The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente – A Review

The End of Love
Marcos Giralt Torrente
Tran: Kathline Silver
McSweeny’s, 2013, 163 pg

The End of Love is Marcos Giralt Torrente’s winning entry in the 2012 Ribera del Duero prize for the short story competition. Handily translated by Kathline Silver, it is simply one of the better collections I have read in sometime. I was a little surprised since I had dismissed it initially when it had one the prize. Something about the excerpt that was printed in El Pais did not catch my eye. That was a mistake. Torrente’s writing and narrative skill make this collection shine.

The four stories, as the name implies, are about the end of love. Torrente approaches the end of relationships not through a history of the decline, but through the elements that show it in relief. It is a powerful technique and mark his stories with a subtly that reveals the collapse of the four different relationships in ways that avoid cliche’s. In the first story, We Were Surrounded By Palm Trees, he describes a couple who has gone to a small coastal village in an unnamed African country. They arrive with a German couple that they don’t known. From the beginning there is something strange with the village. The head of the village gives vague warnings about going out at night. It is unspecified what, but there is a threat of something, an area where the reader can inject their own fears. The German couple doesn’t follow the requests of the village head and the couple fight over if the husband should go out and look for them. Again what they fear is unsaid but the husband is reluctant to do the search the wife wants. It is in these arguments, none of them a blow out or relationship defining, that you see the problems with the couple. It’s what makes it so subtle and refreshing. What we are seeing is just the part of a larger story that is unsaid, much as the fear that permeates the foreigners. Even the story itself is caught midway between the relationship and the end, opening with an ellipsis:

…I remember when it started. There is one scene that comes back to me, frequently, though it seems arbitrary to focus on it.

As the story ends the reader can see why the relationship is going to fail, but the opening paragraph also makes it clear that on its own, without the context of memory, of a failed relationship, this might just be a bad weekend getaway. These subtle turns make the story haunting and leaves one asking what more was there with this couple.

In Captives we have a participant-observer as a narrator, a man who relates the strange love and marriage of his cousin. The reader, like the narrator is always kept at a distance from what is happening. Where as We Were Surrounded By Palm Trees focuses on a seemingly incidental incident to obfuscate, the narrator by his very distance is unable to know the full story. What ever it is happening between his cousin and her husband it is odd. Torrente also uses the narrator’s idolization of his cousin to miss questions that as an older, wiser adult he would like to know. If the couple are so happy together why is it she takes him out alone when he visits her in New York? Do they have private lives? It is these kind of questions that permeate the story as the narrator describes their long marriage that slowly drifts into living in separate homes on the same farm and the only thing between the couple seems to be the narrator. In his brilliant first paragraph (one of many in this erudite work) you can see the shades of mystery that Torrente weaves so well:

Guillermo Cunningham had more money, more status, and was definitely more sophisticated than any member of our family, the only strike against him being a foreign surname that conjured vague social origins, as vague as the origins of his wealth–an indeterminate amount of income from nobody knew where and that would most likely not be increasing due to his lack of interest in business, which was an even more serious concern. I don’t think, in any case, that it would have occurred to Alicia’s parents, nor to any other adult relation, to in any way hinder their engagement. The possibility of bringing into the family someone who possesses wealth is much more tempting for those who have had it and no longer do that for those who never have.

Despite the brilliance of Captives, I still think Joanna is my favorite of the four stories. The narrator is an adult looking back on when he lived in with his gradmother in El Escorial outside of Madrid. She is one of those those grandmothers who means well, but belong to a different time:

…a strong and affectionate woman who ave me everything she could, but who was shaped by a set of old-fashioned beliefs that view misfortune as a circumstance requiring even more rigorous discipline, not greater tolerance. The misfortune, of course, was mine, orphaned and abandoned as I was, and it was precisely for this reason that my grandmother kept me on such a short leash, lest I forget that life is hard, that there is no respite.

He begins a friendship with Joanna, a girl of his age and a summer resident in one of the big homes in the town. Because of his age he is permitted to be friends with her, even though his class would not normally permit it. From the beginning the Joanna’s mother is a disturbing woman preoccupied with her looks, especially in relation to Joanna. The mother tries to insert herself into to Joanna’s world and is the epitome of a woman who’s never grown up. Joanna does not like her and with the narrator there is a freedom that comes to a halt when they are with her family. When her brother shows up midway through the story there is a hint that something perverted is going on. The narrator doesn’t know what it is though. For him, Joanna disappeared when he was 18 and she returned to Madrid and a life among the well to do. What he suspects, though, is that one of his call in guests on his radio show has told him what really happened and it haunts him still. The ending which is so strong, like his other stories, plays with what the narrator truly knows as is a masterful ending that avoids the taint of epiphany.

My only criticism of the book is with the first story. It felt a little as if he were playing with exotic locals, using Africa, for his own devices and projecting on it. It certainly not egregious, but as I read it I couldn’t help but have that in mind. In part this is because the most powerful part, the mystery, also feels tinged with stereotypes.

That aside, this is a masterful collection. One in whose pages I can continually find phrase that distil the essence of a moment into something greater. I leave you with one of my favorites:

I was carrying the camera, but I did not take a single photo. I regret it. If I had, those photos would now be of what could have been.

Guadalupe Nettel Has Won the Ribera del Duero Prize for Short Stories

Guadalupe Nettel has won the Ribera del Duero prize for short stories. The judging panel was Enrique Vila-Matas, Cristina Grande, Ignacio Martínez de Pisón, Samanta Schweblin, and Marcos Giralt Torrente. I’m not familiar with her work but if a panel of authors I respect have selected her, I think her work might be worth looking at. The Press release says the book is 5 long short stories that uses a structural device to tie the stories together: the presence of a domestic animal which partly represent the complex links that exist between humans and animals. This is from the press release at Paginas de Espuma:

Cinco relatos extensos forman Historias naturales, un libro con una excusa estructural: en todos ellos coincide la presencia de un animal doméstico (desde peces a insectos, pasando por gatos o serpientes), que intenta por una parte representar los complejos vínculos que existen entre animales y seres humanos, pero que, sobre todo, sirven como metáfora o comparación de determinadas actitudes de los personajes

El Pais has a little more about the book. I think the invasion of cockroaches that starts a class war sounds funny:

Un matrimonio convive en un pequeño piso de París mientras espera el nacimiento de su hijo. Ella pasa las horas mirando a sus dos peces. Es tan exhaustivo el ejercicio que termina por encontrar una serie de paralelismos entre sus mascotas y su vida de pareja. Una familia burguesa y mexicana sufre una invasión de cucarachas. La epidemia termina por convertirse en una lucha de clases en una gran casa-laboratorio social. Estos dos relatos forman parte de Historias naturales, la obra –de título provisional- con la que la escritora mexicana Guadalupe Nettel (Ciudad de México, 1973) ha ganado el III Premio Internacional de Narrativa Breve Ribera del Duero que organiza la editorial Páginas de Espuma, especializada en el género del cuento en español, y que entrega al ganador 50.000 euros. La obra se publicará a comienzos de mayo y se presentará oficialmente en la Feria del Libro de Madrid.

“Aún sigo atónita”, dice la escritora. “Supongo que me presenté por el prestigio que ha adquirido el premio en pocos años y por el dinero, claro”, ríe. Nettel no tenía muchas pistas del jurado y tampoco confiaba mucho en poder ganarlo, menos cuando se enteró de que en esta convocatoria se habían presentado 863 trabajos, provenientes de 26 países diferentes. Luego descubrió que entre los encargados de juzgar sus cinco relatos largos estaría Enrique Vila-Matas, acicate suficiente para correr el riesgo. “Los cinco relatos destacan por la alta calidad de su prosa, impecable tensión narrativa y unas atmósferas en las que lo anómalo se aposenta en lo cotidiano”, ha dicho el escritor, a la postre, presidente del jurado.




Finalists for the Spanish Short Story Prize Premio Ribera del Duero Anounced

The short list fr the third Premio Ribera del Duero for short stories in Spanish has been announced.  I have only read one of these authors, Tizon, which I reviewed in my article on the Spanish Short story. I didn’t realize he had a new book last year. Rossi sounds familiar as does Padilla, but I haven’t read them. It feels more international this year which is a good thing (via)

Ernesto Calabuig (Madrid, España, 1966), con Caminos anfibios.

Guadalupe Nettel (México DF, México, 1973), con Historias naturales.

Gustavo Nielsen (Buenos Aires, Argentina, 1962), con Novela.

–Ignacio Padilla (México DF, México, 1968), con Lo volátil y las fauces.

Cristina Peri Rossi (Montevideo, Uruguay, 1941), con Los amores equivocados.

Eloy Tizón (Madrid, España, 1964), con Técnicas de iluminación