La tierra será un paraíso (The Earth Will Be a Paradise) by Juan Eduardo Zúñiga – A Review

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La tierra será un paraíso (The Earth Will Be a Paradise)
Juan Eduardo Zúñiga
From La trilogía de la Guerra Civil
Catedra 1989/2007

La tierra será un paraíso (The Earth Will Be a Paradise) is the second book in Juan Eduardo Zúñiga’s Madrid trilogy, picking up a few years after the close of Largo noviembre de Madrid. It is the early 1940s and Spain is under the control of General Francisco Franco, who has dealt harshly with the defeated Republican forces. Madrid is gripped by poverty and fear and, as Zúñiga makes clear, an ever present fear hovers over the city in general, and in particular the defeated. Where Largo noviembre tried to look at the war through the lives of the inhabitants of Madrid (generally civilians in his telling), La Tierra looks at how those same inhabitants, now cornered, often poor, suffering after a year or two in prison, are trying to survive. The survival is tenuous, made even more so by many of the veterans who are trying to keep a resistance alive. Almost eight years later it is obvious the resistance was futile, but in the midst of World War II, as the Germans were loosing there was some sort of hope, misplaced, but one that provided a kind of balm for the defeated. It is in this milieu that Zúñiga sets his nuanced refection on memory and survival.

Las ilusiones: el Cerro de las Balas (The Illusions: Bullet Hill) is an aptly titled opening story for Zúñiga’s second book in the Madrid Trilogy. Largo noviembre de Madrid ended in October of 1939 with the entrance of Franco’s forces into the capital. The collection here takes off in 1943 in a city devastated both physically and emotionally by the war. The earliest impressions gives the reader are of a poor gypsy woman in rags scratching out a living in a bar. It is an image of more than poverty, which is certainly every where from cheep, run down shacks to the beer that is served warm in dirty glasses because there is neither enough power during the day to keep the refrigerators going nor enough water to wash adequately, an image of the outcast. The narrator is a veteran of the war, a republican soldier who has done a little time in a concentration camp. He works in a laboratory of a veterinary clinic with a Doctor Dimitar Dimov, a Bulgarian who the narrator doesn’t know well, and given that Bulgaria was allied with the axis at the time, perhaps he shouldn’t get to know. Nevertheless, as the walk the destroyed city and drink warm beer a confidence emerges and Dimov asks if he can find a Bulgarian who was part of the International Brigades. It is a dangerous proposition, since, if found, he would be in grave danger. The two men though begin the search and the friends of the narrator give varying bits of help, revealing a country sized with fear, a place where the defeated live in fear of more imprisonment. Ultimately, they decide the best thing is to escape to Viciy France. It is a plan full of illusions that doesn’t really face the reality that France is controlled by Germany and is as much a threat as Spain. There is no escape except in little pleasures such as that of the gypsy woman. The narrator decides he will get close to her despite her appearance, despite who she is. If there is no freedom, at least he can find something with the other outcasts. Of course, this is only an illusion, one that is common in Zúñiga, one that leaves the narrator in a devastating limbo unable to escape what they know should be abandoned.

Antiguas pasiones inmutables  (Ancient, immutable Passions) describes a post war Madrid, returning to the old ways, the rich taking possession of what had been theirs before the war, the poor living in hovels. Yet it is also a story of shifts of fortune that such destruction brings about, allowing a few people who were completely separate before the war to mix, to change, not in some ideological sense, but in practical terms. Told in sentences that continually shifting mid sentence between the perspective of the principle figures of the story, Adela, a maid, and Reyes Renoso, a rich landowner, so that their stories, although disparate, reflect a growing interconnectedness. Zúñiga is a master stylist and each one sentence paragraph, some three pages long, bring the threads of each character’s life together in the contrasts of their experience. She is a semi-literate young woman who has scraped by in the neighborhood, who has always looked at the great house on the edge of the slum where she lives and has wondered what it was like inside. He is the last survivor of a a rich family that was all killed during the war who takes over the house. Wounded and recovering in the home, he is a prisoner in some ways, surrounded by the same people who must have thrown the grenade that wounded him. Each is an observer. He of her; she of the world outside the great windows, which she never would have imagined looking thorough. They draw closer, but it is not clear if it is anything more than transactional, but each gives up part of their past to do it: he an elite sense of class that was destroyed when his family was executed; she a box of papers a republican soldier, a boyfriend most likely long since dead, gave her and told her she had to keep. Lines are crossed, borders frayed as the characters seek refuge of a sort from the war’s aftermath.

Camino del Tibet (Tibetan Road) is a search for a better way of living, one that is so out of sync with its time, it renders the believers unmoored from all hope. A group of theosophists meet in Madrid waiting for their leader, trying to decide what to do. They are dedicated members, one pair refrains from sex even though they sleep in the same bed, others refuse to discuss the left, not because they are pro Franco, but because to analyze the world in those terms is to participate in the physical. It might seem an odd choice for a story about post war Spain, but it fits nicely given that the Franco regime was a Catholic dictatorship which had executed theosophists. Moreover, given the ever present backdrop of World War II, the discussions of ethereal terms, both seems brave and pointless, both in the sense that they will achieve nothing and that faith doesn’t matter. And without the leader, without a sense of purpose, a future, it becomes very difficult to maintain the group. It is a story emblematic of all those faiths, religious or otherwise, that meet the hard reality of the war’s end.

Sueños después de la guerra (Dreams After the War) is a sad and beautiful gem that looks at the lives of the soldiers, now defeated, who lives of poverty and disappointment. Although the disparities between the rich and poor show up in a story like Antiguas pasiones inmutables, Sueños adds another layer of tragedy. Carlos is a shoeshine man who works at an expensive hotel where he hears the the men talk about high finance and wealth all things he has nothing to do with, nothing he can ever hope to access. He a man from humble beginnings who had become a construction worker. During the war, though, he served with distinction and was promoted to lieutenant. He was somebody. Then the war ended, his girlfriend was killed and he ended up in prison. All he has left is the bottle and his dreams. Zúñiga doesn’t stop with just the personal disaster of one man’s war. Despite his fallen state, his complete and utter hopelessness, his ex-comrades look to him as someone who can lead the underground, who can keep the fight going. It’s pointless, a dream that will never come true and Zúñiga makes clear that all dreams, the ones of the past and those of the future do little but make the reality that much more painful.

Pero no era un vencido sino que algo peor había golpeado su hombría: una vergüenza de las muchas que los hombres ocultan a lo largo de años y que a veces, cuando en un momento inesperado vienen al pensamiento, entre tantos esfuerzos como hacemos por olvidar, cruzan delante de los ojos, clavan sus garfios en las vísceras más hondas y el rostro se osxurece y nos sentimos desfallecer aunque luego vovamos a hablar de fútbol, de la corrida en la plaza de las Ventas y se alardea de algo que deseamos poseer y que no hemos conquistado, pero la cicatriz de aquella vergüenza está allí, cruzando el pecho.

La dignidad, los papeles, el olvido (The Dignity, the Papers, the Oversight) and the Interminable espera (Interminable Wait) both cover similar ground. In each a veteran of the war are working actively with the Resistance, one distributing papers, the other observing a pick up. In each fear and suspicion mark their every move. The temptation to give up, to find relief in the radio, any kind of distraction. What makes these stories so strong is Zúñiga carfuly balances the same of loosing, the hope for a new future, the fear of getting caught, all the while finding an emotional depth in all of them.

…los receptores de radio cuyas averías arreglaba, traían palabras divertidas y música, girando el interruptor less callaba o les hacía hablar a su antojo y lo prefería a estar como él estaba, sumido en la fasedad del recuerdo proque éste, cada vez que le invocamos, nos da una imagen distinta, va cambiando sin parar según lo que anhelamos o nos conviene, por lo cual no recordamos lo que pasó sino distintas invenciones que acaban siendo engaños.

The last story, El último dia del mundo (The Last Day of the World) requires a note on style. All the stories, save El último are written in long, single sentence paragraphs, some that span several pages. They are perfect for the complex narration, swithing between subjects, as the past and the present mix in the characters mind’s. El último is a transitionary story. As in Largo noviembre which contained one story the took place after the fall of Madrid, El último is the begining of the end of the emediate post war. The story follows three people who refuse to leave their neighboorhood as it is redeveloped. Their defiance is a silent one, one that will end in their destruction. There is no deep psychological examination of fear and hope. That’s gone. What is left is the commercial, the new paradise. This, of course, is not the paradise that is intended by the title of the book, which is a quote of the International. As the vision of a dictatorship, the language changes to simpiler, shorter sentences, which capture a more utilitarian sense of language.

While not quite as magical as Largo noviembre de Madrid, La tierra será un paraíso is an excelent collection.  When taken in the context of the trilogy, the work is even stronger,  examining the profound depths of the end of the war. Where Largo was constrained with action, upheaval, the constant bombing, La tierra is quite, frozen in terror. The two states are perfectly represented in the structures of the narratives and the stylistic approach of the writing. These two works are a must for anyone interested in the Spanish short form.

Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson

Winesburg, Ohio
Sherwood Anderson
Library of America

Sherwood Anderson’s interrelated collection of short stories is a masterpiece of the form. As good as other works such as The Triumph of the Egg are nothing quite matches the magic of Winesburg, Ohio. Published 100 years ago, it is both modern and wistful, describing a time, even when it was first published in1919, that had long passed. It is that mix of wide-eyed realism and a kind of nostalgia for a small town America that never quite was what it seemed, which makes Winesburg such a compelling read.

Winesburg opens with a form of a frame story, or at least the idea of one. An old writer has written a book about the truths of men, the truths that make them grotesques. It is a book that is never published, but are we reading it? Is Winesburg full of grotesques? I won’t answer that, but even this little story has the marks of an Anderson jewel: multiple levels of story telling, that of the writer and the carpenter; a desire to touch something metaphysical: a truth, an emotion, a dream; and a concision of style that is not minimalist, but is never long. His brief paragraph about the carpenter which captures the horrors of the Civil War and what we now call PTSD is fascinating.

There are a couple overriding occupations for Anderson: the rise of the modern industrial world; and the dark, unsaid disappointments of the inhabitants. The former theme weaves its way throughout as a coloration. It creates the idea of an idyllic small town America, one pure, quiet and beautiful. It is a powerful image, one that still animates American thinking. Usually, he is discrete in his descriptions: a beautiful sunset, the laughter of berry pickers on their way home in the dusk. Other times he is direct, discussing the rise of machines, the coming of industrialism (an archaic usage that captures the passion for the machine age).

It is the latter, though, were Anderson spends most of his time. In a town of 1900 during the mid 1890s, few are happy: failed marriages; marriages made in haste when one lover becomes pregnant; dreams of passion foundering on the realities of a marriage. For Anderson it is not just the social constraints that are important, but the internal passions, often unvoiced and vaguely understood. They drive his characters to take a lover or marry, because they see in the other a way out of a small town, a boring life. The big cities of Cleveland and Chicago are always off in the distance, tempting, influencing, putting ideas into the heads of the inhabitants. He captures it well in most stories, but the two stories about Elizabeth Willard, a sick woman who slowly fades away in her forties, are stand outs. Both show a woman fully aware of the disappointments in her life and unable to overcome the depression which it brings on. But she finds a kind of solace in hoping her son, George the one character who moves throughout all the stories in the work, will leave town much like she wanted to before she married her husband. He also creates a kind of tender connection in her relationship with Dr Reefy. Both of them are damaged individuals and they find in her visits a kind of solace, a forbidden love that is never quite spoken, not quite realized, but gives them a fleeting hope. It is in these moments the nostalgia darkens and this ideal place is less than ideal. A passage from the penultimate story captures this sense well.

There is something memorable in the experience to be had by going into a fair ground that stands at the edge of a Middle Western town on a night after the annual fair has been held. The sensation is one never to be forgotten. On all sides are ghosts, not of the dead, but of living people. Here, during the day just passed, have come the people pouring in from the town and the country around. Farmers with their wives and children and all the people from the hundreds of little frame houses have gathered within these board walls. Young girls have laughed and men with beards have talked of the affairs of their lives. The place has been filled to overflowing with life. It has itched and squirmed with life and now it is night and the life has all gone away. The silence is almost terrifying. One conceals oneself standing silently beside the trunk of a tree and what there is of a reflective tendency in his nature is intensified. One shudders at the thought of the meaninglessness of life while at the same instant, and if the people of the town are his people, one loves life so intensely that tears come into the eyes.

Winesburg, Ohio is still a masterwork of the short form that still holds up.The creative vision of his short stories are still magical. And the picture of a world already long past when he wrote the collection, has the right mix of darkness and light, showing that there is no perfect past. Small town America, despite the glowing memories made manifest in places like Disney’s Main Street, was as unfulfilling as any other place; perhaps even more.

 

 

Pelea de gallos (Cockfight) by María Fernanda Ampuero – A Review

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Pelea de gallos (Cock Fight)
María Fernanda Ampuero
Páginas de espuma, 2018, 114 pg

A pelea de gallos is a cockfight, the bloody and senseless fight between two roosters all for the enjoyment of rabid men. It is an apt metaphor for María Fernanda Ampuero’s excellent first collection of short stories, where characters, often at the margins, find themselves trapped in often horrifying situations they did not expect. The stories are taught and powerful, unafraid of the violence and inhumanity that comes from a pelea de gallos. Yet there is also a well honed subtlety and an unsaid that create a wide texture of moods and motifs, and reveal an author who knows how to construct a short story. It is a surprising mix that makes a compelling read, one that is hard to put down, and leaves you wanting more, given its scant 114 pages (one of my few complaints, even though concision should usually be commended).

The first story of the collection, Subasta (Auction), is a good reference point for the themes Ampuero explores. The story is in two parts. In the first the narrator tells of her girlhood spent helping her father at the cockfights he ran. She had the duty of cleaning up after the fights, getting covered in the blood and gore of the fight, becoming the brunt of jokes for her filth. In the second part she is kidnapped in a taxi and taken to an auction where she along with other victims are auctioned off so they can be ransomed, or in the case of young women, sexual slavery. It is a terrifying story, one that increases in tension and terror as it builds. It also surfaces two themes that run through out the collection: the extreme disparities in wealth in the unnamed country (Ampuero  is from Ecuador, but never locates her stories in a specific place); and the differing treatment of men and women. These two elements are as clear as it gets in Subasta, and the results are horrifying. Yet the narrator’s solution to her problem, one that both takes her dignity and yet leaves it intact, reveals a world where the powerful are one step away from what horrifies them most.

I’m not sure if it’s intentional, but the stories fall into groups. The first grouping might be said to be the unmoored young consisting of Nam, Crías (Offspring), and Persianas (Blinds). In many ways these three were the most shocking. The way Ampuero explores awakening sexuality within the the context of family. In Nam the teenage narrator finds a growing same sex attraction to her American classmate, an unrequited attraction that is never fulfilled as  the mysterious family reveals its dark secrets. In Crías the narrator is on a journey to the past, to the home she left long ago, which, is often said to be impossible. Instead, she finds in her friend’s brother a continuity with her childhood, a sexual relationship that started when she was thirteen and years later is still with her, permeated with the memories of  his hamsters who eat their young. The dark and seedy place where she feels home, where the opening act of friendship is to give a blow job on a cockroach stained carpet, all open the idea of offspring to question. It’s the same question that arises in Persianas when the narrator’s first experiments are with his cousins, and the outrage of it leaves him alone with his mother whose own loneliness to the most transgressive behavior. In each of these stories, innocence disappears, for the better, perhaps in Nam, and for the worse in Crías and Persianas, but in all of them there is a moment that marks the characters, shows them as malleable, a drift in a world that they cannot control.

Another notable set is Cristo (Christ), Pasión (Passion), and Luto (Mourning). Each of the stores explores the innocent and powerless among the religious. In Cristo, a mother searches frantically for medicine for her young child, while her older child is completely indifferent to the power of religion. Is it just a lack of experience, or is the older child wise enough to see her mother’s desperation is easily used against her? Who is more innocent, here, the one who believes, or the one who does not? The question of innocence flows through both Luto and Pasión. Luto is the retelling of the Lazarus story, from the point of view of the sisters, Mary and Martha. Here, though, Lazarus is a brute who beats Mary and banishes her to a barn where she is raped by the men of the village, simply because he caught her masturbating. It’s a dark story that only gets darker when you realized the sainted man who visits the home is Jesus and he says he can do nothing for Mary because Lazarus is the head of the house. Who is the sainted one here, is a good question, but what we know is it’s the men who get to claim credit for holiness. The best of these stories, though, is Pasión, a retelling of Jesus’ life, suggesting that it was a woman with magical power who was responsible for his rise to fame. And like all men once he gets what he wanted, he forgets everyone else. It’s one of those stories that not only questions the biblical, but expands its dimensions and makes the questions of faith and religion more interesting.

Finally, there is the set of Ali, Coro, and Cloro (Chlorine). The first two follow the lives of the upper class told through those below who watch them but are voiceless. In all of these the tight adherence to appearances over everything else, even at risk of self destruction is paramount. While each of the stories are excellent, showing a skill both in narration and in language, Cloro has a particular beauty that captures much of what Ampuero is trying to get at. Cloro is less a story then a landscape, a slow tracking shot through a land of futile gestures for the sake of an unobtainable perfection. The story opens with men cleaning the pool at a large high end resort. It’s a task they do every day, fishing leaves and garbage and dead animals from a pool no one uses. But they have do do it: it’s what the guests expect of the resort. One such guest, checks into her perfect room and looks out at the perfection on the other side her window, and in one of Ampuero’s best observations, the guest puts her finger in the butter on her tea tray only to find that that act has destroyed the perfection all around her. In one little act, an act you must do if you are to eat, the marketing campaign image in her head is destroyed. Yet the repetition continues, and the men will never stop cleaning the pool, and perhaps the same guest will return, expecting the same sterile perfection.

María Fernanda Ampuero’s Palea de Gallos is an excellent collection. There is not one bad story (although I thought Nam could have used a little bit more development in relation to the Vietnam aspect, but that might just be an American perspective when it comes to the war). Ampuero’s collection suggests a bright future, and I look forward to reading more from her.

 

Largo noviembre de Madrid (Madrid’s Long November) by Juan Eduardo Zúñiga – A Review

Largo noviembre de Madrid (Madrid’s Long November)
From La trilogía de la Guerra Civil
Juan Eduardo Zúñiga
Catedra 1980/2007

largonoviembre Juan Eduardo Zúñiga’s Largo noviembre de Madrid is, simple said, a masterwork of short fiction. Since its publication in 1980, and the publication of the second and third books of his Madrid trilogy, it has been considered a masterpiece that captures the opening days of the Spanish Civil War, the confusion, the fear, the the atmosphere of destruction. In sixteen brilliant stories, Zúñiga creates and impression war with stories that are both visceral and sparse, moments that seem to come out of his ever present dust and smoke and recede just as quickly, leaving the reader with briefest impression of the desperation and madness that afflicts of his characters.

Before I dive into the stories, two pieces of historical information are important to keep in mind. First, the Spanish Civil war started in July 1936 and by November 1936, Nationalist troops had reached the outskirts of Madrid. The Republicans expected Madrid to fall and moved the capital to Valencia; however, Madrid held and from then on it received repeated bombardment. Second,  Zúñiga was born in Madrid in 1929, and spent the war in Madrid. Too young to fight, he was still a witness to the war. Both of these are important for understanding the shape of Largo noviembre.

All but two of the stories take place during November of 1936. November ’36 both represents the high point of Republican resistance to the Nationalist, where Madrid was able to mount an unexpected defense, and the war in Madrid as a whole. The last two stories form a coda, closing an already a futile war with yet more futile acts. What should also be stated from the outset is the stories are not exclusively about soldiers; soldiers make up a small percentage of the characters. Instead, Zúñiga writes of the civilians who surviving the war and even when he writes of soldiers, it’s when they are in the urban world, if not away from the front, then in the undefined boarder between the front and the civilian world that is the mark of urban combat. It is this larger picture, a story of Madrid, that makes the the collection something large than just war stories. In many ways, Madrid itself is a character, a landscape whose physical presence both shapes the inhabitants and is the locus of memory.

The idea of memory pervades the book. In the first story, a story that one can read as a transition between the past and the present war, memory is ever present. From the first story, Noviembre, la madre, 1936 (November, Mother, 1936), Zúñiga makes it clear that how memory shapes us and the physical and how the physical is a form of memory. In the story, three brothers are deciding what they should do: leave the flat, stay on? They are too old to be soldiers, but to leave the flat is to leave the neighborhood, and leaving is leaving the walks with their mother, their hand in hers, the buildings they looked up to with her. A sense of transition is in effect, from the times at the turn of the century, to the war. Whatever the past had, it is now gone. Even the structure of the story with a narrator looking back at brothers looking back enforces the idea of memory. Zúñiga says it most clearly here:

[…]y aún más dificil de concebir es que esta certidumbre de haber comprendido se presenta un día de repente y su resplandor trastorna y ya quedamos consagrados a ahondar más y más en los recuerdos o en los refrenados sentimientos para recuperar otro ser que vivió en nosotros, pero fuera de nuestra conciencia, y que se yergue tan sólido como la urbanidad, los prejuicios, los miramientos…

[…]and even more difficult to conceive is the certainty of having understood one day will come suddenly and its brilliance will dive one mad and we’ll continue to be dedicated to digging deeper and deeper into memories or repressed feelings to recover the other being that lived in us, but outside of our conscience, and that rises solid like courtesy, prejudice, tact…

A different take on the power of memory comes in Joyas, manos, amor, las ambulancies (Jewels, Hands, Love, Ambulances). Here the memories drive the interlocking lives of a doctors and nurses in a hospital that is treating the wounded. Typical of Zúñiga, the war itself is at the margin. What he is interested in is moving through the minds of his characters as they experience the war. For them its fatigue and a desperation to assemble that past in the present. The nurse wants a ring for her finger and jewels around her neck like her mom had when she’d leave the house. She also learned that if she gave me what they wanted she’d get her jewelry. One of the doctors is sleeping with her, desperate to get his hand on a ring for her. For him the past contains the rings his mother had, and which his brother says have been taken by the military. It’s all desperation, an attempt to hold on to a world that no longer exits. Another doctor knows it’s all meaningless: he’s cut rings off fingers in surgery. It’s a nightmare at the border of rationality, and mixing the story into between bouts of extreme fatigue, Zúñiga gives the moment a horrifying aspect: imagine while there are so many dying these people are just looking for rings.

The idea of avarice comes up over and over. It can be a desire for wealth as in the previous story, an attempt to hang on to what one has. In Riesgos del atardecer (Risks of the Afternoon), we have a successful shop owner hiding all his merchandise in his stockroom, fearful that the government is going to confiscate it. Like many of his characters, they are trying desperately to hang onto something that has changed. The shop is no longer filled with the fashionable. If he can just wait it all out he can take the stock back. Not everyone in Madrid cares about the war. There is an indifference at times. The situation in the city is complicated and Zúñiga is clear in the sense that much of what is happening is not heroic, despite the use of November in the title of the collection.

He has two particularly tragic stories that take on the idea of the adventure seeker: Hotel Florida, Plaza del Callao and Adventura en Madrid. In the former, a French arms merchant comes to Madrid to make a deal, but he is seduced by the war, the sense of danger and freedom that comes in a besieged city. It’s a playground, running through the bombed out buildings, as if he were somehow immune to the dangers. The narrator early on knows this isn’t even true:

Eran meses en que cualquier hecho trivial, pasado cierto tiempo, revelaba su aspecto excepcional que ya no sería olvidado fácilmente.

There were months in which whatever trivial occurrence, after a little time had passed, would reveal an exceptional nature that would not be easily forgotten.

For the French volunteer to the cause, he quickly learns that the war is nothing like he imagined. Zúñiga makes that point, as always, using memory as a differentiator. The hard realities of the front aren’t the focus, but the clash between his memories and his current reality. OF course, the cold night is unpleasant, but it’s the freedom to roam Paris drunk with his friends that creates distance.

It should be clear that Zúñiga’s work is in itself an attempt to capture the memory of a place and that memory is difficult to grasp. In one of the best stories of the collection, the beautiful, Calle de Ruíz, ojos vacios (Ruíz Street, Empty Eyes) he gives us a blind man trying to navigate the city during a bombardment. The city has already become difficult to navigate: what he has in his memory has been destroyed, returning us to Zúñiga’s preoccupation with physical memory. And he can’t see the danger through out the city. But he holds to his daily reading sessions with his friends. When the air raid happens he  is lost, and worse, has lost the book he carries with him. It distresses him; he is panicked: words are more important to him than anything. It’s all he has, all anyone can have. The narrator, sympathetic at first, gets tired of all this and wants to tell him

Te engañan: no hay presente, tu vida únicamente es el pasado, la ceniza de un tiempo que tú no vives, sino que está ya hecho y tú te euncuentras con él en las manos, convertido en recuerdos. No sabrás nunca nada, todo es inútil, deja de buscar ese libro.

They’re fooling you: there’s no present; your life is completely in the past, the ashes of a time where you don’t live, but is already done and you find yourself with him on your hands, turning into memories. You’ll never know, everything is useless, so stop looking for the book.

If memory is ever present, the future is a luxury. In several stories fortune tellers appear, but the fortune tellers are unable to see. They are blind to the future as the blind man in Calle de Ruíz is blind to the present. There is something extra here: the future is comforting. Without a future there is no comfort. In Presagios de la noche (Evening Signs), a drunk and scared soldier repeatedly asks the fortune teller what his future is. She can’t see. Her assistant chastises the boy

[…] no hay tales presagios, que nadie vigila nuestras vidas […] estamos solos

[…] there are no signs; no one guards our lives […] we are alone

When the fortune tellers give in, there is no hope.

Finally, the last two stories close out the end of the war, both showing the futility of it all. I the first a German International Brigade volunteer is roaming Madrid in February, 1939. He is the last of his kind. (The brigades were withdraw in ’38) Instead of a hero, he’s looked at with suspicion. The war is over, why do we need him? He goes into a bar an everyone looks at him. Are these the people who will take to the streets to give Franco the fascist salute? Are they just tired of the war? It is a sad end. The German has no where to go. He certainly can’t go home. It’s all a waste. It is the same sentiment that pervades the final story, Las lealtades (Loyalties). Zúñiga gives us a soldier guarding an empty building. Asked to search for someone inside all he finds are over turned offices, papers and folders strewn everywhere. The operations of a modern war come to little more than paper under foot. It’s an arresting image of an abstract war, one that exists as office memos, banality that in the confines of the building means nothing. It’s the last image of the war, one that is unsettling given how much smoke, dust, and ash have filled the previous pages.

Largo noviembre de Madrid is one of the great collections of war and belongs aside such works as Issac Babel’s Red Army or Ambrose Bierece’s civil war stories (there is more to Bierce than An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge). It’s more than war, it’s an exploration of memory and existence that transcends the immediacy of its time. There is not one bad story and most of them will continue to haunt long after I have finished reading them.

La vuelta al día (Around the Day) by Hipólito G. Navarro – A Review

CORREA_LCA_C_La vuelta al día (Around the Day)
Hipólito G. Navarro
Páginas de Espuma, 2016, pg. 251

La vuelta al día (Around the Day) is Hipólito G. Navarro’s 2016 return to print after a long, eleven year absence. Navarro is a Spanish writer, mainly of short stories, who has been one of the seminal short story writers who began publishing in the 1990’s. His 1996 collection El aburrimiento Lester (The Boredom, Lester) is a virtuoso exploration of the short story form, both in terms of style and structure. He latter followed up with Los tigres albinos (2000) and Los últimos percances (2005), each of which continued his explorations of the short story form. (I’ve reviewed all three works here and his collection El pez volador, which takes stories from each of these collections.) Given the long absence from publishing, La vuelta al día is a much anticipated work.

At the core of much of Navarro’s work is humor. It is often dark or colored with a sense that the joke is some misfortune of one’s own making that is impossible to escape. Even in the length introduction to the collection he remarks that his mother, when he gave her a copy of his last book, Los últimos percances, as she was dying said,

¡Los últimos percances! ¿Por qué no le has puesto penúltimos, al menos?
The last misfortunes! Why didn’t you call it the penultimate, at least?

You most often see this sense in the Navarran unfortunate, usually it is the narrator, but occasionally it is just the main character of the story. The Navarran unfortunate is a man (it’s never a woman, although they can be the narrator) who through some obsession, large or inconsequential, has screwed up somehow. They are aware of the mistake and describe themselves in self depreciating tones that both show an acute self awareness and a deep fatalism about their future. Generally, the unfortunates reveal this desperation in a wildly verbal prose full of racing thoughts that are hard to control. Navarro is a rich stylist of the language and uses these monologues to full effect. Some of the unfortunates have a happier ends, but even they know that they are idiots and lucky to have gotten what they did.

In the latter category falls Ligamentos (Ligaments). A kind of love story, the narrator has an injured leg, but he meets a friend of a friend and is so taken with her he goes on a long walk with them in the woods. He knows nothing about nature, but he fakes as much as he can. The humor comes in his confessions to the reader about how little he knows about the world and his desperate, boyish attempts to keep up with her on the walk, which results in his further injury. The narrator is self aware of how silly he is, how every thing he does makes him even more ridiculous, and it gives him a sacrificial charm when finally wins her admiration by covering himself in remnants of the forest floor.

Verruga Sánchez takes the self obsessed male even further. Narrated by Sánchez’s wife, it’s the story of a Professor who is extremely popular with his students and well respected with his colleagues. The only issue is he has a distinctive mole near his eye. He can’t stand it any finally has it removed. Of course, it doesn’t go as he wishes and looses the adulation he’d grown accustomed too. He mopes around on the couch. It’s his wife who tries, unsuccessfully, but loyally to get him to forget it. It’s dark without the usual self pity: vanity allows no self reflection. Sánchez, like all of the unfortunates, has brought this on himself and has paid the price. What is notable is this is one of Navarro’s female narrators. It stabilizes the story, keeps the manic obsession at bay and makes it even sadder to know she still loves him.

Included are three much darker and riskier stories that I think may have gotten away from Navarro. La escusa termodinámica (The Thermodynamic Excuse) is narrated by a cuckold who’s wife has gone to a cabin in the woods with his brother. The desperate rant is a series of questions that the narrator asks himself about why he couldn’t start a fire. On its own the story has commendable aspects. Its when you get to something like Las estampas del timo with its light harted story of infatuation that includes incest, though, all these men become a little too much. Where it is the most distributing is the ultimate unfortunatein En el fondo de la memoria (In the Depths of Memory). Here Navarro creates his most manic character, a man who is pacing his small apartment, describing it as a kind of cell as he waits for his wife to bring her son home. The son does not live with them and he has never met the child. Yet he is afraid of the boy because he knows he is the father: he was the one who raped his wife. It is such a complicated statement, one that opens so many questions, some of credulity. I’m still not sure I can even contemplate the idea that the woman he raped would not know it was him somehow, or hadn’t seen the likeness already.

Whatever the case, all these stories give much of the collection a male-centric view of the world that is both self pitting and self obsessed, and leads to self destruction. When done right, as in Ligamentos and Verruga Sánchez, they are tragicomedies; when they misfire they are off putting.

Even though the Navarran unfortunate is heavily present, the real standouts, are his elegiac stories, stories that look to the past and find a restrained melancholy. The two standouts are El infierno portátil (The Portable Hell) and Tantos Veces Huérfano (So Many Times an Orphan). The former is the memory of a boy who worked in his grandfather’s blacksmith shop. Some nuns come down the hill from the convent to ask for hand outs. He notices the younger nun and as they look at each other for a moment he finds himself attracted to her. The story is handled deftly, the attraction is brief, subtle, as is the punishment the boy thinks he receives when the nun leaves. He is able to capture the sense of something new and uncontrolled in the briefest interlude. It’s in the unguarded moments that these realizations come.

Tantos Veces Huérfano, for me, is the best story of the collection. In it an old man remembers a journey to his father’s home town for the arrival of electric lights. It’s an awakening both in terms of sex and violence, all happening within his extended family. And it’s as memory is, unclear. Why was his father murder? The narrator doesn’t know. It’s the strength of the story that the narrator’s memory comes and goes, and an exact clarity of the events is illusive. Along with La vuelta al dia and La poda y la tala de los arboles (The Pruning and Triming of Trees), there is a sense of the past as both something alluring and melancholic, a place one would like to be, but a world that not only doesn’t exist, but in which one does not belong.

Finally, if humor and great verbal ability are two hallmarks of Navarro’s writing, the last is a playfulness. Los k (The ks) is a perfect example of this. The ks refer to kilobytes and the narrator imagines them as living creatures who have a mind of their own. They escape and he loses part of his novel. With this comes the sense that writing is something alive, something not only exists, but has its own independent life. He’s used stories like these to explore the short form and his earlier work was marked with this playfulness. In La vuelta al día we get a glimpse of this skill. I wish there had been a little more of this as they are delightful.

In all, the collection is a welcome return publication. There were certainly some misfires. The stories that dealt with the past were the strongest and most compelling, while those of the Navarran unfortunates show that Navarro is still in command of his verbal powers. Hopefully, it won’t be eleven years for the next collection.

The Taker and Other Stories by Rubem Fonseca – A Review

The Taker and Other Stories
Rubem Fonseca
Clifford E. Landers, trans
Open Letter Books, 2008,166 pg

This is a post in honor of Spanish and Portuguese lit month from Richard and Stu.

It took me ten years to get around to read this book. I no longer know why I bought it. I wish I did, because the stories were a one note samba, seeming to repeat themselves, unable to get beyond a surface of crime and violence. There are several solid stories, but as a collection, it isn’t particularly captivating.

Night Drive, the brief opening story is one. It describes a businessman who releases stress via long night drives, where he hunts down pedestrians and kills them, before returning home to his average family. It’s a story that suggests, and lets the shock of the violence leave the reader to wonder if there is something in the power dynamics of the place he lives that would allow this. Is violence acceptable if it is by the right person?

All solid questions and it takes us to the next story, The Taker. The nameless narrator is an angry man, a poor man who the rich have taken advantage of all his life. He sets out to kill and destroy as many rich people he can. It is a relentless story and the violence is a liberation. Given Brazil’s great wealth inequality, the story is an obvious attack, a kind of cathartic horror-fantasy. I say fantasy, because while the horror of random violence could certainly descend on the rich, the taker himself is no more than a darker Robin Hood. And as criticism of inequality, it stops there. There’s no subtlety, only the gratuitous, like some silly action movie. What makes this worse is a sense that when it comes to women in power the only thing you can do is rape them. The taker’s narrator rapes a woman and implies she liked it. It’s a strong statement, but the sexual politics of the book leave me questioning the direction of some stories. A prime example is The Notebook, where the narrator keeps a book of all the women he has slept with. He recounts how he has tricked the most recent into sleeping with him. In the context of the other stories, this isn’t the exploration of a bad man, but a game with dark consequences. A game that seems a little too fun.

Even the stories that are not just men going around killing, are at heart that. Trials of a Young Writer and The Dwarf are both stories of men who tier of their lovers and luck into their deaths, the former from a drug suicide, the latter from an accident. In each case their good luck turns against them an in a twist they lose what they had so happily gained. I was so happy to see a little differentiation I had missed, until I leafed through the stories again, how much of a male fantasy these were, too. The sexual power of these men is legendary. Either Fonseca only writes unreliable narrators, or he is unimaginative. I go with the latter.

The collection is definitely mixed. The weaker stories cannot get beyond violence without showing more than a inequality as a motivator. There is more there, I’m sure. As I said, a one note samba.

Velocidad de los jardines (The Speed of Gardens) by Eloy Tizón – A Review

velocidaddejardinesVelocidad de los jardines (The Speed of Gardens)
Eloy Tizón
Páginas de Espuma 2017 (1992), pg 146

Velocidad de los jardines, published in 1992, is considered one of the key collections from the generation of authors that first began to publish in Spain during the 1990s. On the occasion of its 25th anniversary Páginas de Espumas has brought out a new edition that returned a classic to print. Both in terms of narrative and style, Velocidad is a rich collection from a young author, just beginning to explore the short story.

Velocidad is well known for its verbal richness and  Los puntos cardinales (Cardenal Points) demonstrates that the reputation is well regarded. The narrator is an aging traveling salesman who has spent his career moving from place to place, never spending much time in any one place. His story is the story of a melancholy loner, one whose view of the world is all externalities that have their own life, as if solitude has made them his companions.

Puede decirse que mi trabajo es una rutina imprevista. Noches para la fatiga. Tapioca. Jardines donde las hojas secas son dulces y los codos de las ninfas como escamas transparentes. Mi corazón esta lleno de esquinas con carteles desteñidos, empapelados transitorios, peines sin púas, una puerta giratoria en a que doy vueltas y mas vueltas y no consigo salir a la calle.

You could say my job is an unforeseen routine. Fatigue for the night. Tapioca. Gardens where the dry leaves are sweet and elbows of nymphs that are like transparent scales. My heart is full of corners with  faded handbills, transitory wallpaper, combs without teeth, a revolving door in which I go around in circles and never make it out to the street.

It is a loneliness aware of its surroundings. You can see this sense in his 2013 collection of stories, Technicas de illumination (my review). This sense fills the narrator and he notices the woman who leads an old man through the subways. They are alone, unobserved, but he sees their strange journey. It so fascinates him that when the man disappears he sits with the woman. It is an act of the lost in an artificial and transitory world. Is it permanent? We don’t know, but for a moment, at least, the narrator isn’t alone.

That richness is also on display in Austin, a story that follows an middle aged professor as he drives out of Madrid one night. It is a journey not only a physical journey out of the city, but one that is a journey towards something lighter, less complicated.

Atrás quedaba la ciudad, y áreas de húmeda oscuridad dejaban vislumbrar, entre grandes tubos huecos de hormigón y polígonos de fibrocemento, collares de luces temblorosas e instalaciones fluorescentes que vibraban.

Behind remained the city and areas of a damp darkness that left to be revealed, between great hollow pipes of cement and asbestos-cement plants, necklaces of trembling lights and vibrating florescents.

Its an industrial wasteland, but it is also a present that the journey seeks to erase. As Austin drives into the dark he is driving into his past, finding where he has failed to be the man he wanted to be, to have the loves he wanted. It is a return to the theme of a future unrealized, a present that is only regret:

En alguna parte, a lo largo de otra melancolía, existía, había existido un muchacho indeciso, privado de futuro, atormentado por la idea del porvenir, que llebava su mismo nombre y que pasaba frio en las autopistas del continente.

In some part, throughout the other melencholy, there existed, had always existed a young, indecisive man, lacking much future, tormented by the idea of the future, who carried his name and got cold on the freeways of the continent.

The richness in his writing can also be found in his narration. Los viajes de Anatalia is a journey of a rich family to an unknown country at the point of war. It was the flavor of an early 20th century escape from an eastern country, the wealthy, both oblivious and self entitled, caring on until the end comes suddenly. One cloud easily see the characters as a Russian family. Even Anatalia in Spanish means one from the east. But there is more—a sense of melancholy, of a past that is slipping away and yet was never was.

Los deseos son futuros incumplidos. Todo parece indicar que nuestros antepasados tambien abrigaron deseos humanos, razonables, y todos ellos desaparecieron sin dejar rastro. ¿Son algo? Una galería de bonitos muertos chistosos.

Desires are unreliable futures. Everything appears to indicate that our ancestors also had human desires, reasonable ones, and all of them disapeared without leaving a trace. Are they something? A galery of beautiful and amusing dead.

In that atmosphere, amongst the loss, the disconnection, the fragments the characters also disappear in all senses. And when Anatalia waves goodbye to her family in the empty train station, it is more than metaphorical her disappearance. The dissolution is complete.

Several stories, including the title story, are about coming of age or looking at the world through the eyes of a child. La vida interminente (The Intermittent Life) is a form of love story between two teeneaged students. Tizon plays with the idea of young romance from the begining: ¿Se amaban ellos porque estaban en el mismo curso o estaban en el mismo curos porque se amaban? (Did they fall in love because they were in the same class or were they in the same clase because they loved each other?) For Tizon it’s not the love that motivates, but the miscues, the passing through without really understanding what is happening.

In Familia, desierto, teatro, casa (Family, Desert, Theater, Home) it is not the confusion of love, but family that confuses a young boy. In one of his more subtile and effecting stories, Tizon narrates a boy’s experience among a family of women while one of them, the one he is closest to, slowly fades as she grows near death. It is a special bond that is wound up in the world of drama and make believe. He deftly captures the intersections of the real, the fantastical, and the unknown and how children fill in the gaps between one and the other to come to some understanding of the world.

Finally, the most prescient story is En cualquier lugar del atlas (In Whatever Place on the Atlas), which describes the movement of refugies through a network of smugglers based in cemetaries. The narrator descibes a writer friend who meets a Polish woman Klara who is in Madrid illegally. They fall in love, but her situation becomes untenible and she has to flee and enters the world of the cemetary where the dead and forgotten rule. It also makes the obvious point that those who have entred into this underground world are no more important than the dead. The narrator’s friend describes the world as <> (“A beautiful place where every kind of misfortune happens”). It is a dark story, but it is not out of line with stories like Austin and Los puntos cardinales, which also have their sense of foreboding.

The anniversary edition also comes with a fine introduction where Tizón describes his early years during the Movieda in Madrid and how he came to write the book. It is not a typical first person introduction that relates chronological events. Instead, it is told in second person with an impressionistic tone such that the introduction is less about events, and more about what pushed him to be a writer. As such there multiple quotes on the power of writing:

Toda la literatura es epistolar: necesita del otro para existir.

All of literature is epistolary: it needs the other to exist.

Uno, un poco, se convierte en lo que ama. Un ser humano termina pareciendose a lo que sueña. El carpintero, a su silla. El astrónomo, a su eclipse…Todos somos otros cuando alguien nos ama o deja de amarnos.

One, a little, turns into what one loves. A human being ends up as what she dreams about. The carpinter, his seat. The astronomer, her eclipse…We are all others when someone loves us or stops loving us.

And perhaps my favorite:

Que es mejor tener fiebre que tener bibliografía.

It is better to have passion than a bibliography.

Velocidad de los jardines is a true masterpiece that I am glad I’ve finally had a chance to read.


I have also review his other two books of stories Parpadeos and Técnicas de iluminación