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.

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.

Santiago Roncagliolo Opens the New Season of El Publico Lee

El Publico Lee is opening its new season with an interview with Santiago Roncagliolo. Roncagliolo is a younger Peruvian writer who has written political thrillers and who Jorge Volpi has pointed to as a one of the younger authors who are showing a different approach to writing from Latin America. He has at least one book in English Red April.

Santiago Roncagliolo nos presenta una novela que combina el thriller psicológico con la ciencia ficción. Una historia donde los afectos, el sexo y la amistad marcan a personajes que no logran comunicarse en un mundo de alta tecnología. Un escenario subyugante y misterioso para una historia en la que lo imposible y lo tangible se encuentran.

Santiago Roncagliolo (Lima, 1975) es uno de los escritores más versátiles e impredecibles en español. Cada novela suya juega con distintos géneros y explora distintos países. Su historia íntima Pudor (Alfaguara, 2004) fue llevada al cine. Su thriller político Abril rojo ganó el Premio Alfaguara de novela 2006. Su libro de no ficción La cuarta espada penetró en la mente del terrorista más peligroso de la historia americana. Su último libro fue Memorias de una dama (Alfaguara, 2009). Su trabajo ha vendido más de 150.000 ejemplares y se ha traducido a trece idiomas.

Jorge Volpi Interview at El País: History Is Often More Important Than Fiction in a Novel

El País offered readers a chance to submit questions to Jorge Volpi for a form of on-line interview. I took the opportunity to submit a question about Season of Ash which I reviewed for the Quarterly Conversation and found to be more interested in writing history than a novel, sacrificing character development to his thesis. I wanted to know if he thought the history was more important than the fictional elements:

When you write fiction mixed with history, what do you think is more important: the narrative and characters, or the history? I noticed in Season of Ash that at times the narrative served more to explain the history, and the characters became a method for arriving at the history.

My intention is for history and fiction to complement each other, though it is certain that in this novel I wanted the History in capital letters to have an importance as clear as the history of the characters, perhaps this provokes the sensation that the characters serve the grand History.

¿Cuando escribes ficción mezclada con historia, cual piensa es mas importante: la narrativa y los personajes o la historia? Noté en ” No será la tierra” que a veces la narrativa sirve mas para explicar la historia y los personajes se convierten en un método para llegar a la historia.

Mi intención es que historia y ficción se complementen, si bien es cierto que en esta novela quería que la Historia con mayúsculas tuviese una importancia tan clara como las historias de los personajes, acaso eso provoque la sensación de que los personajes ficticios “sirven” a la gran Historia.

It is an honest answer and confirms to his interest in writing politically engaged novels. Many of the other questions in the interview make it obvious that he is a political writer, by which I mean he wants to comment on politics and history and use fiction to explore ways of getting at these ideas. He doesn’t write from to serve a specific political base, such as the PRI or PAN, which would make him a hack. He is certainly not a hack and his commitment to working with politics and history is commendable, but it comes with risks. I think Elias Khoury from Lebanon use politics and history in his works with much better affect. Or Fernando Del Paso’s News from the Empire which has the grand sweep of history that Volpi wanted, is also a good example of how to mix the two.

As he mentioned in his lectures for Open Letter Press, he sees the younger generations as less politically engaged:

How do you see the lack of political literature and authors, lets say, or how they called it during the Boom “committed” on a continent that in the midst everything it is very political in those countries that often only breathe politics?

In effect, if we compare the present Latin American literature with that of the 60s and 70s (and after), we find an absence of political literature. On one hand, the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of the USSR contributed to the disappearance of committed literature. And on the other hand, the gradual democratization of our countries made it so that politics stopped being regular material of those intellectuals and passed to the political scientists and political analysts that are part of the media. In addition, the latest generation are not only apolitical, but very apolitical. However, there continue to be examples of political literature in Latin America, you only have to mention the novel of Edmundo Paz Soldan, Ivan Thays, or Santiago Rocagliolo. And, in one sense, the literature about the violence that fills a good part of the region should also be considered political. Even this way, it is certain that writers don’t have a direct interest in contemporary politics, even the most authoritarian and picturesque.

¿Cómo ves la poca presencia de literatura política y autores digamos o como se decia en la epóca del boom “comprometidos” en un continente que en medio de todo es muy político en los países muchas veces tan solo se respira política?

En efecto, si comparamos la literatura latinoamericana actual con la de los sesentas o setentas (e incluso después), nos encontramos con la ausencia de literatura política. Por una parte, la caída del Muro de Berlín y el fin de la URSS contribuyeron a que desapareciera la literatura comprometida. Y, por la otra, la paulatina democratización de nuestros países hizo que la crítica política dejara de ser materia habitual de los intelectuales para pasar a los politólogos y a los analistas políticos de los medios. Además, las últimas generaciones no son sólo apolíticas, sino un tanto antipolíticas. Sin embargo, sigue habiendo ejemplos de literatura política en América Latina, baste mencionar las novelas de Edmundo Paz Soldán, de Iván Thays o de Santiago Roncagliolo. Y, en un sentido, la literatura sobre la violencia que prevalece en buena parte de la región también debe considerarse política. Aun así, es cierto que no parece haber un interés directo por parte de los escritores hacia nuestros políticos actuales, incluso los más autoritarios o pintorescos.

Finally, he talked about his latest novel, a free verse novel that is part fable, part history of the Holocaust. Mixing the Holocaust with non realistic elements could be interesting, or just lend itself to silliness. Hopefully, it isn’t the latter. It is an interesting approach and I would like to look it over someday, if not read it.

What made you write Dark Forest Dark, your latest novel, like a fable?

Dark Forest Dark is meant to reflect on the way everyday people can become an active part of a genocide, with Nazism in the background. However, in this meditation about innocence it seemed to me I could establish a connection between the massacres of Jews in the forests of Poland and the Ukraine, and the forests in the stories of the brothers Grimm, stories that Germans read obligatorily in those years. From this starting point I included many of their stories in the book.

¿Qué te llevó a construir Oscuro bosque oscuro, tu última novela, como una fábula? Gracias por tu literatura.

“Oscuro bosque oscuro” intenta reflexionar sobre la manera en la que la gente común se puede convertir en parte activa de un genocidio, con el nazismo como telón de fondo. Sin embargo, en esta meditación sobre la inocencia me pareció que podía establecerse una conexión entre las masacres de judíos que se producían en los bosques de Polonia y Ucrania, y los bosques de los cuentos de Grimm, que los alemanes leían obligatoriamente en esos años. De allí la inclusión de muchas de sus historias en el libro.

Santiago Roncagliolo to be Censored in the Dominican Republic

Moleskin Literario reports that Santiago Roncagliolo’s Memorias de una Dama (Memoirs of a Woman) is going to be censored by the Dominican Republic. Apparently, his novel which takes place in the Dominican Republic has  several characters based on real people and which are easily identified. Lets hope this leads to better sales as it always seems to do.

Jorge Volpi – the Historical Novel in Latin America

In part four of Three Percent’s talk from Jorge Volpi, Volpi discusses recent historical novels in Latin America. What is interesting is that after saying there was no Latin American literature, he talks as if there were one. However, he sees in Latin American historical novels a reluctance to deal with the now.

The ”historical novel” blossoms in Latin America just like everywhere else, but in general it covers a more remote past—the Pre-Hispanic or the Colonial period—or it aspires to secularizing heroes and official villains, but always distant in time. If to that you add the lack of interest—or the revulsion—that politics awakens among the writers who were born from the sixties on, the result is an absence of stories related to our recent history.

But if younger writers have been younger fiction writers have been reluctant to write about recent history, historians have even been more reluctant and so it has to fall to the fiction writers to do something.

To this date, except for a few pamphlets of support or opposition, characters as fascinating and dark as Carlos Salinas de Gortari, Carlos Andrés Pérez, Carlos Menem, Alberto Fujimori, Daniel Ortega, Evo Morales, and Hugo Chávez all lack definitive biographies. There is hardly any detail of their intimate lives or examination of their public performance or, at the other extreme, novelistic explorations of their acts (among the few exceptions, the already classic Santa Evita by Tomás Eloy Martínez or La hora azul by Alonso Cueto about Vladimiro Montesinos).

Part of the dearth has been fear and some of it has been disillusion with politics in general. Now, though, he sees some younger writers who have begun to tackle some of the issues of violence in their home countries.

In Peru, after the grotesque Fujimori-Montesinos government, the new democracy installed a Commission of Truth and Reconciliation that played a significant role in public life. It could be a coincidence, but from that moment on, a good number of writers have dared to scrutinize the immediate past with different and sometimes contrary perspectives. Besides de Cueto, I consider the work of three authors born after 1960 outstanding: Abril rojo (2002) by Santiago Roncagliolo, War by Candelight (2006) by Daniel Alarcón—whose first novel Lost City Radio (2008) also refers to this theme—and Un lugar llamado Oreja de Perro (2008) by Iván Thays.

The rest of the article explains the books and how they represent the trend he has been talking about and is a good conceptualization of novels in the historical genre.