Three Messages and a Warning: Contemporary Mexican Stories of the Fantastic
If nothing else, Three Messages and a Warning proves that anthology editors hold far more power than the individual authors. The problem is not so much that Three Messages fails to offer any excellent Mexican “stories of the fantastic,” but that those tales are few and poorly placed within the book as a whole. For example, a number of above-average stories are clustered toward the end of the book, so that anyone prone to reading anthologies chronologically will be tempted to give up reading before they find gold.
If anything, it just seems like the people editing Three Messages forgot to pay attention—how else would a poem (and a mediocre poem at that) find its way into a book of short stories? How else would so many mediocre stories make the cut? Overall, the thirty-four “stories” in Three Messages provide a study in quantity over quality, a survey of Mexican literature that does little credit to Mexican authors. However, whether by purpose or chance, there are some diamonds in the rough, tales with original voices and surprising endings, the kind of stories you find yourself telling your friends about later. Rather than leaving you to sort through the entire collection (or skip it entirely) I’ll offer you what, in my opinion, are the highlights. The stories sort themselves into three categories:
Category One: The Very Good.
1. “The President without Organs” by Pepe Rojo.
In retrospect, this story captures exactly what I was hoping to find in Three Messages: an imaginative subject explored by an expert storyteller. The story unfolds through a series of press releases detailing the various surgeries the President undergoes in order to cure his increasingly bizarre illnesses, as well as mini-narratives about citizens reacting to the news. Witty and controversial, the story is a hilarious parody of the roles of citizens, government officials and the media in religious and political systems. Then again, I’m bound to love any story that contains a section that reads only, “NATIONAL TIME–OUT DAY.”
2. “Photophobia,” by Mauricio Monteil Figueiras.
You can tell from the start that “Photophobia” is more sophisticated than most stories in this collection—the vocabulary is complex, the concept unquestionably cerebral. An apocalyptic narrative is told through stream-of-consciousness storytelling that cleverly distracts from the story’s premise until the ending begins to shed some light on the narrator’s purpose and motives. The tale stands out in this populist collection of stories like a sore thumb, but I’m glad it was included. Here is a typical (and excellent) sentence:
Eternity, he thought, pocket apocalypses: man has not learned the lessons of history, he is still the ignorant student who recorded his confusion in the caves of Altamira—it’s just that the caves have become tabloids.
3. “Nereid Future,” by Gabriela Damián Miravete.
Imagine a modern, Mexican version of Margaret Oliphant’s short story from 1869, The Library Window and you’ll arrive at “Nereid Future.” The story, told in the second person, is about a girl who falls in love with a long-dead author through his books. The narrative gets increasingly meta as the girl begins to believe that the author loves her back. Intertextuality and female identity earn the spotlight in this short story, which contains one of those perfect endings where you should have seen it coming from the start, but still catches you by surprise.
4. “The Drop” by Claudia Guillén.
In “The Drop,” a depressed young woman refuses to leave her room, watching drops of water fall to the floor. Her mother (the stated villain of the piece) claims that if the dripping stops, her child will die. A visiting doctor learns about himself as he studies the girl. That’s it, the entire premise. But the story is well-told, the ending surprising, and it’s the kind of eerie tale that sticks with you.
5. “Variations on a Theme by Coleridge,” by Alberto Chimal.
Three Messages includes plenty of short-short stories; this is my favorite example, a page-and-a-half-long gem. It begins, “I got a call. It was me, calling from a phone I lost the year before. I asked myself where I had found the phone. I answered myself that it was in such and such cafeteria that I couldn’t remember anymore.” The story gets increasingly meta and hilarious, drawing its premise from the capabilities of modern technology, its humor from repetition and its pathos from the ways we judge ourselves.
Other favorites: “Lions” by Bernardo Fernández, “Wittigenstein’s Umbrella” by Óscar de la Borbolla, “Mr. Strogoff” by Guillermo Samperio.
Category Two: The Mediocre.
Most of the book falls into this category: stories that build up but go nowhere (“The Guest”); stories that you swear you’ve read before (“Three Messages and a Warning in the Same E-mail”); stories with one original gimmick, a clever premise or punch line that amuses without earning long-term appreciation (“A Pile of Bland Desserts”, “Wolves”); even a few pieces that don’t fully cross the cultural divide (“The Nahual Offering”).
These are not awful stories. I enjoyed reading some of them. But when I forget they existed in a week or two, I won’t feel the loss.
Category Three: The Ugly.
In my opinion the worst of the collection (besides that very random poem, “Mannequin”) are the stories that are unbearably trite, the stories that fit a shallow American understanding of Mexican culture to a T. I’m speaking mostly of the first story in the collection, “Today, You Walk Along a Narrow Path,” a tale about Día de los Muertos with the most predictable “surprise” ending in the entire book. There are others that fit this category, of course . . . but the line between “mediocre” and “ugly” seems awfully thin in my mind, so I think I’ll let future readers sort out those stories on their own.