La guerra (The War) by Ana María Shua – a Review

la-guerra
La guerra (The War)
Ana Mariá Shua
Páginas de Espuma, 2019, 164 pg

If the short story, in relation to the novel, is an underappreciated form, then flash fiction, or it’s better sounding name in Spanish, the Microrrelato, is even in an even worse state. There are imaginative authors who’ve dedicated whole works, even careers, to the art. I’ve covered writers such Javier Tomeo, Ángel Olgoso, or Zakaria Tamer, and to that group belongs the Argentine writer Ana María Shua. She has writes longer, more conventional length novels and short stories, but one of her hallmarks is the micro story. In her sixth collection, she explores war through its contradictions, failures, and ironies.

Before looking at a few of the pieces, it is important to discuss genre. La guerra is not necessarily a collection of stories. There is narrative in some of the pieces, but that is not really the focus of the work. Instead, they might be better understood as aphorisms. They don’t fit the strict definition of an aphorisms  since each pieces is several sentences long, but the effect is similar: a principle idea is announced, the some form of contradiction appears, and a koanic idea is expressed. The basis for some pieces is history, and in others it is purely fictional. In the latter case, the genre takes the form of a fable.

The success of a work like La guerra rests not in the narrative surprises or the characters, but in the insights one can add to the already well trod paths through history and its action adventure section, war. One of the better examples is in the piece La carga de la Brigada Ligera (The charge of the light brigade)

La famosa carga de la Brigada Ligera, durante la guerra de Crimea, fue una masacre. A los altos oficiales que comandamos la caballería británica y la lanzamos contra los rusos, se nos consideró incompetentes. Se habló de la disorganizatión, de los errores. En fin, se nos acusó injustamente, sin convalidar tanto esfuerzo. Sin nuestra incompetencia, nuestra disorganizatión, nuestros errores, jamás se hubiera inscrito esa página de salvaje heroísmo en la historia del ejército británico. Sin el tesón y el sacrificio de los inútiles, ¿qué sería de los héroes?

The famous charge of the Light Brigade, during the Crimean War, was a massacre. For us high officials who commanded the British carvery and threw them against the Russians, they consider us incompetent. They talk of disorganization and errors. They accuses us unjustly, without checking with much effort. But without our incompetence, our disorganization, our errors, there never would’ve never been written in the history of the British army such a page of savage heroism. Without the tenacity and sacrifice of the useless, what would happen to our heroes?

The piece takes on the fictional narrative voice of the leaders of the British army during the Crimean War. From there, he attempts to justify the disaster which over the years, thanks to Tennyson’s poem among other things, has become a piece of legendary heroism. Of course, it was also pointless and the generals, in this telling, don’t care what so ever about the soldiers. The idea of unintended consequences and legends they grow up around an event.

A more fanciful story is in Los olores (The Smells).

Entre las ideas menos prácticas de la inteligencia militar de Estados Unidos durante la Segunda Guerra Mundial, se inventaron bombas que no mataban pero que provocaban al estallar un violentísimo mal olor. Las flatulencias y la halitosis fueron los aromas elegidos para los ensayos, como si el olor a cadaverina no hubiera embotado ya los sentidos de los soldados amigos y enemigos. Tuvieron más éxito, en cambio, las bombas con olor a cebolla frita y pan caliente, capaces de provocar epidemias de nostalgia, pero nunca se usaron porque eran peligrosas incluso para la tropa propia.

Among the least practical ideas of the United States military intelligence during the Second World War was the invention of bombs that didn’t kill, but which on exploding let out a violently bad odor. Flatulence and halitosis were the chosen for the tests, as if the smell of rotting flesh had already confused the senses of the soldiers, both friend and foe. The bombs would’ve had more success with the smell of fried onion and warm bread, both capable provoking epidemics of nostalgia, but they would never be used since they would’ve been dangerous even for US’s own soldiers.

Here the story seems pure fiction, something so ridiculous it is parody. But Shua balances the humor with a couple truths about war: everyone gets used to the killing, and nostalgia, fist observed in soldiers, and renamed morale, is something strong. The story is also a good example of her style. While this seems fictional, other pieces are based purely in fact and lead to a similarly constructed conclusion. In this one, she plays with the violence of war and the stupidity of the ideas that often are applied to it.

A collection like this is tricky to pull off. In general, Shua does, but there are the occasional miss. In general, the success hinges on the last sentence. Does it flip the story, break out some ironic insight? If not it can lay flat. I was impressed with the number of these that worked. War is a subject that is to oversimplify and easy to make trite. Shua has done the opposite.

 

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

largonoviembre
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

Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) by Samanta Schweblin – A Review

Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses)
Samanta Schweblin
Páginas de Espuma, 2016, pg 123

Anyone who has read this blog will know that I admire Samanta Schweblin’s work. While little has come out in English, and at that only a few stories and a short novel, her work as a short story writer deserves attention. Siete casas vacías (Seven Empty Houses) was 2015 Riviera del Duero short story prize winner, and her latest book of stories to come out, published by Paginas de Espuma in Spain. Her work has always played with the fantastic, or, as I think I read somewhere, the borer between the real and the unreal. Her previous 2009 short story collection La furia de las pestes (my review) (re titled Pajaros en la Boca) certainly held to that territory. With Siete casas vacías, though, the fantastic is no longer is no longer an external element or force that one can interact with, no matter how strange. Instead, its an open question, perhaps of motivation, perhaps of perspective. Either way, its something unsaid. In that unsaid, though, is the unreal, or at least the odd. Its a change that brings the common place ever closer to her work and turns it into the fantastic.

The first story, Nada de todo esto (None of all this) is indicative of this move. In it we have a mother and daughter driving through a neighborhood. The mother seems confused, uncertain where she is going or how she get there. She is driving and the daughter is asking her to stop, to let her take over. They end up in the house of a rich woman. At this point the mother proceeds to look all through the house and steals a wooden sugar jar. This was the whole reason for entering the house. They leave only to have the owner of the sugar jar find them. The daughter wants to give it back and yet there is hesitation in her. It is the elusiveness of her mother’s motivations, and the daughter’s growing resistance, that lave the story open ended. What is this habit? Simple theft or something more?  Schweblin’s handling of the ambiguity, mixed with the a kind of comedy of errors, is well handled.

The best story of the collection (and longest at 50 pages) is La respiracion cavernaria (Deep Breathing). It is the simple, and yet mysterious, story of a widow, Lola, who lives alone in her home and is slowly feeling her age and her isolation press in on her. Schweblin captures the day to day struggle against solitude and the simple tasks that age make difficult. All around her home she sees change and crime and threats and is always on the look out for problems. Are the neighborhood boys stealing the things in her garage? What’s that noise she hears outside her window? She visits her neighbor several times to complain about her son. But the neighbor says her son died some time ago. For Lola it doesn’t register. She still thinks he wants chocolates that she would give him. For the reader, the unreality of age, of perception, begins to take the story into a different direction. What does Lola really experience? Its that lack of reality that makes the story even more profound. If the hardships of age weren’t bad enough, the loss of a fixed reality only make it worse. Its here that Schweblin’s skill at the unstated reality shows her work to be of exceptional quality.

Schweblin’s work seldom disappoints and Seven Empty Houses definitely does not. It is a worthy prize winner in a competition that has seen some excellent work by previous winners (my reviews: The End of Love by Marcos Giralt Torrente, Mirar al agua by Javier Sáez de Ibarra). Her work stands out as some of the highest quality short stories in the Spanish language.

An interview with Schweblin at lit hub.

Read a recent review of her last novel now translated in English.

A List of Spanish Short Story Writers

A few months ago the Spanish writer Sergi Bellver sent me article that had a great list of living short story writers. I’m now getting around to posting it. Many of them I’m familiar with, but there are some news names here that are worth exploring. Many of them, of course, are not in translation. One can always hope.

I’ve mentioned Matute, Fraile, Tomeo, Zúñiga, Cubas, Hipólito G. Navarro, Eloy Tizón, avier Sáez de Ibarra, and Ángel Zapata in these pages, especially my article that appeared in the Quarterly Conversation on short story writers.. A quick search will bring you my thoughts about any of them. But there are so many more.

Recomendaría a mi impaciente compadre y a cualquier lector latinoamericano que comenzara leyendo a Matute, Fraile, Tomeo, Zúñiga o Cubas, pero si pudiera facturar en una maleta veinte kilos de libros para que se hiciera una idea atinada del cuento español del siglo XXI, empezaría sin dudarlo por Hipólito G. Navarro, bicho raro y luminoso como El pez volador (2008). Si de luz hablamos, añadiría enseguida Técnicas de iluminación (2013), de Eloy Tizón, el libro de relatos ―en― español más inspirado de los últimos años. Me arriesgaría en la aduana con la eterna búsqueda de Javier Sáez de Ibarra en Mirar al agua (2009) y el material inflamable de La vida ausente (2006), de Ángel Zapata. Para compensar, incluiría a tres narradores puros, como Gonzalo Calcedo, Jon Bilbao y Óscar Esquivias, pero dudaría qué título elegir de cada uno, aunque creo que me decidiría, respectivamente, por La carga de la brigada ligera (2004), Como una historia de terror (2008) y Pampanitos verdes (2010). En una esquina, bien protegidos, colocaría Museo de la soledad (2000), de Carlos Castán; Los peces de la amargura (2006), de Fernando Aramburu; Leche (2013), de Marina Perezagua; y Ocho centímetros (2015), de Nuria Barrios. Y en la otra, para combatir el dolor, pondría analgésicos del tipo El camino de la oruga (2003), de Javier Mije; Llenad la Tierra (2010), de Juan Carlos Márquez; El mundo de los Cabezas Vacías (2011), de Pedro Ugarte; Una manada de ñus (2013), de Juan Bonilla; Mientras nieva sobre el mar (2014), de Pablo Andrés Escapa; y Hombres felices (2016), de Felipe R. Navarro. No me dejaría unos cuantos libros brillantes sin los que cojearía la maleta, como El hombre que inventó Manhattan (2004), de Ray Loriga; Bar de anarquistas (2005), de José María Conget; Gritar (2007), de Ricardo Menéndez Salmón; Estancos del Chiado (2009), de Fernando Clemot; No es fácil ser verde (2009), de Sara Mesa; Antes de las jirafas (2011), de Matías Candeira; La piel de los extraños (2012), de Ignacio Ferrando; y El Claustro Rojo (2014), de Juan Vico. Para romperle la cabeza a quien pretendiera requisarlos, cubriría el conjunto con Alto voltaje (2004), de Germán Sierra; El malestar al alcance de todos (2004), de Mercedes Cebrián; Breve teoría del viaje y el desierto (2011), de Cristian Crusat; y Los ensimismados (2011), de Paul Viejo. De contrabando irían algunas sustancias extrañas y adictivas como El deseo de ser alguien en la vida (2007), de Fernando Cañero; Nosotros, todos nosotros (2008), de Víctor García Antón; Órbita (2009), de Miguel Serrano Larraz; Los monos insomnes (2013), de José Óscar López; y Extinciones (2014), de Alfonso Fernández Burgos. Creo que la maleta ya reventaría a estas alturas, pero para que mi interlocutor imaginario no se quedara con las ganas buscaría hueco y le daría una oportunidad a alguno de los primeros libros de relatos de jóvenes como Aixa De la Cruz, Mariana Torres, Juan Gómez Bárcena, David Aliaga, Raquel Vázquez o Almudena Sánchez. Estoy seguro de que la compañía aérea me hará pagar por exceso de equipaje, y de que camino del aeropuerto olvidaré algún buen libro, como acabo de hacer ahora. Habrá sido el mezcal de mi compadre.

 

 

La muerte juega a los dados (Death Played with Dice) by Clara Obligado – A Review

La muerte juega a los dados (Death Played with Dice)
Clara Obligado
Páginas de Espuma 2015, 228 pg

Clara Obligado’s La muerte juega a los dados is a loosely interconnected collection of stories that forms a kind of inter-generational family epic. Given the title of the collection, though, Obligado is less interested in a family epic but the capriccios of history. The overarching family story is always there, but Obligado through the different way she constructs her stories, through the sometimes oblique connections of the stories, creates a dark set of stories that are both structurally inventive and rich with characters.

While Obligado suggests one can read the book in order or randomly, she doesn’t quite achieve a Hopscotch like work. Nevertheless, the structure of the book is very loose and each story could stand on its own. The longer, family oriented stories are less experimental, but Obligado’s command of the genre is obvious. One of the stand out stories (the longest of the collection) La peste (The Plague) is a portrait of a patrician family on the decline. Its an almost Gothic picture: the patron of the family confines herself to her room in grief, the children are decadent wastes, and the grandchildren are trying to make sense of it all. In the midst of it all Buenos Aires suffers the March, 1956 polio outbreak. The sense of a world collapsing in on itself and coming to end is ever present. As Obligado shifts her focus in brief sections from family member to family member, capturing each one’s unique collapse, and in the case of the grandchildren, their confusion, the capriciousness of history shows itself.

The power of each story, though, is enhanced with the interweaving of the tragic arc of the family. Starting with the unsolved murder of the patriarch of the family during the 20’s, the survivors are continually at the mercy of the 20th century’s major events. Its a history that Obligado deftly and judiciously recreates. She wisely avoided a greatest hits of the century, instead focuses on the personal, how events shape the characters. As such we follow the newly wed Lenora as she makes her first transatlantic journey with a husband more interested in his strange house keeper Mdme Tanis. In another, she writes of Mdme Tanis’s teenage years in a brothel in revolutionary Mexico. Or she describes the torture and disappearance of Lenora’s granddaughter, Sonia in 1970’s Argentina. Each story has just enough sense of place to carry the story forward, without loading it up with extraneous details. When Obligado veers into occupied France, she connects the story to the other through the presence of a rare book on origami, avoiding the temptation make the family more important that it really is. Its these light touches that make the discovery of each little connection part of joy in reading the collection.

Ultimately, it is Obligado’s ability to tell a story that makes the collection strong. El verdadero amor nunca se olvida (True Love Is Never Forgotten) is perhaps the best of the collection. She captures the strange family dynamic of a distant mother who cares only about appearances and a father who still loves her. It is the daughter who doesn’t understand her distant mother, an Eastern European immigrant who doesn’t seem to fit in Buenos Aries. As the daughter describes her mother, the richness of the story is revealed. The daughter thinks, how could anyone love her? And yet her father all these years later has never given up. The strength of Obligado’s writing is one can see how both positions are valid.

La muerte juega a los dados with its shifting genres, styles, registers, and its sense of decay, is both an excellent collection of stories and a novel.

 

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People by Joe Ollmann – A Review

Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People
Joe Ollmann
Conundrum Press, 2014, 242 pg

happystoriescoverfrontback

Joe Ollmann’s  graphic novel, Happy Stories About Well-Adjusted People, is really a collection of short stories in the best sense of the word, rich in character and structure. Moreover, his work includes a broad range of characters that stretches his writing from the sometimes insular biographical approach of other graphic novelists. The dedication to his characters is what makes the collection, and the lack of any self congratulatory nods, is what makes the collection strong.

The collection contains eight stories, which split into two rough themes: adults facing a present over-saturated with the past, and kids trying to understand the present. As overwrought as those kind of stories could be, there is a heavy does of humor in Ollmann’s work. In Oh Deer a nebbish office worker agrees to go on a hunting trip with his coworkers as part of a bonding event. As someone who has never had a gun or even thought of hunting, he is initially elated when he shoots a deer. But when he takes it home he finds himself burdened with a corpse he doesn’t know what to do with. From there he goes into epic efforts to dispose of the deer, ending in a late night of digging in his back yard.

In a more hopeful vain, Hang Over, shows a man whose life is has come to nothing (several of Ollmann’s characters are in this position, but thankfully not all). His alcoholic mother ends up in the hospital and leaves his adult brother who is developmentally disabled alone. He has to step in an and take care of the brother. It is something he hates, thinks is a burden, and wants to hand off to anyone he can. He is a total mess: drinks too much, lost his girlfriend. While the story could easily veer into maudlin sentimentality a la disabled brother makes drunk sober up, Ollmann is careful to keep the story grounded in a deeper reality. One where the brother is conflicted in both directions and not able to truly understand his bothers capabilities. It gives the story a sense of ambiguity.

Ollmann is equally good at capturing the lives of teenagers are the brink of a change. In They Filmed a Movie Here Once, Ollmann draws a Catholic girl whose mother has died and lives with her father who has taken to drinking at night. It is a lonely life, one she fills with the church, but she also wants to love. But here Catholicism puts her in conflict with the two guys she meets. One would like to have sex, but she is against that. She is too strict for that (there is a scene where she goes to confession and admits to swearing). The other guy she likes confesses she has stolen something. In each case she dreams of the men, but each is a disappointment. All the while she is alone. Her father doesn’t truly understand and the women she works with in a diner are too hard bitten to help. Ollmann’s interweaving of humor, disappointment, and lingering hope make this one of his better stories. He is at his best when he can find the right mix of the three.

Ollmann’s work is the right mix of humor and disappointment, one that doesn’t dwell in hopelessness, but finds its just something that sits at the margin. Its how his characters deal with the disappointments that propel his stories .

Amsterdam Stories by Nescio – A Review

Amsterdam Stories
Nescio
Damion Searls, trans
New York Review of Books, 161 pg.

The Dutch author Nescio wrote little over his 79 years, publishing what amounts to a small collection of short stories and a fragment of a novel, itself published as a story. The paucity of his work is both refreshing (no late career disappointments here) and disappointing, for the brilliance of his writing, rendered in Damion Searls excellent translation, leaves one asking, what if there were more? Or maybe its best he left us with his indelible poets and dreamers who are forever watching the colors of the countryside from a Dutch dike.

His reputation rests on three short stories: The Freeloader, Young Titans, and Little Poet. All were written during the 1910-19 and describe the lives of bohemian young me living on the margin and dreaming of become an artistic success. It may sound like well trod ground, but the quality of his writing, almost elegiac, less interested in the physical life, and focused on the spiritual, gives his work a transcendent quality, one that puts you in the same melancholic longing that is part of his reoccurring characters. In The Freeloader, Japi, a man who tries his best to do nothing, lives from friend to friend, handout to handout, trying to do as little as possible. This isn’t the pose of the idle rich who go from event to event, but say they do nothing. Japi just sits and does nothing. Early on he describes himself:

“I am nothing and I do nothing. Actually I do much too much. I;m busy overcoming the body. The best thing is to just sit still; going places and thinking are only for stupid people. I don’t think either. It’s too bad I have to eat and sleep. I’d rather spend all day and all night just sitting.”

In Japi’s case its something he does rather well. But in Necio’s stories it isn’t something glamours. There’s always the physical realities that impinge on his characters: the weather, the lack of food, the lack of sleep. The only thing that allows a freeloader to survive is exactly what they eschew: money. Nevertheless, Japi’s strange appearances and disappearances, his selfish finishing of the narrator’s last bit of food, tea, or tobacco, all have a certain strange charm. But like most of Nescio’s characters, that freedom is short lived. The narrator notes, Japi wanted to “[s]moke a couple cigars, chat a little…enjoy the sunshine,” but the narrator also knows

You can’t sustain that. He knew [Japi] that. It couldn’t last, it was impossible, you’d need a mountain of money. And he didn’t have one. What his old man might leave him wasn’t worth the trouble. And he, Japi, thought that was just fine. Now he spent his time staring. It’s not like it’s possible to accomplish anything anyway.

The same sense of hopeful youth meeting an indifferent reality permeates The Young Titans. In this story, the narrator, Koekebakker (Cookie Baker), the same narrator through most of the stories, describes the excitement and slow disillusion of hope as he and his friends see their great plans come to nothing.

We were kids-but good kids. If I may say so myself. We’re much smarter now, so smart it’s pathetic…Was there anything we didn’t want to set to rights? We would show them how it should be.

But life doesn’t go as the men want and they slowly disappear into lives of seeming respectability, their art and works abandoned. Its a melancholy that is pitted against an empty and yet beautiful natural world. If society with its rich men and poor artists is a given, then the cruelest of all things is the countryside.

Every day we longed for something, without knowing what. It got monotonous. Sunrise ans sunset and sunlight on the water and behind the drifting while clouds-monotonous-and the darker skies too, the leaves turning brown and yellow, the bare treetops and poor-soggy fields in the winter-all the things I had seen so many times and though about so many times while I was gone and would see again so many more times, as long as I didn’t die. Who can spend his life watching all these things that constantly repeat themselves, who can keep longing for nothing? Trusting in a God who isn’t there?

The search for a meaning is always there. The search for God, or the seeing of God in little things is a constant refrain. In this sense Nescio’s work reflects back on the romantics who saw something divine in the natural. With Nescio its more of a loss, then a discovery. But when God is revealed in a beautiful sunshine there is a sense of animation in the characters, it is what gives them the spark. Only when they return to the city does that spark dull, grow grey, covered in mud, and diminished to the imperatives to find a cigar or a lump of coal for the fireplace. Ultimately, it is that constant battle rendered in careful prose that makes Nescio’s stories so beautiful.

Perhaps brevity is best, but I can’t help but wish that Nescio published a little more.

 

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.