Entre malvados (Between the Wicked) by Miguel Ángel Muñoz – a Review

Entre malvados (Between the Wicked)
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Páginas de Espuma, 2016, pg 146

MUNOZ_EM_C_IMPRENTAEntre malvados is the Spanish author Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s third collection of short stories, and represents a return to the short form after two novels. His recent work has been concerned with the intersection between art and identity, best expressed in his last book, the transgressive La canción de Brenda Lee. Entre malvados marks a change of direction towards stories that are concerned with recent history, not necessarily political, but engaged in the events that have shaped recent Spanish history. The title is quite clear in stating where his focus lies; however, the stories are richer and more ambiguous explorations of recent events than a simple reading of the tile might allow. It is also worth noting, that several of the stories were either written or started almost a decade ago. Their collection here, though, does seem well timed.

The stories fall into two general camps: ones that deal directly with an event; and ones that are more generalized sources of evil. In the later, Somos los malvados (We are the Wicked), the first story of the collection explores the origins of cruelty and how it propagates itself. The story is simple: a man is abused as a child by local bullies. As an adult his daughter is taught by one. All he has to do is spread rumors about the teacher and he will get his revenge. Obviously, the condemnation of bulling is there, as is a recognition of its power. But there is more here, more than a tale of satisfying revenge. The means of achieving that revenge is a new propagation of cruelty.

In a similar vein, Los hijos de Manson (The Children of Manson) is an exploration of evil, both extreme and commonplace. Muñoz describes four people who in their own ways brought evil to those around them. The firs is the  strange power of  Charles Manson and his manic evil. The  second is the mob killer known as the Iceman who lived with his family in middle class normalcy, but was vicious in his professional life. These two are traditional killers, evil men most people would despise. Then Muñoz turns to the father of the Enlightenment, Rousseau who is monstrously cavalier in his raising of children, giving them all away and convincing himself they would be better that way. Finally, he takes on Arthur Miller who refused to see his son who had Downs Syndrome for his whole life. The contrast between all of them is quite large, but it underscores the general theme of the book. The inclusion of Rousseau and Miller makes for a more nuanced collection and makes it difficult to say, of course they are bad.

Aguantar el frio (Putting Up with the Cold) is a transitional story, one that plays against the back drop of the real and the general. The story follows a cop who is looking for a missing girl. He’s seen this happen before, but in that case he found the girl after she had been killed. He won’t do it again. On a tip from the girl’s neighbors he arrests and brutally beats one a different neighbor. He won’t fail and he knows who did it. It’s just a mater of time before he gets to the truth. At the same time, his son has lost an eye in one of the big government protests in Madrid that happened during the height of the economic crises in 2009-2012. He doesn’t want anyone to know that. He is ashamed that his son has turned out the way he has. It is a classic crime fiction dilemma. Here, though the cop is blinded by the past, his own zeal, an the inability to understand that the same people he wants to protect are being damaged by the government he works for. Moreover, we have echos of the first story, Somos los malvados, that suggest the revenge that felt good in the first story, is perhaps being abused by the neighbors. It is an effective story about the tunnel vision and over application of the lessons of the past.

There are two stories, Los Nombres (The Names) and Un hombre tranquilo (The Quiet Man) that deal with the March 11, 2004 bombings at the Atocha train station in Madrid. Muñoz intended these stories to be part of a larger collection of voices of the event. In each he writes about the last few hours before the bombings. In Los Nombres he describes a man who is having his second child and is about to transition between a soccer playing good time guy, to a dedicated father. Un hombre tranquilo Muñoz  creates a kind of musical journey, as the protagonist surveys the train as he listens to El ultimo habitante del planeta. Its almost a montage from a movie. Where the Los nombres celebrates the life outside the train, Un hombre brings a kind of beauty to the every day. In each Muñoz finds the good and beautiful in the routine. The two stories show his strongest writing in a technical sense and make full use of his skills as a writer to get inside the lives of those who died.

Intenta decir Rosebud (Trying to Say Rosebud) is his most ambitious story. Based on the Spanish journalist Javier Espinosa’s account of his captivity as an ISIS prisoner, builds a compelling account of life as a prisoner and, more importantly, what life is like after the experience. There is more to the experience than survival and the continued reminders that even the simplest things in daily life are difficult moves the story from war to aftermath and touches on Muñoz’s general theme of the continual presence of evil. The actual depictions of life in the prison cell are chilling. The title is both a nod to Citizen Kane and to the power of art to calm. One of the prisoners tries to remember scenes of movies as a means of escape. Kane is his favorite movie and just remembering Rosebud offers him something outside the room. Intenta decir Rosebud is the most brutal and arresting story of the collection.

Entre malvados is a fine collection of stories. While they do give a sense of modern life in Spain, the traumas and the politics, they are more than just newspaper cut outs. There is a search for the darkness in everyone, and what makes the best us overcome it, if even temporarily. After such a long absence from the short form, Entre malvados is a welcome return for Miguel Ángel Muñoz.


La canción de Brenda Lee (Brenda Lee’s Song) by Miguel Ángel Muñoz – A Review

portada-portada-esLa canción de Brenda Lee (Brenda Lee’s Song)
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Menoscuarto, 2012, pg 322

La canción de Brenda Lee (Brenda Lee’s Song) is the latest novel from the Spanish author Miguel Ángel Muñoz whose work I’ve followed on this blog for the past few years (see his stories, novels, and interviews). He is a devotee and a champion of the short story and when I think of his work it is always in that context. However, with each novel he shows himself to be as equally good with the long form as the short form. La canción extends the explorations of art, sexuality and power that he fist explored in El Corazon de los Caballos and goes father, finding both the release and the entrapment each has on the other. It makes for a novel that is every changing in surprising ways and descends into the darkest desires of pleasure and pain.

El gran Leonardo Veneroni (The Great Leonardo Veneroni) son of Leonardo Veneroni, el grande (Big Leonardo Veneroni) is a jazz singer who is planing to record a new album of standards with his group Veneroni’s Quartet. He wants to record an album that will set itself apart from other Spanish jazz albums. It will also set himself apart from the legacy of his late father who sang Spanish pop songs and who died in while the gran Leonardo was a boy. Veneroni is a dedicated singer, almost monkish in his approach to working out how he is going to find a new way to sing standards that already seem to have a definitive interpretation. As Veneronitries to find a new way within a standard, Muñoz shows his deep reverence for music, not only the jazz and pop of the English speaking world, but that of Spain and Europe. It is obvious he has thought about the relationships between the different arts as there are several passages that draw a parallel between songs and short stories:

También las grandes composiciones, las sinfonías, las óperas estaban llenas de momentos muertos en los que la expresividad de la acción desaparecía y la melodía recorría un camino oscuro y brozoso. Las canciones, en cambio, tendían por naturaleza a la perfección. Aunque la mayoría de las veces no era posible culminar tal propósito, una canción no podía intentar otra consa que ser perfecta y conseguir llenar tres minutos de vacío y silencio con una narración emocionante hecha melodía inolvidable.

With in each song Veneroni wants to sing there is a nostalgia that makes the song perfect, but also must be overcome to make the song new and breathe again. The difficulty and effort it takes to find something new in the received makes a classical, not a romantic argument for this kind of art. It also creates constraints that Veneroni is often unable to find a release artistically.

Veneroni moves into what he thinks is an abandoned apartment building near the seashore to practice. Instead, there is a couple next door and a friendship develops with the wife. A sexual tension exists between the two yet nothing comes of it, in part because Veneroni cannot develop relationships with women. Instead, he hires prostitutes. For Veneroni, his only sexual way of experiencing the world is when he can dominate it. In the same way that music is to be controlled, his sexual passions leave him to create situations where he is in control. It is also a way of avoiding the life his father led, constantly cheating on his mother only to be taken back when he sang her the right song. Veneroni is the Great Veneroni and that requires a special dedication to his art, one that does not waste away in silly pleasures or trite songs that you are forced to sing for the rest of your career as if you were a nostalgia machine.

It is here where the novel takes a surprising turn when his neighbor passes his name on to a dominatrix, Mariam, and he begins to submit to her. For someone like Veneroni, given to having complete control over everything in his life, it is a a shock, in part because he had no interest in it before. With the arrival of Mariam, though, he descends into a world of controlled passion, of sublimation his purely sexual desires and forming a bond with someone. Their relationship reaches such a point that he is unable to sing because all he can think of is her. his art has always meant control and now that he has no control he looses his art. Ultimately, Mariam asks him to perform a sacrifice so great that it alters the power dynamic of their relationship and his ability to continue as an artist.

Given the wildly erotic content of the novel one should not overlook the questions surrounding the creation of Veneroni’s music, or any art for that matter. For Veneroni music as he lives it is the austere life that comes to life when he has found the essential nature of a song. For many people, though, it is also nostalgia and a means of shared expression. Even though Veneroni is singing for audiences that interplay between the two doesn’t exist, in the way it does for his father. It is also why Veneroni’s sexual life is so impersonal: why make allow in something that will only make your sense of control dissipate. The question left unanswered, though, in this fine novel is if the complete control over one’s life doesn’t make for good relationships, does the loosening of that control make for good art? It is something the reader will have to decide, for part I can only hope that the answer is yes.

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.

El corazón de los caballos (The Heart of the Horses) by Miguel Ángel Muñoz – A Review

El corazón de los caballos (The Heart of the Horses)
Miguel Ángel Muñoz
Alcalá, 2009, 145 pg

El corazón de los caballos is the Spanish short story writer Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s first novel. A refreshingly short novel, it is a continuation of a story that first appeared in his collection Quédate donde estás (Stay Where You Are), called El reino químico and which was my favorite of the collection when I reviewed it a year or two ago. As in the short story, the novel opens with unspoken tension between  the narrator’s father and grandfather. It is a tension that has populates the world of the grandson, Victor, who doesn’t understand why his father does not like his grandfather. It is a relation that in the novel is distant and still remains unexplained, but it sets the tone of the novel. What seemed like the eccentric behaviors of a loving grandfather in the El reino químico, are actually the foundations of Victor’s problems.

Victor’s life hasn’t quite worked out as he wanted. He was a promising mathematics student but when he fails to get a scholarship after years of graduate study, he loses his patience and attacks the professor. He loses everything and on his journey to his final court date he goes to a Pyrenean town with his boyfriend Andrés, who is going to receive a literary award. It is a journey that begins to trigger a series of memories that he has if not suppressed, avoided. The first is of Eva, his former student, an anorexic and troubled girl who intrigued him. It isn’t so much as sexual, although there is some sort of tension, but one of shock, fear, confusion or even disappointment. When he does discover that she binges at night he is angry and like the mystery of his father and grandfather, she disappears and he hears nothing of her again. The second, darker memory is of a drug addict who likes to climb from balcony to balcony. Scared, a knife in his trembling hand, he watches as the man loses his balance on his porch and falls to his death without doing anything. He’s accused of pushing him, but he’s released because the man was a druggie known for that dangerous game.

With those incidents in the background, Victor and Andrés enter the Pyrenees. The awards ceremony is really just a chance for the town to feel important, but they meet two people of interest: the previous winner, Ines, a mysterious woman who has not let her photo appear on the cover of her books since her first book; and an old man and his granddaughter.  Each has a story that Andrés, a man who lives to gather stories and rewrite them as he sees fit, as if he is reconstructing the reality of those he has stolen from. And it is a form of theft, because he is unrepentant in his using of other people’s lives. The old man talks about a Portuguese man he met during the Spanish Civil War and who had been wrongly accused by the old man’s comrades of being a traitor. The story captivates both Andrés and Victor, and the old man promises they can see a photo of him the next day. From then on Victor’s life begins to get worse and over the next few hours he descends into darkness and violence as Andrés  dumps him, and Victor begins a search for the photo the old man promised. Ultimately, ending in a desperate moment of hate.

What makes the novel interesting is the interplay between the stories that the characters tell, and the way Andrés uses them to recreate Victor’s existence. A week man, Victor is at the mercy of Andrés ability to rewrite his own story, and when that story has ceased to be interesting, he leaves him; thus, rewriting his life again. It is that interweaving of Andrés power to draw a story from a character that creates Victor’s experience. It is as if, Andrés were actually the author of the book. It is a nice play on the journey narrative, and takes the reader deeper into the layers of story than just the Heart of Darkness references (in Spanish it is translated as El corazon de las tinieblas).  Muñoz is an author who is very interested in the interplay of story, reality, and how they construct each other and that playfulness is what makes him an interesting story teller and El corazón de los caballos a book worth reading.

You can read the first chapter here (pdf).

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

Recent Acquisitions – More Spanish Short Stories and a Little History for Good Measure

Christmas always means books to me and this year, between what I bought myself and a few gifts, my to read stack grew nicely. I continue with my reading, or should I say study, of the Spanish short story. And since I like history but don’t read it enough I picked up a few interesting titles. I can’t wait to read start reading them.

I forgot one:

New Book of Interviews with Spanish Short Story Writers

Páginas de Espuma, the short story only press in Spain, has published a book of interviews with Spanish short story writers, La familia del aire. These interviews are all available on the blog of Miguel Ángel Muñoz, El Sindrome Chejov. I have read many of them and if your are interested in the New Spanish short story they are a great collection and insight into the short story writers in Spain today.