Cristina Fernández Cubas and "Hijacking Stories" [Month of a Thousand Forests]
Cristina Fernaández Cubas is today’s first entry in the ongoing Month of a Thousand Forests series. Below you’ll find a bit from one of her novels, her explanation for why she included it, and a bit about what Julio Cortázar called “stories against the clock.”
Through the end of the month you can buy A Thousand Forests in One Acorn for only $15 by entering FORESTS at checkout on the Open Letter site.
With respect to the novel El año de Gracia, I’d like to recall its origin. The starting point was a story in the newspaper El País. It was about an environmental group, “Operation Dark Harvest,” and their failed expedition to the island of Gruinard, one of the Hebrides off the northwest coast of Scotland. The island had been contaminated with anthrax in 1941, as a precaution against a possible biological war with Germany, and the goal of the environmentalists was to make off with soil samples and denounce the dangers posed by its mere existence. But what I really found interesting was the geographical location, its characteristics, the setting. An island closed to public curiosity, less than two kilometers from civilization, with the only people granted access being a team of scientists who, with the necessary precautions, visited the island every two years. And above all, this fact: the former inhabitants of the island, mostly shepherds, had been forced to evacuate. On the island, then, there only remained a number of sheep, abandoned to chance . . . And from there my imagination took over. I wondered about the effects of the anthrax on those flocks of sheep; I wondered if it were possible the sheep had become feral and developed murderous tendencies; I thought that perhaps, one shepherd—just one—hiding among the fog and craggy rocks, had refused to follow the order and stayed on the island . . . And so El año de Gracia was born. The story of a young man, well versed in theology and dead languages—though completely unaware of the ways of the world—whose sister Grace gives him “the gift of a year” and fate ends up taking him to the island . . . I still remember the writing process with a mixture of nostalgia and fondness. Gruinard gave me the opportunity to go on an anachronistic adventure in the middle of the twentieth century. And I took it as far as it would go. [. . .]
In an interview with El País you mentioned the stories that don’t let you go until you’ve finished them, that leave you exhausted, and you cite Cortázar, who calls them “stories against the clock.”
You could also call them “hijacking stories.” You can’t break free from them until you finish them. And then yes, then you can breathe easy, as if you’d just taken off an enormous backpack, a burden . . . They’re usually not very long (it would be hard to stand so much tension) and very frequently they turn rather mysterious even for the author. For a time, at least. Afterward, you start tying up loose ends, understanding where they came from and why they grabbed you like that . . . But all of this belongs to the secret life of stories.
The first word the ancient shepherd mumbled over my sickbed—or the first one I seem to remember—was Grock. At the time, confused by what appeared to be a strange being that was half sheep and half man, it didn’t occur to me that my timely visitor was capable of naming himself, and I assumed it was bleating. But the long recovery, and that strange lucidity that sometimes comes with fever, led me to babble different phrases in various languages until I understood that Grock was speaking a rudimentary English peppered with an abundance of expressions in Gaelic—a language that, unfortunately, I knew nothing about other than its mere existence—and that if I dispensed with any sort of flourish and instead resorted to the purest simplification, my rescuer’s eyes lit up, he nodded or shook his head, and he tried, in turn, to reduce his language as much as possible and limit himself to naming things.
Learning Grock’s language wasn’t terribly burdensome. What helped wasn’t so much my knowledge of English as the evidence that the old man’s peculiar syntax was extremely similar to that of primitive languages, and even to that of many of our children when, provided with a certain vocabulary, they start to express their needs. Grock’s sentences frequently began directly with the material object of interest, then moved on to the accessory information, to the how and why, to the circumstances, and only later, much later, to the real answers to my questions. I asked him repeatedly about the name of the island we were on, and his answer was: “Grock.” I tried to be much more explicit, and adding gestures and faces, I said: “Island . . . This island . . . What is it called?” The answer was invariable: “Grock.” It was obvious that he didn’t distinguish between his name and what was an object of his property. Grock had spent too many years among sheep.
But I couldn’t curse my luck. Thanks to the shepherd’s care and the bits of information I managed to drag out of him with a great deal of patience, I was able to form an approximate idea of where we were located. In an earlier time the Island of Grock had been inhabited by several families of shepherds. Later, “many, many years ago . . . ,” for reasons the old man wasn’t aware of or didn’t know how to explain, the families gathered their belongings, left their flocks behind, and abandoned the land. Only Grock remained on the island, in charge of hundreds of sheep, the mothers of the mothers of the mothers of those quadrupeds that had made such an impression on me and that, as I seemed to understand, either because they were too many to be controlled by one man, or because the shepherd avoided them, didn’t take long to go from tame flocks to feral, bloodthirsty packs. “They did very bad things to Grock,” he said. “Very bad things.” I soon discovered that the shepherd utterly despised them. When he talked about sheep, his face took on a terrifying appearance, his eyes shone with wild fury, and he reveled in reciting the long list of punishments he’d made them suffer to show them that he was Grock, the master of the island, and that they had done “very bad things.” When I finally asked him what constituted the wicked actions of those beasts (secretly afraid he’d tell me), the ferocious gleam again dilated his pupils for a moment, then was replaced, almost immediately, by an unexpected expression of tenderness. “They killed Grock,” he said.
For the first few days, I often had to resort to imagination, sometimes pure invention, to interpret the shepherd’s perplexing statements. He insisted that I was from Glasgow—though, maybe, he was using that name to mean anywhere off the island—and he seemed very surprised by the story of the shipwreck, of my rescue, and of the subsequent disappearance of the remains of the Providence. I don’t think Grock knew how to pretend, but the absurd possibility that the old man—almost like a child—might be unaware of the ship’s mysterious destination left me baffled. Again I faced the large number of enigmas yet to be solved, and I had a feeling that the limited narrative faculties of my rescuer weren’t going to be of much help to me for the time being.
I had surrendered myself to dark conjectures when Grock, who had just polished off my last bottle of gin, broke into wild laughter. I didn’t have time to be startled. As if he’d suddenly remembered the reason for his boundless joy, the old man grabbed a case that was hanging from his neck, pulled out a wrinkled card and, still laughing, handed it to me. Here I had to rub my eyes to be sure I wasn’t dreaming. What I had in my hands was a color photograph, a portrait of the shepherd himself, taken by an instant camera. So the island wasn’t as deserted as I’d been led to believe. I didn’t stop to think about what sort of disturbed mind would come up with the macabre idea of photographing Grock, nor did it seem appropriate to submit the shepherd to a new interrogation. All I knew how to do was join in his laughter as a simple proof of my good intentions. Between bursts of laughter, he told me about a little box with a button you could push, and little by little, shadows would appear, then colors, and finally, the image of a man. “A man,” he said. The apparent magic of the camera was what truly amused the shepherd. I looked back at the snapshot with a shudder. I held in my hands the cold, raw embodiment of horror. In front of me, convulsing with laughter, was little more than an old, mad child who had absolutely no idea he was laughing at himself.
(Translated by Emily Davis)