A Thousand Morons by Quim Monzó – A Review

Thousand_Morons-frontA Thousand Morons
Quim Monzó
Open Letter, 2012,pg 111

Reading Quim Monzó’s short stories is always refreshing experience, a kind of cleansing of the palate after imbibing too many stories in the American vein. In Monzó there is little interest in the well written story and its obligatory finish with an apropos epiphany. His characters are seldom explored in strong emotional terms, instead they exist within the irrepressible march of time. In other words, events happen, characters perform their roles, but there is no reason why, it just is. The lack of explanation comes because Monzó and his narrators are always distant, keeping what is before them at arms length. It can feel cold, uncaring, but at his best it makes for a literature of perceptive descriptions and, surprisingly, empathetic stories that never loose his sense of humor, akin to that of Thomas Bernhard’s in the Voice Imitator.

While A Thousand Morons still has the touches of the comedic and the satiric, there is something more personal, too. In the first of the two sections, the stories are more personal, less distant from every day experience. There is still humor, but it is a humor that comes from contrasting a typically emotive subject against the absurdities of his telling. It isn’t that the injection of accessible experiences have weekend his work, it has allowed him to contrast play with the genre and retarget his humor at something new.

In the first story, Mr. Beneset, a son visits his father in a nursing home. The description is given in a dead pan third person that after the first paragraph which gives just the most minimal back story, becomes almost a dialog with stage direction. The father is a talker and performs a kind of elderly stream of consciousness, bouncing from one topic to another: the beauty of the Cuban aide, the thought of death, the deaths of his neighbors. These are not new ideas for a story. Monzó turns things around, though, because all the time they are talking the man’s father is dressing as a woman. It is mater of fact, as all things are in his stories. It doesn’t mater why he is doing it to the characters. They already know why. It puts the locus of exploration on the reader and opens up the story, moving it past the visit, to an alternate vision. The humor, which is surprising for Monzó, is moderated, and he uses the contrast of the father’s clothing to reenliven the dilemmas of old age and family.

The Coming of Spring mines similar territory, describing a man–there is no name–as he visits his parents in an old age home. It is a story of repetition: his visits; their problems; and the surprising ability of an old couple to survive so long. They survive as much by habit as by will and, the Monzós repetitive text underscores that. Many of the paragraphs that open the little sections all start with the phrase, A man… The habit of the elderly couple, is mirrored in the prose. The repetition lends a sense of melancholy as the man walks through the old apartment where the couple once lived and now stands vacant. A physical memory that has been left to deteriorate like the couple in the home. And like the couple it also continues on as if by habit. What makes the story so strong is the distance the reader feels between the characters. There is no comforting resolution here and it is in that distance, the separation of the son from the reader that the real emotional power resides.

While those two stories overpower the rest of the collection and give Monzó’s work, for the first time, a heavier, less comedic weight, the humor from his other works is evident throughout the collection. In Saturday, echoing Carver, a woman tries to erase her ex from her life. First its the photos. Next the furniture, until she attempts to destroy everything he has ever touched which is either impossible, or self destructive depending on how far one wants to take it. Of course the story is purely physical. There are no insights, just the illogical end of removing all physical memories of a lover. It is an unsettling idea.

For fans of Monzós more flippant and philosophical sides, there are still plenty of stories where the absurdity of an experience becomes an maddening experience. These are the typical Monzó story where the completely absurd, although often common place occurrence,  becomes an overwhelming experience. In Praise, an author makes a passing comment that he enjoyed an up an coming author’s book. Soon the the young author begins to hound the established author until the tables turn and the nice, off handed comment the established author gave, becomes his down fall. It is a typically Monzonian story in that something small can bring so many problems. It is the kind of story he excels at. It also underlies a kind of cynicism that pervades his work, as if what ever one does you will fail in some way. It is an idea I rarely see in American fiction, but in continental fiction it seems to show up quite often. On one hand, you have American optimism always finding a better tomorrow, even when everything is going to hell. And contrasting is a realism that seems cynical, but is really an outlook guided by precedent that knows how easy it is for the simple to turn into complete horror. Monzó is full of that idea, which is why this collection with its turn towards the personal seemed more startling.

Monzós stories deserve to be better known. His humor, cynicism and insight are a great antidote to short stories that can seem tiresome in their perfected resolution. With this collection, Monzó has show that the distant and skeptical stance can even be used in more personal settings.

You can read the story of A Cut (pdf) form Open Letter

Advertisements

Quim Monzó Story at Guernica

Guernica magazine has short story form Quim Monzó called One Night. It is a racy take on Snow White.

Plum in the center of the room, the prince can see the body of the girl, who is sleeping on a litter of oak branches and wrapped round in flowers of every color. He quickly dismounts and kneels by her side. He takes her hand. It is cold. And her white face, too, like a dead girl’s. Not to mention her thin, purple lips. Conscious of his role in the story, the prince kisses her lovingly. He knows this is the kiss that must bring her back to life, the kiss the princess has been waiting for forever, since the witch’s curse put her to sleep. The prince leans his head backwards so he can gaze at her when she lifts her eyelids and opens those large, almond eyes.

Guadalajara by Quim Monzo – A Review


Guadalajara
Quim Monzo
Open Letter, 2011, 125pg

Quim Monzo is a joker. A literary one, but a joker all the same. In Gasoline, his last work to make it into English, that humor was sour and lacked direction (see my review). Consequently, I had some trepidation that Guadalajara would succumb to the meandering obsessions that were neither fun nor interesting. Fortunately, Guadalajara is immanently readable and the stories show that his reputation as an inventive short story writer is well deserved. His stories all have an undercurrent of humor often coming from the retelling of well known stories. It is in subverting of the heroic or even just the humanistic that Monzo makes his black commentaries on human behavior, usually to great effect. But Guadalajara also reveals a writer interested in extending and playing with the stories that are literary common places, and in doing so constructing his own enigmas and dilemmas; counter enigmas that stand on their own but enrich the familiar.

In Outside the Gates of Troy he creates an alternate story of the Trojan Horse where Ulysses and his men wait day after day for the Trojans to drag the wooden horse into the walls. But the Trojans are to smart or suspicious and the men slowly die, alone, weak, unable to leave the horse. Ulysses holds on to the futility and can only cover his ears to avoid the groans of his men. Instead of heroism, we have the desperate futility of hanging on to a plan that will not work. Bravery sounded good, but Ulysses is left with nothing and so has to hope for something that will never come. Plugging his ears doesn’t save the men like it would in the Odyssey, it is a disappointment.

In a similar line, Gregor flips Kafka’s Metamorphosis and writes it from the prospective of a cockroach who becomes a man. The process of becoming a man is a discovery: the new sensations, the new physical attributes, the freedom to roam among the humans. But it is a heartless self discovery as he becomes a true human and purposely squashes his family under foot, because to be human is to be amongst one’s own kind, but to also destroy the foreign. For Monzo, Gregor could do little but squash his family, because that is the nature of transformations, you become something else, you are not both.

You see that thought, too, in Family Life, which describes a family where young boys when they come of age, have part of their finger cut off. Some boys go willing into the ritual because that is what one is expected to do, a few are resistant, but they internalize the cutting and in future generations expect others to have their fingers cut. Eventually, though, one boy refuses because he wants to be a musician and the family lets him escape the punishment. But that act of kindness also destroys the tradition and without tradition the family slowly grows apart. Given the power of tradition to hold groups together, the question here is which was worse? Or does that even matter since this is just what happens? With Monzo you have the sense that it is a once a problem, but inevitable. Although, like some of the stories in Merce Rodereda, tradition is too often evoked to excuse the powerful.

Monzo also likes to lean to the surreal. In Centripetal Force he describes an apartment building whose residents cannot leave by themselves. If someone comes to visit, they can leave with them, but if they try the same feat latter they find themselves in an endless loop. It is a contagious feature of the building and when “the man” (he often does not name his characters) is rescued by firefighters, the firefighters become trapped within the building. Its a comic and surreal story, but that Centripetal Force is all pervasive and the man who can’t leave his apartment, is really just an extreme compression of most people’s lives: the daily return to home, that centripetal force everyone has.

He also likes to play with the way people interpret events through the media. In  The Lives of the Prophet and During the War he builds realities based on the rote generics that fill the media during war or great calamity. During the War Monzo narrates the start of a war, but what war is it really? The descriptions that describe the war are almost a template of how wars should be reported. During the War has the strange honor of being devoid of description, or actual specific content, such as place, but feels as if the war is real because it is a narrative seen so many times. His writing style underscores that nicely since Monzo is a spare writer and the bland description of the war starting makes it even more darkly funny.

Despite its short length, Guadalajara is filled with stories like these that are funny, dark, and enigmatic. They also feel fresh, a reinvestigation of the short story that sometimes feels rote and repetitive. He is well deserving of his reputation of one of Spain’s best short story writers.

Open Letter Summer Catalog: Quim Monzo and Sergio Chejfec

I just got the Spring Open Letter catalog and was happy to see that a collection of short stories from Quim Monzo are going to be published in July and the following month My Two Worlds from Sergio Chejfec. I am especially looking forward to the Quim Monzo because I’ve heard so much about his short stories. I didn’t much like his book Gasoline, but am willing to give the stories a chance since this blog is turning into all things short story from Spain. I’m not familiar with Sergio Chejfec, but am looking forward to reading his book. You can read an excerpt of Monzo’s new book at Open Letter (as well as other books in the upcoming catalog). You can also read a story that Open Letter recently published called Books.

Short Story from Quim Monzo – Books – At Three Percent

Three Percent has a short story (pdf) from Quim Monzo that you can down load. I thought it could have gone in other directions, but then again that is just echoing Monzo himself when he says, ” a narrative is never as good as the possibilities that fan out at the beginning” . Nevertheless, it is in English and short. I found it to be a mix of Bernhard and Borges, which, despite my love of both, didn’t excite me. But perhaps it will you.

The Last 20 Years of Spanish Literature as José-Carlos Mainer Sees it

El Pais has an overview of Spanish Literature of the last 20 years. It is an arbitrary number, as José-Carlos Mainer notes, but it also a period of many changes and some exciting new authors. It is a bit of a mixed article, but it has moments where he picks out authors worth reading. At the bottom of the passage he notes 2 that I have been extremely impressed with, Navarro and Fernandez Cubas whose short stories deserve to be translated some day.

La norma constituyente de muchos de estos libros es la inclusión, la bulimia. Algunas memorias de escritores (pienso en las de Josep Maria Castellet y Rafael Argullol) ceden buena parte del espacio legítimo del yo a viajes, historias, personajes conocidos: son demoradas galerías de espejos. Y otras, sin embargo, se adelgazan hasta convertirse en un provocativo y fibroso ensayo de antropología cultural: la autobiografía de Félix de Azúa. Hay dietarios en los que habita fundamentalmente el mundo exterior, golosamente gozado, como fueron los de Antonio Martínez Sarrión, y hay otros en que los muchos acontecimientos nunca acaban de desplazar al terco “yo” que los trae y lleva: el Salón de pasos perdidos, de Andrés Trapiello. Y hay literatura que se alimenta de literatura, como le sucede fecundamente a la de Enrique Vila-Matas, Sergio Pitol y José Carlos Llop. Y a su manera paródica, a la de César Aira… Ricardo Piglia acaba de publicar la novela que nunca escribió Borges pero que le hubiera gustado leer al autor de El Sur. Por eso, los libros suelen ser tan dilatados como la dieta bulímica que los alimenta, pero también la vivencia del mundo ha aconsejado a otros agazaparse en las formas breves: el microrrelato se ha convertido en una experiencia de nuestro tiempo y un plante desdeñoso a la sobreabundancia (siguen siendo referencia las actitudes al respecto del inolvidable Augusto Monterroso). Otros han encontrado la proporción áurea del cuento de diez páginas y las columnas de a dos, artefactos de precisión que condensan y ejercitan el ingenio mediante el arte de prescindir: cada cual a su modo, lo hacen Cristina Fernández Cubas, José María Merino, Luis Mateo Díez, Quim Monzó, Manuel Rivas, Hipólito García Navarro, que han hecho del cuento un género imprescindible. Las columnas son el dominio de Manuel Vicent, por ejemplo. Juan José Millás respira por igual en el cuento, el artículo y el reportaje.

Gasoline by Quim Monzo – A Review

” target=”_blank”>Gasoline
Quim Monzon
Open Letter Press, 2010, 141 pg

I’m not sure if Gasoline is a funny book or an annoying one. Knowing that Quim Monzo is a bit of a joker (reading one of his weekly columns in La Vnguradia made that obvious), should help me conclude the former. But that is outside of the book and doesn’t really make me desire to conclude the later. Gasoline is a relatively brief read, both in pages and complexity, and the actual experience of reading it was not unpleasurable, but for much of the meandering obsessions and love affairs that fill the book I had one thought: who cares. Perhaps if I was a painter I would have enjoyed it, found a way to relate to the characters, that popular, though limiting, mechanism of evaluation. Yet after each episode where one or the other of the Catalan doppelgangers stalks someone, or drinks too much, or has an affair with someone, all the while the art world sings his praises, all I can think is, yes, artists can live messed up lives; point taken. If Monzo wanted to take down modern art he would have done better to follow Michel Houellebecq’s bit from Platform.

So what about the book? What was it that caused me such consternation? The story follows Heribert Julia as he tries to paint new paintings for an upcoming a new exhibition.  Caught in some sort of painter’s block he spends his time sleeping, drinking, and finding obsessions. He does everything except paint. For a while he stalks his wife, convinced she is having an affair. In perhaps the funnest part of the book he creates a disguise one store at a time as he follows her, eventually dressing as some sort of strange clown that makes him completely recognizable as he passes her. In one brief section he decides to buy collectible stamps, spending thousands on them. Then pages latter he changes to rare coins, spending even more, and then as he did with the stamps, he places them in the closet. Between the drinking and shopping he plots his next sexual conquest. His marriage is a disaster and it never seems like they are interested in being together or even care if one has disappeared for a few days, as if their lives have taken divergent paths and they live together out of habit. His undoing, though, is when he starts a new affair and in a moment of passion in a museum he knocks a bronze statue on his himself and ends up in the hospital days latter. He certainly will not be finishing the paintings for the shows, and one can only assume his role as the most important Catalan painter in New York is over.

The second part of the book follows Humbert (most of the characters have first names that start with H), a younger Catalan painter who has taken the New York art world by storm. Humbert is also married to Heribert’s wife. Obviously, the two painters are meant to be opposites and reflect different creative processes. Humbert keeps  six or seven note books with different ideas and is constantly writing them down. Often they can be pretty pedantic: “Still life of different types of glasses and mugs;”or “The city, by night, as seen from the air: millions of tiny white, blue, and yellow dots.” Humbert is always working or going to the gym. He is obsessed with movement and avoiding the traps of Heribert. Eventually, though, he begins to have an affair with his wife’s friend’s daughter. They travel around, staying in hotels, drinking, all the while Humbert worries that he isn’t going to keep up the pace of work. The book ends with Humbert getting into bed with his lover on New Years Eve.

The book feels unfinished, a collection of incidents put together, but without any good reason for writing them. Sure the art world can be messy, but the book doesn’t really help me understand that. At the same time Monzo eschews psychological insights, which is fine, watching a collection of actions is not a bad approach and too much pschologizing can get tedious. But the insights the book itself leaves you with are just as flat as the character’s lives: I do this, then I do that, and then I might get obsessed about this; who knows, life is just one long collection of unconnected events. Unfortunately, it is not so much a tedious assemblage, for some how the book wasn’t painful to read, but it seems to want to dispense with something that isn’t that important to begin with, the art world. And Monzo is dispensing, too, with the idea of psychological insight, but his replacement, a light, episodic comedy falls flat. Monzo makes me long for Bernhard, where nothing really happens, but at least you know there is something behind it all. In Gasoline Monzo is just the class clown who has to be funny by compulsion, not because he has something fascinating to say.

If someone can point me to another work of his to convince me otherwise I will give him another try, but for now Quim Monzo’s Gasoline is the end of the line.

Gasoline
Quim Monzon
Open Letter Press, 2010, 141 pg

I’m not sure if Gasoline is a funny book or an annoying one. Knowing that Quim Monzo is a bit of a joker (reading one of his weekly columns in La Vnguradia made that obvious), should help me conclude the former. But that is outside of the book and doesn’t really make desire to conclude the later. Gasoline is a relatively brief read, both in pages and complexity, and the actual experience of reading it was not unpleasurable, but for much of the meandering obsessions and love affairs that fill the book I had one thought: who cares. Perhaps if I was an a painter I would have enjoyed it, found a way to relate to the characters, that popular, though limiting, mechanism of evaluation. Yet after each episode where one or the other of the Catalan doppelgangers stalks someone, or drinks too much, or has an affair with someone, all the while the art world sings his praises, all I can think is, yes, artists can live messed up lives; point taken. If Monzo wanted to take down modern art he would have done better to follow Michel Houellebecq’s bit from Platform.

So what about the book? What was it that caused me such consternation? The story follows Heribert Julia as he tries to paint new paintings for an upcoming a new exhibition.  Caught in some sort of painter’s block he spends his time sleeping, drinking, and finding obsessions. He does everything except paint. For a while he stalks his wife, convinced she is having an affair. In perhaps the funnest part of the book he creates a disguise one store at a time as he follows her, eventually dressing as some sort of strange clown that makes him completely recognizable as he passes her. In one brief section he decides to buy collectible stamps, spending thousands on them. Then pages latter he changes to rare coins, spending even more and then as he did with the stamps, he places them in the closet. Between the drinking and shopping he plots the next affair he can have. His marriage is a disaster and it never seems like they are interested in being together or even care if one has disappeared for a few days, as if their lives have take divergent paths and they live together out of habit. His undoing, though, is when he starts a new affair and in a moment of passion in a museum he knocks a bronze statue on his himself and ends up in the hospital days latter. He certainly will not be finishing the paintings for the shows and one can only assume his role as the most important Catalan painter in New York is over.