La memoria donde ardía (Where Memory Burns) by Socorro Venegas – A Reivew

La memoria donde ardía
(Where Memory Burns)
Socorro Venegas
Páginas de Espuma, 2019

The Mexican author Socorro Venegas’ fine collection explores the transition to motherhood, the early stages of pregnancy through the first year or so, where doubts, uncertainty, and strictures from outside one’s self and the process, at times, difficult to adjust to. In economical prose (only one story is longer than five pages) she captures in brief moments the encounters that make the transition fraught. Filtering though out the book, explorations of memory as something that both defines and haunts oneself. In the world of La memoria one is constantly confronting what one is trying to escape.

The idea of escape most clear in Pertencias (Belongings) where a young window, overwhelmed by her loss and the ever present reminders of her late husband, she answers an ad in the paper looking for someone to exchange the complete contents of an apartment. In doing so, the narrator completely changes everything around her, including the location of memory, which Venegas rightly locates in physical objects. A beautiful story about grief, she captures the difficulty of the loss itself, but how one is continually reminded of it in subtle ways.

Con su muerte me sucedió algo singular: los que venian a dar me consuelo me confesaban secretos. ¿Veían en mí un filtro muy ancho, por el que también sus penas podrian irse?

With his death something strange happened: those who came to console me could confess their secrets. Did they see in me a wide filter which would also take make their pains go away?

In the comic and fraught La gestión (The Process), a woman who is a few months pregnant is driving in her used car. On the back is a sticker from the previous owner that says “I feel great, ask me how.” A strange man grabs her wrist and won’t let her go until she explains how. The man is insistent, and to diffuse the situation she invites him for coffee at a café across the street. Sitting, watching him, she realizes he is a lost soul, and wonders what his mother was like. But this kind of though is double edged, and plays into her doubts about becoming a mother, and she knows it wasn’t the mother who is at fault.

Que difícil ser madre. No se deja de ser madre nunca, al menos mientras el hijo exista. Por el mundo, en algún sitio, había una mujer entrada en años que parió a este desdichado. Y esa mujer sería siempre cupluda por la infelicidad de su vástago.

It’s so difficult to be a mother. You never stop being a mother, at least while your child exists. Someplace in the world, there was a woman long ago who gave birth to this unfortunate creature. And that woman will always be blamed for the unhappiness of her offspring.

In El hueco (The Gap), Vía lacteca (Milky Way), and Real de catorce, the protagonists, respectively, are living among the difficulties of postpartum depression, loss of a premature baby, and a loss of family control that might also be postpartum depressions. In each she explores the pressure to be the idea mother, or how the perceptions of what motherhood is supposed to be come in conflict with the reality of it. El hueco is particularly dark since there are suggestions that the new mother, once she has given birth, has performed her main duty. Real de catorce, takes that theme and finds a narrator whose husband is “perfect”—he spends more time with the kids than she does—but that perfection is not one of sharing, but, instead, leaves her with tasks that she can only do: cooking, some cleaning. The idea of the helpful spouse is turned on its head, and the narrator is left in the same situation as the mother in El heco, uncertain if she will see her child again. The narrator in Vía lacteca asks, as if in conversation with these other mothers, if becoming a mother was really worth it. In each brief narrative, Venegas captures the complexities of these moments, giving a picture that is anything but happy.

In La soledad en los mapas (The loneliness of maps) a story with echos of the rural villages of Rulfo, two census takers travel to a remote village that is mired in poverty. The town is full of only children: all the parents have left to find work. The pair spend the night together. As the narrator, a woman, is falling asleep she wonders, “Pensé en esos niños tan semejantes a animales, en sus sonrisas fáciles, en sus manos callosas. ¿Niños?” “I thought about the children so similar to animals, about their easy smiles, their calloused hands. Children?” Its a dark vision of childhood. The next morning, covered in bug bites, she asks her partner, if she looks like a pregnant woman, and he says she looks like a castaway. It’s not just among the starkness of the poor village, is the narrator on her own.

Socorro Venegas’ work is marked with subtle insights and an economy of prose that is both elegant and surprising. In the scant 110 pages, she captures so much. An excellent collection.

La guerra (The War) by Ana María Shua – a Review

La guerra (The War)
Ana Mariá Shua
Páginas de Espuma, 2019, 164 pg

If the short story, in relation to the novel, is an underappreciated form, then flash fiction, or it’s better sounding name in Spanish, the Microrrelato, is even in an even worse state. There are imaginative authors who’ve dedicated whole works, even careers, to the art. I’ve covered writers such Javier Tomeo, Ángel Olgoso, or Zakaria Tamer, and to that group belongs the Argentine writer Ana María Shua. She has writes longer, more conventional length novels and short stories, but one of her hallmarks is the micro story. In her sixth collection, she explores war through its contradictions, failures, and ironies.

Before looking at a few of the pieces, it is important to discuss genre. La guerra is not necessarily a collection of stories. There is narrative in some of the pieces, but that is not really the focus of the work. Instead, they might be better understood as aphorisms. They don’t fit the strict definition of an aphorisms  since each pieces is several sentences long, but the effect is similar: a principle idea is announced, the some form of contradiction appears, and a koanic idea is expressed. The basis for some pieces is history, and in others it is purely fictional. In the latter case, the genre takes the form of a fable.

The success of a work like La guerra rests not in the narrative surprises or the characters, but in the insights one can add to the already well trod paths through history and its action adventure section, war. One of the better examples is in the piece La carga de la Brigada Ligera (The charge of the light brigade)

La famosa carga de la Brigada Ligera, durante la guerra de Crimea, fue una masacre. A los altos oficiales que comandamos la caballería británica y la lanzamos contra los rusos, se nos consideró incompetentes. Se habló de la disorganizatión, de los errores. En fin, se nos acusó injustamente, sin convalidar tanto esfuerzo. Sin nuestra incompetencia, nuestra disorganizatión, nuestros errores, jamás se hubiera inscrito esa página de salvaje heroísmo en la historia del ejército británico. Sin el tesón y el sacrificio de los inútiles, ¿qué sería de los héroes?

The famous charge of the Light Brigade, during the Crimean War, was a massacre. For us high officials who commanded the British carvery and threw them against the Russians, they consider us incompetent. They talk of disorganization and errors. They accuses us unjustly, without checking with much effort. But without our incompetence, our disorganization, our errors, there never would’ve never been written in the history of the British army such a page of savage heroism. Without the tenacity and sacrifice of the useless, what would happen to our heroes?

The piece takes on the fictional narrative voice of the leaders of the British army during the Crimean War. From there, he attempts to justify the disaster which over the years, thanks to Tennyson’s poem among other things, has become a piece of legendary heroism. Of course, it was also pointless and the generals, in this telling, don’t care what so ever about the soldiers. The idea of unintended consequences and legends they grow up around an event.

A more fanciful story is in Los olores (The Smells).

Entre las ideas menos prácticas de la inteligencia militar de Estados Unidos durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial, se inventaron bombas que no mataban pero que provocaban al estallar un violentísimo mal olor. Las flatulencias y la halitosis fueron los aromas elegidos para los ensayos, como si el olor a cadaverina no hubiera embotado ya los sentidos de los soldados amigos y enemigos. Tuvieron más éxito, en cambio, las bombas con olor a cebolla frita y pan caliente, capaces de provocar epidemias de nostalgia, pero nunca se usaron porque eran peligrosas incluso para la tropa propia.

Among the least practical ideas of the United States military intelligence during the Second World War was the invention of bombs that didn’t kill, but which on exploding let out a violently bad odor. Flatulence and halitosis were the chosen for the tests, as if the smell of rotting flesh had already confused the senses of the soldiers, both friend and foe. The bombs would’ve had more success with the smell of fried onion and warm bread, both capable provoking epidemics of nostalgia, but they would never be used since they would’ve been dangerous even for US’s own soldiers.

Here the story seems pure fiction, something so ridiculous it is parody. But Shua balances the humor with a couple truths about war: everyone gets used to the killing, and nostalgia, fist observed in soldiers, and renamed morale, is something strong. The story is also a good example of her style. While this seems fictional, other pieces are based purely in fact and lead to a similarly constructed conclusion. In this one, she plays with the violence of war and the stupidity of the ideas that often are applied to it.

A collection like this is tricky to pull off. In general, Shua does, but there are the occasional miss. In general, the success hinges on the last sentence. Does it flip the story, break out some ironic insight? If not it can lay flat. I was impressed with the number of these that worked. War is a subject that is to oversimplify and easy to make trite. Shua has done the opposite.


Favorite Reads of 2018

Here are my favorite reads for 2018. They are not ordered in any way. I didn’t review all of them, but the ones I did are linked. There are some real standout works there. I wish the Zúñiga and Tizón would be translated into English. Great collections each.

Pelea de gallos (Cockfight) by María Fernanda Ampuero – A Review

Pelea de gallos (Cock Fight)
María Fernanda Ampuero
Páginas de espuma, 2018, 114 pg

A pelea de gallos is a cockfight, the bloody and senseless fight between two roosters all for the enjoyment of rabid men. It is an apt metaphor for María Fernanda Ampuero’s excellent first collection of short stories, where characters, often at the margins, find themselves trapped in often horrifying situations they did not expect. The stories are taught and powerful, unafraid of the violence and inhumanity that comes from a pelea de gallos. Yet there is also a well honed subtlety and an unsaid that create a wide texture of moods and motifs, and reveal an author who knows how to construct a short story. It is a surprising mix that makes a compelling read, one that is hard to put down, and leaves you wanting more, given its scant 114 pages (one of my few complaints, even though concision should usually be commended).

The first story of the collection, Subasta (Auction), is a good reference point for the themes Ampuero explores. The story is in two parts. In the first the narrator tells of her girlhood spent helping her father at the cockfights he ran. She had the duty of cleaning up after the fights, getting covered in the blood and gore of the fight, becoming the brunt of jokes for her filth. In the second part she is kidnapped in a taxi and taken to an auction where she along with other victims are auctioned off so they can be ransomed, or in the case of young women, sexual slavery. It is a terrifying story, one that increases in tension and terror as it builds. It also surfaces two themes that run through out the collection: the extreme disparities in wealth in the unnamed country (Ampuero  is from Ecuador, but never locates her stories in a specific place); and the differing treatment of men and women. These two elements are as clear as it gets in Subasta, and the results are horrifying. Yet the narrator’s solution to her problem, one that both takes her dignity and yet leaves it intact, reveals a world where the powerful are one step away from what horrifies them most.

I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but the stories fall into groups. The first grouping might be said to be the unmoored young consisting of Nam, Crías (Offspring), and Persianas (Blinds). In many ways these three were the most shocking. The way Ampuero explores awakening sexuality within the the context of family. In Nam the teenage narrator finds a growing same sex attraction to her American classmate, an unrequited attraction that is never fulfilled as  the mysterious family reveals its dark secrets. In Crías the narrator is on a journey to the past, to the home she left long ago, which, is often said to be impossible. Instead, she finds in her friend’s brother a continuity with her childhood, a sexual relationship that started when she was thirteen and years later is still with her, permeated with the memories of  his hamsters who eat their young. The dark and seedy place where she feels home, where the opening act of friendship is to give a blow job on a cockroach stained carpet, all open the idea of offspring to question. It’s the same question that arises in Persianas when the narrator’s first experiments are with his cousins, and the outrage of it leaves him alone with his mother whose own loneliness to the most transgressive behavior. In each of these stories, innocence disappears, for the better, perhaps in Nam, and for the worse in Crías and Persianas, but in all of them there is a moment that marks the characters, shows them as malleable, a drift in a world that they cannot control.

Another notable set is Cristo (Christ), Pasión (Passion), and Luto (Mourning). Each of the stores explores the innocent and powerless among the religious. In Cristo, a mother searches frantically for medicine for her young child, while her older child is completely indifferent to the power of religion. Is it just a lack of experience, or is the older child wise enough to see her mother’s desperation is easily used against her? Who is more innocent, here, the one who believes, or the one who does not? The question of innocence flows through both Luto and Pasión. Luto is the retelling of the Lazarus story, from the point of view of the sisters, Mary and Martha. Here, though, Lazarus is a brute who beats Mary and banishes her to a barn where she is raped by the men of the village, simply because he caught her masturbating. It’s a dark story that only gets darker when you realized the sainted man who visits the home is Jesus and he says he can do nothing for Mary because Lazarus is the head of the house. Who is the sainted one here, is a good question, but what we know is it’s the men who get to claim credit for holiness. The best of these stories, though, is Pasión, a retelling of Jesus’ life, suggesting that it was a woman with magical power who was responsible for his rise to fame. And like all men once he gets what he wanted, he forgets everyone else. It’s one of those stories that not only questions the biblical, but expands its dimensions and makes the questions of faith and religion more interesting.

Finally, there is the set of Ali, Coro, and Cloro (Chlorine). The first two follow the lives of the upper class told through those below who watch them but are voiceless. In all of these the tight adherence to appearances over everything else, even at risk of self destruction is paramount. While each of the stories are excellent, showing a skill both in narration and in language, Cloro has a particular beauty that captures much of what Ampuero is trying to get at. Cloro is less a story then a landscape, a slow tracking shot through a land of futile gestures for the sake of an unobtainable perfection. The story opens with men cleaning the pool at a large high end resort. It’s a task they do every day, fishing leaves and garbage and dead animals from a pool no one uses. But they have do do it: it’s what the guests expect of the resort. One such guest, checks into her perfect room and looks out at the perfection on the other side her window, and in one of Ampuero’s best observations, the guest puts her finger in the butter on her tea tray only to find that that act has destroyed the perfection all around her. In one little act, an act you must do if you are to eat, the marketing campaign image in her head is destroyed. Yet the repetition continues, and the men will never stop cleaning the pool, and perhaps the same guest will return, expecting the same sterile perfection.

María Fernanda Ampuero’s Palea de Gallos is an excellent collection. There is not one bad story (although I thought Nam could have used a little bit more development in relation to the Vietnam aspect, but that might just be an American perspective when it comes to the war). Ampuero’s collection suggests a bright future, and I look forward to reading more from her.


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.

Velocidad de los jardines (The Speed of Gardens) by Eloy Tizón – A Review

velocidaddejardinesVelocidad de los jardines (The Speed of Gardens)
Eloy Tizón
Páginas de Espuma 2017 (1992), pg 146

Velocidad de los jardines, published in 1992, is considered one of the key collections from the generation of authors that first began to publish in Spain during the 1990s. On the occasion of its 25th anniversary Páginas de Espumas has brought out a new edition that returned a classic to print. Both in terms of narrative and style, Velocidad is a rich collection from a young author, just beginning to explore the short story.

Velocidad is well known for its verbal richness and  Los puntos cardinales (Cardenal Points) demonstrates that the reputation is well regarded. The narrator is an aging traveling salesman who has spent his career moving from place to place, never spending much time in any one place. His story is the story of a melancholy loner, one whose view of the world is all externalities that have their own life, as if solitude has made them his companions.

Puede decirse que mi trabajo es una rutina imprevista. Noches para la fatiga. Tapioca. Jardines donde las hojas secas son dulces y los codos de las ninfas como escamas transparentes. Mi corazón esta lleno de esquinas con carteles desteñidos, empapelados transitorios, peines sin púas, una puerta giratoria en a que doy vueltas y mas vueltas y no consigo salir a la calle.

You could say my job is an unforeseen routine. Fatigue for the night. Tapioca. Gardens where the dry leaves are sweet and elbows of nymphs that are like transparent scales. My heart is full of corners with  faded handbills, transitory wallpaper, combs without teeth, a revolving door in which I go around in circles and never make it out to the street.

It is a loneliness aware of its surroundings. You can see this sense in his 2013 collection of stories, Technicas de illumination (my review). This sense fills the narrator and he notices the woman who leads an old man through the subways. They are alone, unobserved, but he sees their strange journey. It so fascinates him that when the man disappears he sits with the woman. It is an act of the lost in an artificial and transitory world. Is it permanent? We don’t know, but for a moment, at least, the narrator isn’t alone.

That richness is also on display in Austin, a story that follows an middle aged professor as he drives out of Madrid one night. It is a journey not only a physical journey out of the city, but one that is a journey towards something lighter, less complicated.

Atrás quedaba la ciudad, y áreas de húmeda oscuridad dejaban vislumbrar, entre grandes tubos huecos de hormigón y polígonos de fibrocemento, collares de luces temblorosas e instalaciones fluorescentes que vibraban.

Behind remained the city and areas of a damp darkness that left to be revealed, between great hollow pipes of cement and asbestos-cement plants, necklaces of trembling lights and vibrating florescents.

Its an industrial wasteland, but it is also a present that the journey seeks to erase. As Austin drives into the dark he is driving into his past, finding where he has failed to be the man he wanted to be, to have the loves he wanted. It is a return to the theme of a future unrealized, a present that is only regret:

En alguna parte, a lo largo de otra melancolía, existía, había existido un muchacho indeciso, privado de futuro, atormentado por la idea del porvenir, que llebava su mismo nombre y que pasaba frio en las autopistas del continente.

In some part, throughout the other melencholy, there existed, had always existed a young, indecisive man, lacking much future, tormented by the idea of the future, who carried his name and got cold on the freeways of the continent.

The richness in his writing can also be found in his narration. Los viajes de Anatalia is a journey of a rich family to an unknown country at the point of war. It was the flavor of an early 20th century escape from an eastern country, the wealthy, both oblivious and self entitled, caring on until the end comes suddenly. One cloud easily see the characters as a Russian family. Even Anatalia in Spanish means one from the east. But there is more—a sense of melancholy, of a past that is slipping away and yet was never was.

Los deseos son futuros incumplidos. Todo parece indicar que nuestros antepasados tambien abrigaron deseos humanos, razonables, y todos ellos desaparecieron sin dejar rastro. ¿Son algo? Una galería de bonitos muertos chistosos.

Desires are unreliable futures. Everything appears to indicate that our ancestors also had human desires, reasonable ones, and all of them disapeared without leaving a trace. Are they something? A galery of beautiful and amusing dead.

In that atmosphere, amongst the loss, the disconnection, the fragments the characters also disappear in all senses. And when Anatalia waves goodbye to her family in the empty train station, it is more than metaphorical her disappearance. The dissolution is complete.

Several stories, including the title story, are about coming of age or looking at the world through the eyes of a child. La vida interminente (The Intermittent Life) is a form of love story between two teeneaged students. Tizon plays with the idea of young romance from the begining: ¿Se amaban ellos porque estaban en el mismo curso o estaban en el mismo curos porque se amaban? (Did they fall in love because they were in the same class or were they in the same clase because they loved each other?) For Tizon it’s not the love that motivates, but the miscues, the passing through without really understanding what is happening.

In Familia, desierto, teatro, casa (Family, Desert, Theater, Home) it is not the confusion of love, but family that confuses a young boy. In one of his more subtile and effecting stories, Tizon narrates a boy’s experience among a family of women while one of them, the one he is closest to, slowly fades as she grows near death. It is a special bond that is wound up in the world of drama and make believe. He deftly captures the intersections of the real, the fantastical, and the unknown and how children fill in the gaps between one and the other to come to some understanding of the world.

Finally, the most prescient story is En cualquier lugar del atlas (In Whatever Place on the Atlas), which describes the movement of refugies through a network of smugglers based in cemetaries. The narrator descibes a writer friend who meets a Polish woman Klara who is in Madrid illegally. They fall in love, but her situation becomes untenible and she has to flee and enters the world of the cemetary where the dead and forgotten rule. It also makes the obvious point that those who have entred into this underground world are no more important than the dead. The narrator’s friend describes the world as <> (“A beautiful place where every kind of misfortune happens”). It is a dark story, but it is not out of line with stories like Austin and Los puntos cardinales, which also have their sense of foreboding.

The anniversary edition also comes with a fine introduction where Tizón describes his early years during the Movieda in Madrid and how he came to write the book. It is not a typical first person introduction that relates chronological events. Instead, it is told in second person with an impressionistic tone such that the introduction is less about events, and more about what pushed him to be a writer. As such there multiple quotes on the power of writing:

Toda la literatura es epistolar: necesita del otro para existir.

All of literature is epistolary: it needs the other to exist.

Uno, un poco, se convierte en lo que ama. Un ser humano termina pareciendose a lo que sueña. El carpintero, a su silla. El astrónomo, a su eclipse…Todos somos otros cuando alguien nos ama o deja de amarnos.

One, a little, turns into what one loves. A human being ends up as what she dreams about. The carpinter, his seat. The astronomer, her eclipse…We are all others when someone loves us or stops loving us.

And perhaps my favorite:

Que es mejor tener fiebre que tener bibliografía.

It is better to have passion than a bibliography.

Velocidad de los jardines is a true masterpiece that I am glad I’ve finally had a chance to read.

I have also review his other two books of stories Parpadeos and Técnicas de iluminación

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.


Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) by Samanta Schweblin – A Review

Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses)
Samanta Schweblin
Páginas de Espuma, 2016, pg 123

Anyone who has read this blog will know that I admire Samanta Schweblin’s work. While little has come out in English, and at that only a few stories and a short novel, her work as a short story writer deserves attention. Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) was 2015 Riviera del Duero short story prize winner, and her latest book of stories to come out, published by Paginas de Espuma in Spain. Her work has always played with the fantastic, or, as I think I read somewhere, the borer between the real and the unreal. Her previous 2009 short story collection La furia de las pestes (my review) (re titled Pajaros en la Boca) certainly held to that territory. With Siete casas vacías, though, the fantastic is no longer is no longer an external element or force that one can interact with, no matter how strange. Instead, its an open question, perhaps of motivation, perhaps of perspective. Either way, its something unsaid. In that unsaid, though, is the unreal, or at least the odd. Its a change that brings the common place ever closer to her work and turns it into the fantastic.

The first story, Nada de todo esto (None of all this) is indicative of this move. In it we have a mother and daughter driving through a neighborhood. The mother seems confused, uncertain where she is going or how she get there. She is driving and the daughter is asking her to stop, to let her take over. They end up in the house of a rich woman. At this point the mother proceeds to look all through the house and steals a wooden sugar jar. This was the whole reason for entering the house. They leave only to have the owner of the sugar jar find them. The daughter wants to give it back and yet there is hesitation in her. It is the elusiveness of her mother’s motivations, and the daughter’s growing resistance, that lave the story open ended. What is this habit? Simple theft or something more?  Schweblin’s handling of the ambiguity, mixed with the a kind of comedy of errors, is well handled.

The best story of the collection (and longest at 50 pages) is La respiracion cavernaria (Deep Breathing). It is the simple, and yet mysterious, story of a widow, Lola, who lives alone in her home and is slowly feeling her age and her isolation press in on her. Schweblin captures the day to day struggle against solitude and the simple tasks that age make difficult. All around her home she sees change and crime and threats and is always on the look out for problems. Are the neighborhood boys stealing the things in her garage? What’s that noise she hears outside her window? She visits her neighbor several times to complain about her son. But the neighbor says her son died some time ago. For Lola it doesn’t register. She still thinks he wants chocolates that she would give him. For the reader, the unreality of age, of perception, begins to take the story into a different direction. What does Lola really experience? Its that lack of reality that makes the story even more profound. If the hardships of age weren’t bad enough, the loss of a fixed reality only make it worse. Its here that Schweblin’s skill at the unstated reality shows her work to be of exceptional quality.

Schweblin’s work seldom disappoints and Seven Empty Houses definitely does not. It is a worthy prize winner in a competition that has seen some excellent work by previous winners (my reviews: The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente, Mirar al agua by Javier Sáez de Ibarra). Her work stands out as some of the highest quality short stories in the Spanish language.

An interview with Schweblin at lit hub.

Read a recent review of her last novel now translated in English.

La muerte juega a los dados (Death Played with Dice) by Clara Obligado – A Review

La muerte juega a los dados (Death Played with Dice)
Clara Obligado
Páginas de Espuma 2015, 228 pg

Clara Obligado’s La muerte juega a los dados is a loosely interconnected collection of stories that forms a kind of inter-generational family epic. Given the title of the collection, though, Obligado is less interested in a family epic but the capriccios of history. The overarching family story is always there, but Obligado through the different way she constructs her stories, through the sometimes oblique connections of the stories, creates a dark set of stories that are both structurally inventive and rich with characters.

While Obligado suggests one can read the book in order or randomly, she doesn’t quite achieve a Hopscotch like work. Nevertheless, the structure of the book is very loose and each story could stand on its own. The longer, family oriented stories are less experimental, but Obligado’s command of the genre is obvious. One of the stand out stories (the longest of the collection) La peste (The Plague) is a portrait of a patrician family on the decline. Its an almost Gothic picture: the patron of the family confines herself to her room in grief, the children are decadent wastes, and the grandchildren are trying to make sense of it all. In the midst of it all Buenos Aires suffers the March, 1956 polio outbreak. The sense of a world collapsing in on itself and coming to end is ever present. As Obligado shifts her focus in brief sections from family member to family member, capturing each one’s unique collapse, and in the case of the grandchildren, their confusion, the capriciousness of history shows itself.

The power of each story, though, is enhanced with the interweaving of the tragic arc of the family. Starting with the unsolved murder of the patriarch of the family during the 20’s, the survivors are continually at the mercy of the 20th century’s major events. Its a history that Obligado deftly and judiciously recreates. She wisely avoided a greatest hits of the century, instead focuses on the personal, how events shape the characters. As such we follow the newly wed Lenora as she makes her first transatlantic journey with a husband more interested in his strange house keeper Mdme Tanis. In another, she writes of Mdme Tanis’s teenage years in a brothel in revolutionary Mexico. Or she describes the torture and disappearance of Lenora’s granddaughter, Sonia in 1970’s Argentina. Each story has just enough sense of place to carry the story forward, without loading it up with extraneous details. When Obligado veers into occupied France, she connects the story to the other through the presence of a rare book on origami, avoiding the temptation make the family more important that it really is. Its these light touches that make the discovery of each little connection part of joy in reading the collection.

Ultimately, it is Obligado’s ability to tell a story that makes the collection strong. El verdadero amor nunca se olvida (True Love Is Never Forgotten) is perhaps the best of the collection. She captures the strange family dynamic of a distant mother who cares only about appearances and a father who still loves her. It is the daughter who doesn’t understand her distant mother, an Eastern European immigrant who doesn’t seem to fit in Buenos Aries. As the daughter describes her mother, the richness of the story is revealed. The daughter thinks, how could anyone love her? And yet her father all these years later has never given up. The strength of Obligado’s writing is one can see how both positions are valid.

La muerte juega a los dados with its shifting genres, styles, registers, and its sense of decay, is both an excellent collection of stories and a novel.


Alumbramiento (Illumination) by Andrés Neuman – A Review

Alumbramiento (Illumination)
Andrés Neuman
Páginas de Espuma, 2006 pg 166

Andrés Neuman is a dedicated explorer of the short story form, both as a writer and an editor. Alumbramiento, one of his earlier collections, shows him as a mature writer working through different approaches to the short story form, in terms of theme and structure. Those explorations, can wander between the literary, as in the section devoted to literature, to the more familiar territory of relationships between people. In no matter which area he is writing the stories take on playfulness and a humanity that never treats characters as something frivolous, no matter how esoteric the story is.

The collection is divided into four parts: Otros Hombres (Other Men), which looks at men and their relationships; Minituras (Minitures), which is a series of short monologues; Lecturas (Readings), which is about reading and literature; and, as in all his collections, aphorisms about writing (I hesitate to call them rules, more thought pieces). Alumbramiento, the first story of the collection, is, perhaps, Neuman’s most stream of conscious story, narrating a man’s thoughts on the birth of his child. The title in Spanish means both  birth and illumination, and it sets the tone for Otros Hombres section, showing men who are in the process confronting a change. For the narrator of Alumbramiento the change is both scary and exciting, and in Neuman’s hands he stretches what might be a rather obvious idea, into an exploration of the narrator’s life, that is at once affectionate and insightful.

Where, Alumbramiento is a nervous joy, Una raya en la arena (A Line in the Sand) shows the break down of a couple through what seems so insignificant: the challenge to not cross a line drawn in the sand between a couple. How the man and the woman interpret the meaning and importance of the line shapes whether the line is a permanent, fixed barrier, or a metaphor for a troubled couple. The argument as the couple works through the meanings of the line is subtle. Did the woman even mean for the line in the sand to be a true line in the sand, a point of no return? All of these ideas weave through the story and show Neuman as strong observer of human interaction.

La belleza (The Beauty) is a representative story from the miniatures section. In these brief page long monologues the narrators describe something fundamental about themselves and the world around them. For the narrator of La belleza she is cursed with a beauty that the whole world recognizes and uses to appraise her with. She is not a thinking being, but an image of the ideal and when she speaks those around her are shocked that she has anything to say. In an Neuman touch, at night she dreams of a world full of ugliness. Of course that world cannot exist and when she awakes she finds herself completely alone. While there are familiar tropes about stereotyping beauty, Neuman adds to this with her solitary life, as if there is a beauty that is too much, too frightful.

Finally, in the Lecturas section, Neuman explores and plays with the idea of reading and the reader. Here he shows his great fascination not with narrative, but the idea of narrative, how readers construct and make their own narratives. It is the most humoristic section of the book, finding in a story like Queneau asltaba ancianas (Queneau  Robs Seniors) a celebration of Queneau, but also a chance to laugh at the trials of the robber who becomes less and less powerful, as if they style of the story robs him of his power. It is one of Neuman’s characteristic interests: writing in the border between fiction and the experience of reading that fiction. It is that interplay that is not only on display in the Lecturas section, but informs many of his stories and makes them unique.

Many of these stories are now available form Open Letter Press and any one reading this would do well to get a copy.

Barbarismos (Barbarisms) by Andrés Neuman – A Review of his Alternate Dictionary

Barbarismos (Barbarisms)cubierta_NEUMAN_Barbarismos_imprenta
Andrés Neuman
Páginas de Espuma, 2014, pg.130

Anyone has followed this blog will know that I am a fan of Andrés Neuman’s work. He has an incredible range of impressive writing working in novels, short stories, short essays, and editorial work with the short story. (He writes poetry, but I’ve not read it.) To this list we can add Barbarismos his personal dictionary. In Spanish, the title refers to the linguistic concept of using a word incorrectly or include an expression from a foreign language in Spanish. From this starting ground he has created a dictionary of alternative definitions. Ambrose Bierce’s Devils Dictionary is the most obvious example to an English speaker, although Dr. Johnson’s dictionary with its love of opinionated definitions is a cousin. In these alternative definitions are humor, notes of satire, and the exploration of writing, all written with a subtly and insight that make the book a fascinating exercise.

With respect to his definitions about writing and literature, he tends to look at them as a process, both of finding yourself reflected in a work and creating the work as you interact with it. For Neuman there is a constant interplay between one who is working with a text, either in writing it or reading it, and the text itself. This interplay gives a mystery and elusiveness to a work. He’s not facile about this interplay, instead he sees in it a kind of epistemological relationship between an person and what they can know. At the same time, he sees it as a collective enterprise that has no leader, but is organic. His take on politics is humorous without being particularly caustic. Certainly there are jabs at patriotism and religion that go beyond the day to day frustrations of living in a democracy that doesn’t quite live up to its ideals. He’s at his best here when he takes down sacred cows, as he does with patriotism and his definition for flag.

Ultimately, Barbarismos succeeds as a book because Neuman’s way of finding the vital truth of a word is spot on, showing him to be an excellent observer and a clever writer. While he does play with words (see imán), many of his definitions I think would appeal to readers outside the English language. One would hope that some day a few more of these would appear in English.

bandera. Trapo de bajo coste y alto precio.
flag. Rag of low price and high cost.

búsqueda. Hallazgo casual de otra cosa.
search. Casual discovery of something else.

cuentista. Mentiroso que busca la verdad un poco más lejos.
storyteller. Liar that searches for the truth a little bit father out.

democracia. Ruina griega. || 2. ~ parlamentaria: oxímoron.
democracy. Greek ruin || Parliamentary democracy: oxymoron

escritura. Autobiografía colectiva.
writing. Collective autobiography.

imán. En el campo de la física, atracción fatal. || 2. En el campo religioso, ídem.
magnet/imam. In physics, fatal attraction.  || 2. In religion, the same.

izquierda. Ideología política que parece irreconocible hasta que gobierna la derecha. || 2. Sentido critico con tendencia a atentar contra si mismo.
left. Political ideology that seems unrecognizable until the right governs. || 2. Being a critic with the tendency to attack one’s self.

vacaciones. Acción de transitar por los mismos lugares a menor velocidad.
vacation. Act of passing through the same places at a slower pace.


El Pais had a review of the book with more definitions and definitions from 20 other Spanish authors

Bestiario by Javier Tomeo – A Review

(from Cuentos Completos)
Javier Tomeo
Páginas de Espuma, 2012

Javier Tomeo was a Spanish writer who wrote hundreds of micro fictions along with novels and plays. His sort works are unique, especially those of the Bestiario, for their parable-like nature that mixes Aesop with modern science. First published in 2000, Bestiario presents the reader with a series of parables narrated by the titular insect, beetles, worms, and ants being the most common. Each insect narrates who it is in scientific terms, describing what it looks like, what it does. These are quite self aware insects who’ve had some time to look in the mirror and admire their appearance. His stories are not just an exploration of insectoid science, though. At their core they are an anthropomorphic exploration of the complexities, particularly the paradoxes, of living. Even in the midst of the detailed anatomy written by a man no doubt fascinated by science there is a human element. Or perhaps it is better to say that there is a little insect in all of us. In the habits and customs he describes you can see yourself reflected. The reflection is a melancholy one. Even the greatest of braggarts, the scorpion, is full of melancholy, of times lost, realities that have turned on him. Despite their repetition (the critic Fernando Valls suggested reading all of Cuentos Completos in one go is a little too much of the same), it is the little failures and disappointments, the cosmic joke that imbues such little creatures with lofty dreams, that make the stories a delight to read. They are not all brilliant but a good half caught me with their tone and insight and are great addition to the art of the micro story.

As I mentioned, his stories have a melancholia and insight that builds one up, only to find futility. For the powerful, Tomeo is the hardest as in the scorpion where an ancient symbol knows he can never regain what he has lost. He lives amongst the ruins of the past—his memory—aware that to live there does little for him, and yet it is what makes him. It is an economic style of writing that when Tomeo is at his best it sings.

El Escorpión/The Scorpion

Soy la expresión de las oscuras fuerzas telúricas, relacionadas con las tinieblas y las viejas piedras. Los hombres me temen. En otros tiempos fui protector de la diadema real y di forma a uno de los más antiguos jeroglíficos. Evocar ahora me pasada grandeza, sin embargo, no me sirve de consuelo, porque vivir de recuerdos es como vivir entre muertos.

I am the expression of obscure earthly forces related to shadows and worn stones. Men fear me. In other times I was the protector of the royal crown and gave form to one of the oldest ancient hieroglyphics. Remembering my great past now, though, doesn’t help console me because to live on memories is like living with the dead.

The story La Mantis Religiosa (The Praying Mantis) is typical of many of the stories, presenting a dialogue between the insect and an unknown interlocutor. The end of the story is also typical of many of his stories, turning what is an insectoid behavior into the unspoken attributes of human kind. This story in particular is particularly biting in its cometary, showing the way in which we praise the peace in religion but value the brutal.

La Mantis Religiosa/The Praying Mantis

—Voy a contarte algo de lo que te sentirás orgullosa —le digo a la mantis religiosa—. ¿Sabes tú, amiga mia, que los romanos colocaban junto a los ídolos de sus dioses la imagen tallada en bronce de una de tus antepasadas? ¿Sabes que, por esos mundos de Dios, quedan todavía campesinos que, al encontraros en el bosque, os preguntan cuál es el mejor camino a seguir?

—No me sorprende lo que cuentas —responde—. Nuestro aspecto es como para impresiona a cualquiera: ojos tranquilos e inocentes y las patas anteriores en actitude de súplica. Piensan que somos unos insectos piadosos y nos admiran por eso.

—Te equivocas —replico—. Te equivocas, porque lo que más admiran de vosotras no es ese aire de beatas, sino vuestro canibalismo sin remordimientos.

“I’m going to tell you something that will make you proud,” I said to the praying mantis. Do you know, my friend, that the Romans placed next to the idols of their gods bronze engravings of your forefathers? Do you know that, in this world of God, there are still peasants who, upon finding one of you in the forest, ask them which is the better road to follow?

“What you’re saying doesn’t surprise me,” he responded. “Our features impress everyone: tranquil and innocent eyes, and front legs in a praying position. They think that we are pious insects and they admire us for that.”

“You’re mistaken,” I replied. “You are mistaken because what they admire most is not that blessed air, but your guilt-free cannibalism.

At their best his stories have a power surprise and delight with dark insights. They have a hermetic  conciseness that belies a hidden world just beyond the surface. Using insects is apt metaphor for finding what is buried just beyond comprehension.


La máquina de languidecer (The Languishing Machine) by Ángel Olgoso – A Review

La máquina de languidecer – Micro Cuentos
(The Languishing Machine – Micro Fiction)
Ángel Olgoso
Páginas de Espuma, 2009, pg 131

Ángel Olgoso is a Spanish short story writer who often works within the fantastic. In the La máquina de languidecer is a collection of a 100 micro fiction, short stories that are no more than a page in length, probably around 500 words at maximum. Olgoso’s stories range in subject from the fantastic to speculative to the intersection of language and reality. At all times though, his writing shows a beautiful development of imagery that comes from a precise and expansive use of language. Each story, even in the ones where the subject is not fully successful, is written with an attention to the poetry that is inherit in prose, but is often undeveloped in other writers. That focus makes his work a rich exploration of the language of story that both in terms of style and subject is searching for something deeper in the deceptively short.

As the critic Fernando Valls notes in his introduction, the work of Olgoso is often haiku-like, an assessment I agree with. At his best his stories full of rich imagery, often using disparate pairings of elements to achieve fresh images. He also is skilled at finding in an image, like the best haiku, a complete idea, often a sense of loss or longing that is part of human life. In that sense the title of the book is a reflection on that sense of loss, since it the languishing machine he is referring to is the human being. And like a haiku his images are brief, fleeting, leaving just the image alone, the rest unsaid, in the background, waiting for the reader to make the associations. In El Golpe Maestro del Leñador Mágico, a story that describes the last thoughts of the last man on earth, a couple thoughts are of cuerpos desnudos tan blancos como nevada en un lecho / naked bodies as white as snow on a bed, and la fruta robada por primera vez / fruit stolen for the first time. Or in the story El Misántropo he describes loneliness of a misanthrope who is accidentally burred alive as El malentendido es la ley de gravitación de los solitarios / To be misunderstood is the gravitational law of solitary people. In these phrases it is possible to see some of his imagery at play and his precise way of describing characters, all of which gives his work an power both economic and arresting.

The themes of his stories fall into three general categories: the structures of story and language; metaphysical and meta shifts of reality; and the fantastic often seen as a shift in perspective. In the first category is a basic story such as Conjugacion:

Yo grité. Tú torturabas. Él reía. Nosotros moriremos. Vosotros envejeceréis. Ellos olvidarán.
I screamed. You were torturing. He was smiling. We will die. You all will get old. They will forget.

In the story you have a playful use of verb tenses to create a very short story about a couple of murderers. Or in Un mélange mitológico, He writes of the gods who do things extravagantly, using the dreaded Spanish equivalent of the of the adverbial ly for all his descriptions. He concludes the story:

¿por qué entonces ha de abstenerse un escriptor inexperto de yacer a voluntad con los adverbios acabados en mente?
why the must an inexperienced writer abstain from using adverbs that end in ly?

Again he plays with the language and is interested in how it can be used, such as the ly in his description which lends great weight to the power of the gods, and yet have a connotation outside of its purely grammatical role. Another story I would point the reader to in this vein, is Nudos, which uses the word nudo (knot) in as many different ways in a story, and shows an attentiveness to shades of meaning.

The stories that play with grammar can suffer, occasionally, from the one liner like nature of Conjugaction. The stories that focus more on metaphysical and meta are often his best pieces. In the story El otro Borges an author gets a chance to meet Borges and after drinking a shot Borges offers him either his first novel recently published, or a tetradracma. The writer, afraid of Borges’ wife, chooses the tetradracma. Borges also turns out to be a joker, a man who would probably be more at home in the corner bar. It is a funny story that reimagines Borges. It also makes fun of a writer whose instinct was not to take the book. And most obviously, it is a play on Borges well known story of the same name. Yet where Borges is imagining another self, one that represents an alter ego with unknown qualities, as if the he had not passed through the garden of forking paths, Olgoso plays Borges for a joke, imagining a real man who has hidden behind appearances. It is one of his many different realities.

The idea of books and literature as a living thing and also a precarious element also show up in El ultimo lector which describes the last reader left on earth remembering the scene when the last known reader was killed. Here, the power of reading is seen as something dangerous whose secrets only remain with one person. And like several of his stories, there is a sense of precariousness of something so important as reading. At the same time there is also a sadness that reading did not prevent the end of the ability to read. As important as reading and literature are, they have no force in of themselves to protect and survive human kind.

In 237 fragmentos de metralla a soldier of the Great War recounts how he almost killed a valiant solider who was rescuing wounded allied soldiers. When wounded and captured he asks in the hospital who that soldier was. It was Hemingway. Again there is the blending of the paths not taken and the importance and fragility of literature. That such an important 20th century writer’s life was at the whim of an Austrian soldier opens to question if there were other writers lost who had more to give.

In a turn towards his fantastical work, Buenos propositos is about a writer whose work no one wants to read, even when he pays them. So he does what he has to: he kidnaps them and forces them to read his work at gun point where they find, much to the writer’s surprise, the “cry at his verses, tremble at this intrigues” and overall react appropriately before each genre. Here it is the writer or the situation that makes the work so powerful for the readers, or both. The story shows both his attention to narrative but an interest in the macabre and indicates some of his approaches to writing fantastical stories that border on science fiction or even, occasionally, horror.

Cerco a la Bella Durmiente allows Olgoso to approach the most fantastical of stories, fairy tales, with in a humorous way. In one of my favorites of the collection, he describes a prince who has gone to wake Sleeping Beauty with a kiss. She doesn’t wake, though. Olgoso gives 11 possible reasons ranging from a heavy dream to not kissing her correctly according to tradition. Whatever the reason, the prince is consigned to wait for years until the right moment when his kiss will truly work. The reasons he give are perfectly logical in terms of a fairy tale, but also make great fun of the genre, breaking apart the conventions and romance and playing it for what it is: a fantasy.

Ultimately, his stories show a love of precise language and a profound interest in what makes a story. This doesn’t always make for great reading, but given the 100 stories here, not all could possibly be winners. That so many are good, twisting one’s expectations and creating worlds of meaning in phrases shows a micro story writer of high skill. I leave you, with out comment, his most poetic story:

Diadema en tu cabello / The Crown in Your Hair

Hay quien afirma que tu única vestidura es tu pelo, tu cabellera cuisadosamente cepillada y peinada y ungida con perfume, tu largo pelo negro que refulge y se ciñe como un manto real al blanco de tus huesos.

One must recognize that your only clothing is your hair, your head of hair carefully brushed and combed and rubbed with perfume, your long black hair that shines brightly and clings like a royal mantle to the white color of your bones.

Eloy Tizón’s Técnicas de iluminación Reviewed in El Confidencial

Eloy Tizón has published a new book of short stories Técnicas de iluminación from Páginas de espuma. I thought Paparados was an excellent book and enjoyed it immensely. I’ve been looking forward to reading his new one ever since I heard it was coming out. The review makes it sound interesting.

Los mecanismos narrativos que Tizón propone para esta aventura son los habituales en su trabajo: la excelencia del idioma y ese tono medido, que jamás cae en el patetismo ni en la humorada, y que se asoma a la tragicomedia que es la vida con una feliz ausencia de retórica. En ese sentido, el primer relato del conjunto, el memorable Fotosíntesis, una (re)creación maravillosa y maravillada de Robert Walser y su universo deambulatorio, constituye la puerta de acceso idónea a un libro que confirma a Tizón como poseedor de una voz propia e innegociable, tan alejada de esa prosa de concurso que adorna a buena parte de los cuentistas españoles, y que lo reubica junto a los mejores cultivadores del género en nuestro país, caso de Cristina Fernández CubasLuis Magrinyà o Fernando Aramburu.

Escritor ajeno a la grafomanía, cuyo arco narrativo se ha venido moviendo con absoluta naturalidad entre la estampa veloz y la exigente y hermosa distancia de la nouvelle, Tizón regresa con Técnicas de iluminación al lugar que por derecho propio le pertenece, el de uno de los escritores más importantes de su generación, tanto por lo que cuenta como por el modo en que lo hace. Algo que, por sí solo, sería ya motivo de regocijo, pero que tras la lectura de este libro notable y sugestivo adquiere rango de noticia capital para nuestras letras.

New Collection of Stories from Spanish Writer Eloy Tizón to Be Published

Eloy Tizon one of the main points of reference for the modern Spanish short story will be publishing a new collection of short stories. Paginas de Espuma will be the publisher. This is good news. I was quite impressed with Parparados which I covered in my article at the Quarterly Conversation. I’m looking forward to reading it when it comes out. El Cultural has an interesting article about the struggles he has had finishing the book.

Técnicas de iluminación es un libro de relatos cuya fuente de inspiración fueron los vagabundeos de Robert Walser, “su manera de mirar, desinteresada y precisa”, explica Tizón, a quien también le resultó esencial “la necesidad de salvaguardar determinados instantes, para que no perezcan del todo. Situaciones que me hacen feliz o desgraciado o me punzan. Siempre procuro que no haya un tono uniforme, sino una mezcla: humor, poesía, drama… Cuando considero que todos los ingredientes están equilibrados, el libro se cierra solo. Pero antes hay que alcanzar ese estado”.

El proceso ha sido largo, “en parte por mi lentitud mental, y en parte por las circunstancias”, insiste. No quiere entrar en detalles, pero estos siete años ha llegado incluso a pensar “que no volvería a publicar más”. El desaliento no le hizo abandonar su disciplina, e intentó salvaguardar espacios (“normalmente por la mañana, a primera hora, con la mente fresca y un café”) en los que se sentaba frente al ordenador, “a ver qué pasaba”, a pesar de saber mejor que nadie que “la escritura y la vida cotidiana son difícilmente compatibles. Aun así , lo intento. No siempre escribo, pero mantengo la continuidad: releo, corrijo, suprimo, dudo. A base de esas tozudeces obsesivas, terminan saliendo los libros.”

New Collection of Ana María Shua Short Stories, Contra el tiempo, Edited by Samanta Schweblin

Páginas de Espuma recently published a collection of short stories from the Argentine writer Ana María Shua. What caught my interest is Samanta Schweblin, one of the short story writers I mention on this blog with a certain frequency is the editor. The collection is the third in the Vivir del Cuento series from Páginas de Espuma. The series title means both to live by telling stories, but also to be lair or teller of tall tales. I’m quite interested and look forward to reading Schweblin’s introduction. You can read it here (pdf). If you are interested you can also listen to an interview with the two of them of Spanish radio. And read an interview in El Pais:

A través del email y por mediación de Vivir del cuento, la colección que ideó su editor Juan Casamayor, estas dos cuentistas convinieron una antología que “permite ver todos los colores de Shua”, afirma Shweblin. El resultado es una selección de representantes de los narradores en los que se traduce Shua, sus personajes cotidianos que al girar la esquina se transmutan en inquietud, y la mezcla de humor –“del negro”, adjetivan- y mortalidad que estiliza su narrativa. “Este humor es bastante difícil de lograr, camina en una cornisa muy delicada, siempre está al límite”, opina la joven antóloga. “Este mundo me parece un lugar muy absurdo, loco, raro y disparatado”, continúa Shua. “Los seres humanos tratamos de traducirlo a la racionalidad. Hay algo falso en creernos que todo lo podemos entender desde la lógica. En esa conciencia del disparate es por donde yo encuentro mi humor”.

And most importantly you can read the first story of the collection, Como una buena madre, at Culturamas. And finally, there is a long and in depth interview at Lecturas Sumergidas:

¿Estás convencida de que con la felicidad no se puede construir un relato de ficción? Muchas veces tus historias empiezan de un modo muy placentero, muy luminoso, pero siempre hay algo que las tuerce, que las conduce hacia lo oscuro, por decirlo de algún modo.

– Sí. Estoy convencida de que no se puede escribir desde la felicidad. No la encuentro narrativa. La felicidad es puntual, no tiene desarrollo en el tiempo. Con ella se puede construir un hermoso poema lírico, pero en un relato siempre ha de pasar algo malo. Si no es así nos quedamos sin cuento (risas).

– Otra cosa que te gusta mucho es jugar al contraste, ya sea de planos temporales (el pasado y el presente vistos a través de la mirada de una persona que recuerda, que rememora instantes vividos), ya sea a través de los estados de ánimo enfrentados que buscas provocar en el lector: La risa que se congela ante situaciones que estremecen, que llegan a poner los pelos de punta…

– Aquí hay dos preguntas en una. Por una parte, respecto a lo primero que se plantea, creo que los seres humanos estamos hechos de recuerdos. La memoria nos constituye, y el recordar, el vivir simultáneamente en varios tiempos, es una característica tan humana como saber que alguna vez vamos a morir. Sí, evidentemente, es un registro que me gusta mucho, aunque no sea muy consciente de ello cuando me pongo a escribir. En cuanto a lo de la conjunción entre humor y horror, resulta que para mí están absolutamente entrelazados. Las circunstancias más terribles pueden hacernos reír en un determinado momento. El humor es, además, una característica muy mía, forma parte de mi personalidad. No puedo escribir sin humor y al mismo tiempo tengo una suerte de placer infantil en relatar acontecimientos truculentos (carcajadas). Me gusta que a mis personajes les sucedan cosas tremendas, espectaculares. Como lectora admiro muchísimo a los autores que crean climas sutiles a partir de una situación en la que no pasa prácticamente nada. Arrancan de ahí y son  capaces de montar catedrales, término que nos hace recordar a Carver. Pero cuando yo me pongo a escribir prefiero, sin duda alguna, los acontecimientos truculentos, las escenas terribles, las situaciones muy violentas. Y, al mismo tiempo, todo eso lo puedo contar con un cierto humor, porque lo veo así. En la peor situación encuentro siempre algo con lo que reírme.

La realidad quebradiza: Antología de cuentos (The Fragile Reality) by José María Merino – A Review

cubierta_MERINO_IMPRENTALa realidad quebradiza: Antología de cuentos
(The Fragile Reality: An Anthology of Short Stories)
José María Merino
Páginas de Espuma, 2012, pg 262

José María Merino’s La realidad quebradiza: Antología de cuentos is an anthology of short stories from a writer who in his fiction has explored the fantastic as a way to break open the fragile reality surrounds and paradoxically for something so ephemeral traps us. While not particularly well known in the English speaking world, he has published a steady stream of fiction since 1976 including novels, short stories, and children’s books, and has won several awards, is a member of the Real Academia Española, and amongst fans of the short story is a respected figure. Although he has not exclusively focused on the fantastic, it is, perhaps, what he is best known for, with stories ranging in style from horror to science fiction to meta works that hearken to Borges, Kafka and Cortazar. With La realidad quebradiza: Antología de cuentos, Páginas de Espuma has put together a career spaning overview of his work amongst the short form that not only includes a large selection of short and micro stories, but a lengthy if rather strange introduction to his work from Juan Jacinto Muñoz Rengel, and a long interview with Merino that examine his approaches to writing short fiction. It is probably as a good an introduction as one could ask for.

The fantastic is difficult material to work with: too obvious and you have the literary equivalent of a Twilight Zone episode where the camera changes at the last second and you say, ‘oh, I get it now,’ but then never return to the episode because the shock has worn off; too subtle and it ventures into the purely symbolic (perhaps surrealistic), where nothing has any relation to reality. Merino’s own working definition of the fantastic would be helpful before going on much farther:

Coincido con una definición moderna de lo fantástico de Roger Caillois: una ruptura estrepitosa del orden habitual, textualmente <<una irrupción de lo inadmisible en el seno inalterable de la legalidad cotidiana>>. Otroa cosa sería lo maravilloso, en que lo aparentemente inadmisible resulta la regla general, como los cuentos de hadas o El señor de los anillos, pero sin duda no estoy dotado para ello, pues a la hora de escribir, la realidad está en mí demasiado al acecho.

I agree with Roger Caillois’ modern definition of the fantastic: a resounding rupture of habitual order of things, textually “a burst of the impermissible in the unalterable breast of the routine laws of everyday.” Something altogether different would be the marvelous where the apparently impermissible is the rule, such as in fairy tales or The Lord of the Rings, but without a doubt I’m not blessed with that skill because when it comes time to write, reality is lying in wait for me too much.

For Merino, the fantastic is that little explosion of unreality in an otherwise real world that opens new perspectives on reality. What it isn’t, is fantasy which is more concerned with its own fictive reality. It is an important distinction because the interplay between reality, which is often described in a realist tradition, and the fantastical can occasionally seem jarring. However, the shock of the rupture in the habitual that he mentions usually overcomes the Twilight Zone moment. And as you will see, there is a great fluidity in his writing that can make the occasional disappointment worth reading.

El niño lobo del cine Mari (The Wolf Child of the Mari Theater) is perhaps the best story in the collection in terms of a pure mix of a narrative and the fantastic. One day when an old movie theater is the process of destruction, the construction workers find a little boy amongst the ruins. It turns out he has been missing for 30 years yet has no aged a day since he disappeared. It is a mystery, but despite all pleas to tell his story the boy won’t explain what happened. In desperation, the doctor looking after the boy takes him to another theater. It would stand to reason he likes movies. The doctor watches him carefully at first, but caught up in the movie she doesn’t see him go behind the screen and enter the movie where he disappears again. Here, Merino mixes the two streams of reality, that of the everyday and that of the cinema, locating our dreams not just in the films themselves, but in the portals to them, as if they formed a kind of collective memory that lasts as long as the movie does. Moreover, he expands the idea of a fiction not as something that you only observe, but as something you participate in and extend. It is that extension of the story, or the bifurcation of the story into multiple paths, that reappears throughout the book.

You can see that bifurcation La casa de los dos portales (The House With two Entrances). In the story a group of boys break into an old abandoned mansion. After exploring the house they find a small passage way to an a room that has its own door to the exterior. They go through it and head to their respective homes. But nothing is right. Family members who were dead are alive or vice a versa; homes are not kept in the same ways. In short, it is a parallel world, one that is terrifying to the boys. That parallelism also links back to the idea of the double, of the other self, a classic trope in Spanish language fiction, but here it extends to a whole world.

Both stories come from his collection Cuentos del reino secreto (Stories from the Secret Kingdom) published in 1982. They show an interest in stories where the line between reality and the fantastic exists, but is not a commented on within the text. In his latter works, his short stories are much more open to direct introspection of the limits of reality. In El viajero perdido (The Lost Traveler) and Bifurcaciones (Bifurcations) he explores the way linear construction of reality is really a series of forking paths (to quote Borges) one takes, but are also mental paths one takes as they construct the narrative for themselves when they remember.  El viajero perdido follows a writer as he tries to create a story about a traveler who he stumbles on one night. The story though twists between what the writer struggles to write and the trip his wife is having. With each new strange encounter he comes up with it is mirrored in his wife’s world. As he brings the story to conclusion she comes closer to home. And with in the wife’s world she comes across the traveler that first promoted him to write the story, bringing the different bifurcations of story together. Merino leaves the story open as to what will happen, as if stories can never be finished.

In Bifurcaciones, a middle aged man is invited to a college reunion. He begins to wonder what ever happened to a girl, Pilar, he had once been infatuated with. He wanders down by where she used to live and he runs in to her. Feeling lucky, they spend some time together and he thinks his dreams have come true. Then she begins to ask him why he never wrote after ‘that summer?’ He has no idea of what has happened, but she creates a whole different life they led together. Yet he begins to believe it, rewriting his past. Yet when he finally goes to the reunion she’s not there and yet another bifurcations of the past occur. Merino places layer after layer of bifurcations so that man is rewriting his past and going through memories of events he never had. With each memory he recreates his whole history summed up towards the end of the story when he tries to make sense of the differing stories he is living.

Su esfuerzo por esclarecer la contradcción de aquellos veranos contrapuestos le hizo comprender que el encuentro en el vestíbulo era un misterioso punto de bifurcación, donde su memoria parecía titubear, aunque al cabo siguiese con más seguridad el camino que lo lleveaba a un período de angustiosa apatía, a sus primeros empleos, a la vinculaión con el bufete de su tío Jaime, en una ciudad del sur, al encuentro de Pilar y todo lo que, desembocando en el día que recibió la invitactión de Carlos Campoy, parecía formar la urdimbre verdadera de su vida durante aquellos veinticinoc años.

His effort to clear up the contradiction of those opposing summers made him understand that the meeting in the vestibule was a mysterious point of bifurcation where his memory seemed to hesitate, although after following with more certainty the road that took him to a period of agonizing apathy, to his first jobs, to his joining his uncle Jaime’s firm in a southern city, to the meeting with Pilar and everything that flowing from the day that he received the invitation from Carlos Campoy, seemed to form the true plot of his life during those twenty five years.

Finally, it would be remiss if a few comments about his language were overlooked. In more than a few stories the role of language itself is the center of story and even in one story when a man looses his ability not only to speak, but think in words, he disappears from reality. So for a writer with such wide ranging interests it would be natural that he prose have a certain power to it. In Papilio Siderum, a story that reworks Chuang Tzu’s story of the butterfly where a man dreams he is a butterfly then wakes as a man is unable to tell the distinction between the two. In Merino’s telling the story takes on a deeper and wider celebration of the paradoxes of memory and he captures both the transitory nature of memory, but the beauty in it to (sorry no translation; I’m out of time).

Intentaré empezar diciendo que, después de dejar la terraza, nos fuimos cada uno a nuestro cuarto, y que yo me encontraba desvelado, porque la presencia de Elisa haviía despertado en mí el enardecimiento de los veranos de la adolescencia, aquel tiempo en que hasta la propia luz y los olores del día eran capaces de provocar en mi ánimo una sucesión de impresiones indefinibles y hasta contradictorias, un tempr confuso la luz implacable del mediodía, que a su vez despertaba en los arbustos esos aromas secos tan estimulantes de la placidez, o cierta euforia la larga luz del atardecer, cuando sin embargo el olor humedo de los parados me incitaba a senir la congoja de alguna pérdida que no podía indentificar, y en cada momento y en cada paraje una conciencia tiubeante, que ya no tenía la capacidad de embeleso de la infancia pero que tampoco podía apoyarse en esas seguridades que al parecer eran privilegio de los adultos.

While every story in La realidad quebradiza: Antología de cuentos didn’t excite me as these did (a couple were too much in the ghost story vein, something I’m not much interested in), on the whole is a successful mix of the fantastic and reality, and the majority of the stories are fascinating reads. The selection of these short stories and micro stories, almost prose poems at times, which I didn’t even have a chance to discuss, leaves me wondering what other intriguing work remains in the volumes that these stories were selected from. Merino is definitely a maestro of the fantastic and Páginas de Espuma has put together an excellent collection to demonstrate that.

Running an All Short Story Press in Spain: an Interview with Juan Casamayor at Revista Ñ

Revista Ñ has a good interview with Juan Casamayor, the editor of Páginas de Espuma an all short story press in Spain. I think it is is a great press and I’m still amazed it exists (and Menos Cuarto for the mater). I don’t know of any all short story presses in English. Please let me know if there are any. He is a dedicated fan of the short story even when publishers don’t support them enough and makes the market week. He does have a point, that if more publishers published short stories there would be a better market for all short stories. (via Moleskine)

-Se suele decir que el cuento no se vende, que no es negocio, que la gente busca novelas. ¿Cuánto hay de mito y de verdad en esta afirmación? 
-Cuando empezamos, se nos dijo y repitió que “el cuento no vende, el cuento no vende”. Trece años después, casi 250 títulos después, contestamos con ironía que “vivimos del cuento”. La existencia de una editorial como la nuestra demuestra que era posible levantar una editorial independiente cuya línea de ficción sólo incluye cuento. Que el cuento vende menos que la novela, por supuesto. No obstante, la decisión y la voluntad de comercializar el cuento en el mercado por parte de los editores ha sido mínima o nula. El cuento como trampolín, como descanso de novelista, como cláusula de contrato. Sinceramente, creo que esto está cambiando, aunque sea despacio. Nosotros hemos logrado diseñar un catálogo que se comunica entre sí, con autores, cuya obra posee gran número de lectores, y otros que están definiendo su público. La experiencia, por lo tanto, no puede ser más positiva. No puedo dejar de decir que nuestra labor con el cuento es la que ha dado a nuestra editorial su viabilidad y su visibilidad.

-Pero, ¿por qué cree que el cuento, específicamente, es menos buscado por los lectores?
-¿Le puedo dar la vuelta a esa pregunta? ¿Por qué el cuento específicamente es menos ofrecido por los editores? Esa sin duda es una de las causas, si no la más sobresaliente. No veo ninguna razón literaria para justificar por qué el lector se decide por uno u otro género. El mecanismo editorial está orientado por sus políticas hacia la novela y esto crea en el público lector una reacción de consumo y gusto. Las editoriales apuestan su comercialización, su distribución, su promoción a la novela y esto ha dejado, engañosamente, en otro plano al cuento. Porque el cuento vende. Ahí están todos esos grandes long sellers, ahí están algunas sorpresas editoriales, o, por qué no, un proyecto como Páginas de Espuma, que casi es testimonio de la existencia de un lector que va aumentando.

El menor espectáculo del mundo (The Smallest Show on Earth) by Félix J. Palma – A Review

El menor espectáculo del mundo (The Smallest Show on Earth)
Félix J. Palma
Páginas de Espuma, 2010, pg 203

Félix J. PalmaThe Spanish novelist and short story writer Félix J. Palma is probably best known as a thriller/sci-fi/fantastical/historical fiction writer who’s The Map of Time spent some time on the NY Times best seller list. I’m not sure if how well any of those categories work in describing him, but his 2010 collection of short stories El menor espectáculo del mundo (The Smallest Show on Earth) is in a different vain, focusing on the little details of life, the smallest show on earth. However, that smallest show tag is a little misleading because several of the stories are adventures that are just confined to a small space. Still, Palma is attentive to the disappointments and unsaid despair that surround his characters and command of language, expressed in elegant sentences and solid images mark him as a skilled writer.

His skills as a writer are apparent from the opening story, El país de lasMuñecas (The Country of Dolls):

A aquellas horas de la noche, el parque infantil parecía un cementerio donde yacía enterrada la infancia.

At that time of the night, the playground looked like a cemetery where childhood had been buried.

It is an arresting image that begins a story of a girl who looses her doll and her father, like Kafka, writes the daughter a letter each day as if he were the doll. His reinvention of the doll story parallels the story of his failing marriage and the fable for the girl becomes not only the dream that will never be realized for the child, but it is an illusion the father would like to have also. But the doll story is just a story and the narrator can only wish for what he cannot have. It is a typical strategy for Palma to show the illusion of these little shows and then leave the characters aware that those illusions are not real. While The Country of Dolls blends his power of language and his appreciation for literary culture, it also ends disappointingly as the narrator, in crime fiction fashion, destroys the destroyer of his illusions and kills his wife.

Palma also has a good sense of humor which he shows quite well in Margabarismos. The narrator is a looser who has taken to spending his time in  La Verónica a dive bar near his home that his wife will never search for him in. One day, he sees a note on the bathroom wall that says he will be hit by a car. He doesn’t believe it, but as he leaves the bar a car hits him. He wakes to see his wife waiting for him and he realizes they have grown apart and he would like her back. Once he gets out of the hospital he returns to the bar’s bathroom to look for the message. It has changed, though, and the writer is his late uncle who has the power to see the future six months of the narrator. They hatch a plan to win his wife back and each step displays a humor based on the clumsy desperation of a man who wants his wife back and has to depend on an unreliable ghost. Without the humor–the idea of finding messages in the bathroom–the story would be flat. Again, Palma takes the desperation of the lonely man and turns a comic ghost story into a moment to explore relationships.

He develops that same theme in Una palabra tuya a story that starts with the narrator’s wife’s last words before leaving the house: can you fix the lamp. When he goes into the closet he gets trapped and through a series of events his daughter ends up being the captive of the desperate upstairs neighbor. Ultimately, he performs his role as a father and saves the child. When his wife returns she says, couldn’t you have fixed the lamp? Of course the joke is he has scaled a wall, saved his daughter, and evaded a crazy woman, just like a superhero. And like the smallest show on earth, the narrator has gone unnoticed.

The best story of the Bibelot  takes that hidden heroism of the every day and gives it a less adventurous spin. An encyclopedia sales man finds himself mistaken for the son of an old woman. He doesn’t want to play the role but when she said he hasn’t been by for her last few birthdays he relents. He knows he’s making her happy until her daughter calls. She tells him to leave immediately because her son is dead. He agrees and apologizes and on his way out he meets a neighbor who tells him the daughter also died. Here, again, he has a character doing a simple act, one that is inconsequential to everyone but the old woman. In this story it is not just one person participating in these little shows. It is the most successful story because it avoids the episodic feel that some of the earlier mentioned stories. It also has an excellent ending that is neither a twist or a joke. It is his most humane story.

All of Palma’s stories have excellent writing and show a good story teller in action. His ability to show the human failures that go unnoticed, although occasionally hit with a misplaced levity, is strong. With these strong stories it would be great to see more of his non “genre” writing.

Interview with Juan Casamayor Editor of Páginas de Espuma at Página 12

Página 12 has an interview with uan Casamayor Editor of Páginas de Espuma, one of my favorite publishers right there with Open Letter. They specialize in short stories and have published some great works by some of the best in short stories (see my reviews of Navarro and Neuman). The interview talks about the press, its history, and the craziness of the publishing industry, which functions in Spain much like it does in the US.

–Un latiguillo frecuente, dicho por muchos editores, es que los libros de cuentos no venden. ¿Qué diría para desmontar este “mito” o prejuicio?

–El primer hecho incontestable es que trece años después una editorial que empezó partiendo de una pareja que decide buscar un hueco muy especializado ya no es una editorial pequeña por facturación. Páginas de Espuma está facturando en torno a los 800 y 900 mil euros; es una facturación fuerte. Las cifras son públicas. Los libros de cuentos se venden. Otra cosa es que se quiera vender cuentos. Si partes de la filosofía que el libro de cuentos es un descanso de novelista o una cláusula de un contrato, el posicionamiento ya no comercial sino editorial es endeble para vender el libro. Yo hago giras en España por catorce ciudades con un libro de cuentos. Además tenemos un premio de 50.000 euros al mejor libro de cuentos que compite con cualquier premio de novela. Claro que para esto me busqué a alguien que tuviera la plata para poder financiarlo. Ribera del Duero está muy contenta con este premio porque ha posicionado su marca de origen de un vino en un mundo cultural que les ha interesado mucho. No tengo otra vía de ingresos. Aunque mis padres son médicos, soy un poco espartano. Y si bien me dieron un poquito de dinero para arrancar con la editorial, vivo exclusivamente de lo que dan los libros. Algo tiene que vender el cuento para mantener Páginas de Espuma, ¿no?