Oliverio Coelho [Granta's Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists]
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 16 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 featured author is Oliverio Coehlo, one of the eight (!) Argentine authors included in this issue.
At the Frankfurt Book Fair a couple of years back, the Fundacion TyPA gave away special “30 Great Authors from Argentina” brochure/booklets as a way of promoting contemporary Argentine writing. We wrote abou this at the time, in part because the product was so damn slick, and also because it’s a great way to find out about new Argentine authors.
Oliverio Coelho was one of those 30 great authors, and Natural Promises, the title of his that’s featured is the third part of his dystopian trilogy and sounds pretty strange and interesting:
Oliverio Coelho’s literature explores a possible future world, a sort of nightmare where humanity is menaced by mutations that bring us fully back to the animal world. The government establishes the right to live and reproduce, thus setting strict limits to this humanity. Huge sections of the population are driven away; they join with the unstable masses of subhuman hordes — the ilots — that fight for survival. Bernina, the protagonist, moves in this parallel territory, carrying along a puppet in a suitcase and a mutant child in her belly. Natural Promises is written in a strange language, still recognizable, but where words seem slightly out of focus, aloof from what they are naming. In this way, the author joins an area of contemporary narrative which is highlighted by the creative power of books like Emma, la cautiva (Cesar Aira), Lost acuaticos (Marcelo Cohen) and Riddley Walker (Russel Hoben).
There’s a lot of literary post-apocalyptic books coming out these days (The Passage, Super Sad True Love Story, Oryx and Crake, etc.), and to be honest, I’ve been going on a bit of a bender reading these . . . So hopefully these books will eventually make their way into English—with comparisons to Aira, Cohen, and Hoben, this definitely sounds like something more experimental and weird (in a good way) that your run-of-the-mill science fiction.
And it does seem like Coelho’s work is striking a nerve—in Flavorwire’s piece on the 10 authors from this issue you should know, Coelho is the first one featured:
An active author, anthologist, and critic, Oliverio Coelho has received several literary awards and grants in his native Argentina and has participated in writing residencies as far as Mexico and South Korea. Three of his six novels comprise a futuristic trilogy — Los Invertebrables (2003), Borneo (2004), Promesas Naturales (2006) — in which humanity is plagued by subhuman animalistic mutations and reproductive regulations, but this imaginative approach to social engagement permeates all of his work. Coelho’s literary criticism also appears in publications like El País, La Nación, and Perfil, and he covers news within the publishing industry for the magazine Los Inrockuptibles.
(Digression: I’m not going to complain much about the 10 authors Flavorwire chose for this particular post—although leaving off Zambra personally irks me—but their lists have become so incredibly unimaginative that I only tend to read them when I want to get all fired up about something. This is a good case in point. It’s not that the lists are bad, it’s just that they’re predictable, and thus seem really uninspired. Flavorwire/Boldtype brands itself as being some sort of cutting-edge, in-the-know publication, but it reads as if they’re raiding the B&N front window for a sense of cool. OK, that’s going to far. But you get the point. Rant. Over.)
Anyway, the piece included in Granta is an excerpt from his forthcoming novel, Un hombre llamado Lobo, which doesn’t seem to have any obvious futuristic elements. Here’s the opening section:
A dilapidated bus, which thirty years earlier had probably been a luxurious long-distance vehicle with reclining seats, pulled up to the stand. A handwritten piece of paper taped to the inside of the windscreen said ‘Balcarce’. Iván hurried up the steps and stretched out on the back seat. He turned his head and observed a luminous burr, a sun enlarged or deformed by the dirty rear window. His heart beat loudly, his throat contracted, he felt as if he hadn’t slept for days and would never be able to fall asleep again. A sudden certainty calmed him: if he found his father, perhaps some woman would be able to love him in the future; perhaps he’d lose what his grandmother attributed to a curse but was simply an orphan’s foreboding shyness. He felt the kind of momentary relief some prisoners on death row must get by cherishing the hope that their sentence will be reprieved at the last moment.
And so, wooed by faith, he slept until the bus arrived at San Manuel. He woke up automatically and walked up the aisle to the driver. The main street of the town was full of speed bumps and he hit his head on the handrail a couple of times.
‘Is this San Manuel?’ he asked, looking out of the window at the old-fashioned buildings of a ghost town beside the railway tracks.
‘This is it.’
‘Where’s the centre?’
‘It’s nothing but centre . . . San Manuel ends at the end of the boulevard, where the tracks are. I turn round here. Where are you going?’ and he began turning the bus around.
‘I don’t know, I’m looking for someone . . .’ and he immediately thought how simple his adventure would be if he hadn’t lost his father’s address.
Over at Granta‘s website (where you can subscribe and receive a free copy of this special issue), there’s a post by Christopher Coake, Best Young American Novelist 2007, about this story. It’s a nice piece that calls attention to a pretty great phrase:
Oliverio Coelho’s novel excerpt ‘After Effects’ is as subversive and heartbreaking an examination of love as any reader could hope for. A young man, Iván, takes a bus to the dusty village of San Manuel, in order to surprise the father he has never known. A momentous journey, for certain, but for Iván the stakes are greater even than we might expect – while he waits for the bus to leave the station, ‘A sudden certainty calmed him: if he found his father, perhaps some woman would be able to love him in the future . . .’ Thus assuaged, he sleeps peacefully, ‘wooed by faith.’
‘Wooed by faith.’ It’s such a small phrase, almost a throwaway—and yet its mystery ripples across these pages. Coelho, here, is less concerned with the physical search for Iván’s father (though he is easily found) than in presenting the quest as a spiritual crisis.
Tomorrow: Alejandro Zambra.
And don’t forget, get this issue for free by subscribing to Granta.