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

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Excellent Overview of the Spanish Short Story of the Last 20 Years at Sergi Bellver

Sergi Bellver has an excellent article on trends in the Spanish short story of the last 20 years. It is well worth the look if you want to see what is going on and more importantly, know who is doing it. He has an excellent list of authors past and present including some of my perennial favorites, Cristina Fernández Cubas, Ana María Matute, Hipólito G. Navarro, and others I have read or am going to read such as Andres Neuman (one of the recent Granta writers) and Miguel Ángel Muñoz. I’m don’t exactly agree with some of his statements about the American short story scene which is on the defensive with fewer and fewer magazines printing short stories. It is also fascinating to see which Americans make the list of influential short story writers: Carver, Ford, Cheever, Capote y Shepard.

Tras la llamada Generación del Medio Siglo, el cuento conoció horas más bajas y sólo algunas obras esporádicas mantenían su aliento. Más tarde, los nuevos cuentistas españoles revivieron con piezas clave que, sin embargo, no bebían directamente de las generaciones anteriores. Eso produjo una suerte de espacio en blanco y, salvo importantes excepciones, las referencias vendrían de los grandes cuentistas norteamericanos (Carver, Ford, Cheever, Capote y Shepard), gracias a catálogos como el de Anagrama, y también de la tradición europea, empezando por Kafka. Así, Quim Monzó, heredero de Pere Calders, o el incomparable Eloy Tizón iban a convertirse en el paso de los 80 a los 90 en dos de las cabezas de puente de la regeneración del cuento en nuestro país. A renglón seguido vendrían libros extraordinarios como Historias mínimas (1988), de Javier Tomeo; Días extraños (1994), de Ray Loriga; El que apaga la luz (1994), de Juan Bonilla; El fin de los buenos tiempos(1994), de Ignacio Martínez de Pisón; El aburrimiento, Lester (1996), de Hipólito G. Navarro y Frío de vivir (1997), de Carlos Castán, entre otros muchos.

A partir de ese caldo de cultivo previo y gracias a expertos como Andrés Neuman o Fernando Valls y sus antologías Pequeñas resistencias 5Siglo XXI (publicadas respectivamente por las dos editoriales más especializadas en el cuento, Páginas de Espuma y Menoscuarto), y también a la labor de otros sellos independientes como Salto de Página, Tropo, Lengua de Trapo o Ediciones del Viento, el lector español tiene a su alcance una extensa nómina de cuentistas. Autores que trabajan las cuerdas fundamentales del cuento (Óscar Esquivias, Fernando Clemot, Iban Zaldua o Javier Sáez de Ibarra) o investigan en las grietas que pueden socavar el sentido de lo real (Juan Carlos Márquez, Víctor García Antón, Fernando Cañero o Jordi Puntí). Cuentistas que tocan lo fantástico y lo insólito (Ángel Olgoso, Pilar Pedraza, Félix J. Palma o Manuel Moyano) o que inscriben en el cuento su condición femenina sin hacer “literatura de mujeres” (Cristina Cerrada, Inés Mendoza, Sara Mesa o Eider Rodríguez). Autores latinoamericanos que también construyen el cuento español (Fernando Iwasaki, Norberto Luis Romero, Santiago Roncagliolo, Eduardo Halfon o Ronaldo Menéndez) y autores españoles que desconstruyen lo formal (Eloy Fernández Porta, Vicente Luis Mora, Juan Franciso Ferré o Manuel Vilas). Esta tremenda diversidad y efervescencia literaria garantizan, más que nunca, que el lector dispuesto se contagie, como de la fiebre más bella, de la buena salud del cuento español contemporáneo.

The Best Short Stories of the 20th Century-the View from Spain

El Pais had a brief take on some of the best short stories of the 20th Century. It is a very anglophone list, but interesting as a view from the other side of the Atlantic.

Raymond Carver
Cathedral (1983)
James Joyce
The Dead (1914)
Henry James
The Beast in the Jungle (1903)
Juan Rulfo
No oyes ladrar a los perros (1953)
Julio Cortázar
Graffiti (1981)
Ramón del Valle-Inclán
El miedo (1902)
Truman Capote
Deslumbramiento (1982)
Jorge Luis Borges
El espejo y la máscara (1975)
J. D. Salinger
The Laughing Man (1953)
Francis Scott Fitzgerald
Return to Babilonia (1929)
Ingeborg Bachmann
Problems, Problems (1972)
Katherine Mansfield
The Fly (1922)
Ring Lardner
Champion (1924)
Medardo Fraile
The Album (1959)
Flannery O’Connor
A Good Man Is Hard to Find (1955)
Katherine Mansfield
In the Bay(1921)