Over the last few years, Penguin Classics have published new anthologies of translated short stories from individual countries. There have been Dutch, Japanese and Italian anthologies, and this latest one focuses on Spain.
Renowned translator Margaret Jull Costa has selected over fifty stories from the 19th century to the present day, many of them appearing in English for the first time. As well as Castilian Spanish, the book includes stories originally written in Basque, Catalan and Galician.
I worked my way through the anthology gradually, and I was impressed by the overall quality of the stories. For this review, I thought I’d pick out some of my favourites. I’ve kept these in the order they appear in the book (which is arranged in chronological order of the authors’ birth). All of the stories below are translated by Margaret Jull Costa, unless otherwise stated.
‘The Novel on the Tram’ by Benito Pérez Galdós (1843-1920). While travelling on a tram across Madrid, the narrator hears from a friend the tale of a countess, her jealous husband, and a scheming butler. A fragment of newspaper seems to be telling the same story, and the narrator embellishes it in his mind, projecting it on to the tram’s passengers. I like a good tale of fiction bleeding into reality, and I really liked this.
‘The Genie of the Night and the Genie of the Day’ by Rosa Chacel (1898-1994). This is a portrait of a good night and a bad day. It’s all in the vivid writing: first a social occasion when everything flows together and “we hatched a plan that resembled a tersely shining road rising before us, brilliantly prosperous and easy.” Then the day after, “strangely and elusively impregnable,” when that appearance of ease melts away.
‘Behind the Eyes’ by Carmen Martín Gaite (1925-2000). Francisco is a young man studying for his civil service exams. He finds it hard to cope with conversations buzzing around him, but has found a solution: he won’t let people catch his eye. This is a careful character study of someone who’d probably rather be left to get on with life, but also doesn’t want to surrender control over his destiny – which leads to an end that even he didn’t imagine.
‘The Deserter’ by José María Merino (b. 1941). Inevitably, the Spanish Civil War is a presence in many of these stories. The protagonist here is a woman whose husband was called up just months after their marriage. She doesn’t really understand what the war is about – the village priest denounces the enemy as devils, but when a convoy of prisoners arrives, the woman sees only ordinary men. One night, there is a shadow by the door, and the woman knows her husband has returned. This is a poignant tale whose ending feels inevitable.
‘The Butterfly’s Tongue’ by Manuel Rivas (b. 1957). The narrator has a nightmarish time at school until the arrival of Don Gregorio, a new teacher who takes the boy under his wing. The narrator particularly enjoys Don Gregorio’s lessons on nature, and the two of them spend time each weekend looking for insects – the sheer joy of learning is palpable here. But then war comes, and the boy is called on to denounce his teacher… The conclusion is such a wrench.
‘The Second Mrs Appleton’ by Teresa Solana (b. 1962), translated from Catalan by Peter Bush. I wasn’t expecting this book to include a sting-in-the-tale crime story about a British diplomat, but here we are. Mr Appleton leaves his first wife for an attractive younger woman, but she’s ill-suited to the diplomatic life (or at least the kind of life Appleton wants), and her indiscretions leave him looking for a way out. Of course, it’s not quite as simple as that… Just what I want from a story of this type.
‘The Scream’ by Karmele Jaio (b. 1970), translated by Kit Maude. The protagonist of this story is a novelist who finds her writing nights disturbed when they start broadcasting football matches during the week, and she suddenly has to share the living room with her husband. But she’s inspired by his passion for the game, and wonders if she could write a novel that inspires the same depth of feeling in its readers. The outcome is not what she expects, but I found it nicely amusing.
‘True Milk’ by Aixa de la Cruz (b. 1988), translated by Thomas Bunstead. I started this list with the first story in the anthology, and I’m ending with the last. It’s a vampire story of sorts: it seems that the only way a young woman can get her newborn baby to feed is by mixing her own blood in with the milk. Is this supernatural or psychological? Whichever, the implications are chilling in this quietly powerful piece.
This is just a fraction of what’s on offer in The Penguin Book of Spanish Short Stories. I really do recommend you check it out. If you’d like to sample the anthology, you can read the story ‘And shortly after that, there was now‘ by Eider Rodríguez (tr. Margaret Jull Costa) on the Penguin website.