Andres Neuman, Andres Felipe Solano and Santiago Roncagliolo were interviewed on the BBC about their work and their take on Latin American Literature. It is a brief interview, but interesting to hear what they have to say. I can’t help but think, though, that these interviewers need to work a little harder and find questions besides those about magical realism.
EL PEZ VOLADOR
Hipólito G. Navarro
PAGINAS DE ESPUMA, 2008
Occasionally when you begin a short story collection it is quickly apparent that you are reading something masterful where each story shows great attention to structure, language and narrative. That might be enough to make a good collection, but Hipólito G. Navarro’s El pez volador goes beyond the well written and gives one a collection where every story is written in a different style so that his stories keep evolving and suggesting new ways to construct a story. His stories, if one has to categorize them, move from the somewhat realistic interior monologue to meta fiction to more stream of consciousness, although, each of those terms only serves to constrain his work. And little seems to constrain his work which is always surprising, whether it is a twist at the end of a story, a sudden shift in perspective, or his ever present sense of humor, the stories reveal Navarro as a master and one of important writers in the revitalization of the Spanish short story.
Brevity, Darkness, Humor
For Navarro, story telling is a two fold act: telling a story, and telling the story of the story.
El pez volador from Páginas de Espuma (unavailable in English) is a collection of Navarro’s stories published over the last 15 – 20 years. It is hard to know what order they were published in, which might give a sense of his development, but there is a sense of progression, from more familiar story telling to the more meta. Yet that gives the impression that everything he writes about is self referential and refers only to story telling, which is far from the case. For example, Las notas vicrias (The Vicar’s Grades) two boys are given an old piano from a move theater. They spend all their time playing it even though it is missing a few keys. They struggle to learn how to play, to master the music of the Beatles and the Blues, often ignoring their homework, which gets them in trouble. After a few years when they have become good musicians, a stranger moves to the outskirts of town where one of the boy’s father had sold him a house in his orchard. The man is solitary and there are whispers around town about the man who they call the vicar, but the narrator, 30 years latter, doesn’t understand why they used that word, which suggests he was celibate. The narrator knows he lived alone, so he finds the gossip confusing. One day his friend’s father has the piano tuned. When the boys go to play it they learn, to their horror, that what they had learned to play sounds horrible on the newly tuned piano. It isn’t music any more, and they give up, never to play it again. On top of the piano is a card from the tuner: it is the man who has moved to the orchard. Years latter he remembers that the home in the orchard burned down and the piano tuner died. No one cared much but there was talk that the fire was arson and the story ends as the narrator says,
…Rafa y yo, sabemos positivamente que sí que fue provocado.
…Rafa and I, we know that it was arson.
Many of the common elements of Navarro’s stories are here. First there is the humor, a kind of humor based in inexperience or naiveté. His stories are not cruel, and bitter satire is not one of his methods. Following the humor, is a kind of unsettling of dreams, not so much a shattering, although the boys certainly have their dreams shattered, but a comic undoing of what a first seemed so obvious—the piano is in tune. Yet that isn’t to say there isn’t darkness in his work. The conclusion suggests something extremely dark, a violence and revenge that is quite passionate. However, that violence is off page, something only hinted at and softened by the multiplicities of interpretations of the story. The multiplicity of possibilities and the disparate elements that make up the motivations of the story are another trademark of his work. Navarro, leaves as much unsaid as possible. For him, it as if the shorter the better. Las notas nicrias is slightly more than four pages, yet in that brevity he is able to be both funny and dark, starting with a coming of age story that ends in revenge and suggestions of abuse.
The stories Las frutas mas dulces (The Sweetest Fruit) and La cabeza nevada (The Snowy Head) are similar in style, and the power in these stories is how he reveals what is actually happening. In La cabeza neveda it is only until the last moment does a shift in understanding in who the narrator is does the story finally describe reveal itself. It isn’t so much that the story makes no sense until then, rather he lets you make sense of the story, then says what I just told you is true, but you made an assumption where you shouldn’t have. In Las frutas mas dulces he goes again into the dark. In a scant three pages he describes a young girl who gets revenge on her uncle by having sex with a boy who comes into his melon fields to violate the melons. While the girl has her revenge, the question what kind of revenge has she gotten and with whom? Again, Navarro leaves one with more question than he answers.
Playing With Stories
Moving into the more meta or experimental, the story El tren para Irún, por favor? (The Train for Irun, Please?) is told with only questions. Every sentence is a question and it leaves many open ended thoughts. Yet he has structured it so that many of the questions are implicitly answered by the following question. It is an effective technique, although, I found myself a little tired of it part of the way through and then warmed to it again as the life of the narrator filled out more and more. El tren is probably the most autobiographical piece, too. In his interviews he has mentioned his father who owned a bar in a village in southern Spain and who eventually died of alcoholism. In this story, a son is returning to a village after his father has died. He hasn’t seen him for years and is full of questions about what he will find. Will he ever get to know his father, understand what it was like to be an immigrant in Germany in the early 70’s. From these questions, though, the troubled father emerges. Despite the unsettling number of questions, El tren para Irún, por favor? is probably the story that is the closest in theme to modern American short stories: family dysfunction.
In A buen entendor (Dieciocho cuentos muy pequeños redactados ipsofácticamente) (A Good Understander — 18 very small stories edited ipso factly) Navarro dispenses with even the semblance of traditional story telling and gives the reader a series of short pieces with titles that seem to edit themselves, as if there were two voices talking. Each piece seems unconnected with the next, but as the story comes to an end they begin to refine themselves and the story that contains the little stories finally takes shape. The writing is some of his most playful and meta at the same time. For example, he opens the story with this piece that sets the action, but also makes a little joke with the repetition of the title in the first phrase.
I came about the anouncment
—I came about the announcement.
—Alright! You already told everyone about it.
Listen, this thing about fucking interests me
—Listen, this thing about fucking interest me.
—Alright! You already told everyone about it.
Yo venía por lo del anuncio
—Yo venía por lo del anuncio.
—Ya!, eso sel lo dirás todas.
Hombre, eso de follar me interesa
—Hombre, eso de follar me interesa.
—Ya, eso se lo dirás a todas.
Later, after several short bits, the phrase is repeated, but in a longer, more contextual frame:
I Came About the Anouncement
—I came about the announcement, he told her.
—Don’t fuck with me, she answered surprised (and no wonder).
—Listen, this thing about fucking interests me, came out suddenly.
—Alright, you already told everyone about it, replied the woman, inevitably.
Yo venía por lo del anuncio
—Yo venía por lo del anuncio — le dijo.
—No me jodas — contstó ella asmobrada (y no era para menos).
—Hombre, es que eso de follar me interesa -soltó el de pronto.
—Ya, eso se le dirás a todas —replicó la chica, inevitablemente.
Each of these parts slowly builds a story and and expands the story. Ultimately, in the last bit he puts all the pieces together and each of them is a different way of looking at the character and his way of thinking. At the same time it is a way of looking at how a story is constructed in pieces, as if the characters who are living the story are writing it too.
Navarro’s playfulness extends to the title story, too. In Sucedáneo: pez volador (relato en varios tiempos e higienes) (Substitute: Flying Fish — A Story in Various Tempos and Hygienes) Navarro again plays with structure. This time he breaks ups the story into numbered sections that are thematically grouped by the numbering. He then breaks up all the story into little sections that are imagistic and leave the reader, as he does in so many of his stories, wondering how the story will come together. In Pez volador another one his common elements appears: the natural world. Navarro, a former biology student, put vivid descriptions of the natural world in his works. In this story the main character keeps his bath tub as a kind of stagnate pond filled with worms, fish, and other creatures. It is not only a pond for observing, but one for bathing in and the protagonist spends his time sitting in the bath letting the creature crawling over him. Naturally, that is something one would not want to let others know and he keeps the shameful secret. The contrast of the secret with the intertwining stories creates a tension that, as in many of the stories, the characters are isolated, in a world of their own making. The resolution of the story, brining the natural into the larger world, the character out his isolation, and tying all the threads of the story together, again creates a story whose resolution is not only the end of the story, but a resolution of that one particular exploration of story telling. For Navarro, story telling is a two fold act: telling a story, and telling the story of the story.
Navarro is considered one of the preeminent short story writers of the last 30 years. His works, especially El aburimiento, Lester (The boredom, Lester), have been touchstones for the revitalization of the Spanish short story since Spain emerged from the dictatorship of Franco. With his power as a story teller and stylist his stories are a continuation of the legacy of of the Spanish language short story by such notables as Julio Cortazar. Hopefully, one day more of his work will be available in English.
What’s In English?
So far there isn’t too much English from Navarro. This is a shame and hopefully more will become available. Unfortunately, he has two strikes against him: American’s don’t read a lot of works in translation; and short story collections tend not to be published. Mix the to together and we may be waiting for some time There are a few works out there for the diligent and I would recommend reading his stories if you can. The NH Hotel chain published a collection of stories called, Bedside stories 6, which contains a couple of stories. I have yet to see a copy anywhere on the Intenent, so good luck finding it. In the collection Been There, Read That! Stories for the Armchair Traveller from The University of Victoria in New Zeeland he has one story. The book is readily available through sites like Abe Books. And the author has said that his translator Nicola Gilmour is working on a story for Dalkey Archive’s Best European Fiction, one can only hope it will come out in 2011. If it does come out, it will be the easiest way for and American to read one of his stories.
El País profiles Ednodio Quintero on the publication of his book Combates, a collection of his short stories written between 1995 and 2000.While the stories do not appear to be magical realism, they are not realistic either.
[…there is] an abundance of stories in a tough landscape that marks a world a bit anguished, almost mythological, of warriors and characters with strange codes, susceptible to metamorphosis and anthropomorphism, of those that know just thanks to a language that is as precise as brief.
[…]abundancia de historias en un paisaje duro que enmarca un mundo un poco angustiante, casi mitológico, de guerreros y personajes con códigos extraños, susceptibles a la metamorfosis y el antropoformismo, de los que sabemos lo justo gracias a un lenguaje tan preciso como breve.
He also seems to be a writer obsessed with language, too.
“Language is a sloppy instrument for everyone; the writer has to send his stories not to the market, but Cervantes and the language itself to help create a language with proper lexicon and particular constructions…” A Style? “No, it goes father than what I want to say…And after, one dies: my Faustian pact would be this.”
“El idioma es un instrumento descuidado por todo el mundo; el escritor tiene que darle cuentas no al mercado sino a Cervantes y a la propia lengua, ayudar a crear un idioma, con un léxico propio y construcciones de forma particular…”. ¿Un estilo? “No, va más allá lo que quiero decir… Y después, morirse: mi pacto fáustico sería ése”.
Perhaps if I ever finish my current crop of Spanish language books, I will pick up a copy of this one.
There is an excellent, if writterly, appreciation of José Emilio Pacheco in this Sunday’s cultural supplement in La Jornada. It is certainly worth a read if you have an interest and know Spanish. Pacheco is the author of Las batellas en el desierto (The Battles in the Desert) which I reviewed sometime ago and remains one of my most popular posts. Poniatowska focuses on three things: his relation to the past; why young people are so dedicated to him; and what has made him the writer he is. On the first count he is an other of memory but not nostalgia: “José Emilio cree en la memoria, a la nostalgia la repudia.” Which Poniatowska points out in quoting from the end of Batallas en el desierto
They demolished the school, they demolished Mariana’s building, they demolished my house, they demolished the Roma neighborhood. That city is gone. That country is gone. There isn’t any memory of Mexico form those years. And it doesn’t bother anyone: who wants to remember that horror? Everything goes like the records on a record player. I will never know if Mariana is still living. If she was a live she’d be 70.
Demolieron la escuela, demolieron el edificio de Mariana, demolieron mi casa, demolieron la colonia Roma. Se acabó esa ciudad. Terminó aquel país. No hay memoria del México de aquellos años. Y a nadie le importa: de ese horror, quién puede tener nostalgia. Todo pasó como pasan los discos en la sinfonola. Nunca sabré si aún vive Mariana. Si viviera tendría sesenta años.”
Second, the youth like Pacheco because he is like them and respects them. Part of this is his focus on youth and part of it his willingness to meet with them. When his conferences have filled up he has given two conferences, one in the conference hall and the other outside where the students are waiting for him.
The young who still live their memories of childhood find themselves in El viento distate, El pricipio del placer, Las batallas en el desierto (The Battles in the Desert) and through Condesa neighboorhod of Moriras lefjos and they celebrate the novelist and short story writer with never ending gratitude. It is rare to feel gratitude for a living writer but Jose Emilio gathers all their devotions. When the boy Carlos in Los batallas en el desierto confesses, “I never thought that Jim’s mother was that young, that elegant, least of all that beautiful. I didn’t know how to tell him. I can’t describe what I felt when she shook my hand,” readers relive the torment of their first love. The same occurs with the stories in La sangre de Medusa written between 1956 and 1984. Jose Emilio touches fibers in which they recognize themselves, in which you and him and I and we identify with. On reading it, everyone rewrites “Tarde o remparano”. His is ours. We make the book with him, we are his part, he changes us into authors, he reflects us, he keeps us in mind, he completes us, and the reading takes away our problems. We owe him being readers, as much as we owe him for life.
According to him, those truly unhappy loves, those terrible loves are amongst the young because they have no hope. “In any part of your life you have some little possibility of reuniting with the person you love, but when you are young your history of love has no future.”
Los jóvenes que todavía viven sus recuerdos de infancia se encuentran a sí mismos en El viento distante, El principio del placer, Las batallas en el desierto y hasta en la colonia Condesa de Morirás lejos y le brindan al novelista y al cuentista un testimonio de gratitud interminable. Es raro sentir gratitud por un escritor vivo pero José Emilio reúne todas las devociones. Cuando el niño Carlos de Las batallas en el desierto confiesa: “Nunca pensé que la madre de Jim fuera tan joven, tan elegante y sobre todo tan hermosa. No supe qué decirle. No puedo describir lo que sentí cuando ella me dio la mano”, los lectores reviven el tormento de su primer amor. Lo mismo sucede con los cuentos de La sangre de Medusa escritos de 1956 a 1984. José Emilio toca fibras en las que se reconocen, en las que tú y él y yo, ustedes y nosotros nos identificamos. Al leerlo, cada quién escribe de nuevo “Tarde o temprano”. Lo suyo es nuestro. Hacemos el libro con él, somos su parte, nos convierte en autores, nos refleja, nos toma en cuenta, nos completa, nos quita lo manco, lo cojo, lo tuerto, lo bisoño. Le debemos a él ser lectores, por lo tanto le debemos a él la vida.
Según él, los amores verdaderamente desdichados, los amores terribles son los de los niños porque no tienen ninguna esperanza. “En cualquier otra época de tu vida puedes tener alguna mínima posibilidad de reunirte con la persona que amas, pero cuando eres niño tu historia de amor no tiene porvenir.”
Finally, he is a writer whose history has been influenced by some of the greats of 20th century Mexican Writing. Moreover, his family had been part of the great events of the 20th century, his father escaping execution only through the intervention of President Obregon.
Some of these family friendships were liberal like Juan de la Cabada and Hector Perez Martinez and most of all Jose Vasconcelos. Carlos Monsivais remembers that Jose Emilio used to invite him to eat at his house and they would both listen seriously and quietly to Vasconcelos, an absolutely fascinating personality. Together they would also go to visit Martin Luis Guzman who both of them admired, and don Julio Torri who would tell them in a low voice the secret history of Mexican pornography.
Algunas de esas amistades familiares eran libertarias, como Juan de la Cabada y Héctor Pérez Martínez, y sobre todo José Vasconcelos. Carlos Monsiváis recordó que José Emilio lo invitaba a comer a su casa y ambos escuchaban muy serios y callados a Vasconcelos, personalidad absolutamente fascinante. Juntos iban a visitar también a Martín Luis Guzmán, que es una de las admiraciones de los dos, y don Julio Torri les hablaba en voz baja de la historia secreta de la pornografía mexicana.
Letras Libres reviewed Emilio, los chistes y la muerte, By Fabio Morábito recently and for those who like to read fiction as much for the style as the story it looks like an interesting book. If you read Spanish the review is worth a look.
The style of this novel is that of his stories and that is a good thing: we are before one of the stellar writers of our literature. Before anything, it is his self control. It is known that Morábito did not learn Spanish until he was 15, and it is noticeable: his relation with Spanish is adult-like, lacking the natural childishness fascination, marked with a distrust that obliges him to ponder every word. There is not, nor does it seem like there is, artificial nor capricious lyrics. If there is poetry, it is the poetry of Mondays: “Mondays/ they take apart the platforms/ and the bandstands, / they remove the nails / and the promises,/ reality returns / to its brutish state, / to poetry.” (from From Monday All the Year) There is a simplicity but not it is not simplistic, an economy but not a coldness. The sentences-he doesn’t stop to hide their elegance-are the remains of a fight we don’t see. Because there is a struggle: Morábit’s struggle to purge the language.
El estilo de esta novela es el de sus cuentos, y eso es buena cosa: estamos ante uno de los prosistas estelares de nuestra literatura. Ante todo, su contención. Se sabe que Morábito no aprendió el idioma hasta los quince años, y se nota: su relación con el español es adulta, como desprovista de la natural fascinación infantil, como teñida de una desconfianza que lo obliga a ponderar cada palabra. No hay, no parece haber, artificio ni caprichos líricos. Si hay poesía, es la poesía de los lunes: “Los lunes/ se desmontan las tarimas/ y los estrados,/ se desclavan lo clavado/ y las promesas,/ la realidad vuelve/ a su estado bruto,/ a la poesía” (“De lunes todo el año”). Hay sencillez pero no simpleza, economía de me-
dios pero no frialdad. Las frases –no termina de ocultarlo su elegancia– son restos de una lucha que no observamos. Porque hay una lucha: la de Morábito purgando el idioma.
I finished reading Zoetrope All Story: The Latin American Issue a week ago and have sometime to think about the quality of the stories. Before I start, though, I must say it was a pleasant surprise to have the text both in English and Spanish, which gave me a chance to read the stories in the original.
On the whole I wasn’t impressed with the stories. Many of them just weren’t that interesting to me. I’m not sure exactly why. Some of it was the writing style, which didn’t interest me too much, but mostly it was the choice of subjects. The worst was the story about the porn actor. I stopped reading it after a page and a half.
There were several stories, though, that did stand out. Tuesday Meetings by Slavko Zupcic was probably the best. The writing was fresh and the story about inmates in an asylum waiting for the pope’s visit was interesting and funny. Insular Menu by Ronaldo Menéndez from Cuba talk of the privations in Castro’s Cuba with a humor that didn’t dwell on the politics but human survival, although, cat lovers shouldn’t read the story. An Open Secret by the late Aura Estrada had some nice touches, although I think the story had more to do with Juan Rulfo than Borges. And, finally, Family by Rodrigo Hasbún was had some nice shifting perspective.
Zoetrope All Story: The Latin American Issue isn’t the best of Latin America, but a sampling of young writers. Some of these writers are very good and are worth a further look. Considering it can take years before young writers can make it into English, this is a good collection even if it is a little uneven.