Distancia de rescate (Fever Dream) by Samanta Schweblin – A Review

Distancia de rescate (Fever Dream)
Samanta Schweblin
Literatura Random House, 2014, pg 124

I’m not sure what I think of Distancia de rescate. My uncertainty is not a backhanded way of saying the book isn’t that good. Normally I am a big fan of Schweblin as you can see in my writings on her work. Moreover, her approach to writing does not fundamentally differ in Distancia from her short stories. If anything the narrative mystery that propels many of her stories is even stronger in this short novel. Which brings me back to my original statement: I’m not sure what I think about her work and by that I mean is there something I am missing in my reading, or do I think the book is flawed in some way? Let me see if I can answer that for myself and in that way develop an appreciation of the novel that you, my reader, will find useful.

The title for the English language translation, Fever Dream, is more suggestive of what the novel is: a feverish dream from someone who very ill, perhaps about to die. The title also gives away too much, sets a direction for interpretation that while it exists, is more subtle in the Spanish original, roughly means keeping someone close for safety. The Spanish title reflects fear that pervades the novel, the English title the structure of the novel.

Structurally, the novel is a conversation between two voices. One is Carla the mother of a young girl. She is the narrator. The second voice is of David, a you neighbor. Or so we are told. The voice is presented in italicized font and does not identify itself. Only Carla identifies the boy, David. The obvious question is, is this narrative structure as it seems? To answer that you have to go father into Carla’s narrative state. This is where the idea of the fever dream comes. As the novel begins, her narration is even, matter of fact. As she goes deeper into the story, though, her fears mount. Is something going to happen to her daughter? How can she protect her, keep her close? Is the distancia de rescate (safety distance) sufficient to protector? Carla repeatedly wonders in the distancia de rescate is sufficient. Schweblin is an skilled writer and she keeps ratcheting up the tension as Carla slips farther into fear. Which returns us to the question of the narration. The conversation could just be feverish imaginings. Carla is very suspicious of David from the beginning. He is a menacing figure with seemingly supernatural powers. He’s a kind of devil child from a horror movie. Can we trust Carla’s description of events? Despite Schweblin’s facility with the fantastic, you could read the narration as either a conversation between a darkly evil child and Carla, or the feverish imaginings of a desperate mother.

What makes Carla desperate and David so threatening are the poisoned waters. In a recent interview in the Clarian Schweblin talked about the destruction of the Argentine country side with the use of glifosato, which in the English speaking world we know by its trade name: Roundup® by Monsanto. It adds an interesting element to what seems fantastical: poisoned waters that no one seems to know about. David’s mother tells Carla about the time he dipped his hand in a pool of water on the farm where they live, put them in her mouth, and took sick shortly after. The local villagers performed a rite to save the boy, but it mingled his soul with another. From then on David has never been the same. He is threatening. He’s often found burring dead birds and small animals. It is not clear if he killed the animals or if they died in the same way that David almost did.  Carla doesn’t want him near her daughter. The fear and suspense runs through the book and it’s the mark of Schweblin’s skill that it continues to the end of the novel.

As I read through what I’ve written I find that Distancia is a better book than I thought when I first put it down. The multiple approaches to reading is a mark of its many strengths. The narration is open ended and her use of the fantastic and a frantic narrator draws you in. It was the feeling of open endedness of the ending is what gives me pause when I think about the book. The nature of the narative’s construction can probably end as something open ended. All narratives continue after they have finished in the mind of the reader. But Distancia’s ending is unsettling. It is a strength of the book, but for me the unsettling end has the effect making me question if read it well enough. (I’m sure I did) Ultimately, Distancia de rescate is an excellent read, but I might have preferred her short stories just a bit more.

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.

Guide to Argentine Literature at the Feria de Guadalajara from El Pais

El Pais has a guide to Argentine literature for the Feria de Guadalajara. The is plenty to read, from the famous to the up and coming. I recommend the overview article which discusses Argentina, writing as a profession and newer writers. I also recommend the list of 16 less well known writers from Argentina. Piglia and Aria are the most well known, and Schweblin has appeared on this blog several times. Hebe Uhart is untranslated, but you can read a few stories of her’s in the new A Thousand Forests in One Acorn from Open Letter which came out recently.

En torno a la generación de los 40 años han despuntado también otros escritores: Félix Bruzzone (Buenos Aires, 1976), hijo de desaparecidos víctimas de la dictadura militar que aborda de forma indirecta en sus cuentos el problema de las desapariciones; también sobresale Samanta Schwebling, quien con dos libros de cuentos publicados en 2002 y en 2009 se convirtió en la autora de la que todo el mundo hablaba hace 14 años. Ahora acaba de publicar su primera novela, Distancia de rescate (Random House). Otro nombre y otro título: Julián López y su primera novela, Una muchacha muy bella (Eterna cadencia, 2013), que relata la historia de un niño y su madre, desaparecida en los años 70. Hay muchos más autores y gran diversidad entre ellos. Pero si algo tienen en común es que casi ninguno vive de lo que publica.

A falta de ingresos por derechos de autor, los talleres son un buen recurso para pagar las facturas de luz y agua. Selva Almada, que acudió en su día al taller de Alberto Laiseca, dirige otro taller. Abelardo Castillo, uno de los escritores más consagrados, cuenta con el que quizás sea el taller más antiguo de Argentina. Y suele recibir a los alumnos advirtiéndoles que el taller no sirve para nada. En una entrevista publicada en 2008 en La Nación, Castillo comentaba:

New Collection of Ana María Shua Short Stories, Contra el tiempo, Edited by Samanta Schweblin

Páginas de Espuma recently published a collection of short stories from the Argentine writer Ana María Shua. What caught my interest is Samanta Schweblin, one of the short story writers I mention on this blog with a certain frequency is the editor. The collection is the third in the Vivir del Cuento series from Páginas de Espuma. The series title means both to live by telling stories, but also to be lair or teller of tall tales. I’m quite interested and look forward to reading Schweblin’s introduction. You can read it here (pdf). If you are interested you can also listen to an interview with the two of them of Spanish radio. And read an interview in El Pais:

A través del email y por mediación de Vivir del cuento, la colección que ideó su editor Juan Casamayor, estas dos cuentistas convinieron una antología que “permite ver todos los colores de Shua”, afirma Shweblin. El resultado es una selección de representantes de los narradores en los que se traduce Shua, sus personajes cotidianos que al girar la esquina se transmutan en inquietud, y la mezcla de humor –“del negro”, adjetivan- y mortalidad que estiliza su narrativa. “Este humor es bastante difícil de lograr, camina en una cornisa muy delicada, siempre está al límite”, opina la joven antóloga. “Este mundo me parece un lugar muy absurdo, loco, raro y disparatado”, continúa Shua. “Los seres humanos tratamos de traducirlo a la racionalidad. Hay algo falso en creernos que todo lo podemos entender desde la lógica. En esa conciencia del disparate es por donde yo encuentro mi humor”.

And most importantly you can read the first story of the collection, Como una buena madre, at Culturamas. And finally, there is a long and in depth interview at Lecturas Sumergidas:

¿Estás convencida de que con la felicidad no se puede construir un relato de ficción? Muchas veces tus historias empiezan de un modo muy placentero, muy luminoso, pero siempre hay algo que las tuerce, que las conduce hacia lo oscuro, por decirlo de algún modo.

– Sí. Estoy convencida de que no se puede escribir desde la felicidad. No la encuentro narrativa. La felicidad es puntual, no tiene desarrollo en el tiempo. Con ella se puede construir un hermoso poema lírico, pero en un relato siempre ha de pasar algo malo. Si no es así nos quedamos sin cuento (risas).

– Otra cosa que te gusta mucho es jugar al contraste, ya sea de planos temporales (el pasado y el presente vistos a través de la mirada de una persona que recuerda, que rememora instantes vividos), ya sea a través de los estados de ánimo enfrentados que buscas provocar en el lector: La risa que se congela ante situaciones que estremecen, que llegan a poner los pelos de punta…

– Aquí hay dos preguntas en una. Por una parte, respecto a lo primero que se plantea, creo que los seres humanos estamos hechos de recuerdos. La memoria nos constituye, y el recordar, el vivir simultáneamente en varios tiempos, es una característica tan humana como saber que alguna vez vamos a morir. Sí, evidentemente, es un registro que me gusta mucho, aunque no sea muy consciente de ello cuando me pongo a escribir. En cuanto a lo de la conjunción entre humor y horror, resulta que para mí están absolutamente entrelazados. Las circunstancias más terribles pueden hacernos reír en un determinado momento. El humor es, además, una característica muy mía, forma parte de mi personalidad. No puedo escribir sin humor y al mismo tiempo tengo una suerte de placer infantil en relatar acontecimientos truculentos (carcajadas). Me gusta que a mis personajes les sucedan cosas tremendas, espectaculares. Como lectora admiro muchísimo a los autores que crean climas sutiles a partir de una situación en la que no pasa prácticamente nada. Arrancan de ahí y son  capaces de montar catedrales, término que nos hace recordar a Carver. Pero cuando yo me pongo a escribir prefiero, sin duda alguna, los acontecimientos truculentos, las escenas terribles, las situaciones muy violentas. Y, al mismo tiempo, todo eso lo puedo contar con un cierto humor, porque lo veo así. En la peor situación encuentro siempre algo con lo que reírme.

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.




Short Story Black Holes by Samanta Schweblin up at Contemporary Argentine Writers

Dario at Contemporary Argentine Writers has published a translation of Samanta Schweblin’s Black Holes from her collection El Núcleo del Disturbio.

Dr. Ottone halts in the corridor and begins to balance on the balls of his feet, very slowly at first, with his eyes fixed on one of the hospital’s black and white floor tiles, and so Dr. Ottone is thinking. Then he makes up his mind, returns to his office, switches on the lights, leaves his things on the couch and rummages through the papers on his desk until he finds Mrs. Fritchs’ file, and so Dr. Ottone is preoccupied with a certain case and has determined to resolve it, to find an answer or, at the very least, to refer the patient to another doctor, for instance, Dr. Messina. He opens the file, looks for a specific page, finds it and reads: “… Black holes. Do you understand what I’m saying? Like, you’re here, and then suddenly you’re at home, in bed, with your pajamas on, and you know for certain that you haven’t locked up the office or turned off the lights or traveled the distance you had to travel to get home; what’s more, you haven’t even seen me off. So, how could you possibly find yourself in bed with your pj’s on? Well, that’s an empty space, a black hole is what I say, zero hour, whatever you want to call it. What else could it be? …” 


“An Unlucky Man” by Samanta Schweblin Translated at Contemporary Argentine Writers Blog

Update 1/30/2013

Schweblin’s has expressed interest in finding a forum for publishing the story. As such Bard has been asked to take the translation down for the time being. When ever the story is published I will be sure to let you know. Dario’s blog is still worth taking a look at.

Edited Post

The new and interesting blog Contemporary Argentine Writers has published a translation of Samanta Schweblin’s prize wining story An Unlucky Man. As anyone who has read this blog knows, I’m a fan of her work. A few of her stories have made it into English. Dario Bard has translated her recent prize winning story at his blog. It is a good translation and well worth reading.


You can see all my Schweblin coverage here.

Samanta Schweblin Recieves the Juan Rulfo Prize for the Short Story

Samanta Schweblin one of the short story writers I mention here with some frequency received the Juan Rulfo Prize for the Short Story. What’s interesting is that she won for a story that really isn’t in her typical fantastical and absurd style. Instead, she won for a short story that is mostly autobiographic and realistic. “Este cuento tiene algo especial con respecto a todos mis anteriores, pues hasta la mitad es prácticamente autobiográfico y súper realista, mientras los anteriores se centraban mas en lo anormal o lo absurdo”, revelo Schweblin sobre el relato premiado.

You can read the story in Spanish here.

La furia de las pestes (The fury of plague) by Samanta Schweblin – A Review

La furia de las pestes
Samanta Schweblin
Fondo Editorial Casa de las Americas, 2008, 111 pg

For readers of Spanish language literature in translation Samanta Schweblin’s name is slowly getting a little more notice. She has appeared in Words Without Borders, the Granta 22 best Young Writers in Spanish, and will appear in the forth coming The Future is Not Ours from Open Letter. However, with such spotty coverage it is hard to get a good sense of this writer’s work, a writer who has earned the respect of many of contemporary Spanish Language short story writers.It is a shame because her reputation as a short story writer to watch is deserved.

La furia de las pestes is Schweblin’s second book and won the Casa del las Americas short story prize in 2008. A couple of the stories have been translated into English: Conservas, which appeared in Words Without Borders (where I first encountered her work), and En la estepa, which is in The Future is Not Ours. Both of these stories are marked by the fantastic and show her at her best. Conservas is the story of a woman who reverses her pregnancy over the course of months, slowly shrinking it down until there is nothing left of it. Ultimately, it is a bitter sweet moment when she realizes that what she wanted so badly is perhaps not quite for the best. It nicely turns what easily could have turned into a didactic story on women’s rights, and gets at a more emotionally wrenching truth that there is no answer to such dilemmas. En la estepa (On the Stepe) is a fantastic story, yet one where the fantastic is only alluded to and like here best work, plays on customs most people would know, but are just a little strange and call into question those very customs. Throughout the story the characters keep mentioning some sort of creature that all want and that the lucky ones have found on the stepe. The first time I read it I thought it was just a story about a beast (and uninteresting at that), but when you look at the language everything the characters says are the words one uses when expecting a child. Used in a different context they sound abusive, selfish and it makes one question exactly what one is talking about when talking about children.

Those stories are available in English. But what about the rest of the stories? One thing that is obvious is that she is not tied to the fantastic. In two stories Papa Noel duerme en casa (Santa Claus Slept at My House) and Mi hermano Walter (My Brother Walter), she uses depression as a form of the fantastical. In each the characters loose contact with an accessible reality and their actions, naturally, seem strange. Interspersed with in stories of the fantastic, it underscores the strange nature of depression. The depression is not treated lightly and Papa Noel duereme en casa has a troubling vision of a marriage coming to an end and narrated by a young girl. Or in a story called Cosas que se tiran (The Things That Are Thrown), where a the narrator’s partner throws all their possessions into the shower before leaving, there is just a glimpse of something dying (the story is only 2 pages long). It forms a recurring theme of loss that leaves a dull ache for the unobtainable and at the same time a mater of fact sense of attachment to those losses, as if the narrators are so accustomed to them there is nothing one can do. That sense is most evident in El hombre sirena (The Merman), about a woman who meets a merman who is sitting on a dock. He offers her something different, but she doesn’t take him up on it. Or at least that is the suggestion, because she drives away with her brother to the waiting doctor. Is this another depressed person? She is obliviously anxious when she gets in the car to drive away. And like so many of her stories, the narrator says, perhaps tomorrow there will be another one waiting for me. The unspoken future is mostly likely not too much better.

The title story is a nice nod to Juan Rulfo about a man who goes to a forgotten village and tries to get the people to say something. It is one of those lost villages out of The Burning Plain (El llano en llamas) where everyone stays in their stone homes when a stranger comes to town. The twist her is when he tries get the people to talk and offers them something he thinks will help, it only reminds them of what they don’t have.

Finally,Cabezas contra el asfalto (Heads Against the Asphalt) is dark story about art. It opens with the shocking lines

Si golpeás much la cabeza de alguien contra al asfalto–aunque sea para hacerlo entrar en razón–, es probable que termines lastimándolo.

If you hit someone’s head a bunch of times against the asphalt–even though you are doing it for their own good–you’ll probably end up hurting it.

From there it follows a narrator who from time to time gets angry and beats people’s heads against the asphalt. As a child it gave him power because bullies would leave him alone. At other times it terrified people. However, he is able to channel the anger into painting. He becomes famous painting pictures of heads beat against the asphalt. His paintings sell for millions of dollars. All that matters is the frame of reference and beating someone’s head against the asphalt is perfectly acceptable. The narrator is completely detached from what is acceptable and it throws into relief which beatings are acceptable and which are not. The story ends with the ultimate taboo, but as far as the narrator is concerned it was just another beating. It didn’t matter who the person was, he just made him angry and he had to beat him. Unfortunately, for him reality is not self constructed.

Samanta Schweblin’s stories can be deceptively simple, but when she is at her best the stories open up new realities from ones that surround us every day. He ability to turn the language of child rearing into something dark, or reimagine a fairytale like the Little Mermaid as a series of indecisive acts, make one of the more interesting writers coming from Latin America.

The Best Short Story Collections in Spanish Over the Last 5 Years

The ever excellent blog El sindrome Chejov recently polled a series of Spanish language short story authors about what they thought were the best collections of short stories to be published over the last five years. It is a broad ranging list that includes authors English speakers would probably be familiar with, such as Alice Munro and Lydia Davis. Of interest to me were the books originally written in Spanish (I’m already sufficiently familiar with the English speakers). Some of these I’ve heard of and in a few cases I’ve even read some of the books. I certainly agree with some of the choices and am looking forward to finding some new authors.

The three most cited authors were Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, Alice Munro and Ángel Olgoso. However, I saw many references to Javier Sáez de Ibarra, Andres Neuman’s Hacerse el muerto (read my review), and Smanta Schweblin’s Pajaros en la boca, a book that I am looking forward to reading soon. Miguel Ángel Muñoz’s list is of particular interest especially since he has read 250 collections over the last 5 years. I also thought Miguel Ángel Zapata’s was interesting because it listed the writers and their approaches which gives you a little context. Lest the embarrassment of riches make you think things are all rosy over there, Muñoz does end his survey with a complaint that could be easily leveled here in the states:

Buenos libros y buena labor editorial. Mejora sensible en la atención de los medios. …Y pocos lectores. En un país con desesperantes bajos índices de lectura -disfrazados por la atención mayoritaria a unos pocos libros populares- pero con una media de cuatro horas diarias ante la televisión, el cuento, que requiere de un predisposición particular y una educación del gusto para disfrutar de sus resortes narrativos, tan distintos a los de la novela, no puede salir bien parado. Aun así, sigo pensando que el cuento posee un poder que nuestro sistema educativo no ha sabido aprovechar. Aún. Confío en centenares de profesores de bachillerato que van descubriendo, y difundiendo, las posibilidades que el relato corto ofrece para introducir a los alumnos en el placer de la literatura y, todavía más, en el mejor conocimiento y explicación de materias distintas de las estrictamente literarias. Historia o Filosofía, para empezar (¿se sigue estudiando eso en Bachillerato?).

From Zapata’s comment:

En la última década, el cuento español abandona las trincheras incómodas del gueto y comienza el lento acomodo en las mesas de novedades y en las reseñas de los diarios nacionales. Eso es un hecho; lento y a gotas, pero un hecho: llueve. Ya se ha apuntado muchas veces antes la labor encomiable y de zapa de editoriales especializadas en el género como Menoscuarto, Páginas de Espuma, Salto de Página, Tropo, Traspiés o Cuadernos del Vigía. Pero cabe anotar igualmente la proliferación de espacios en la blogosfera que promueven la expansión de los géneros breves y su rápida recepción por un público silente aunque masivo tras la pantalla del ordenador. En cuanto a las direcciones que asume el cuento actual, es precisamente la heterogeneidad de propuestas la clave para entender su auge: el terror contemporáneo entreverado de cierto apego a la sobriedad realista del cuento norteamericano en la obra de Jon Bilbao, la relectura del fantástico desde posiciones especulativas o metafísicas (en tres maestros del género en su estado más puro: Ángel Olgoso, Juan Jacinto Muñoz Rengel, Manuel Moyano), la experimentación formal en la renovación que parte del fantástico hacia territorios que lindan con lo telúrico (la portentosa cuentística de lo inaudito plausible que desarrolla David Roas), la orfebrería impresionista de altísimo octanaje literario (Óscar Esquivias, Jesús Ortega), lo cotidiano transfigurado (Miguel Ángel Muñoz, Andrés Neuman y Ernesto Calabuig, que hacen virtuosismo genuino de la lectura entre líneas y la fuerza emocional de las historias), el lirismo surreal (Juan Carlos Márquez en su estupendo “Llenad la tierra”, todo un despliegue talentoso de recursos y técnica)… Si a ello sumamos el trabajo de fondo de maestros contemporáneos que siguen trabajando el género aportando periódicamente nuevas obras de impronta clásica y generosos ejercicios de estilo (Merino, Calcedo, Aramburu, Díez, Aparicio, Fernández Cubas, Peri Rossi…), da la sensación de políptico generacional completo, de relevo asegurado y estupenda salud del género, como certifica el análisis que hizo del cuento en 2011 el artículo del crítico Ricardo Senabre para el último número del “El Cultural” el año pasado. Otra cosa, por supuesto, es la flexibilidad de mercado, distribuidores y librerías en el sostenimiento de títulos suficientes de un género que siempre supone un quebradero de cabeza para las editoriales que funcionan con la calculadora y la cuenta de resultados ante la mesa. Mientras siga chispeando…”

If you are interested in the short story, these 7 posts are worth skimming through.

  1. First
  2. Second
  3. Third
  4. Fourth
  5. Fifth
  6. Sixth
  7. Seventh

New Words Without Borders – December 2011 – The Fantastic

The December Words Without Borders is out now. This month’s theme is the fantastic. I have grown more interested in the fantastic recently, especially with my readings of Cristina Fernandez Cubas and Samanta Schweblin. From the Spanish there is one by Miguel de Unamuno, but of course Words Without Borders is full of interesting workings from around the world.

This month we’re traveling in the land of the fantastic. Routine situations turn surreal and the otherworldly becomes the norm, as inanimate objects come to life, the dead coexist with the living, and the laws of physics are defied and overturned. In a more realistic vein, we present work by three Iranian writers.

We’re also launching a new feature this month, The World through the Eyes of Writers, where we’ll publish writing by new and emerging international writers recommended by established authors. In our first installment, the celebrated Chinese writer Can Xue introduces Zheng Xialou’s eerie “Festival of Ghosts.”
The Navidad Incident 

By Natsuki Izekawa

Translated from the Japanese by Alfred Birnbaum 

Right at the peak of the afternoon heat, a bus strolled into the local general store. more>>>

Orkish Cornbread 

By Ranko Trifkovi ć 

Translated from the Serbian by Ranko Trifković

But remember, the cornstalks are so gigantic you’ll need the help of seasoned Goblin lumberjacks. more>>>

The Red Loaf 

By André Pieyre de Mandiargues 

Translated from French by Edward Gauvin

I began the laborious ascent of the loaf. more>>>

The Map 

By Nazli Eray

Translated from the Turkish by Robert P. Finn

It’s a General Map of Man with a special interpretation. more>>>


By Naiyer Masud

Translated from the Urdu by Muhammad Umar Memon

During the red and yellow storms I even went out and watched the landscape changing color. more>>>

The Man Who Buried Himself 

By Miguel de Unamuno

Translated from the Spanish by Emily Calderwood Davis

There are no words to express it in the language of men who die only once. more>>>

At Livia’s Bar 

By Pierre Mejlak 

Translated from the Maltese by Antoine Cassar

Whenever she’d finish a city or an island, she would lift it in the air. more>>>

The Ghosts are Schrödinger Cats 

By Maja Novak

Translated from the Slovene by Nina Dolgan and Kristina Zdravič Reardon

It wasn’t an accident that her head was not attached to her body. more>>>

Writing from Iran


By Elham Eshraghi 

Translated from the Persian by Elham Eshraghi

Before he could reach for his abacus to add up the total, Tooba Khanum opened the folds of her chador to produce a rooster. more>>>

The Mirror 

By Soheila Beski

Translated from the Persian by Assurbanipal Babilla

When the Bolsheviks took over, Tsar Nicholas summoned my father. more>>>

An Iranian Metamorphosis 

By Mana Neyestani 

Translated from the Persian by Ghazal Mosadeq

“Write why you drew that cartoon and why you chose a Turkish word.” more>>>

Reviewing Granta’s Young Spanish Writers:Puenzo, Barba, Schweblin, Montes, Olmos

It is probably not the best way to start this mini review by saying, now I remember why I never buy the Grant Best American/British youngster editions. I find them uneven and while there is usually something interesting in the volume, of other writers I can only ask, why? I broke down this time because it was Spanish language authors and this blog is rather dedicated to the subject. I even went through the extra step of getting the Spanish edition, not the English translation. Yet some where in reading Andres Barba or Javier Olmos I wondered if the volume was really worth the trouble. I’m only 5 authors in so I could change my mind, we’ll see.

The Andres Barba piece was particularlly disappointing. Essentially, it is the story of a prostitute who decides to have a horn installed on her forehead. She has visions of what it will be like, interspersed with scenes of  her working life. While Barba tries to give some sort of nuance to the story, describing the revenge she imagines taking, or showing the nervousness of the clients, in the end the story is simplistic, and juvenile. Abused prostitute wants to grow horn on her forehead—how Freudian. But isn’t that what college students learn in their first year when they over apply terms like phallic symbol? That would be forgivable, but the prostitute is a fairly one dimensional character. Dimensionality isn’t always a requirement for charter development, but in a piece that tries to examine the thoughts of a prostitute, it is.  Ultimately, the story is simplistic and silly.

I next read Javier Montes piece about a professional hotel reviewer, which is part of a novel excerpt. I mention the order I read these in because Montes, too, seems to be fascinated by porn. At the first the pieces starts with potential, following a hotel reviewer as he explains what his life entails. A nice touch is the narrator’s dislike of sites like Trip Advisor with all the  free reviews. He has some nice insights about the impersonality of hotel chains. Halfway through the piece, though, the narrator is given the key to a room where they are filming a porno. The narrator watches, transfixed, confused, not sure what is happening. Finally, he flees the room. While the story isn’t as insulting as Barba’s, Motes’s feels flat: narrator explains the life of hotel reviewing, then stumbles on a porn film. So? As a stand alone piece it isn’t very interesting. It has the feels just slightly juvenile. But the piece also shows the problem with the Granta Best Young editions. Since this is an excerpt I’m not sure if it gets better or worse. It certainly has potential, but I’m left to base my opinion of something less.

Fortunately, there are some stories that are more interesting. Lucia Puenzo’s Cohiba is a funny take down of the literary world. In it the narrator goes to Cuba to attend a literary conference hosted by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He is depicted as a kind of out of touch mystic who shows up to give koan-like advice to writers. It is the same kind of advice that you’ll hear in a thousand different writing workshops. The advice and the criticism he gives the story writers is in many ways useless, but all the writers give him their adoring and uncritical attention. Puenzo contrasts the privileged life of the conference participants against those of the Cubans. The writers have easy access to a film festival, while Cubans have to wait, or can’t even get in. It is obvious she is taking down the hagiography that has grown up around Marquez. I don’t know what Puenzo thinks of Marquez’s writing, but Marquez the celebrity and the industry around him is an object of ridicule. At the same time, Puenzo’s vision of Cuba is a violent country where women suffer the same indignities as they do in the west. There are several ways to go with this, but for this quick review, I’ll just say this reflects badly, again, on Marquez who has been a staunch defender of Cuba. It would be too much to blame him for what happens in the story, but Puenzo’s story makes him guilty by association.

I have written about Samanta Schweblin’s stories in several posts, and I tend to like her work, even if it is a little uneven. Her story Olingiris is typical of her work, bordering on the fantastical, a type of modern fable that usually ends without a fixed resolution. In Olingiris, the lives of two women intersect at a mysterious Institute whose sole purpose is to pay women for their body hair. When a woman is plucked she lays naked on a table and three women on each side of her pluck hairs from her body with tweezers. At the end of the day all the hairs are collected and taken away. It is never explained what the hairs are for. The story of the Institute is just a frame to explore the lives of these two women who are alone in a big city, but the hair removal, typically a beauty treatment done in one’s privacy, now becomes something sinister and even more isolating. What are the women really giving up when their hair is taken. As the story closes, it is obvious that it is a traumatic experience, and like the best of her stories, takes what seems logical, the work people put into beauty, and creates an extreme vision.

Finally,there is Alberto Olmos’s Diego and Eva. Of the three male authors in this review, his story was the best, although it had a couple of moments that felt like a man channeling Candice Bushnell. The story is about consumption, both a society that is always buying, but a society that continually consumes itself, destroying what existed only yesterday, and replacing it with something that will be destroyed in the near future. The narrator is a journalist who has trouble coping with a terrorist attack in a shopping center and fixates on consumerism, vacillating between questioning it and participating in it. Over all the story was interesting, but it wasn’t the most subtle, which I would have preferred.

A criticism: once again the percentage of women authors is quite low. There are, by my count, 5 women authors, out of 22 total, which comes out to 22%. While it doesn’t make artistic sense to demand 50/50 if the works aren’t there, I’m sure there are more women writers out there (I know there are since I’ve read some of them), at least enough to get to 60/40, if not 50/50.

Finally, Imagined Icebergs has a couple of reviews from the collection and is worth a look.

Samanta Schweblin’s Pájaros en la boca Reviewed in Letras Libres

Letras Libres has a fairly negative review of Samanta Schweblin’s latest book. I have been curious about her work and have written a reflection on her works recently. I haven’t decided where I fall when thinking about her work. It can be interesting, but at least one story I read seemed too safe.

¿Qué necesidad tendríamos de ver elevada la temperatura dramática? Acaso mi reparo sea moral, pero también es literario –no creo que los dos adjetivos se hallen para nada distantes uno del otro. Como metáfora de una fisura secreta, la anomalía puede abrir una percepción de la naturaleza paradójica de seres humanos que, al no tener la valentía para ser sus propios verdugos, asignan ese papel a sucesos disruptivos ante los cuales no hay manera –o eso pienso– de mantener la indiferencia. En cambio, por timorata, la pesquisa en torno de la conducta humana, en Pájaros de la boca, se queda en lo superficial.
Y si repite, abaratado (la anomalía sin la consecuencia profunda), el mecanismo propio de Kafka o el primer Buzzati –si no incorpora una variación que surja del temperamento o la circunstancia epocal–, el discípulo permanece en esa condición al revelar sometimiento a la parte más obvia de un método urdido por otros, lo que podría interpretarse como oportunismo: aunque incompleta, la lección ya canónica es fácilmente aplaudida por el lector conformista, sobre todo si nos encontramos ante una prosa sin exigencias, léxicamente seducida por la pobreza y la palidez y negada a la audacia técnica debido acaso a la propensión formulera por finales sorpresivos que, a estas alturas de la repetición, son de lo más predecibles (en “Bajo tierra”, el viejo que cuenta la historia de los niños perdidos en un pueblo minero termina siendo él mismo un minero). Sobre todo una cosa: el texto narrativo puede ser clasicista en su ejecución y austero en su trabajo prosístico cuando la perspectiva de lo vital que la voz literaria presenta es discordante y nueva, y no una reiteración edulcorada de lo que otros antes con mayor hondura han patentado.
¿Para qué ofuscar al comodino lector con una prospección dramática que, si perturbadora, es por lo mismo de aprobación incierta? Supongamos el caso: me subo a los hombros de un gigante, pero en vez de ponerme de pie, estirar los brazos hacia las alturas y lanzar lejos la vista y la voz, mejor cierro los ojos y busco encogerme, guardo silencio aferrándome por el temor a caer o a superar, con el arrojo propio, al gigante que me hospeda. De ese modo, no habré de caer nunca, pero también me niego el mirar lejos, hacia una nueva y mayor distancia. Así estas ficciones. Sobre los hombros de Kafka, se niegan el privilegio de arriesgarse a la victoria sobre Kafka. ~

The Short Stories of Samanta Schweblin – Some Thoughts

Samanta Schweblin is an Argentine author, one of Granta’s young Spanish language novelists. Little of her work is available in English except for the Granta piece and a story at Words Without Borders. I’ve had the chance to read the story at Words Without Borders and the four stories that are available in Spanish on her website and I have found them inventive and true to her goal, stories that border on the fantastic but could also be real (she explains this in her interview at Canal-l). Interestingly, I think the story at Words Without Borders is my favorite so if you are interested in reading her work you have the perfect opportunity. The story, Preserves, is about what might be called a reverse pregnancy. The character wants to delay her pregnancy and comes up with a unique method of doing it, only to find perhaps it wasn’t what she wanted. The story is obviously fantastic, but it shows her interest in using one element of the unexplainable and letting it reshape what might be an otherwise common story. Even in doing that, though, the story is actually mostly realistic in style. She’s not give to rhetorical flourishes and lets the element of the fantastic be the flourish. The work in Spanish I liked the most was Perdiendo Velocidad (Loosing Velocity). It is a micro story of no more than 1000 words about a a human canon ball who is loosing velocity. Really, he is loosing his desire to live, but it is as if to be a cannon ball is the only thing he can be. It shows a good ability to grasp just the essential details. I almost debated buying the book last summer, but I decided I have enough Spanish language short story collections that are unread to keep me busy for a while. However, I think I will try to check it out when the pile shrinks again. I’m finding these semi fantastic stories are a nice change from the well written stories about suburban decay.

Review of the Granta Young Spanish Novelists at Guardian-There’re Not Like Their Predecesors

The Guardian has a review of the Grant 113 Young Spanish Language Novelists. Surprisingly , the reviewer found that they are not as bold as the previous generations. I haven’t had a chance to read the edition yet since my Spanish copy has gotten lost in the mail, but it seems a given that these kind of criticisms come along. I’m still holding out for some good things, and the Samanta Schweblin has been interesting. I just got Andres Neuman’s latest novel so we’ll see some time this year how that works out. It also sounds like from the quote below that the editors didn’t search hard enough, because there are definitely Spanish Language writers that follow in the Cortazar tradition rather than the Carver.

In Pola Oloixarac’s “Conditions for the Revolution”, the young female narrator looks disdainfully at her mother’s pitiful attempts to believe that revolution is still possible in Argentina. Several authors are concerned with the links or lack of them between the generations; others offer gentle examples of the passage from adolescence to adulthood. As the editors point out: “the writers in this issue . . . tell stories which are quotidian”. They take their cue from Carver rather than Cortázar, only occasionally showing any appetite for formal invention or the fantastic.

Overall, there is a sense that these writers have lost much of the boldness of their predecessors. Their talents lie in half-tones, in ironies or close observation, their canvases are deliberately small. This generation is almost entirely urban, and is more likely to have travelled to New York than their rural hinterlands. And while in Grantaland there are eight Argentine writers and six Spaniards, there is only one Mexican, and no one from central America or the Caribbean.


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.

Without Borders Featuring Argentina and Granta Youngsters, Andres Nueman and Samanta Schweblin

I’m looking forward to Words Without Borders issue on Argentinian literature. There look to be some interesting items and if you are one of those following the Granta en español best young writers you can put you can give a read to Andres Neuman and Samanta Schweblin. IF you are looking for a fresher take on Latin American literature this would be a good place to start.

This month we join the publishing world in celebrating Argentina, guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair and a pulse point of the vibrant Latin American literary scene. As might be expected of the heirs of Borges and Cortázar, the writers featured here both reflect and extend the masters’ work, combining a touch of the fantastic with surprising turns of both plot and phrase. The prolific Ana María Shua sends an alien invader in a clever disguise.  Guillermo Martínez watches a couple struggle with chance and unimaginable loss.  Sergio Bizzio’s teens pull a disappearing act. Irish-Argentine Juan José Delaney considers mortality, while young star Samanta Schweblin practices unorthodox family planning. In two tales of the Dirty War, writer and journalist Mempo Giardinelli metes out a karmic revenge, and Edgar Brau finds the key to a prison break. Poet Maria Negroni stands at the mouth of hell. National Critics Prize-winner Andrés Neuman’s quarreling couple literally draws a line in the sand. The great Silvina Ocampo pens a gentle fable. And in contributions from other languages, Witold Gombrowicz’s widow collects tales of his time in Argentina, and Lúcia Bettencourt reveals the secrets of Borges’s muse.

Samanta Schweblin Discussing the Line Between Reality and the Fantastic (Spanish Only)

The Samanta Schweblin interview on Canal-L is definitely worth watching. From the way she talks she falls into the group of writers stemming from Cortazar who mix reality with the fantastic, but try to keep the two blurred, as if they were interchangeable. I’d be curious to read her book of stories as I am on a bit of a kick to read stories that blur the two.

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.