a short reflection in El Pais.

The work of Mario Benedetti, friend, brother, is surprising in all aspects, in the expansiveness of the varied genres he touched, in the density of his poetic expression as much for the extreme conceptual liberty that he uses. The language of Benedetti has deliberately ignored the supposed existence of poetic words and the others that are not. For Benedetti, language, above all, is poetic. Read from this perspective, the work of the great Uruguayan poet presents us not only as the sum of a vital experience, but over all, as the persistent search for and the reaching a feeling, that of a human being on the planet, in a country, in a city or in a village, or simply in his house or in a collective action. There are many reasons that bring us to read Benedetti. Perhaps the best is this: the poet has become the voice of his own village. Or better, a universal poet.

La obra de Mario Benedetti, amigo, hermano, es sorprendente en todos los aspectos, ya sea por la extensión en la variedad de géneros que toca, ya sea por la densidad de su expresión poética como por la extrema libertad conceptual que usa. El léxico de Benedetti ha ignorado deliberadamente la supuesta existencia de palabras “poéticas” y de otras que no lo son. Para Benedetti, la lengua, toda ella, es poética. Leída desde esta perspectiva, la obra del gran poeta uruguayo se nos presenta, no sólo como suma de una experiencia vital, sino, sobre todo, como la búsqueda persistente y lograda de un sentido, el del ser humano en el planeta, en el país, en la ciudad o en la aldea, en su casa simplemente o en la acción colectiva. Son muchas las razones que nos llevan a la lectura de Benedetti. Tal vez la principal sea ésa, precisamente: que el poeta se ha convertido en voz de su propio pueblo. O sea, en poeta universal.

If you read Spanish you can read about him at Clarin also.