CategorySpanish

#SpanishLitMonth: Yesterday by Juan Emar

Yesterday is the first Latin American book from Peirene Press: it’s a Chilean novel first published in 1935 and newly translated by Megan McDowell. 

Emar’s narrator tells us what happened to him yesterday. The day began with him witnessing a public execution, then he headed off with his wife to travel the city, becoming involved in a series of strange episodes. A trip to the zoo sees the couple joining in with a group of singing monkeys. A visit to an artist’s studio has the narrator debating colour with the painter, who puts green in everything. 

Each chapter ends with the couple exclaiming, “Let’s go!”, but it’s not so easy to leave the day’s events behind. The man’s thoughts and memories continue to spiral around him. What begins as an intriguing account of an off-kilter day becomes a striking look at an interior life. 

#SpanishLitMonth: Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter by Mario Vargas Llosa

This is another readalong title for Spanish Lit Month, and my chance to read Vargas Llosa for the first time. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter was published in Spanish in 1977 (Helen Lane’s English translation appeared in 1982). It’s inspired by the author’s life in Peru in the 1950s. 

Eighteen-year-old Marito has literary aspirations, though he’s currently earning a living writing news bulletins for a radio station. Two people are about to change his life: one is Julia, a relation of his by marriage, with whom Marito falls in love. The other is Pedro Camecho, a celebrated Bolivian scriptwriter, brought in to liven up the radio soap operas. 

One strand of Vargas Llosa’s novel chronicles the ups and downs of Marito’s relationship with Julia, which he has to keep secret from his family. Alternate chapters tell some of Comecho’s stories, which are eventful and larger-than-life, invariably ending in a series of questions pondering what might happen next. 

I found Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter very enjoyable to read. The Comecho chapters set a heightened tone for the book, and the Marito ones in turn take on some of that feeling. It really keeps the pages turning.

The edition I read was published in Faber Modern Classics.

#SpanishLitMonth: The Penguin Book of Spanish Short Stories (ed. Margaret Jull Costa)

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. 

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#SpanishLitMonth: The Island by Ana María Matute

The theme for the second week of Spanish Lit Month is books from Spain itself. The Island is an autobiographical novel first published in 1959 (it has been translated into English before as School of the Sun; this 2020 translation is by Laura Lonsdale). 

Fourteen-year-old Matia has been expelled from her convent school and sent to stay with her grandmother on Mallorca. It’s a hot, stifling place, where the closest thing Matia has to a friend is her good-for-nothing cousin Borja. The Civil War means that Matia has to stay there, come what may. 

There are frequent references to fairytales, and the book in general has a distinctively hazy atmosphere. Political and religious tensions play out in microcosm on the island, which means that the personal coming-of-age tale reflects a much broader story. The war may seem a long way away from Matia’s life on Mallorca, but its shadow looms large. 

Published in Penguin Modern Classics: read an extract here.

#SpanishLitMonth: A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco

Stu chose this book for a Spanish Lit Month readalong, a collection from that fine publisher of Latin American fiction, Charco Press. The five stories in A Perfect Cemetery (marvellously translated by Jennifer Croft) are all set in Federico Falco’s native Córdoba Province in Argentina. The image of the title implies long-term stasis, but Falco’s characters are actually facing pivotal moments of change in their lives. 

Let’s start with the story ‘A Perfect Cemetery’ itself. In the town of Colonel Isabeta, the mayor wishes to build his father the perfect cemetery. The old fellow is 104 and has been ailing for years, but there’s no sign of him going anywhere just yet. Enter cemetery designer extraordinaire Víctor Bagiardelli, who sees the chance to create his masterwork – if only he can bring all the pieces together. Víctor’s obsession is brought to life on the page, with the mayor’s father an equally powerful creation. The old man asks Víctor what he will do with the rest of his life. The events of the story force Víctor to confront this question, and may give him the beginnings of an answer. 

There’s more vivid characterisation in ‘Silvi and Her Dark Night’. The title character is a teenager who accompanies her mother when the latter is administering the last rites to people. At the start of the story, Silvi announces that she is now an atheist – but she soon develops a fascination with a visiting Mormon missionary. It’s not straightforward infatuation: the Mormon reminds Silvi of a boy she once visited, who died in hospital. But this is not a situation that can give Silvi the anchoring she needs in the world, and there will be painful consequences. The ending, however, points to a way forward, a different kind of hope. 

In ‘Forest Life’, the home of old Wutrich and his daughter Mabel is placed under threat, and so Wutrich tries desperately to find Mabel a husband. She reluctantly marries Satoiki from the local Japanese community. In another example of Falco’s nuanced character work, we can see Mabel’s ambivalence about entering this marriage, balanced against a genuine desire on Satoiki’s part (and perhaps on Mabel’s as well) to make it work. Seeing her father’s experiences in a care home makes Mabel rethink her situation. Yet again in A Perfect Cemetery, the ending of a story is really just a beginning. 

Besides the characterisation, there’s also a strong sense of place and environment in Falco’s stories. ‘The Hares’ introduces us to the self-styled “king of the hares”, who lives out in the wilderness and maintains his own altar of bones. This individual turns out to be a human named Oscar, who has abandoned society for his own reasons. Nobody asked the hares, of course, and Oscar is quite happy to eat them – a tension between character and place that adds another dimension to the story. 

The closing piece, ‘The River’, takes us to the depths of winter, and Señora Kim, who may be living with her late husband’s ghost. When she thinks she sees a naked woman running in the snow towards the river, this could be an hallucination – or it could be a chance to rescue someone and turn a corner. Falco leaves the question open: as so often in this compelling collection, the stories only open out once you finish them. 

#SpanishLitMonth: Cockfight by María Fernanda Ampuero

July is Spanish Literature Month, hosted by Stu at Winston’s Dad and Richard at Caravana de recuerdos, and I have a few titles lined up for the blog. The theme for the first week of July is contemporary Latin American fiction, and I’ve chosen this story collection from Ecuador, published by Influx Press.

Ampuero’s stories shine a light into the darker corners of ordinary domestic life, and confront brutal subjects head-on. I have to say that this is one of the most harrowing books I’ve read in a long time. 

The opening story, ‘Auction’, sets the tone. Ampuero’s narrator recalls cleaning up after her father’s cockfight as a girl, and how she would use the birds’ viscera to put off jeering men in the crowd. It then becomes clear that, as an adult, the narrator has been kidnapped by a taxi driver and taken to be auctioned off to the highest bidder. The only way she can save herself is to draw on her childhood experiences. 

So you have a carefully drawn situation (in prose powerfully translated by Frances Riddle), with a closing shift into deeper darkness. The story ‘Griselda’ starts off more innocently, with the narrator telling us of Miss Griselda, who baked extraordinary cakes. But there are suggestions of what might be going on behind closed doors, until events reach a crescendo – and, afterwards, the narrator’s birthday cakes never taste as good again. 

Much of Cockfight takes a pessimistic tone, but there are glimpses of light to be found. The protagonist of ‘Other’ is out shopping, constrained by the thoughts of what her husband wants buying, and the likely consequences for her if he doesn’t get it. A small act of rebellion at the end of the story may or may not turn out well, but there is at least the possibility of hope. It’s a precarious end to a vivid collection. 

Fitzcarraldo Editions: The Things We’ve Seen by Agustín Fernández Mallo

The original Spanish title of this novel is ‘Trilogía de la Guerro’ or ‘War Trilogy’ – because (according to an interview with the author) each of its three sections deals with the echoes of war playing out in the characters’ lives. The title of the English translation comes from a line of poetry repeated throughout the book: “It’s a mistake to take the things we’ve seen as a given.”

These themes – the shadow of war and the idea that reality doesn’t stand still – are apparent from the novel’s beginning. A writer (possibly a version of Fernández Mallo) travels to an island to take part in a conference on digital networks. The island was a prison camp during the Spanish Civil War, and the writer spends time finding the places in a book of photographs he has from back then, and taking pictures of those same locations now. Some of the results are reproduced in the novel, past starkly juxtaposed with present. 

In the second part of The Things We’ve Seen, we meet Kurt Montana, purportedly the fourth, unseen astronaut from Apollo 11. Now, Kurt lives in a retirement home, and recounts his life to us. He’s clearly haunted by his time serving in Vietnam, perhaps to the point where he can’t trust his senses or memory. The third part of Fernández Mallo’s book sees a woman take a walking tour of Normandy, where the remnants of war are never far away. 

Nocilla Dream was an earlier novel by Fernández Mallo which used fragments of prose on recurring themes to present the world as as a network without centre. The Things We’ve Seen also uses techniques of recurrence and remixed facts, but its paragraphs are lengthy and discursive. The effect (in another fine translation by Thomas Bunstead) is to suggest that there’s no way out of the writing here, just as there’s no escape from war for Fernández Mallo’s characters. The Things We’ve Seen is a hazy, striking experience. 

The Untameable by Guillermo Arriaga

In the mood for a long book? Here’s a 700-page Mexican tale of revenge (translated from Spanish by Frank Wynne and Jessie Mendez Sayer) that never flags. Our narrator is Juan Guillermo, who grew up in Mexico in the 1960s. His brother Carlos had his own drug business, and was killed by the Good Boys, a Catholic youth gang protected by the local police chief. Juan Guillermo’s parents died in a car accident a few years later, but he sees their grief over Carlos as the root cause. He would like vengeance, but that won’t come easily. 

The structure is what really makes The Untameable stand out to me. For a long way into the novel, the narrative moves back and forth between different periods of Juan Guillermo’s life, as though highlighting that none of this is really over for him. A parallel strand sees a young man hunting an infamous wolf in the Yukon, which mirrors Juan Guillermo’s search for revenge – and intersects directly with his story in the end. In between chapters, there are shorter passages on different beliefs and practices around death, which show how much this weighs on Juan Guillermo’s mind. 

I found The Untameable to be fascinating, poignant, and a good old page-turner.

Published by MacLehose Press.

#2021InternationalBooker: The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enríquez

This is Mariana Enríquez’ second story collection to appear in English translation by Megan McDowell (though it was her first to be published in the original Spanish). I would have loved Things We Lost in the Fire to be longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize (as it was then), so I was pleased to see that this collection had made it.

Enríquez tells tales of urban horror, with vivid unsettling images such as the dead baby that returns as a ghost in ‘Angelita Unearthed’, though not necessarily as the kind of spirit that the protagonist anticipates. Then there’s ‘The Well’, in which a woman tries to excise the fears that have blighted her life by returning to a witch she visited as a child. There’s a real sense of nightmare about it. 

My favourite piece in the book is the novella ‘Kids Who Come Back’. This is the story of Mechi, who works at the archive for lost children in Buenos Aires. Mechi’s life (and other people’s) is turned upside down when missing children start to reappear – though all is not as it seems. After reading this, I’m really looking forward to Enríquez’ novel Our Share of Night, which is being published in McDowell’s translation next year. 

Published by Granta Books.

Read my other posts on the 2021 International Booker Prize here.

Three books: Dillon, Gorodischer, Miller

It’s time for another selection of short reviews that first appeared on my Instagram.

Brian Dillon, Suppose a Sentence (2020)

It always fascinates me that I can read something and it will move me so much. How does that work? How does writing do what it does? Brian Dillon’s new essay collection from Fitzcarraldo Editions approaches these sorts of questions by looking at individual sentences. ⁣

Dillon says in his introduction that he’s been collecting striking sentences in notebooks for 25 years. He examines some of these, and others, in this book – sentences by writers from William Shakespeare to Virginia Woolf, James Baldwin to Hilary Mantel. ⁣

Dillon’s responses to the sentences are deeply personal and often wide-ranging. He might go into the author’s biography, or look at the wider context of their work. There’s a certain amount of discussing the grammatical nuts and bolts, but it’s always at the service of working out what makes each sentence distinctive. ⁣

I’m struck in particular that Dillon doesn’t always explain the context of the sentences straight away – he waits until the time is right. That means the reader often has to come to each sentence on its own terms, which is especially interesting where a sentence is not taken from its author’s best-known work. ⁣

Above all, Suppose a Sentence inspires me to think about sentences that I find striking, what they do and why. It’s a book to stir one’s enthusiasm for reading. ⁣

Angélica Gorodischer, Trafalgar (1979)
Translated from the Spanish by Amalia Gladhart (2013)

Penguin Classics have launched a new science fiction series which I’m excited about, particularly as half of the launch list is in translation. I also love the series design, all stark line drawings and purple accents (a nod to the purple logo used by Penguin for science fiction back in the ’70s).

The first book I’ve read from the series is this Argentinian novel-in-stories. Trafalgar Medrano (born in the city of Rosario in 1936) is a merchant with a taste for strong coffee, unfiltered cigarettes, and women. He also travels and trades among the stars, returning to his home city to tell the tall tales in this book. ⁣

On the downside, I have to say that Trafalgar’s constant womanising gets tedious. But the sheer imagination of these stories is quite something. Trafalgar travels to all manner of worlds: on one, he seems to jump through time each day. On a different world, everything is rigidly ordered, with just one person willing to break away by speaking nonsense. ⁣

What makes Gorodischer’s book for me is the casual way it narrates such extraordinary events. There’s no need for explanation, you just go with the flow and whole worlds open up. ⁣

Kei Miller, The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion (2014)

This poetry collection won the Forward Prize in 2014. Broadly speaking, it’s about two ways of knowing the world: the scientific precision of those who set out to find “the measure that / exists in everything”, and the instinct of someone like Quashie, who “knew his poems by how they fit in earthenware”, because each word is just as long as it needs to be.⁣

Much of the book is taken up by the long title poem, which concerns the different views of a cartographer and a rastaman. The mapmaker sees it as his job “to untangle the tangled / to unworry the concerned”. But the rastaman knows that the “tangle” is itself part of his island, and thinks that the cartographer’s work “is to make thin and crushable / all that is big and as real as ourselves”. ⁣

Interspersed among the volume is a series of prose poems which reveal the stories behind different place names, such as Bloody Bay, “after the cetacean slaughter” These pieces highlight the history that lies behind a bare list of names, history unknown to the cartographer. ⁣

“If not where / then what is Zion?” asks the cartographer. It’s “a reckoning day”, replies the rastaman, “a turble day.” Reaching Zion, the rastaman says, is not a matter of travel, but a “chanting up of goodness and rightness and, of course, upfullness…to face the road which is forever inclining hardward.” Not every place that matters can be located on a map. ⁣

Published by Carcanet Press.

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