Hi, This is Conchita and Other Stories by Santiago Roncagliolo – A Review

Hi, This is Conchita and Other Stories
Santiago Roncagliolo
Edith Grossman, translator
Two Lines Press, 2012, pg 176
(Publication Date: April 9, 2013)

Santiago Roncagliolo’s Hi, This is Conchita is a series of phone calls stripped of all narrative clutter. They exist just as voices as if one were listening to a wire tap, or as fits Conchita, voyeurs . It is a structure that served another Latin American writer, Mario Benedetti, well, and in the hands of Roncagliolo it makes for some humorous writing. It also shows Roncagliolo’s talent for comedy, which has not been as apparent in his works translated into English so far.

Composed of alternating phone calls, Conchita follows four characters in an unnamed city. Conchita is a phone sex worker and her first call opens the book with straight up porn. Within a couple lines she is already talking about how hot she is. Every imaginable cliché follows from there. Roncagliolo adds even more humor as Conchita’s clients break in mid fantasy to correct her descriptions of the act. For example, in the first call she says she is on his office desk and leaning on the coffee machine, and the caller corrects her and says the machine is across the room. From there they go back and forth negotiating what she really would be leaning on, before she returns to the act. The humor intensifies with each call because they all start the same way and have the same non sequiturs into details of the room, or what the caller looks like. For the callers, though, the illusion never fails and one caller continues to call back, falling in love with Conchita. It is a voice of loneliness that inhabits all to frequently the men who engage with phone sex. Roncagliolo does not make fun of the caller, but the situation and in the end he gives a power to change events that he does not know he has and may never realize.

Following on the humor of Conchita are the conversations of a hit man and his client. The hit man is a professional but he is also clumsy and has a philosophical outlook that leads him to question his client if he really wants to kill his lover. The client can’t stand the questions, but the hit man thinks affairs of the heart don’t need to be solved by killing. The conversations between the two are funny and create a dynamic between the passions of the client and the professionalism of the hit man that leave the reader with the impression that the hit man is of great skill. Yet when it comes to the actual hit the only thing professional about him is willingness to kill. And from that a series of humorous events ensue that tie the book together.

Two other callers are a self obsessed ex boy friend who leaves long and rambling messages on his ex’s answering machine. After the first call it seems obvious why she left him. However, Roncagliolo is playing with the reader here, because all one knows is his voice. She never speaks. All that is known is that they had something for sometime and like the Conchita’s callers he is lonely and pitiful. He’ as pitiful as the man who keeps calling the customer service agent and never gets help with what he needs. While the ex boyfriend is occasionally heavy handed, the customer service vignettes with their bureaucratic logic and employees who make one feel as if you are wasting their time, are the most common stereotype throughout the book. If it did not link in with the other stories as the book concludes it would have dragged the book down.

At first the calls are separate, unconnected, then as the story grows the characters begin to intersect. The calls between a man and his lover intersect between the hit man and his client, changing what had been the comedic episodes of two men, intrudes its true horror on the voice of a desperate woman who demands her lover respect her. Roncagliolo doesn’t tie all the stories neatly together, but they do all interrelate, if even lightly. The interrelations, though, expand the characters and adding a level of complexity to them that has not existed until then. Even the otherwise week customer service calls are reframed by the new relationships. It is this ability to shift how one looks at the stories and turns the humor from bright to dark that makes Hi, This is Conchita interesting.

Three stories are also included in the collection. While their is nothing particularly wrong with them, they are not really that noteworthy. For someone looking for a good short story, one should see the story included in The Future Is Not Ours. The stories are typical written in the realistic tradition, ones that populate so many collections of short stories that while well written, don’t really add anything new. However, if one has not read many short stories from younger Latin American writers, they will give an insight into how younger writers are looking at more international models and as such the stories can seem similar.

Hi, This is Conchita and other stories is a funny book from an up and coming star of Latin American fiction. A reader would do well to spend a little time with this short volume of freely rendered conversations.

FTC Notice: The publisher of the book provided me a copy of the book. For that I thank them.

Santiago Roncagliolo Interviewd at Bookslut

Bookslut has an interview with the Peruvian author Santiago Roncagliolo. It doesn’t go into some of the scandals he has been involved in (some of which I’ve mentioned here). It is a review worth reading to get a sense of where he is coming from and they go more into his childhood than I have come across in the Spanish press. I wonder if I would find Red April funny. Listening him talk I know he’s got a sense of humor.

Red April is terrifying in parts, and gory, and Kafkaesque, in other places, but at the same time it made me laugh my socks off – and I felt peculiar about that.

[Laughing] I spent one night with a couple of African writers a few years ago. We were making political jokes and we found that had the same jokes, we just used different names. In poor countries humour is blacker than in rich countries, and more politically incorrect. I had to moderate myself when I arrived in Spain because I would say things I found really funny and everyone would look at me.

It’s beautiful when someone tells me I made them laugh. I love to write humour and terror because I like very physical emotions. When you laugh it’s your body moving, when you’re scared, it’s your skin crawling. These are powerful emotions.

For us, Red April is relatively new, but you wrote it ages ago. Is it hard to reconnect with the man you were then?

Yes. It’s a date with your own past. I am surprised at what this novel did. It won the big prize in Spain, and it was a big bestseller, and keeps being reprinted. In Peruvian society it was the moment to begin to talk about the past. After I wrote about Abimael Guzman, I went to the jails to talk about the books, and it was amazing. I was talking to army people and Shining Path people and guerrilla people in the same auditorium. I would speak then they all begin to tell their own stories. It was a bit of a metaphor of what was going on in the country. Everybody had the feeling that it was time to listen to each other, even to the killers, even to the evil ones, to understand why people arrived at this place. My generation can do it, because we were children when this happened. We were innocent, we have no past. So it was like a liberation for us, and for the people participating.

To Be Continued – The Novel With Chapters By Different Writers Continues with Mallo

I knew I recognized the name Agustín Fernández Mallo when I posted a video interview him last week, but I couldn’t place it. Now I found the article which I wanted to post about the subject. He has just written a chapter in the project To Be Continued, which features a different chapter by a different author, a difficult task if ever there was one. Santiago Roncagliolo was the first author and others have been chosen by a jury. You can check it out here.

From Moleskin Literario

El proyecto To Be Continued sigue viento en popa. Al primer capítulo, escrito por Santiago Roncagliolo, le han seguido tres autores jóvenes, elegidos por un jurado (entre los que me encuentro) sobre varios finalistas de mucho valor. Asimismo, las historias han sido ilustradas también con talento.

Ya tenemos cuatro capítulos escritos y el quinto capítulo tendrá un escritor invitado: Agustín Fernández Mallo, que tendrá la complicada labor de darle una vuelta de tuerca a la historia del detective Colifato y el crimen en la cartelera del High School Music. Complicado lo que le toca al narrador español, pero seguro saldrá bien librado del reto (él, que no le teme a los retos y ha publicado una versión del borgiano El Hacedor, ni más ni menos).

Si quieren ver los capítulos publicados hasta el momento, o saber cómo participar en el futuro, ilustrando o escribiendo continuaciones, pueden ir a la página web del proyecto.


Granta’s Young Spanish Writers, Neuman, Solano, Roncagliolo on The BBC

Andres Neuman, Andres Felipe Solano and Santiago Roncagliolo were interviewed on the BBC about their work and their take on Latin American Literature. It is a brief interview, but interesting to hear what they have to say. I can’t help but think, though, that these interviewers need to work a little harder and find questions besides those about magical realism.

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.

Mario Vargas Llosa and the Nobel – the View From Spain

As you might expect, Spanish speakers are quite excited about the award. For the Spanish, Llosa gave a special shout out, noting they have done more for him than any other country in promoting his works than any other country. And naturally, the Real Academia (the group that confers definitions on what is Spanish and not) is quite happy, since he is their fifth member to win the award.

A few comments by Vargas Llosa.

An overview. Even if you don’t read Spanish, there is a slide show of 27 photos through the ages.

A profile of his agent Carmen Balcells, who has represented some of the greatest Spanish language writers: Garcia Marquez, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, etc.

Thoughts from the director the Real Academia.

An editorial about why he deserves the prize.

And a special edition with a huge number of tributes from the likes of Antonio Muñoz Molina, Javier Cercas, Santiago Roncagliolo, and Fernando Iwasaki.

Santiago Roncagliolo on Canal-L Kind of Explaining Why He is Being Sued (Spanish only)

In one of the stranger interviews I’ve seen in a while, Santiago Roncagliolo, one of Granta’s best young Spanish language writers evades questions on the pending law suit about his book Memorias de una dama at Canal-L. You can get a better sense of him by watching the first 10 minutes of El Publico Lee’s interview, which covers the same ground and more.