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.

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

pelea.jpg
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.