Granta Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists – A Review (Part II)

I learned something in reading this collection: with certain exceptions, I find novel excerpts irritating. Either they are too short to say anything, or just when they get going they stop. I also relearned that my antipathy for best of youth collections seldom live up to the word best. That is unavoidable, of course, with any collection, but with youth comes promise and it is the let down that makes it worse. That said, of the works remaining works that I had left to read (see my review for the other authors), and those that I did not skip because they were novel excerpts and I’d rather just read the novel (this is especially the case with Zambra, Roncagaliolo, Oloixarac, and Navarro), I found some of these works readable, and occasionally intriguing, but on the whole uneven.

The Andrés Neuman short stories showed some real inventiveness and suggest he has quite a range as a short story writer. I should say, he was someone, who before I had read the stories, I was interested in reading. His work seems to have an expansiveness to its approaches and breaks out of of certain story telling traps. I did find, however, that the story about the nun was perhaps a bit cliched. Still his portrait of a nun who in having an affair with a womanizer, turns his world into a hell without her. It has that kind of religious story flipped that still leads to the same result. Instead of the man going to hell just by his acts, or realizing it through a sermon, the religious figure leads the man into hell. It has a touch of that Issac Babel’s story in the Red Calvary where Jesus sleeps with a woman on her wedding night, because if her wedding is not consummated, she will be killed.

Frederico Falco’s story about a girl who has a summer crush on a Mormon doing missionary work was perhaps the funniest story of the collection. In it Falco creates a precocious teenager who announces she is an atheist to her grandmother, who of course finds the thought horrifying. Shortly after two Mormon missionaries come to the door and she is taken with one. She invites them in for the first of many visits to talk over the Mormon faith. She thinks if she keeps bringing them along, fainting interest in the religion, she’ll have more time with the cute one. But every time she tries something she finds that the boys are too committed to the faith and that even simple gestures of friendship are filtered through the mission. It isn’t a tragic end, because she doesn’t care. She’s just using them, and the boys are so committed that they just move on to the next mission. It is a warm and yet distant story, that doesn’t so much as sympathize with the girl who is looking for a little fun, but toy with the irreconcilability of two such opposing points of view.

Sonia Hernández, much like Samanta Schwiblin and to some extent like Andres Neuman, belongs to the tradition of the fantastic or perhaps surreal that seems to surface often in Spanish language short stories. Her piece about a mysterious wall with a newly installed door, is probably the most allegorical of anything in the collection. At first it isn’t clear why the organization installed the door, or even why there is a wall. The only thing you know is that people complained about the noises from the other side. Is this a social comment about unwanted immigrants? But then the story takes a turn as the narrator says a friend of hers has left and this has caused the leadership of the building to get upset. The question becomes, is this some sort of prison and those on the other side are free? Hernandez, though, has more complications as the residents of the building are mute. They speak but no one can hear them. The missing friend, who is dead, has returned and is begging the narrator to go with her and keeps talking with her but is inaudible. Is this perhaps after all, some sort of purgatory, or just a closed society where the laws of existence are so defined you cannot act freely? Of course, each of those readings leads to tyranny against the individual. Either way, the story ends ill at ease, leaving little hope for the inhabitants of the building: …ese es el castigo a su soberbia (this is the punishment for her pride).

Structurally speaking, Rodrigo Hasbun’s short story that constructs a story through constant revisions of itself had potential. But like many of the works in the volume it tended to be interested too much in writing. The same thing happened with Patricio Pron’s short story which was obviously written for the collection and suffered for its cleaver nods to Granta. I’m certainly not above reading about writing or meta fiction (see my countless posts on Hipolito G. Navarro), but the pieces in hear often seemed to be afflicted with the young writers syndrome, where the only thing the writer knows is writing so they write about writing. I once took a class where we had to write a novella in one quarter. We all accomplished the task, but the majority of the works were about either writers or some other type of artist. I wrote about a guitarist, since I also play guitar. And reading these pieces reminded me about that class which as far as I know didn’t produce any great works.

Those inconsistencies in the works are why the collection was quite uneven. Having read it, I would like to ask the editor how she picked these authors. Since, really, the collection is a reflection of the editor as much as anything. The focus on youth I think is a little misplaced sometimes. The Guadalajara book fair’s focus on unknown writers seems a little more productive.

Granta’s Best Young Spanish Writers at Three Percent

The ever interesting blog Three Percent from Open Letter Books is publishing bios of all 22 of the writers featured in Granta’s Best young writers in Spanish. So far they have put up bios of Andres Barba and a short story in English, Andres Neuman, Carlos Labbe, Federico Falco, and Santiago Roncagliolo amongst others. Definitely worth following if you are interested.

I’ve always had a thing for Spanish literature. Not sure exactly why or how this started, although I do remember struggling my way through Cortazar’s “A Continuity of Parks,” thinking holy s— this can’t actually be what’s happening, then reading the English version, finding myself even more blown away and proceeding to devour his entire oeuvre over the course of the ensuing year. (The next tattoo I get will likely be a reference to either Hopscotch or 62: A Model Kit.)

There’s something special about the great Spanish-language works . . . They can be as philosophically complicated as the French (see Juan Jose Saer’s Nouveau Roman influenced novels), while still remaining very grounded, emotional (see all of Manuel Puig), and others represent the epitome of wordplay and linguistic gamesmanship (see Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers).

Not trying to say that Spanish-language literature is better than that of other languages—I’m just trying to explain why I’m so drawn to it, why we published Latin American authors make up such a large portion of Open Letter’s list (Macedonio Fernandez, Juan Jose Saer, Alejandro Zambra, Sergio Chejfec, not to mention the Catalan writers, which, though vastly different in language, have a sort of kinship with their fellow Spanish writers). And why I read so many Spanish works in my “free time,” why I love Buenos Aires, the tango, etc. . . .

Regardless, when I found out that Granta was releasing a special issue of the “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” I was psyched. (This really hits at the crux of my obsessions: Spanish literature and lists.) I tried to tease names from the forthcoming list out of the wonderful Saskia Vogel and the multi-talented John Freeman, but neither would give away any secrets. So when the list was finally announced, I was doubly pleased to see that six of the authors on there either already are published by Open Letter or will be in the near future.

Granta en español Announces Its Best Young Novelists in Spanish

Grant en español has announced their take on the best young novelists in Spanish. You can see a complete list plus links to interviews and other information at El Pais’s blog, Papeles Perdidos. Here is the list of names:

Andrés Barba (España), Oliverio Coelho (Argentina), Federico Falco (Argentina), Pablo Gutiérrez (España), Rodrigo Hasbun (Bolivia), Sonia Hernández (España), Carlos Labbé (Chile), Javier Montes (España), Elvira Navarro (España), Matías Néspolo (Argentina), Andrés Neuman (Argentina), Alberto Olmos (España) Pola Oloixarac (Argentina), Antonio Ortuño (México), Patricio Pron (Argentina), Lucía Puenzo (Argentina), Andrés Ressia Colino (Uruguay), Santiago Roncagliolo (Perú), Samanta Schweblin (Argentina), Andrés Felipe Solano (Colombia), Carlos Yushimito del Valle (Perú) y Alejandro Zambra (Chile).

I have heard of several of these writers and some are in English. I know I have read a story by Samanta Schweblin and I think I liked it. She had something in the Latin American issue of Zoetrope. I haven’t read Andres Nueman yet, and I’m a little disappointed I didn’t buy one of his books when I was in Barcelona; he was on my list. Alejandro Zambra has been translated into English. You can read both Bonsai and the Private Lives of Trees. Santiago Roncagliolo has one book in English and as I noted earlier this week he will be on El Publico Lee. Jorge Volpi has noted his writings as a way forward with the political novel. I don’t know about the rest of the authors, but I guess that will give me an excuse to read the issue.


Read about some of them in English.

Zoetrope All Story: The Latin American Issue

I finished reading Zoetrope All Story: The Latin American Issue a week ago and have sometime to think about the quality of the stories. Before I start, though, I must say it was a pleasant surprise to have the text both in English and Spanish, which gave me a chance to read the stories in the original.

On the whole I wasn’t impressed with the stories. Many of them just weren’t that interesting to me. I’m not sure exactly why. Some of it was the writing style, which didn’t interest me too much, but mostly it was the choice of subjects. The worst was the story about the porn actor. I stopped reading it after a page and a half.

There were several stories, though, that did stand out. Tuesday Meetings by Slavko Zupcic was probably the best. The writing was fresh and the story about inmates in an asylum waiting for the pope’s visit was interesting and funny. Insular Menu by Ronaldo Menéndez from Cuba talk of the privations in Castro’s Cuba with a humor that didn’t dwell on the politics but human survival, although, cat lovers shouldn’t read the story. An Open Secret by the late Aura Estrada had some nice touches, although I think the story had more to do with Juan Rulfo than Borges. And, finally, Family by Rodrigo Hasbún was had some nice shifting perspective.

Zoetrope All Story: The Latin American Issue isn’t the best of Latin America, but a sampling of young writers. Some of these writers are very good and are worth a further look. Considering it can take years before young writers can make it into English, this is a good collection even if it is a little uneven.