Matías Néspolo [Granta's Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists]

As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 17 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.

Today’s post is written by Emily Davis, who is also conducting (and translating) all the interviews we’re running of these authors. Enjoy! And look for a special announcement related to the series later today . . .

Today we feature another talented young Argentine writer, Matías Néspolo. Born in Buenos Aires in 1975, he currently lives in Barcelona with his wife, three daughters, and their dog, Jonás. His first collection of poems, Antología seca de Green Hills, was published in 2005, and his short stories have been published in various anthologies. His first novel, Siete maneras de matar a un gato (2009) will appear in English as Seven Ways to Kill a Cat (2011). He is currently working on another novel of which the following (fantastic) passage is an excerpt, translated by Frank Wynne:

El Tano climbed the ladder to the shack cautiously, as though at any moment he might be run off by a shotgun. He reached up and ran his hand along the lintel, a rough-hewn beam that jutted out an inch or two above the door. The key was there. Just like Brizuela had said. But something was wrong. There was no chain, no padlock. The door was open. He nudged it gently with his foot and slipped the key back where he had found it.

The sound of footsteps made his skin prickle. The place was in darkness.

‘Roberto! Hey! What are you doing here?’

El Tano hesitated. The rasp of a match broke the silence, its flame outlining the slim figure of a girl lighting a kerosene lamp. She turned the wick down so it wouldn’t smoke, slipped the tulip-glass shade into place and hung it on a nail.

‘Don’t just stand there, come in…’ she said, pushing a lock of hair behind her ear.

‘I’m not Roberto. You’ve got me mixed up with someone else.’

The girl stared at him, puzzled. She opened her mouth but no words came out. El Tano stepped inside and set down his backpack. He would be spending the night here anyway. He had no choice.

‘What are you being like that for? It’s Vero. Don’t you recognize me?’

She curled her lip in an expression of reproach. She had full, well-defined lips and a long, thin, freckled face. El Tano looked her up and down, racking his brain — nothing. He’d never seen this girl before; if he had he would remember. She obviously had him confused with someone else. He considered playing along but something in her eyes stopped him. Her pupils were like shards of graphite sunken in the honey of a pair of magnificent eyes which, despite their colour, had not a hint of sweetness about them.

‘We know each other?’ El Tano gently tested the water.

‘You’re freaking me out, Roberto,’ she said softly. ‘What’s the matter with you?’

If this was all an act, the girl had talent. El Tano tried to twist his mouth into something he hoped was a smile but it froze halfway in an expression of irritation. Or disgust. Half-heartedly, he started checking out the shack.

‘Nothing’s the matter,’ he said. ‘Just tired, is all.’

The reply had been instinctive, unthinking, but as he heard himself say the words, he felt goosebumps, as though he were taking on this other man’s identity without resisting. He hadn’t planned to play along but he was doing it anyway. It didn’t matter. Right now it suited him to be someone else. Anyway, if this girl wanted to think he was Roberto, or Juan de los Palotes, he couldn’t stop her.

This being my first encounter with Néspolo’s writing, I am delighted that he has been selected by Granta and hope that this will mean greater exposure for his work in the coming years. If this sample is any indication, he has an especially deft way of evoking place, along with skill in developing tension along an irresistible plot line. I look forward to reading the rest of the novel when it comes out. In the meantime, here are some words from the author on the cannibalistic nature of Argentine literature, and the question of national literatures in general:

I wonder whether, in an era of global travel and digital communication, it makes sense to talk about ‘national literatures’. Especially when it comes to Argentinia, whose national literature has a very brief history and was created from nothing in the desert, rather as the National State was invented by the generation who, in the 1880s, believed in progress and reason. Argentinia’s literature has always plundered and borrowed from elsewhere, co-opting as its own authors such as the Polish Gombrowicz, as well as works written entirely in French (Copi).

As usual it was Borges who first noted and advocated the cannibal nature of Argentina’s literature. In his famous essay El escritor argentino y la tradición he championed making “irreverent” use of the entire Western tradition – a process of ingesting and metabolizing other cultures and literatures that has come to define Argentina’s identity. It is easy to understand why tango, as the quintessence of what is Argentine,is a music that is played with a small Central European accordion and a Spanish guitar.

Nevertheless, beyond the cross-breeding, Argentine literature has always had particular qualities of its own. First of all, an enquiring spirit. Secondly, a constant search for formal innovation. And, last of all, but not in order of importance, a permanent state of hostility. Bellicose by nature, Argentine literature is always prepared for war, including war with itself. The Argentine literary scene is a perpetual battlefield in which various factions constantly try to redefine the canon.

You can read the whole thing here, from an interview with Vintage Books.

And finally, in case you’re feeling snubbed by that short excerpt from “The Bonfire and the Chessboard” above, you can read one of Matías Néspolo’s short stories, start to finish, over at Granta’s website. Below is the opening of “The Axe Falls,” (“El Hachazo”), translated by Beth Fowler, winner of Harvill Secker’s first Young Translators’ Prize, awarded last month.

Old Moretti has a lot of firewood still to chop, but his fingers are already stiff. Not to mention his toes. He can’t even feel them. His nose, on the other hand, burns as though it were submerged in boiling water. A long goat-hair scarf coils around his neck, a felt cloth swathes his head. On top of his improvised headgear, his wide-brimmed chambergo fits tightly.

He’s been swinging the axe for an hour now without stopping and he’s starting to tire. The years are taking their toll. The old man curses furiously at a small log that resists his efforts, until, finally, he loses patience. Moretti’s in no mood to waste time. He takes a deep breath and unleashes a tremendous blow. Spot on. Right on the grain. The air groans out of his chest in time with the strike. The log splits into three. But the axe breaks loose from his grip and buries itself blade down in the snow. Just next to his boot.

Moretti takes a few seconds to gather himself. His breath swirls in the blizzard. He bends to pick up the axe and finds that it is stuck fast. The handle is as cold as a block of ice. Which is odd, because his hands have been moving up and down it all the time he’s been working.

The old man gauges whether to leave it at that and go indoors. There’s no sense freezing just for a bit more wood. When the weather clears he’ll pick up where he left off. For the moment, he’s got enough to see him through the night. And tomorrow’s Sunday: Sergio – his son – will be coming. He’s been carving out a career in the city, with the Wool Dealers’ Syndicate, since he was a young man. By now, the old man figures, he must be general secretary. Moretti’s proud of him. In any case, he can ask him to lend a hand filling the woodshed. Then he can forget about it until the summer. Didn’t the boy say he would stay for a couple of weeks, that he had to take some time off? Two or three weeks will be more than enough, if the trees are already felled. All they’ll have to do is cut them into smaller pieces to fit into the stove.

Click here if you want to read the full story (and trust me, you want to).

And don’t forget, get this issue for free by subscribing to Granta.

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