The Things We Don’t Do by Andrés Neuman – A Review

Neuman-The-Things-We-Dont-DoThe Things We Don’t Do
Andrés Neuman
Tran Nick Caistor & Lorenza Garcia
Open Letter, 2015, pg 190

When thinking about the short work of Andrés Neuman one word comes to me: joy. In all of his stories, no matter how dark or emotive, you see an author at work who loves the exploration of the power of the short story. In his meta fictions it is most obvious he is fascinated by language and story, but even when looking at the loss of a parent, or the hazing of young recruit, I find a belief in the power of  just a few pages to create fragments of a larger world that exists just at the edge of the page. If one is willing to engage in the search, the varied stories of this collection will show a writer who is both capable of literary invention and bringing out the power of the little moments his characters experience, both profound, brief, and, thankfully, absent edifying epiphanies. In Neuman’s hands, a short story is where one goes to work out a single idea, often quite short. The joy is in that search, the experience of being in the story and finding the same potential in it that he does.

The first story, Happiness, completely captures the joy in Andrés’ work. In it the narrator, Marcos, relates how he would like to be like Cristobal:

He is my friend; I was going to say my best friend, but I have to confess he is the only one.

At first it is an innocuous statement or friendship. But Marcos continues to describe how he envies Cristobal because he sleeps with his wife. From the story descends into the hapless monologue of a man who wants to take control of something he’ll never control. It is the kind of inversion of control that can show up in Neuman’s work, where the expected is reversed.

Happiness shows the reversal in a more overt and comedic way, where as Delivery takes a more lyric turn, following the alternating anguish and joy of a man right before his first child is born. He flies from idea to idea, never falling into sentimentality, yet finding in the coming a birth both a union with the new life, his and the child’s, and separation with his old one. Neuman deftly captures the anxiety and excitement at such a moment, and the translation deftly captures the wild exuberance of the one sentence that twists and double backs on itself, leaving the reader in a twisting labyrinth of emotion.

Included within are two stories that pay homage to Borges’ ideas. In one he describes a literary lecture by Borges where all the participants come dresses in gold clothing. The lecture itself is uninteresting and unimportant. What matters is that as a group they left an impression on Borges. The story is an echo of a Borges’ quote, I am going to cause a tiger,” and the story ends as the narrator notes that the audience caused a tiger. It’s a story that expands a Borges idea, both in the sense of a literary essay and the creation of the literary character, Borges. It is indicative of a fascination with the work of Borges and his interest in the writer himself.

The Poem -Translating Machine follows on another theme that you kind find in “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote”. In the story, a poet tries to have one of his poems translated. The translation is a disaster, but instead of trying again, he asks a friend to translate the translation. Although the results are unimpressive and don’t match his work, he continues to pass the various translation on to other translators, going back and forth between the various languages. Eventually, a translator returns a poem to him that is just like his. While, Menard republishes the same thing and it is just the times that make it seem different, here it is the different approaches to language that shifts the meaning and brings out the fluidity of language, making both the point that translation is near impossible, and any writing, even in its original is open to many shifting meanings. It is one Neuman’s celebratory explorations of language and writing, one that makes it clear that he takes a great interest in how meaning shifts.

The Things We Don’t Do collects stories that have appeared in four Spanish language collections of short stories (links are to my reviews, and include descriptions of some of the stories included within): Hacerse el muerto, Alumbramiento, El ultimo minuto, and El que espera. (My one complaint with this collection is there is no indication which story came from which collection) It is divided into several sections, but follow the typical Neuman pattern: stories that are less meta, more interested in character and relationships; literary commentary that can explore a literary idea or just celebrate literature; and epigrams about writing short stories, which are a must read for any short story writer, even if you don’t agree with all of them. In The Things We Don’t Do, the weighting is towards the first type, but every type of story gets its due. My only other complaint is I would have liked to have seen the inclusion of Policial cubista (Cubist Police Officer), which is one of my favorite stories, but that is a small thing. The translation is sharp and well done. The only thing I took exception to was the use of the word “wimp” in Man Shot, instead of the stronger gay epithet that appears in the original and gives a deeper meaning to the story.

The Things We Don’t Do is an excellent introduction to the short stories of Andrés Neuman and will reward any reader with a delightful array of stories.

La habitación de Nona (Nona’s Room) by Cristina Fernández Cubas – A Review

La habatación de NonaLa habitación de Nona (Nona’s Room)
Cristina Fernández Cubas
Tusquets, 2015, pg 186

La habitación de Nona is Cristina Fernández Cubas’ first collection of stories since the 2008 publication of Todo los cuentos. She did publish a novel under the pseudonym Fernanda Kubbs and while it returned to familiar territory of the fantastic, it was a less introspective work, one that felt more like a release than a confrontation. With La habitación de Nona she returns to form, employing the fantastic to navigate the space between realities. La habitación, like some of her other collections, mixes stories that have a strong emphasis in a social reality, although fantastical, and stories that are complete fables or tales of horror in a classic sense. In each she is successful, as always.

The title story is indicative of her work, where the young narrator presents her sister as her enemy, someone whose behavior is so strange, perhaps on the autistic spectrum, that she is both jealous of the attention her parents give her and intrigued by her customs. Naturally, Cubas does not give us a clinical description of Nona, more a series of behaviors that upset the narrator. The story feels as if it is one of simple jealousy, or perhaps a story of the fantastical sister, but Cubas rarely gives such simple motivations. Instead there the question is not who is Nona, but who is the narrator? It’s made all the more enigmatic by the repeated phrase, quien yo me sé (who I know, but with a sense of something more complete) that suggests there is more to the story than the narrator’s claimed interests, which as the story draws to its conclusion sees the power of the narration switch from the narrator to Nona. While it doesn’t quite have the enigmatic power of Mi hermana Alba, there are some similarities in how the strange perceptions of children point to something more profound.

She again uses the perception of children in Interno con figura (Interior with figure). The narrator goes to an art museum where a group of school children are taking a tour. They stop in front of a painting, the one that is part of the cover art of book. When asked what is going on in the photo, one child becomes scared and suggests it is something horrible. The narrator takes this to mean that the child is seeing in the painting her own life and is not narrating what is in the painting. The narrator is never quite certain what to do. Should she talk to the teacher, the police, follow them? She does that for a little, but ultimately she cannot do anything. Her only option as she ends the story is to write a story, an act that brings the interplay between art and reality to another level. Did Cubas witness this? The painting is real, so why can’t this be true? And if it is true is what the child said true? This is not an unknown phenomenon. In Cubas work at its best we’re often left with question, or better said, forced to make a decision: which narrative line do we want believe, and, thus, follow?

El final de Barbero (The end of Barbero) recounts the arrival of a stepmother who becomes the ruling force in the family, much to the frustration of the three daughters. While there is a touch of the wicked stepmother in the story, it does not follow the familiar pattern of abuse. Instead, Barbero steals the daughter’s father and leaves them behind. The enmity she engenders is that of remaking the family, erasing a future that the daughters thought they would have and leaving them in the dark. Barbero is a strange woman. After marring the father a week after meeting the daughters she begins to distance the father from the children. Ultimately, she and the father move out, taking anything of value, including the picture frames, leaving the photos of their late mother on shelves in the office. It is these kind of touches that make Barbero at once an object of hate and pity, a woman who is trying to control, but is so strange that her victories are really pyrrhic. Ultimately, the fate of Barbero is uncertain and in true Cubas fashion, what the daughters find out lesson her power, making the whole marriage a tragic-comedy. It is one of the more successful stories in the book.

La Nueva Vida (The New Life) is one of her few stories written in the third person and is the most obviously personal story of the collection. Cubas lost her husband of many years several years before the publication of the book, and that experience is reflected here. In the story a woman is walking through Madrid and finds herself in the past, meeting with her friends, with her husband. It is a stripped down story, one that is more interested in the emotion of loss. There is no magical jam as in Los altillos de Brumal; she is just there. It is the confusion of memory that is the subject, the way that memory lives, and can bring one to a past as if it really is now. The use of third person here is instructive as to her approach. Typically in the first person, she leaves open doubts, missperceptions, but here it is the complete enveloping experience of a memory that she wants to show. The doubts come via a waitress who sees an older woman having problems. It also makes the story one of her most realistic, even though it feels at first if this is some sort of strange time travel story. It is surprisingly effective and impactful story.

Finally, Días entre los Wasi-Wano (Days Among the Wasi-Wano) returns to the interplay between story and reality. Again, the narrator is a girl who, along with her brother, is shipped off to her aunt and uncle’s for the summer. The aunt and uncle are a strange pair and live in the country side in a little village. The uncle is given to telling stories of his adventures in Brazil exploring the jungle and meeting the Wasi-Wano tribe. It is a fascinating story that the narrator loves. It is also a story that is only real because of the commitment of the uncle. The narrator, though, is hooked and for her the uncle is the most interesting person. However, there are things behind the facade of the marriage. It leaves the narrator both enjoying the beauty of story that Brazil presents and facing cracks in the dream that is her aunt and uncle’s marriage. Cubas brilliantly plays with both ideas, making the fantastical, Brazil, the more solid, while the real becomes unstable. Of course, that instability colors everything about the uncle and suggests that there is more to a story than its credibility. It is a surprisingly effective story, full of dead ends and questions that can never be answered and leave a sense of melancholy that often comes with Cubas exploration of the fantastic, as if the euphoria of the glimpse of what cannot be deflates one.

La habitación de Nona is one of her better collections, and I think rightly called out as one of 2015’s best books (in Spain).

 

Mirar al agua (Looking at the Water) by Javier Sáez de Ibarra – A Review

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Mirar al agua (Looking at the Water)
Javier Sáez de Ibarra
Páginas de Espuma, 2009 pg 187

Javier Sáez de Ibarra is a Spanish high school teacher and author of several short story collections, including the 2009 prize wining Mirar al agua (I Premio Internacional De Narrativa Breve Riberea del Duero). Very little of his work has been translated. So far as I know, only one story in The Portable Museum Vol 2. Stylistically his work is hard to classify because it is so varied, moving from traditional narrative approaches that are easily recognizable as stories to the more experimental works that might not even be a story, lacking all notion of plot or character. Mirar al agua at its best mixes forms to explore different story telling approaches and leaves the reader with a collection that can both be moving and full of literary games.

Thematically, the collection explores the plastic arts, particularly painting, and finds in them a richness of material that is quite unexpected. The first story, Mirar al agua, shows Sáez de Ibarra as a deft and subtle observer of relationships. The story, as if it is a warm up to the collection, has a relatively traditional structure. A man goes on a boring date, or at least what he thinks will be. He insults the woman, but then in an act of shame and contrition begins to walk along with her, not as a friend, but as if he were looking for an invitation to show he isn’t as bad as she thought. In the end a bond forms between them as they work their way through the exposition of modern art. He knows nothing about art and is frustrated by what he is seeing. Only when they come to the end and he sees the word Water reflected in reverse. In that image he sees a metaphor for how images fail, and the water ever shifting is more real. It gives him peace and that first unsettling bits of the walk are over. The two of them just stand there. What makes it work is Sáez de Ibarra’s ability to capture the awkward frustration that acts out and yet is quieted in subtle understanding, a momentary bit of friendship.

In the second story Un hombre pone un cuadro (A Man Hangs a Photo), he uses a style akin to the New Novel. A man is trying to hang a painting in his flat. He goes over the steps, going back and forth between false starts with the hammer and the nail to slowly find in his actions what is driving the need to hang a photo. Slowly it becomes apparent that the photo is of his family and that the act of hanging it is an act of desperation, as if in hanging a representation of them he will actually have them. It is a beautiful story that both explores our relationships to objects and one man’s suffering.

Perhaps his best story in the collection is Una ventana en Via Speranzella (A Window on Via Speranzella) which describes an artist who on finding herself at age 23 trapped with children and the disappointments that come with letting one’s dream slip away, decides one day to open the window of her bedroom and show one of her breasts for a few moments. It’s an act she continues to do the same day every year, an act that becomes something that her neighbors come to expect and look forward to each year. It is not a prurient act, not for her and many of those who watch her every year. It is a liberation from the constraints of becoming a señora whose life has not turned out to be what she wanted it to be. The narrator, a kind of historian who is investigating what is known of the artist and her performance art, notes that it is liberation because it is an act completely counter to what she should do. It is also a private act done in public, one where she acknowledges no one, never looking at anyone while she does it. Nor does she speak to anyone about the act. It is hers to do and control and surprisingly her neighbors give her that space. It is this subtle mix of art theory (most of the stories include epigrams on art) and emotion that makes many of Sáez de Ibarra’s stories remarkable.

In his more experimental vein is Caprichos a play on Goya’s Caprichos. Caprichos contains 21 one or two sentence satirical descriptions of people, often with caustic titles. Much like Goya, these are biting criticism of society and were a welcome change to some of the short story collections I’ve read lately that lack a sense of social criticism. Sáez de Ibarra’s criticism are open ended, but sharp and biting. The following example is indicative of his humor.

Dos negros regresan caminando por la carretera, sus zapatos rotos, los miembros cansados; un escucha lo que el otro le cuenta. En un lado tres furcias, una jamona les enseña su escote
De cada cual según su capacidad.

Two black men return walking along the highway, their shoes are in tatters, their bodies tired; one listens to what the other is telling him. On one side three whores, one a buxom woman shows them her cleavage.
Every one according to their abilities.

Escribir mientras Palestina (Writing While Palestinian) is perhaps his most political work in the collection and one that may have the littlest to do with art. It examines the journey of a journalist to Palestine in 2008, around the time of the Rachel Coury death. In the search he doesn’t find much in the way of answers, just questions about how you approach writing about the problems without becoming a cliche. Ultimately, he comes to the wall that separates Palestine from Israel and sees in the graffiti voices that have lasted, that continue to exist even when people like him come and go.

In the playful Hiperrealismo / Surrealismo (Hyper realism / Surrealism), he takes clips from a Madrid newspaper and constructs a story. The clips are the typical official announcements and routine news that masks a different world, one that is perhaps more true. He then rewrites the clips mixing the ideas into funny combinations. For example, in the realism there are issues with recycling and the economic stability of families. Sáez de Ibarra coverts that into an official pronouncement from the government that children who cannot be cared for will be collected on the streets. The story, much like Caprichos, has a biting humor that is refreshing. The story also plays with form, eschewing plot and charter, and creating a picture of a world that is anything but realistic.

Mirar al agua is an impressive book full of ideas, both in terms of short stories and art, and has at least one story that will interest most readers. The breath of forma and structure is commendable and delightful, although it might be a barrier for some readers. Javier Sáez de Ibarra is a writer that I want to read more of and who should have a few more stories translated.

The Short Story “The Final Days of Daniel Knopoff” by Pablo Besarón up at Contemporary Argentine Writers

The blog Contemporary Argentine Writers has a new short story up: “The Final Days of Daniel Knopoff” by Pablo Besarón. There is also a short bio and an interview with him in Spanish.

The morning of Thursday, February 7, 2007, was a typical summer morning. With suffocating heat settling in for the rest of the day, it was inadvisable to walk or take the subway.

Daniel backed out of the garage on his way to temple. The last week in Buenos Aires; on Sunday, he would take Katia and their three children to Mendoza. A stream with a magnificent canyon in the background, a good way to relax for two weeks after a year-long stretch of demanding work.

 

Ana María Matute Has Died

The Spanish author, recipient of the Cervantes prize in 2010, has died. She was known for novels and short stories and was one of the representative writers of the mid century Spain. I’ve always enjoyed her work, even if she was lumped in with the social realists that are much out of favor these days. Hers were some of the first stories I read when I was mastering Spanish and making it a literary language. My favorite story of hers is from Las Historias de las Artimillas. I forget the name, but in the story a beggar forces a woman to house him by threatening to tell her husband that he has a great secret. When she finally has it with him and kicks him out he says, ok, but ask yourself what your husband is hiding if he also let me stay. A brilliant ending.

The Washington Post had a obit in English. Spanish ones below.

Ms. Matute’s novels spanning the 1940s to the 1960s depicted the devastation of rural, war-torn Spain from a child’s perspective.

Ms. Matute and other writers scarred by the 1936-1939 war — Juan Goytisolo, Ignacio Aldecoa, Carmen Martin Gaite and Carmen Laforet — were dubbed the generation of the frightened children.

“You know how horrible it is to be 11, and go from being a little middle-class girl . . . to finding yourself in a world divided, even brothers were divided. . . . Going through a war with atrocities, discovering the ugliest things in life,” she said.

 

From El Pais:

“Su papel fue relevante en la posguerra desde el punto de vista sociológico, por su condición de mujer que jugó un papel importante al abrirse paso en un mundo machista, y literario al reflejar la realidad a través de líneas duras y poéticas con dosis de ironía”, asegura Emili Rosales, editor de Destino.

La tercera mujer que ganó el Cervantes fue capaz como pocas, como pocos, de imbricar en su escritura las indispensables dosis de realismo con un irrenunciable hálito de lirismo. Matute llevó a las librerías novelas de la dimensión de Los Abel (1948), Pequeño teatro (1954, premio Planeta), El río (1973), Olvidado Rey Gudú (1996) y Paraíso inhabitado, su última novela. Con Primera memoria había ganado en 1959 el prestigioso Premio Nadal.

Marcada especialmente por los recuerdos de las bombas de la Guerra Civil, episodio que reflejó siempre desde la mirada infantil porque quizá nunca tuvo otra, sus problemas matrimoniales (se casó en 1952 con el escritor Eugenio de Goicoechea) marcaron tanto su vida como su obra literaria. En este segundo aspecto, la trayectoria fulgurante de una de las mejores voces de las letras españolas de postguerra, que ya llevaba consigo el bagaje del Premio Café Gijón por Fiesta al noroeste (1952), galardón al que siguieron los Premios Nacional de Literatura Miguel de Cervantes y de la Crítica por Los hijos muertos en 1959 (el mismo año en que consiguió el Nadal por Primera memoria, se frenó. No poder ver a su hijo sólo los sábados y no obtener su custodia hasta que Juan Pablo no alcanzó los 10 años después, lo marcó todo, en especial un proceso de divorcio, algo inaudito en la machista y retrógrada España de los 60. El resultado fue que tomó la decisión de irse a EEUU como lectora. Ello explica que en la Universidad de Boston esté hoy buena parte de su legado literario.

An Analysis of Juan Eduardo Zúñiga at Turia

The Spanish literary magazine Turia has an excellent overview and analysis of the work of Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, in particular his trilogy of the Spanish Civil War, by Fernado Valls, a literary critic whose work I like. It is a long article and worth the read. Zúñiga is the author of Largo novembre de Madrid and two other collections of short stories about the Spanish Civil War. His work is impressive. Words Without Borders published one of his stories not too long ago.

1980 puede ser la fecha clave como punto de partida para hacer un balance del conjunto de la producción literaria de Juan Eduardo Zúñiga, pues entonces es cuando gracias a los buenos oficios del editor y traductor José Ramón Monreal, se publica en la editorial Bruguera Largo noviembre de Madrid, recopilación de cuentos que le proporciona un reconocimiento inmediato y un prestigio literario discreto, pero de calidad, que no ha parado de crecer hasta el presente. Sin embargo, hubo una etapa anterior que arranca en 1945, fecha en la que apareció su primer ensayo: La historia de Bulgaria. Un año antes, junto a Teodoro Neicov, tradujo la novela del escritor búlgaro Iordan Iokov, El segador (Epesa, 1944). Su interés por la cultura, por la literatura eslava, se mantendrá vivo a lo largo de toda su existencia.  Y en ese mismo año de 1945 reseña elogiosamente Nada, de Carmen Laforet ([1]).

Como traductor, Zúñiga se ha ocupado de la obra de diversos autores de los antiguos países del Este, y de escritores portugueses, entre los que destacan Urbano Tavares Rodrigues (Realismo, arte de vanguardia y nueva cultura, Ciencia Nueva, 1967) o Mario Dionisio (Introducción a la pintura, Alianza, 1972). Gracias a esta labor obtuvo en 1987 el Premio Nacional de Traducción por su versión de las obras de Antero de Quental, Poesías y prosas selectas (Alfaguara, 1986), realizada en colaboración con José Antonio Llardent, aunque nuestro autor solo se ocupó de la obra en prosa ([2]).

El matrimonio de los peces rojos (The Marriage of the Red Fish) by Guadalupe Nettel

El matrimonio de los peces rojos (The Marriage of the Red Fish)
Guadalupe Nettel
Paginas de Espuma, 2013, pg 120

Guadalupe Nettel’s collection of short stories explore the relationship between animals and humans. Over the course of five stories the animals become reflections of human behavior as they interact with her characters at the edge of their preoccupations. The animals are not actors in these stories, but a disappointment with what we had first projected on the animals. The sense of disappointment fills these otherwise bright stories. In the title story, the narrator is a woman whose marriage reflects the life of her Beta fish. Beta’s are notoriously difficult to take care of because of their violent tendencies with other fish, even other Betas. That reflection of the state of one’s marriage is not the most faltering and ends with a separation. She notes a question that is at once interesting, and irritating,

Nadie nos obligó a casarnos. Ninguna mano desconocida nos sacó de nuestro acuario familiar y nos metió en esta casa sin nuestro consentimiento.

No one forced us to get married. No unknown hand took us out of our aquarium and put us in this house without our consent.

No, they don’t. Unfortunately, despite Nettel’s skill as a writer, her prose is very good, these kind of conclusions to her stories bothered me for their obviousness. The story of the woman and her fish was well told, but didn’t offer any particular surprises and the ending was a little too pat. It is too bad because in her second story, Guerra en los Basureros (The War in the Garbage Cans) she starts out with the memories of a young girl who goes to live with her aunt and family. Her parents are divorcing so living with people who eat together and otherwise get along is too much for her. She prefers to stay with the servants in the kitchen, eating only after the family has gone to bed. Then she kills a cockroach one night. It is a mistake because that only makes more and more of them come. She tries everything to stop them, including eating them in a form of penance. Here, her skills as a writer are on display and the story of the orphan and the cockroaches has a resonance of sadness and regret missing in the other stories which lean more toward the style of the first. Still while the end of the first story felt pat, this one felt forced. I can’t help think that this collection suffers for its insistence on forcing the framing metaphor: humans and animals. Yes they are alike, but they’re also  not. And in between something got lost. It is too bad, because I her stories always started with such promise. I know something of hers is coming in English soon (I can’t remember if it is this book or not). If it is a different work perhaps it will change my mind.