Copies of Navidad & Matanza arrived in the office on Friday, so we’re finally able to give away 20 copies via GoodReads. All the information about the contest is below, but first, a bit about about the book itself, starting with the greatest blurb we’ve ever included on the front of one of our titles:
“Carlos Labbé’s [Navidad & Matanza] begins to fuck with your head from its very first word—moving through journalese, financial reporting, whodunit, Joseph Conrad, Raymond Chandler, Nabokov to David Lynch.”—Toby Litt
Even putting aside the very compelling statement that this book is going to “fuck with your head from its very first word,” that’s quite a line-up of influences . . . All of which are completely accurate.
This isn’t an easy book to describe—there are a few related storylines, one involving scientists making a drug of hate, and another about their attempt to play a “novel-game” in which they take turns creating a story (a game that Labbé actually played and that we’ll post more about later), which all ties into the disappearance of two children . . . Here’s my best attempt at formally describing this novel:
It’s the summer of 1999 when the two children of wealthy video game executive Jose Francisco Vivar, Alicia and Bruno, go missing in the beach town of Matanza. Long after their disappearance, the people of Matanza and the adjacent town of Navidad consistently report sightings of Bruno—on the beach, in bars, gambling—while reports on Alicia, however, are next to none. And every clue keeps circling back to a man named Boris Real . . .
At least that’s how the story—or one of many stories, rather—goes. All of them are told by a journalist narrator, who recounts the mysterious case of the Vivar family from an underground laboratory where he and six other “subjects” have taken up a novel-game, writing and exchanging chapters over email, all while waiting for the fear-inducing drug hadón to take its effect, and their uncertain fates.
A literary descendent of Roberto Bolaño and Andrés Neuman, Carlos Labbé’s Navidad & Matanza is a work of metafiction that not only challenges our perceptions of facts and observations, and of identity and reality, but also of basic human trust.
For the Spanish literature obsessed out there, you may recognize Carlos Labbé’s name from Granta’s special “Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue from a couple years back. Not only was Labbé included, but an excerpt from this book was in there. (But in Natasha Wimmer’s translation.)
If you missed that issue, you can read an excerpt from the book on our site, where you can also just pre-order the book if you don’t want to fool around with this GoodReads contest stuff.
But if you are up for trying to win a free copy, here’s how you enter:
Contest closes on February 10th, so enter today!
For this week’s podcast, Tom and I answered our first mailbag question about literary journals, discussed the old adage that “short stories don’t sell,” and complained about the unbeatable Milwaukee Brewers.Read More...
And on the 23rd Day of Awesome, we correct our mistakes . . .
First off, if you’ve had trouble getting to the tag for this entire series, that’s because Textpattern and its codes for italics defeated me. Click here and you should be brought to the page listing all 22 Granta “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists.”
More importantly, due to Internet issues in Bay City, MI (yes, they do finally have it there), I missed one author . . . So today, we’re featuring Peruvian author Carlos Yushimito, whose “Seltz” was translated for this special issue by Alfred Mac Adam.
Carlos Yushimito is one of the few authors featured in this issue who currently live in the U.S. He fled his native country in 2008 to study at Villanova (which, once again, has a scary good men’s basketball team) and now lives in Providence, RI where he’s working on a doctorate at Brown (whose team is a little less than stellar). He’s published four story collections: El mago (2004), Las islas (2006), Madureira sabe (2007), and Equis (2009). He’s currently finishing his first novel.
Also mentioned in the Granta intro is the fact that his stories are inspired by Brazil, although he has never been there . . . The Brazilian connection is also mentioned by Tibor Fischer in the bit he wrote for Granta‘s website.
After Borges, (particularly in the Spanish world) one has to be circumspect about bandying around once-simple words like author and story (I don’t think I can ever forgive him for that). Kindly, Yushimito flags up his game straight away. Catch the word ‘costume’ in the first line of ‘Seltz’. Yushimito slips on Brazil just as his protagonist slips on his crocodile costume. The great thing about a costume is that you can see but you can’t be seen.
All the guidebook references you would expect from Brazil are present in Yushimito’s camouflage: cachaca, caipirinha, Ipanema, Daniela Mercury. The only things missing are football and favelas (and you have to save something for another story).
Disguising yourself or dressing up (to change your station or your gender) is more a device of the theatre than prose, and generally goes one of two ways, either the transformation is a resounding success for comic or dramatic effect or a failure for comic effect. [. . .]
In charting Toninho’s trajectory from clown and poverty to plutocratic playboy for a night (by simply donning a good jacket), Yushimito is more delicate and oscillating. But judge for yourself.
And to make the Toninho reference make sense, here’s an excerpt from “Seltz”:
I was in the back room taking off the costume when I felt his hard cachaca breath next to my ear. It was Bautista, the manager. His face was sweaty. I assumed that, as usual, he must have been partying hard already by the way he twisted his mouth and how his disconnected words rushed toward me. So it wasn’t at all odd that I was overcome by a strange feeling of shame. A furtive sense of guilt. For a few seconds I felt as if someone were watching a pair of lobsters copulate in slow motion and that I was standing next to that person in front of twenty television sets all showing the same picture. In slow motion, extremely slow motion.
Zé Antunes says the best advertising strategy for an electronics shop like ours is to keep every television set in the place tuned into the Discovery Channel. ‘For example,’ he would say, ‘let’s imagine they’re showing a rock concert or a football match: parents associate television with drugs or squandered leisure time. Whenever they show a movie, women in their forties, married and with kids in college, usually remember with nostalgia and subconscious anger that their husbands almost never take them to the movies.’ Zé Antunes says the educational channels increase the probability of making sales, and it must be true because to parents education will always seem a good investment and they’ll never stint when it comes to that. ‘That’s the area we should be attacking: the jugular vein of sales,’ he declares.
Zé Antunes knows a lot about the animal world, but not as much as he knows about sales and marketing. Which is why I try to listen to him often, so I can pick up all that knowledge of his. But it’s different with Bautista. While I stared at his exaggerated gestures, almost certain that his well-pruned nose had poked into a good party that afternoon, I thought about his idea of happiness and about the good deal he’d most certainly have made with the Draco distributor. One thing leads to another; anyone knows that. And Bautista knows the business well because he’s the owner’s son, and the owner is one of the most important and richest men in Rio de Janeiro.
‘Tonight I’ve got a new disguise for you, Toninho.’
Patting me on the back complicitously, Bautista was still on the alert, not realizing that I had no desire to spend another bad night at his side. That’s why, even though he insisted, I didn’t raise my head to affirm or deny anything. I went on with my capricious striptease until I recovered my human shape.
He finally gave up, perhaps stymied by my extreme confidence.
He made a pistol with his hand, and a trigger squeezed in his eyes fired.
‘I’ll wait for you in the car.’
He was waiting for me in the hall, not the car.
‘Did you make sure to turn the water off all the way?’ Zé asked.
I told him I did but the suspicious prick made sure to check for himself. He came back a minute later drying his hands.
‘Forewarned is forearmed.’
By then the sliding metal gate had sealed the main entrance. Only the three of us were left inside, bottled up among white tiles and television screens all showing the same screen. A red-maned lion lumbering away with the last piece of a crotch in his mouth, wagging his backside while some hyenas fought over the remains of what had been a zebra. They ate with ardour, with an African appetite. Bautista and Zé Antunes, paying no attention to me, went on chatting animatedly next to the register.
‘In the trunk you’ll find a jacket and some good hair cream,’ said Bautista, interrupting their talk for an instant. He moved his hands, as if his head were a fortune-teller’s crystal ball. ‘Put on the jacket and get in the car.’
He tossed me the key.
Before we left, Zé handed him a small yellow envelope.
It was the kind used by the accounting department at the end of the month. Zé Antunes has been working in the shop longer than anyone else. It’s he who has the job of putting the padlock on the gate, of turning everything off and disconnecting the electricity.
He’s the last to leave and the first to arrive, except on Tuesdays, when he has the morning off. During the four years I’ve been working here, I’ve never seen him miss a day or take a vacation. And I’ve never heard him complain, curse out or pester anyone who didn’t deserve it.
He’s a man everyone should imitate.
When I shut the trunk, I felt livelier and more alert than before. I put on the freshly dry-cleaned jacket, finished rubbing the cream into my hair and leapt into the passenger seat. I looked myself over in the rear-view mirror and wasn’t terribly disgusted. I turned on the radio. The voice of Daniela Mercury growled from the speakers with the same sensuality as her body: Vem ai un baile movido a novas fontes de energía. Chacina, política e mídia. Bem perto da casa que eu vivia . . . eletrodoméstico . . . eletro-brasil . . .
Open shirt, brown tweed jacket, slick hair. After a few minutes I’d become another Bautista, hardly different from the original, though smaller and less elegant. My chest, a bit exposed, enjoyed the air that kicked its way in, broken into gusts through the window of his Audi. I really liked the role of the carefree man who goes out on a Friday night to get rid of the stress that comes from unpredictable business deals. I had that tense look – as if I were about to explode – that so attracts women. I looked myself over in the side mirror. I looked again and again. Yes, I really did feel elegant, sophisticated. Freed from my usual worn-out, cheap clothes, I was a born seducer: the seducer’s instinct was boiling up silently, fighting to burst out of me.
Even so, my new self-image only lasted as long as a flash of light. Bautista is a rich kid who competes in sports, rarely for fun, and wears pricey threads I could never buy, not even with five months’ salary. He knows how to handle himself in society and doesn’t have to work for things to fit properly in either his body or his life. He’s got green eyes like two fireflies in the night and a good bone structure that simply reeks of testosterone accompanied by the smooth aroma of Gucci. I only wish I had his ability to seduce with words, that conductive determination (as Zé would put it), when he wants to get a pretty girl into bed with him.
And after a long night . . .
We open up the shop at ten. I’d only managed to rest for fifteen extra minutes. Far from what I might have thought, the people outside flowed by with a disturbing continuity. It was a long train of infinite heads, hasty marches and unsatisfied needs. It was life in motion. On my corner, opposite the main entrance, I’d managed to get the costume on properly: the big stomach with green spots, the enormous head on top of the small human head; the jaw; the two soft fangs; the pair of well-disguised holes that were my eyes. I was once again the grand crocodile that promoted the electronic devices sold in Mattos Electronics, dancing for children. By using my talent, I quickly attracted and gathered kids and their parents. With the bounce of my long legs, with the strength of my arms, I lured them to the Draco refrigerator department, and there Roberto’s skills did the rest. I went back to my corner and kept on dancing. I never stopped for even a moment. Half an hour later, I saw a married couple, followed by Zacarías and an enormous 21-inch television set, along with a free complimentary coffee-maker. They were smiling, holding hands tightly.
And there we go. For real this time. “Normal” posting resumes tomorrow . . . .
As we mentioned an eternity ago, we’ve been highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. Today is the final post in this series, the entirety of which can be found by clicking here.
Our final entry is by Emily Davis and features Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbun—one of my favorites from the issue—whose “The Place of Losses” was translated by Carolina de Robertis.
Born in 1981 in Cochabamba, Bolivia, Rodrigo Hasbún is currently working on a doctorate in Ithaca, New York. His writing was featured in last year’s Latin American issue of Zoetrope: All-Story, and his stories have appeared in various anthologies. His first book of short stories, Cinco, was published in 2006, and his second collection, Los días más felices, will come out in 2011 (Duomo Ediciones). Hasbún has also written a novel, El lugar del cuerpo (2009), and he was awarded the Latin Union Prize for the Most Original Spanish American Short Fiction.
“The Place of Losses,” translated by Carolina de Robertis, is a new story that appears in the Granta issue. The narrator of this piece is himself a writer, and in the text we get to glimpse some of the fragments he has scribbled into his notebook. It is in those portions, perhaps, that Hasbún’s writing really shines, evoking the most photographic images, sometimes chilling, sometimes violent, sometimes simply joyful, always sensorially eloquent and almost palpable . . . What I’m trying to say is that this is beautiful and inviting writing all around. Below is the opening to the story, followed by a special interview with the author. Enjoy.
Take your shit with you, all your memories, I wanted to say before she stood up, but then, when I started to stammer it, when I finally got up the courage to say it, it was too late, she had turned around, she was already walking out of the cafe, out of my life, to the street, into someone else’s life. Take your name with you, bitch, thief, woman, I wanted to say, to wound her, to return some of the pain she was causing me. Take everything with you and please don’t come back (because Valeria always comes back after leaving). And please don’t come back this time, Valeria, I wanted to say to her, that’s what I ask above all, that you leave forever and take your memories and your scent. And, if it’s easier for you, think that you’re leaving because I want you to leave, like in the bolero song, like in so many other lives (but I only want you to leave after you’ve left). Take yourself with you, the ghost you summon. Take your body. And don’t come back, I wanted to say, this time don’t even think of coming back. Please, if you’ve really stopped loving me, don’t come back.
But one week later, we were there again, at the only table by the window. It had to seem as though we’d run into each other by chance and it had to seem as though I hadn’t found anything out or that I’d already put away the hurt. So I took the photos out of my backpack without saying anything, without reproach, and I left them on the table, next to the coffees that had just been served and were still steaming. Valeria looked at them for a good while.
She didn’t understand because she hadn’t gone to the last session of the workshop, to which, in spite of everything, I’d only gone to find her. One of them took place in a train carriage. An old man appeared looking slightly lost, possibly he’d got on the wrong train or perhaps he’d forgotten where to disembark. Perhaps he was still stuck in some war, escaping fire and bullets. In the other photo, still alive, or not, covered entirely by a white sheet, a man appeared in a hospital bed.
They were strange photos. One couldn’t really tell whether they were assembled, staged, or whether they’d come directly from reality. From the reality in which I told Valeria that she should choose one and write a story from it for the next session. Did you pick them? It was at random, you know how Madeiros is. Which one do you like best? The one with the train, I said. Well, she said, in that case I’ll take the other one. Why didn’t you come the other day? Because I didn’t feel like dealing with all that foolishness.
Her tone and cruelty hurt me, and at the same time I liked them. Bitch, I wanted to say to her as I remembered what had happened the week before and sought her gaze and sipped my coffee. Thief, I wanted to say, woman. And I put the cup back on the table and reached my hand out to take hers. Madeiros’s exercises are less and less interesting to me, she said, far away from everything I might be feeling. I don’t know what he’s trying to accomplish, I’ve stopped seeing them as necessary. The old man knows what he’s doing, I said, trying to defend him, although in truth I’d lately thought the same thing. Also, writers should invent themselves on their own, added Valeria, who for months had been the most enthusiastic participant in the workshop. My hand was still over hers but they were dead hands, hands that no longer belonged to us. Will you stop going? I asked, afraid. She answered by making a face I didn’t understand and then we were silent again.
It was four o’clock on a Friday afternoon like any other, and I realized in that moment that I would write my story about those hours. We, the characters, would talk about the photos while we slowly destroyed ourselves, while we grew into our betrayal, our oscillations and sex and coffee, our useless words. And the most certain thing is that Madeiros would detest it. He’d be bothered by its self-referential nature, the absence of a clear plot, the absence of local colour, the sentimentality or what hovered too close to it. This damn exercise was supposed to do the exact opposite! he’d surely shout a few days later, with that voice destroyed by cigarettes, to make you tell me about what you saw in the photos, to take you out of yourselves! And he’d get too worked up to speak and spit in a corner before finishing off his beer.
Are you all right? asked Valeria, bringing me back to us, to the tiny cafe.
Yes, fine, I replied. She was there. As were the long calm hours in which we’d have a good screw, the hours in which I’d forgive her again.
I smiled and she smiled and we separated our hands and downed the rest of our coffee.
Then we paid the bill and left.
each time you think of me pinch your hand. each time you think of me, valeria said, jump three times or start dancing. it’ll be fun to imagine you that way.
a night on the piss with madeiros. i accompanied him. when we got to his house, he lay down in the front doorway, saying he wanted to sleep there. i told him he’d get sick. he said he needed to know how vagrants felt, with no place to return to.
idea. an artist turns on a camera, puts it on a tripod, opens the window, squeezes eyes shut and jumps. the apartment is on the fourth floor, the fall only manages to break a few ribs. months later, another attempt. this time the camera is positioned on the ground, to record the moment in which the body hits cement. the damage is worse but the artist doesn’t die. the artist sells the tapes to an important museum and becomes relatively well known in the city.
she asked me to suck her toes and also wanted me to spit in her face. she had seen it in a movie the night before.
these notebooks are my place, here i learn, here i lose. (what i mean to say is that to know how things work you must destroy them first . . .)
her tongue, when she smiles. and her breath. and her hands and ankles. her broken tooth. the small scars on her knees.
what we need: lemons in our mouths, to lie in the sun. a precipice or a war. to kill fifteen ants and feel no guilt, to tear the wings from six flies and smile. to throw our garbage away on the neighbours’ patio.
what we need: a fight in the middle of the night that keeps us from sleeping, to look out of the window and find violence or the simulation of violence beyond the glass. a tremor. subtler revenges. to say yes or no or more or less to the same things, to be ridiculous in a similar way. for her to be good and never leave. love or the simulation of love.
to be together forever. never to let go of each other’s hands. that’s what i said. she said: every time you think of me, start clapping. seven times in a row. hard.
Lies would have been sweeter, not to have known, to have known less. Lies, perhaps, could have saved us. We could have cancelled them out after a while, become used to them, believed in them only later to plunge them into that silence of days and months and life. To be capable of smiling every once in a while without remorse or guilt. Without this shit. But it’s also because of the dog and because of Dad, the world isn’t just her any more. With lies the world might have continued being only her. With lies we might have been able to invent a less sad story, she’d still be here and the dog would never have gotten sick, although one thing is not related to the other in any way, and we wouldn’t be killing the dog and Dad wouldn’t have to hide his need to cry from us. The dog can’t move any more, he watches the world for maybe the last time. These are the decisive minutes that all of us will have to face one day. Dad can’t bear the sight any more, he lets Juan go, undoes the embrace and joins in, he throws himself to the floor, strokes the dog, kisses his snout, his ears. Mario says something to him but it’s no use, he doesn’t even respond. He approaches and tries to pick him up. He can’t, the old man pushes him away, insisting on saying goodbye in this manner. As if searching for instructions, confused, he looks at us (the only one who seems to have kept some remnant of childhood is Mario, with his still-vigorous body, ready and willing, cheeks closely shaved). Neither Juan nor I say anything. Meanwhile, the animal’s breathing slows down. I’m sorry, Dad murmurs, I’m sorry, little one, but he refuses to cry. A quiet afternoon, three brothers together after long separation, the father of the three lying next to a dog that may already be dead. Juan looks at me. I suddenly realize that behind the bags under his eyes, his unkempt beard, behind his silence . . . I want to talk to you, he says.
I’m getting a divorce, I’m considering a divorce, I think I want a divorce. We’re in the car, the dog in a bag on the back seat. I stay silent, again, thinking that he hasn’t chosen the best moment to announce this. Why? I ask. The relationship isn’t working any more, we don’t love each other much any more. His hesitation, the awkward oscillations of his voice, and the almost imperceptible quiver of his chin, which hasn’t been visible in years, make me suspect that he isn’t telling me everything, that he’s hiding his true motives. I think of those streets, of that city, of the cafes she could be entering. I recall the way she smokes. You two, who loved each other so much, I say. Yes, us. It starts to get dark, I accelerate. Do you know the place well? Yes, we’re close. Juan won’t ask about her because he doesn’t know anything, because I never told him much, he thinks she was just one more in my life, toward the end of the list. I look at the bag on the back seat through the rear-view mirror, it seems to be moving. I turn on to a dirt road and slow the car. Is there something you’re not telling me? I want to be able to hear him think, to hear the thoughts of everyone around me. It would be terrible, almost as terrible as reading the emails your girlfriend’s lover writes to her, but I still wanted to. I still want to. The lies, having made me forget, would have . . . Nothing, says Juan, the relationship is worn out and neither of us is prepared to force the issue. The same old story, he says, don’t look for anything sophisticated in it. I stop the car and turn the engine off, there’s very little light left. We go out, take the shovels, and start to dig.
Nobody says anything at dinner. Alone, irrevocably alone, and even more so when we remember or imagine or dream, or when we love from afar, without saying so. Juan will not mention his imminent divorce. Mario has already exhausted all his resources and is also slightly drunk. Dad was never much of a talker.
i don’t like that ending. (i never know where to stop. that is to say: i’m not a good writer . . .) i don’t like a narrator who is so hard to see. i’m going to rewrite the whole story. tomorrow or later on today, directly on the machine.
but i read it to her anyway. she said she was proud of me. then she yawned. and smiled. and said: bet you don’t know how to do this. and she made herself cross-eyed for several seconds. i missed her already even though she was half a metre away. i told her i wanted to read her new stories. she said: i ate them all. i seasoned them with olive oil and ate them.
Emily Davis: What was the first thing you ever wrote?
Rodrigo Hasbún: In my adolescence I was a guitarist in a grunge band. In the beginning we did only covers of songs we liked, but little by little we started leaving them behind and we began to write our own songs. So the first things I ever wrote were songs, sometimes with my friends, sometimes on my own. At that time I was sure that I was going to dedicate my life to music. But a few years later, when it was going pretty well for us, it was time for some of us to go off to school and a short time later we couldn’t handle the rhythm of our double lives and the band broke up. Surely we didn’t have what it took. I was seventeen and from one day to the next, without realizing it, maybe to protect myself from everything I felt I was losing, I started reading more and more seriously and also keeping a sort of diary and, in that diary, I wrote my first stories. As had happened before with our first songs, they were unintentional versions of what I was reading.
ED: Who are some writers who have influenced you?
RH: Sort of continuing with what I was saying earlier, I feel that my true formation as a writer came through music. The possibility of a more sensory experience, that exalts or moves you with the rhythm and atmospheres it creates, is something that music offers in such a natural way and I’ve tried to keep it present when I write. Later I was drawn to writers and filmmakers who were tremendous in that sense. I am thinking of Onetti and Saer, of Bolaño, Coetzee and Tóibin, Cheever. And also Cassavetes and Godard, Béla Tarr, the Dardenne brothers, Wong Kar-Wai. I admire every one of them unconditionally. But that, unfortunately, does not mean that they have influenced my writing or that I have learned enough from them.
ED: Do you have a favorite writer from among the others on the Granta list?
RH: I really like what several of the writers are doing, but if I had to choose just one, I would say Alejandro Zambra, whom, significantly, Alberto Olmos and Patricio Pron also mentioned when you asked them this same question. There is in him and in his books an honesty that is very easy to lose over the years—the urgency of a poet, a young poet to whom nothing matters except poetry—as well as a very generous and pleasant sensibility belonging to extraordinary writing.
ED: What are you working on now?
RH: Until just recently I was working with Martín Boulocq, one of my closest friends (he was the drummer in the band), on the latest short film that we co-wrote together. It’s called Los viejos and it will premiere next year, a long time after the project began. And now I am revising and correcting the stories for my next book, Los días más felices, which will also come out next year.
ED: Do you do some other artistic activity besides writing?
RH: Without meaning to, I’ve already answered this question somewhat. I am always flirting with film and I want to continue doing things in that field. And someday I would love to be in a band again, not to play live or to record, but just to get together once or twice a week and, for a few hours, travel together back to adolescence.
ED: And as a new resident of western New York myself, I have to ask, how do you like all that snow in Ithaca?
RH: Personally I love it. Particularly if it’s on the other side of the window, while I sit in some café with a bottomless cup of coffee.
Boom. The “22 Days of Awesome” are now officially over.
Don’t forget to subscribe to Granta, and thanks.
As we mentioned a few Fridays ago, we’ve been highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. Today is the penultimate post in this series. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.
Today we’re featuring Argentine author Samanta Schweblin, whose “Olingiris” was translated for this issue by Daniel Alarcon. And for the record, Emily Davis wrote this and conducted the interview.
Samanta Schweblin, born in Argentina in 1978, has published two books of short stories: El núcleo del disturbio (2002, winner of the National Fund for the Arts prize and the Haroldo Conti National Competion) and Pájaros en la boca (2008, winner of the Casa de las Américas Prize). In 2008 she was awarded a CONACULTA artist-in-residence scholarship to begin working on her first novel in Oaxaca, Mexico. Her stories have been translated into English, German, French, Portuguese, Italian, Serbian and Swedish, and she has a degree in film from the University of Buenos Aires.
Her new story, “Olingiris,” is one of the most tightly-crafted as well as one of the most oddly chilling (or is it chillingly odd?) in the Granta issue. It has definitely stuck with me since I first read it, and it led me to her own website to get a taste of some of her other stories. There you’ll find a handful of samples in Spanish (I recommend “En la estepa” in particular, though I may be biased by a long-standing, somewhat inexplicable, attraction to the steppe as a setting in general) as well as a link to the super-weird-in-a-good-way “Preserves,”:http://wordswithoutborders.org/article/preserves/ an English translation by Joel Streicker courtesy of Words Without Borders.
We were able to ask her a few questions about learning to write, being featured in Granta, and seeing her work translated. Her answers are below, followed by a short excerpt from “Olingiris,” translated by Daniel Alarcón.
Emily Davis: You studied film at the University of Buenos Aires. What effect might that background have on your writing style?
Samanta Schweblin: I am convinced that I learned much more about how to tell a story by writing screenplays and working in the editing room than I ever could have learned majoring in literature at the University of Buenos Aires. In general, the “literary” majors do not have much to do with the craft of writing, which is a much more practical and personal journey. As a writer I feel much closer to an artisan than to a professional, so I can’t see how academic degrees could help one to write.
ED: Where did the desire to be a writer come from?
SS: First, from reading. Then, from the enthusiasm that came of discovering that writing stories could excuse me from schoolwork that I didn’t want to do, make my mother cry, or make me stand out from the rest of my friends. I found that it was a good escape mechanism, but also a weapon that allowed me to do things my way, and by the time I came to realize it there was no other way to do it.
ED: What writers have influenced you?
SS: In my early writings, Kafka, Beckett, Buzzati, Dostoyevsky, with them I completely fell in love with literature. Later, the North American line in the tradition of Hemingway, O’Connor, Faulkner, Ballard and the more contemporary Salinger, Donleavy, Cheever, Vonnegut, Yates . . .
ED: Do you have a favorite writer among the others on the Granta list?
SS: I haven’t yet been able to read all of them. But for example, besides the Argentines—all of whom I already knew and had read—I was nicely surprised by Rodrigo Hasbún and Carlos Yushimito.
ED: What does it mean to you to be named by Granta one of the best young writers in Spanish?
SS: I bought my first issue of Granta when I was fifteen or sixteen years old, when the idea of “being a writer” was for me not even a sensible possibility in my mind, and I remember having read in those pages authors like Martin Amis, or Alice Munro, great authors that I continue to admire as masters. Therefore to now be a part of one of their issues is a great satisfaction, and a great responsibility as well. Maybe it’s for that reason that it’s something I prefer not to think about too much.
ED: Your stories have been translated into several languages. Do you sometimes collaborate with your translators? What opinion do you have in general toward translation—what does the act of translation do for—or against—the original work?
SS: So far it has been a good experience. But in my case, since I don’t speak other languages besides a very rudimentary English, it is a question of subjective perception, more associated with feedback that comes to me on the published translations, than with the process of translation itself. There are translators who question everything, they question and requestion so much, that I have found myself with problems or errors that would not have happened otherwise. There are others who, suspiciously, do not ask a single question. I believe that a translation will always be a rewriting as well. This is something somewhat complicated for a writer to accept. But half of what I read is in translation, and still through them—though in some more than others, of course—I can see clearly the hand of one author or another. So I close my eyes, pray for a good translator, and hope that the reader can sense something of that.
ED: What are you working on now?
SS: I am moving forward with a new book of stories, I believe it will be ready by next year.
There was space for six. One was left outside, in the waiting room. She walked in circles about the space. It took her a moment to realize she’d have to stifle her eagerness until the next day, or the next, or until they called her again. It wasn’t the first time this had happened to her. The ones who entered climbed the white stairs to the first floor. None of them knew the others particularly well. They stepped into the changing room in silence. They hung up their purses, they took off their coats. They took turns washing their hands, and took turns as well fixing their hair before the mirror, tying it back in a ponytail, or with a headband. All friendliness and silence; grateful smiles and gestures. They’ve thought of this all week. While they worked, while they looked after their children, while they ate, and now they are there. Almost inside, almost about to begin.
One of the Institute’s assistants opens the door and invites them in. Inside, everything is white. The walls, the shelves, the towels rolled into tubes lying one on top of the other. The gurney, in the centre. The six chairs surrounding it. There’s also a fan above, whirling smoothly, six silver tweezers lined up on a towel atop a wooden stool, and a woman lying on the gurney, face down. The six women settle into the chairs, three on each side, arranging themselves around the woman’s legs. They wait, observing the body, impatient, not quite knowing what to do with their hands, as if before a table, with dinner set, but unable to begin. The assistant hovers about, helping them push their seats even closer. Then she gives out the hand towels and, one by one, the six tweezers from the stool. The woman on the gurney remains still, with her face down. She is nude. A white towel covers her from the waist to the middle of the legs. She has her head buried in her crossed arms, because it is appropriate that no one should see her face. She has blonde hair, a thin body. The assistant turns on the fluorescent light, a few metres above the bed, which brightens the room and the woman even more. When the light flickers a bit, the woman on the gurney shifts her arms almost imperceptibly, readjusting herself, and two of the women observe this slight movement with reproach. When the assistant gives the signal to begin, the women fold their hand towels in four and place the small cloth square before them, on the gurney. Then some of them push their chairs even further forward, or rest their elbows, or fix their hair one last time. And they get to work. They raise the tweezers above the woman’s body, quickly choosing a strand of hair, and then bring them down open, with purpose. They tweeze, they close, they toss. Each dark follicle emerges perfect and clean. They study it for a second before leaving it on the towel, and they go for the next one. Six seagull beaks pulling fish from the sea. The hair on the tweezers fills them with pleasure. Some do the work to perfection. The full hair hangs from the tweezers, orphaned and useless. Others struggle a bit with the task, making more than one attempt before they manage it. But nothing deprives them of the pleasure. The assistant circles the table. She takes care that they’re all comfortable, that all have what they need. Every now and then, a pull, a pinch, provokes a slight trembling of the legs. And so the assistant halts and turns her gaze to the woman on the gurney. She curses the fact that the rules of the Institute require that they be face down; with their faces hidden, it’s impossible to scold them with a glare. But she has her notebook, which she removes from her apron pocket, jotting down all excesses. The woman on the gurney hears the screech of the rubber sandals when they stop abruptly. She knows what that means. A point deducted, a demerit. Sooner or later they’ll add up and be docked from her pay. Her legs are filling with little pink dots. By now they barely tremble, because the tweezers have numbed her irritated skin, now only vaguely aware of a light burning.
When the woman on the gurney was ten years old, she lived with her mother near the river. It was an area which sometimes flooded, forcing them to move to her aunt’s, who lived a few metres higher, in a house on stilts. Once, when the woman on the gurney was doing her homework in her aunt’s dining room, she saw through the window a fisherman skulking around her house, her mother’s house. He had come on a boat, which he tied to some trees. A pair of high boots protected him from the water, which rose almost to his knees. She saw him disappear along one side of the house and reappear on the other. He peeked through the windows. But at no point did he knock on the door or the glass. When the mother saw him, she gestured for him to come in. The woman on the gurney could see them as long as they stayed near the window. Her mother offered him hot tea and they sat at the table. Then they moved away. When the woman on the gurney returned from her aunt’s house, they spoke of the trips he took, of his work as a fisherman, of the river. He offered to take her out fishing the next day. Because it was the season of floods and there was no school, her mother said it was all right. He took the woman on the gurney to where the river opened into the lake. At that point the boat hardly moved, advancing smoothly along the mirrored water, and she was less and less afraid. It was then she realized she was a little cold, and a little hungry. Day was just beginning to dawn. The fisherman prepared his rod, hooked his bait and began to work. She asked if her mother had prepared them something for breakfast, but the fisherman hushed her and gestured for quiet. Then she asked if he had an extra jacket in the boat. The fisherman hushed her again.
‘Are you my father?’ she asked finally.
The fisherman stared at her for a moment and it occurred to her to smile. But he said: ‘No.’
And they did not speak again.
The mother of the woman on the gurney always wanted her daughter to study and move to the city. She demanded her daughter get good grades and was sure to warn her that if she didn’t work hard now, then she’d pay for it when she was older – and dearly. The woman on the gurney studied. She did everything her mother told her. The school was two kilometres from the house, and she went by bicycle. When it flooded, they read her the homework by telephone. In high school she learned typing, English, a little computing. One afternoon as she was returning home, her bicycle chain broke. The woman on the gurney fell to the mud, ruining the notebooks she carried in her basket. A young man driving a pickup truck along the road saw her fall, drew level with her and got out to help. He was very kind. He gathered her notebooks, which he cleaned with the sleeves of his coat, and offered to take her home. They carried the bicycle in the back of the pickup. They talked a little along the way. She told him what she was studying, that she was preparing to move to the city. He seemed interested in everything she said. He wore a very thin gold chain with a small cross hanging from his neck. She thought it was lovely. She did not believe in God, nor did her mother, but something about the young man made her think her mother would like him. When they arrived, she asked him to come round later, to eat with them. He seemed delighted by the idea, but said: ‘I leave for work soon. I’m a fisherman.’ He smiled. ‘Can I come tomorrow?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I don’t think tomorrow is a good idea. I’m sorry.’
The woman on the gurney was twenty years old when she came to the city. She was pleased to see that the houses were not built on stilts, which ruled out floods and fishermen. The city seemed warm, and it made her woozy during those first days. On Sundays she called her mother and told her a few things about her week. Sometimes she lied. She didn’t do it maliciously; she did it to pass the time. She told her mother that she’d gone out with new friends. Or that she’d gone to the movies. Or that she’d had something very tasty in a neighbourhood restaurant. Her mother loved to hear these stories, and sometimes she could hardly wait to hang up and call her sister, so that she might hear the stories too.
The woman on the gurney had some savings and had signed up for a technical degree. But the cost of food, rent and tuition was very high, and soon she had to interrupt her studies and look for a job. One afternoon when she was buying bread, a woman at the store, with whom she sometimes shared her problems, said she had a job for her. She said she’d earn more money, and have time to study. The woman on the gurney wasn’t dumb. She knew the work might be something unpleasant that no one else wanted to do, or something dangerous. But she said that, as long as there was no obligation, she’d be interested to see what it was all about.
The woman from the store took her by car to a nearby avenue, and stopped in front of a two-storey building with a sign on it that read ‘Institute’. Inside there was a confused gathering of women. One of them, wearing a peach-coloured uniform which also read ‘Institute’, asked the women to reorganize themselves into a line and threatened that anyone out of line would lose her turn. The women quickly queued up. Another woman in a suit recognized the woman from the store and immediately came up to them. She ushered them into an adjoining room and asked the woman on the gurney to fold up the cuffs of her trousers so she could see the downy hair on her legs. The woman on the gurney thought for a moment she’d misunderstood the request. But the woman repeated it. And then she thought it was ridiculous, and that this surely was not a job for her. However, she did not see any danger in showing her hair, so she rolled up her trouser legs and showed them. The woman in the suit put on her glasses and studied the tiny hairs, illuminating them with a small flashlight she kept in her pocket. She scrutinized the ankle where the hairs were not yet strong, and also the calf. Only when she appeared to be convinced it would work did she explain what the job consisted of, the general terms and the pay. The woman on the gurney didn’t know what to say. Because the work was very simple, the schedule acceptable and the pay excellent. Her mother had toldher so much about the scams in the city that she forced herself to concentrate on where the danger or the lie might be hidden. But everything still seemed perfect to her. And she accepted.
As we mentioned a few Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 3 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 we’re featuring Spanish author Sonia Hernandez. Samantha Schnee translated her story “The Survivor” for this issue.
Since Samantha Schnee is one of the founding editors of Words Without Borders, and the translator of Sonia Hernandez’s “The Survivor,” makes this as good a post as any to point out that Words Without Borders is maybe the best place to visit for more stories from Spanish-language novelists. I’m pretty sure any and every person reading this is already familiar with their site, but in case you’re not, it’s worth noting that WWB is fricking awesome. Not just for their new content (a new issue comes out every month), but for their extensive archive, which becomes more and more impressive all the time as these authors move from being discovered by WWB, to getting U.S. book deals, to becoming cult and cultural phenomenons. And the WWB archive can be searched and sorted in dozens of ways, including by country.
Sonia Hernandez is featured on the Granta website where she talks about the writers she currently admires (James Joyce, Italo Svevo, Enrique Vila-Matas, Melania G. Mazzucco and Siri Hustvedt), her literary criticism, and her sort of adverse relationship to the Internet:
Do you have your own web page?
No – I find it dangerous how easy it is for writings from the personal sphere or literary gossip can become published on the Internet.
Yes, yes it is easy. And dangerous. But anywho . . .
That same link also has a very short piece by Stewart O’Nan about Hernandez’s story:
“The Survivor“’s a funny story, and I don’t mean just comic, something that made me laugh as I found myself agreeing with its logic, though I did that more and more the deeper I got into it, but funny in the way it’s put together, that initial metaphysical heaviness – since we’re talking about existence and its lack of meaning – giving way as the narrator goes from person to person like Chekhov’s sadsack hack driver, trying to find someone close to him who finds his life of value, to the running cosmic joke, at once pathetic and terrifying, that he might as well have died, or perhaps not even lived (his great achievement providing affordable couches for the asses of Spain). It’s a tale of dis-ease that leaves the reader chuckling uneasily. We’ve survived it, yes, but now we have to do something with the rest of our lives.
And to give you a taste, here’s the opening:
I should have died six years ago. On 16 July 1999. That’s what Dr Castro said. A medical doctor. Marisa, my wife, was with me and she stared furiously at the doctor, as if the woman said I had been dead for six years. Perhaps that’s what she actually said, and I misheard her. My mind went blank. There were a few seconds of silence, like those moments of uncertainty when you awaken in someone else’s bed. In a way, I was awakening to a life that wasn’t mine.
Dr Castro half smiled. She’s a rather unfortunate woman, physically: too skinny, a sharp nose, large but glassy eyes. News like that should come from a more attractive woman, or a man, a corpulent, taciturn physician who would leave no room for doubt. ‘What I mean is that you’re very fortunate,’ she added. I’m very lucky, according to my physician.
After a few more instructions about my upcoming endoscopy and prescribed echocardiogram, we left her office. Marisa began to babble nervously, on the brink of a hysterical outburst, the kind she usually has when things don’t go as she’s planned. For a moment, I felt guilty; this vague, confusing terrain where Dr Castro had dumped me was a great inconvenience to our life together, a life which had cost us so much effort to build. I supposed that for Marisa it must have been a huge problem, not to know whether or not her husband had died, or worse, not to understand why I hadn’t died according to plan on 16 July 1999.
Suddenly, I realized that the logorrhoea, the rhetoric, the flattery and the timid reproaches that poured forth from my wife upon exiting the doctor’s office were nothing more than words intended to fill my mind – my immediate memory – to prevent me from dwelling on that strange diagnosis which had made me into a rebellious patient. My other memory – the mediate, or deep, or whatever it’s called – was different. There the lights were still off, that sense of strangeness of a hotel bed, the descent into an abyss – they weren’t melodramatic but made no sense. Marisa was livid about the doctor’s lack of tact, and repeated her rather pragmatic question, ‘Why on earth would she tell you that now? The accident and the operation belong to a very difficult chapter in our lives, why would she want to torment us with the possibility of what might have happened?’ Few people survive an accident like the one I had and, according to Dr Castro, no one survives an operation with complications like that.
Marisa decided that after the visit with the doctor, I wasn’t fit to go to the factory, so we went home and let the day run its normal course. I went to Pepe’s bar for a while, spoke with the regulars and put a coin or two into the slot machine, nothing special. I thought about telling everyone what the doctor had told me, to see how they’d react, but I stopped myself because it would have legitimized the joke she made at my expense. It was later that night, as we were watching television, that I began to think about the past six years, a gift of sorts from Providence, God, science, chance or my body. I realized that the whole time, I had been living irresponsibly. It’s a fact that after the operation Dr Cabrol, the surgeon, had said the situation was touch and go. And the days in the ICU were nothing but a fog, followed by a convalescence in our apartment in Altea before returning to real life in September. I went back to work against doctors’ orders because at the time I was indispensable at the factory. After years of toil and misery, we had finally managed to become one of the main sofa manufacturers, and I couldn’t leave everything hanging, especially after my brother Ramón had washed his hands of the business, more concerned with discovering Taoism and the truth of Zen. Returning to work was the first of my mistakes. For some strange reason, my body insisted on continuing to function; in other words, I had been given what’s called a new lease on life, and I wasted it among feathers, foams and wooden frames.
Aaaannnddd, if you’ve missed it the first 17 times, by subscribing to Granta today you’ll receive this issue—a 324-page trip through the minds and words of 22 of today’s best Spanish-language novelists—totally free. A $16.99 value!
As we mentioned a few Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 4 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 we’re featuring Colombian author Andres Felipe Solano. An excerpt from his new novel—“The Cuervo Brothers”—was translated by Nick Caistor for this issue.
In the end, I wonder if the Shavelzon Agency will be the big winner of all this Granta publicity. They represent a few of the featured authors, including Andres Neuman, Pola Oloixarac, and Andres Felipe Solano. (They also represent both Manuel Puig and Juan Jose Saer, which are two reasons why I love them. That and their brochures and catalogs are as slick as sin.)
Solano has an interesting backstory (don’t all these authors?): Back in 2007 he lived in one of the diciest neighborhoods in Medellin and worked in a factory for six months. (Which reminds me of the book Mark Binelli is writing about Detroit, except for the whole “working in a factory” bit. I think the image of Mark working in a factory will keep me in giggles all day . . .) He converted this experience into an essay entitled “Seis meses con el salario minimo” (which can be translated either as “Six Months at Minimum Salary” or “FML: Minimum Wage Is a Racket!”) that was a finalist for the prize awarded by the Fundacion Nuevo Periodismo Iberoamericano, chaired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. (If you’re interested, you can read the entire essay here.) Solano also had a six-month literary residence in Seoul, where he met his wife. Which is sweet.
The excerpt from his novel in progress is pretty intriguing and exemplifies a lot of ways to pull a reader in—bit of a mystery, unfounded rumors, unfounded mysterious sex rumors.
The Cuervo brothers claimed to have been transferred from a school whose name we had never heard of. The older one started in the second year, a class below me. The younger one joined in the last year of primary school. From the very first week there were all kinds of stories about them. As the months went by, these grew like the number of bullfrogs in the rainy season. During these holidays, I’ve classified them all in a notebook. Going over them carefully, I’ve established four categories:
As was to be expected, the first rumour spread about them was that they were queer. Gay as butterflies, but not very brightly coloured. Brown or perhaps black, those with just a flash of yellow or aquamarine blue. When we started having girlfriends, my best friend Diego told me that one night, after seeing Alien 3 with María Adelaida in the Embajador, he caught sight of the older brother selling himself on the corner of the Terraza Pasteur shopping mall. He got into a green jeep in a parking lot and began sucking off an old guy who looked like a military man. While he was face down, the guy was playing with his false teeth, or so Diego said, without the trace of a smile. The wildest story in this category was about their bodies. According to the person telling it (I can’t remember now who that was), the brothers were born hermaphrodites, and someone saw them binding up their breasts in a toilet before a PE class. After that we got on to their families. As soon as we learned they lived on their own with their grandmother, crime was added to the sex stories we swapped during break time. The worst of these concerned the double life their mother had lived. She had been a high-class whore, but their father found out when they were only little and slit her throat. He was in Gorgona prison, and had five years left to serve of his sentence. When he got out, he was going to reclaim them, and would kill everyone who had made fun of them. I remembered, though, that in a history class once, we had been told the island prison of Gorgona had been closed in 1977, when the only inmates left were poisonous snakes.
The sinister stories all started with a melodramatic incident. At first there was a rumour they had escaped from an orphanage south of the city. The wealthy spinster they were now living with helped them run away one night through a drainage pipe, and took them to live in one of the 1940s mansions that still survived in the neighbourhood around the school. Most of them had been pulled down or converted into car workshops, but the house where the Cuervos lived was just as it had always been, with its lofty English appearance. Others said they were her legitimate grandsons, flesh of her flesh, but that every weekend she chained their hands and feet, locked them in the basement, and only gave them wheat broth and stale bread to eat. That’s why they smelled so badly when they came to school on Mondays, it was said. The most dreadful aspect of the whole thing was imagining them having to eat that thick soup, that slimy gruel we all hated when it was served up in the school canteen. Some boys even said the dungeon they were kept in communicated directly with the basements in Avenida Jiménez, the ones near the spot where Gaitán was killed, and that his real killer had escaped through them. I myself invented the rumour that the younger one suffered from a strange illness which meant he could only see in black and white, and that was why his eyes were wrinkled like prunes. Nobody liked that one. So I invented a syndrome which gave him convulsions and made him clasp his balls if he spent too long in the open air. That explains why he never plays football, I said, to clinch the argument.
[. . .]
One of the more sinister rumours had it that when the drug traffickers began exploding car bombs, the brothers used to go to the scene of the explosion and take photos of the burned-out wrecks, the buildings with shattered windows, the mutilated, wounded, and even of the dead bodies. Although no one at school ever saw these photos, I discovered them one evening when they left me alone in their second-floor library. They had classified them in different folders. There were some of the bomb at the El Espectador newspaper office, and the DAS security headquarters, others of the one in the Quirigua neighbourhood, or at the Carulla supermarket on 127th Street in 1990, close to my auntie’s house. I remember that last one very well. It was a Sunday, Mother’s Day. The bomb went off an hour after we bought a cake with confectionery roses on it in the shopping mall where the bombed supermarket was. They also had photos of the bomb at the 93 Centre. It was dreadful to imagine them catching a bus to the scene of the explosion, then standing there in the midst of the tragedy, calmly taking photos. I calculate that when the DAS bomb went off they must have been thirteen and fifteen, if that. And now I come to think of it, when the school put into practice an evacuation plan in case of an attack – the son of an army officer who was at loggerheads with a drug baron was studying with us – the Cuervo brothers started carrying gas masks in their satchels. Diego and I saw them and asked where they had got them. They said their grandmother had bought the masks in the flea market. As extravagant as ever, Zorrilla assured everyone they must have belonged to their grandfather.
The first time I went to their house, the grandmother received me in a small reception room that was obviously for brief, informal visits.
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As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 5 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 Granta author is Spanish author Javier Montes. The opening of his new novel “The Hotel Life” was translated by superstar Margaret Jull Costa for this issue.
OK, the “fun wintertime weather” of Rochester has been replaced by mountains of snow and slipping cars and interminable delays getting into the office. Oh, and zero degree nights. People now resemble nondescript bundles, and the idea of walking anywhere to get sustenance and coffee seems as mentally daunting as climbing a mountain, or traveling through the Canadian tundra.
In addition to suffering this “wintry mix,” I’ve spent about an hour resetting every password I can think of since my email account and password were released and compromised thanks to that Gawker hack thing. UGH. The simplicity of using the same password at all accounts has been replaced by unique digit and symbol combinations that resemble the inside of a schizophrenic’s mind.
So, these two things have left me a bit cranky, a lot behind, and having to half phone this post in . . . (Excuses, excuses.)
Javier Montes’s “The Hotel Life” is one of my favorite pieces in here. It’s not the most experimental (also a big fan of the Hasbun, which will be highlighted next week) or the most daring, but in its direct simplicity and creepy moments, it’s a memorable, interesting opening (?) to his “novel in progress.”
First though, here’s a bit about Montes himself: According to Granta, he’s a writer, translator, and art critic. (Here are some pieces from Letras Libres.) He won the Jose Maria Pereda Prize for his first novel, Los penultimos, and just published another, Segunda parte. (Nice. Those are titles I can approve of.) Together with Andres Barba, he received the Anagrama Essay Prize for the book La ceremonia del porno. (And the list of awesome titles continues.) He’s done other things with Barba, including editing an anthology of stories entitled After Henry James. (Again.)
About “The Hotel Life”: I’m going to include to excerpts below, the opening which sets the tone about the narrator deciding to write a review of a local hotel, and then a part of the creepy-odd moment when he gets to his room.
HOTEL IMPERIAL, 17 March
I took only one light suitcase with me, although it was such a short journey that I could easily have taken more and heavier luggage if I’d wanted. Ten blocks, or 1.132km according to the electronic receipt from the taxi. There was so much traffic, though, that it took me twenty minutes. No one said goodbye to me or closed the apartment door behind me, no one came with me, still less followed in my tracks. I was, however, expected at my destination, and the room where I was to spend the night had been reserved in my name. I live so close to the hotel that it really would have been quicker to walk, but I decided to hail a taxi so as to get the journey off to a good start. However short, it was still a journey, and I wanted to show that I was taking it seriously (but then I’ve always taken both my work and my journeys seriously; they do, after all, come to more or less the same thing).
Or perhaps the opposite was true, perhaps it was a matter of being capable of a certain playfulness too, when required. I’ve spent half my life moving from hotel to hotel, but this was the first time I would sleep in one in my own city. That’s why I finally agreed to do it when the newspaper called and suggested the Imperial. I think we were all surprised when I did.
‘They’ve finished the refurbishment now and have just sent us their new publicity pack.’
Initially, I refused. They know I never write about new hotels.
‘But this isn’t a new hotel. It’s the same old Imperial. They’ve just given it a facelift.’
I don’t like new hotels: the smell of paint, the piped music. And I distrust the refurbished variety. Any ‘facelift’ destroys the prestige and character which, in older establishments, are the hotel equivalent of good sense and even sentiment, or, at least, of memory. I don’t know that I’m much of a sentimentalist myself, but I do have a good memory. And I’ve noticed that, after a certain age, sentiment and memory tend to merge, which is probably why I prefer hotels that know how to remember.
I long ago agreed my terms with the newspaper. I choose the hotel of the week, and they pay. Cheap or expensive, near or far, undiscovered or famous, and usually just for one night, but sometimes two. No skimping (they skimp quite enough on my fee) and no favours either. I never accept invitations in exchange for a review.
Not even if it’s a bad review, as some either very stupid or very astute PR guy once asked me over the phone.
People in the hotel world know my views, but an awful lot of invitations still get sent to me at the office (I won’t allow the paper to give anyone my home address). I suppose the PR companies send them just in case I do, one day, take the bait, just in case I relent and end up accepting and going to the hotel, where they will treat me like royalty and give me the very best room, so that I will then write a five-star review, which they will frame and hang up in reception or post on their website, and which will bring in money from guests or, even if it doesn’t and even if they don’t need it, will doubtless bring them other things that are sometimes worth as much or more than money: the approval of fellow hoteliers, the warm glow of vanity confirmed, the certainty that they are, as a hotel, on the right track.
My column, I have to say, continues to be a success. And although the people at the newspaper never say as much, so that I don’t get bigheaded, I know that hotels, airlines and travel agencies are queuing up to put a half-page advertisement in my section: ‘The Hotel Life’.
That success is, of course, relative, as is any success in newspapers and in print. Every now and then, someone suggests I start a blog with my reviews. Even the people at the newspaper do so occasionally. It might be fouling our own nest, they say, but if you started a blog and got some advertising on it, you’d make a mint.
I think they’re exaggerating.
‘Besides, you only live around the corner. All you’d have to do is spend a couple of hours there one afternoon to check out what they’ve done.’
Again I refused. They know perfectly well that I don’t write about hotels I haven’t slept in. It would be like writing a restaurant review having only sniffed the plates as the waiters brought them out (of course, my colleague on the next page sometimes does exactly that in his column: ‘Dinner is Served’. He said to me when we met once, ‘I can tell by the smell alone what’s cooking.’ I didn’t take to him, and the feeling, I imagine, was mutual).
‘Well, if that’s what’s bothering you, spend the night there.’
They may have been joking, but I took them at their word. I rather liked the idea of sleeping in a hotel room from which I could almost, you might say, see the windows of my own empty apartment and bedroom. A night of novelty might buck me up a bit. I’ve grown rather jaded with the years; well, I’ve been doing the same job for a long time now. My choice, of course. And I do it reasonably well, I think, possibly better than anyone, to judge by the emails I sometimes get from readers and even the occasional letter written the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, envelope and stamp, and which the newspaper also forwards to me.
The letters always arrive opened. Apparently it’s a security thing, but it seems a bit over the top: I might be somewhat harsh in my comments at times, but not enough to merit a letter bomb. Then again, I don’t mind if the people at the office read them, always assuming they do, because at least the editors will see that I do still have a public.
On the other hand, there’s nothing so very amazing about being better than anyone else at a job for which there’s scarcely any competition. There aren’t many of us hotel reviewers left, not at least in the newspaper world. The Internet is another matter, there everyone wants to give his and her opinion and to analyse their journey down to the last detail and even write as if they were real reviewers (I think some of them copy my style and my adjectives). There’s nothing wrong with that, I suppose. On the other hand, the reviews are never somehow right either: they’re nearly always illintentioned, ill-considered and ill-written by venomous individuals or by just plain weirdos: I mean, I like my work, but I certainly wouldn’t do it for free.
In the end, I gave in, which is presumably what the people at the Imperial were counting on when they tried their luck. The editors were thrilled, so I guess they had some advertising deal going on as well. As usual, they made the reservation in my name. My real name, of course, not the pseudonym I use for my column. The surname on my ID card throws even the sharpest manager or receptionist off the scent and means that I can be just like any other hotel guest. That’s also why I won’t allow my photograph to appear alongside my name, and why I never go to conventions or meetings with colleagues. That’s no great sacrifice, mind: they’re doubtless as dull as the reviews they write. Having no face makes my job much easier and – why deny it? – more amusing too. That way, the whole thing has something of the double agent or the undercover spy about it. A double double agent, because in hotels, no one is ever who they say they are, and who doesn’t take advantage of a stay in a hotel to play detective, however unwittingly?
After all these years of only using my real name to check in, it now seems to me falser than my false name; apart from the people on the newspaper, few people know it, and still fewer – almost no one, in fact – uses it.
The corridor on my floor was empty and silent, as if it were five in the morning. Or as if it were precisely the time it was, because hotels are often very noisy at five in the morning. No employees, no guests. The thick, gluey smell of new carpets. I reached my room door and it took me a while to work out how to put the card in the slot. Finally, the little red light blinked, then turned green. The door gave a kind of wheeze and reluctantly opened a couple of centimetres. Beyond lay a dark area, one of those spaces in hotel rooms that serve as a kind of no-man’s-land and provide the luxury of a square metre with no furniture, no name and no other purpose than that of isolating the bedroom, at least in theory, from any noise out in the corridor.
To my right, the door of the bedroom stood slightly ajar, letting in just enough light for me to see that the door to the bathroom stood wide open. A gleaming tap dripped in the darkness. Before I had a chance to close the main door to the corridor, I heard a voice inside. Like a thief taken by surprise, I instinctively froze, an instinct I had no idea I possessed and which was, besides, entirely misplaced. To my left, in the full-length mirror in the vestibule, something moved. In the reflection, I could make out the inside of the room that the door was preventing me from seeing. I saw a double bed with a beige counterpane that matched the grey light coming in through a window invisible to me.
A girl was sitting on the edge, towards the head of the bed. She was pretty, despite the ridiculous amount of make-up she was wearing. She looked very young. She had on only a bra and panties. Her hair and skin were the colour of the bedspread. Her hands were resting on her lap, and she was staring down at them with a look of utter boredom on her face. She was blowing out her cheeks a little, drumming lightly on the carpet with her feet and sighing scornfully, exaggerating these signs of tedium, like a child pretending to be bored. Out of the corner of her eye she was watching something happening on the part of the bed not reflected in the mirror. She wasn’t alone. The mattress creaked without her having moved a muscle and someone – a man, of course – panted once, twice, three times.
I didn’t know whether to go back out into the corridor or to walk straight in and demand an explanation. Since they clearly couldn’t see me, I took another step forward, my eyes still fixed on the mirror. The girl’s reflection disappeared. On the other side of the bed, with his back to the headboard and to her, I saw a naked boy. He was probably slightly younger than the girl and much darker skinned too. I couldn’t see his face because his head was bent contritely over his chest: I could see only a tense forehead, the beginning of a frown. He was still breathing like someone about to make some great physical effort, and was running his hand over his chest with a strangely insentient, robotic gesture. Then the girl spoke.
‘Get on with it, will you?’
The boy jumped and looked at her as if he had forgotten she was there.
‘All right, all right.’
He again focused on his hand and let it slide slowly down his chest to his navel. He placed it, without much conviction, on his flaccid penis, which he shook a couple of times, like a rattle. Then suddenly a shiver ran through him.
‘It’s too bloody cold in here.’
The girl’s ‘yeah, yeah’ sounded resigned, as if she had said it a thousand times before, as if she had spent her whole life in that room, sitting there in her underpants, listening to people complaining about the cold. I imagined her arching her eyebrows and nodding in mock solemnity, but to check that I was right, I would have had to stop seeing the boy’s face. She must have liked the woman-of-the-world air that her ‘yeah, yeah’ gave her, because she repeated it.
The boy started breathing hard again as he went about his business without success. The girl joined in his next out-breath.
‘I don’t know. Can’t you help?’
‘No, I can’t, I’ve told you already. You have to do it on your own. Then we can fuck.’
‘I can’t get it up.’
‘Well, watch the film then.’
The girl had suddenly adopted the tone of an older sister.
‘Wait, I’ll turn up the volume.’
I heard her feeling for something next to the bed and heard things falling onto the carpet. I didn’t dare change my position in order to be able to see her face again. I was beginning to feel afraid they would discover me there. The idea of marching into the bedroom, pretending to be surprised and asserting my rights had vanished of its own accord. I should have gone down to reception. The truth is, I don’t know if I stayed there because I was afraid of making a noise as I left or because I wanted to see and hear more. It seemed to me that I could safely wait a while longer: if the boy or the girl got up, I would still have time to step out into the corridor and close the door before they saw me.
You can read the rest of this excerpt by purchasing Granta 113. Or, better yet, you can subscribe and receive the issue for free . . . .
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 6 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 Granta author is Argentine author Luisa Puenzo, whose story “Cohiba” was translated by Valerie Miles for this special issue.
Luisa Puenzo is yet another author featured in Granta‘s “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue who is multitalented and working in more than one medium. In addition to writing several novels—including El Nino pez, 9 minutos, La maldicion de Jacinta Pichimahuida, La furia de la langosta, and Wakolda—she’s directed two movies—_XXY_, which won the Critics’ Week Grand Prize, a Goya for the Best Foreign Film, and more than 20 international prizes, and El nino pez, which opened the Panorama section at the Berlin Film Festival and was part of the film festivals in Tribeca and Havana, among elsewhere.
In terms of her films, XXY sounds/looks pretty intense and interesting. Here a short, mysterious synopsis:
XXY is about Alex is a 15-year-old teenager with a secret. Soon after her birth her parents decide to leave Buenos Aires to make a home out of an isolated wooden cabin tucked away in the dunes of the Uruguayan shoreline.
XXY begins with Alex´s parents receiving a couple of friends and their 16-year-old son Álvaro from Buenos Aires. Álvaro´s father is a plastic surgeon who accepted the invitation because of his medical concern for their friend´s daughter. The inevitable attraction between both teenagers forces them all to face their worst fears . . . Rumours are spreading around town. Alex gets stared at as if she were a freak. People´s fascination with her can become dangerous.
And here’s a trailer (with subtitles!):
This interesting interview with Puenzo provides a bit more insight into the literary origins of the movie, what it’s about, etc.
Cinema Without Borders: XXY is a daring and unusual film, what inspired you to make this film?
Lucia Puenzo: XXY is based on a short story called “Cinismo”, from the Argentine writer Sergio Bizzio. From the moment I read that story—the sexual awakening of a young girl who has what doctors call genital ambiguity—I couldn’t take it out of my head. I began to write with that image in my head: the body of a young person with both sexes in the same body. I was especially interested in the dilemma of inevitable choice: not only having to choose between being a man or a woman, but also having to choose between a binary decision and intersex as an identity and not as a place of mere passage.
CWB: How much research was done on the subject before writing the script?
LP: Months of research . . . I worked with doctors, geneticists, teachers, parents of children who were born with different diagnoses of intersexuality, and young adults who had or had not been operated when they were born. The time I lived in Paris, in the Cinéfondation, I contacted Alex Jurgen, a German intersex person who made a documentary of her life (Octopusalarm) in which, after of years of operations and taking hormones to become a man, Alex realizes he will never be merely a man or a woman.
Based on this, it’s not entirely surprising that Puenzo’s short story—“Cohiba”—revolves around a filmmaking workshop run by Garcia Marquez:
At five minutes to ten in the morning, a black car with smoked windows appears like a mirage at the end of the palm-lined road. The ten of us attending the workshop wait in front of the rest of the students, the cameras, the journalists at the bottom of the stairs. There is a rumour going around that this will be the last workshop the maestro teaches. Birri – the school’s director – helps him out of the car. García Márquez emerges sheathed in a blue jumpsuit, cleaning a pair of spectacles that get lost for a moment in Birri’s white beard when they separate from their embrace. Smile for the hyenas, he whispers, giving us hugs in front of the journalists’ cameras. We follow him up a floor, to the classroom. He doesn’t let anyone else in except us. Inside, the microphones are already turned on. Every word is recorded and belongs to the Film School of San Antonio de los Baños. So . . . who has the big idea? García Márquez asks. He’s having fun with us. Or, rather: he’s making fun of us. Your mission is to deliver one good idea, only one, he says, fishing around in his jumpsuit pockets until he finds what he’s looking for: an inhaler. He takes a hit from it and his eyes come back to life. If you don’t have one, then go out and find it. We are intimidated to the point of going mute; when he leaves ten minutes later not one of us has been able to decide yet whether his voraciousness is of the vampire variety or is merely contempt. One thing has become clear: screenwriters, for the maestro, are no more than a breed of lackeys.
So, from the very first day, García Márquez has turned his students into a pack of hunters. The big one is our prey and it can be found anywhere (past, future, fiction, reality). On the second night, standing in the doorway of the theatre, roach hanging from her lips, the Brasileira looks into the darkness and sighs . . . I won’t leave until I find it.
[. . .]
García Márquez is already seated at his desk. The Argentine woman who arrived late, he says. I want today’s big idea. I tell him the story of a student who – for lack of ideas – decides to murder her maestro. He interrupts me immediately (asking for another). There is an exchange of glances. The Brasileira breathes in deeply and explains that she has only a beginning. The maestro smiles: all you need for a story is the beginning. He asks her to speak up, and he zips up his jumpsuit. He’s dressed the same way for four days now, always in a jumpsuit. A blue one the first day, orange the second, brown the third. The fourth one is English racing green. The Brasileira brings the microphone to her mouth and tells the story of a woman who falls in love on her third evening in Havana. She knows the man is hiding something, but it doesn’t matter to her. She would leave everything behind not to lose him. She continues on until the maestro’s snoring interrupts her halfway through a sentence. The worker in charge of taping the workshop presses the pause button. Suddenly, García Márquez opens his eyes, as if the weight of the glances focusing on him were enough to wake him up, and he tells the Brasileira that she has a good beginning. Now she needs an ending.
So no big idea that day. He lets us leave at quarter to one. I spend the next half-hour not being able to leave the bathroom: kneeling at the toilet, vomiting until I’m empty. When I come out, the minibus is taking off for the city, more than a hundred metres down the road. I don’t try to run, my legs are too wobbly. The walk back to the apartment seems to be getting longer and longer. The concrete is burning and disfiguring the landscape. By day, the frogs cede their kingdom to the flies. A car advances behind me at walking pace, keeping a few metres back. The Brasileira is waiting in the doorway in front of me, wearing a sky-blue dress and black sunglasses. Her hair is in a long braid and she’s holding her shoes in her hands. Her smile isn’t directed at me, it’s for the Chevy that is coming up behind me. Cohiba smiles back at us from the other side of the windscreen. The Brasileira doesn’t notice that I am queasy and trembling. She hugs me and moves me towards the car: she wants me to meet him. She opens the back door for me to get in. Cohiba looks at me through the rear-view mirror. He is about to say something when the Brasileira climbs into the front seat and greets him with a kiss on the lips. My friend is coming with us. Cohiba doesn’t say a word. He does a U-turn to go back in the direction of the school. All the windows are open. There is no glass in the rear windscreen. When the car pulls out on to the road, the wind zigzags between one window and the other. The Brasileira shouts so that Cohiba can hear her over the wind and the car’s engine. She tells him her story, that García Márquez says it lacks an ending. Cohiba smiles as if the problem were already resolved. He switches on the radio, puts in a cassette and turns up the volume. He has it up so high it’s impossible to talk.
Aaaannnndddd . . . If you’re not already a subscriber to Granta, you should become one now and receive this special issue for free! (That’s five issues for the price of four. Or, to be more specific, that’s $85 worth of Granta for $46 . . . )
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 7 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.
For today’s update, Emily Davis interviewed Alberto Olmos, whose “Eva and Diego”—the first chapter of his new novel—appears in this issue in Peter Bush’s translation.
Today’s post is brought to you by the number six.
Segovia native Alberto Olmos is one of six Spaniards on the Granta list of Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists. He is also one of six writers on the list who were born in 1975, and he has written six—count ’em, six—novels. At age twenty-three (!) he published his first novel, A bordo del naufragio (1998), which was a finalist for the Herralde Prize. His more recent novels are Así de loco te puedes volver (1999), Trenes hacia Tokio (2006), El talento de los demás (2007), Tatami (2008) and El estatus (2009). He is also the editor of the volume Algunas ideas buenísimas que el mundo se va a perder (2009), compiled from internet-based texts. Olmos taught Spanish and English in Japan for three years. Currently he can be found in Madrid as well as on the interwebs.
He generously agreed to answer some questions about the writers who have most influenced him, technology and contemporary literature, and the effects of the Granta honor.
Emily Davis: What writers have influenced you?
Alberto Olmos: I will name three: the Spanish writer Francisco Umbral has shown me the way of style, in the preoccupation with the sonority of words; Henry Miller clued me in to the fact that one could say anything in a novel, and be aggressive and solipsistic; and William Faulkner will continue always to be the great master of narrative structure, of the zeal to tell a story in a different way.
ED: Do you have a favorite writer from among the others on the Granta list?
AO: To name one, Alejandro Zambra.
ED: Among your novels are the titles Trenes hacia Tokio (2006) and Tatami (2008). Where did your interest in Japan come from? And the experience of having lived in Japan, has it influenced your work in some way?
AO: I believe that a large part of my literary vocation comes from my desire to leave my mark in writing, that is to say, to write autobiography. Because of that, everything that happens to me in life is susceptible to becoming literature. I lived in Japan for three years and it was inevitable that some pages came out of that experience. But nothing is further from my intention than to become one of those authors who only write about a country in which they lived for a short time.
ED: Where did the desire to be a writer originate?
AO: It’s a mystery, but I believe that solitude has created more writers than all the writing schools in the world.
ED: What are you working on now?
AO: I should be reading over the first draft of my new novel; I am somewhat dazed by the reverberations of the Granta list and I am looking for the calm necessary to read my own writing with objectivity.
ED: In “Eva and Diego” the iPod appears as the product itself and also as a symbol of the epoch in which we live. How would you say that technological or consumerist motifs fit into the literature of today? Is it something unique to twenty-first-century literature?
AO: Those motifs (technology, consumerism) will always be current, given that, as we know, Facebook has changed the human species in greater measure than all the literature written in all the world in the last fifty years. It is a shame, but there it is. However, as central themes, consumerism and technology are somewhat out of fashion.
ED: What does it mean to you to have been named one of the best young Spanish-language novelists by Granta?
AO: It’s an important recognition that has given me new encouragement to write. As Cyril Connolly said, the “menopause” of a writer comes at 35 years (my age) and it consists in losing in certain measure the youthful passion for writing, the faith in your own talent and in the talent of readers. In that way Granta has made me about ten years younger.
The current issue of Granta features “Eva and Diego,” the first chapter of Olmos’ new novel and translated by Peter Bush. Here is just a snippet of it to get you interested:
The day I bought my iPod, forty-five people died in a terrorist attack. When an important piece of news breaks, part of my section collaborates with the ‘affected’ section (National or International Affairs, usually); additionally, the Culture pages are reduced in number and, as the one in charge, I’m left with almost nothing to do. I’m bored and look out of the window.
The bombs exploded at 8.56 a.m. in a Madrid shopping centre. They were hidden in the changing cubicles on the women’s clothes floor. Thirty-two victims were women; twelve were children. Only one man died. Several dozen more were injured, in a similar ratio in terms of sex and age to those who had died.
Responsibility for the attack pointed to Arab terrorist groups.
I saw one photo and refused to look at any more. A dummy clad in human flesh. The bomb had completely wrecked one individual’s body and her skin, bones and organs had splattered all over the front half of a dummy.
Journalism is essentially pessimism. I left the office before lunchtime.
To go spending.
I like buying new technology because it takes me quite a long time to realize it is pointless. I read the instructions, hit the keys, connect a cable here and another there, and feel as if I’m confronting a huge mystery I have to solve. And I enjoy it. Then there is no mystery, only a useless gadget I jettison in any old drawer.
I bought my iPod because the sales assistant was very handsome. The shopping centre was strangely devoid of people (or not so strangely: forty-five dead, after all). I’d decided to use the morning to pay Diego a visit, so I opted for the ground floor rather than the sixth. I take less time to buy a microcomputer or PDA than to buy a pair of shoes and the result would be the same.
The sales assistant was very handsome.
I spotted him within five minutes. He was reading a magazine on the counter of his Apple stand. I have thousands and thousands of CDs at home and the last thing I’d have thought of would be to purchase a gadget that would force me to get rid of them all.
I assumed his drive to sell had been deactivated by the lack of customers. The least he could do was offer me a fucking iPod.
I walked past the young man again, much more slowly and nearer this time. He ignored me.
I finally went over to him.
‘Hello,’ I said.
The young man took off his headset (I’d not noticed it) and smiled.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
His mouth was very sweet.
‘How can I be of help, madam?’
‘I’d like one of those.’
I pointed to the most expensive iPod on display. Indeed, I pointed at the price tag, not at the gadget itself.
The sales assistant headed over to the display cabinet. I gave him a good look up and down while he unlocked one of the glass doors.
He turned round and stared at me.
‘What colour would you like, madam?’
Remember: For the next seven business days—through the end of this “22 Days of Awesome” series—you can get a copy of this issue for free by subscribing to Granta..
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 8 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 post is an interview by Emily Davis of Spanish author Elvira Navarro, whose “Gerardo’s Letters” was translated by Natasha Wimmer for this special issue.
Born in Huelva, Spain in 1978, Elvira Navarro has published two novels: La ciudad en invierno (Caballo de Troya, 2007) and La ciudad feliz (Mondadori, 2009). La ciudad feliz won the Jaén Prize for best novel and the Tormenta prize for best new author. She currently teaches writing workshops in Madrid and has an ongoing project called ‘Madrid es periferia’ (Madrid is Periphery) in which she explores the various undefined and marginal spaces of Madrid. Those writings can be found online here. Today we get to hear from the author about the draw of these kinds of spaces, how they relate to her writing, and what inspires her.
Emily Davis: How did you become a writer? Where did the initial desire come from?
Elvira Navarro: I don’t believe that a book can be written from any other place than from the need to express something of yourself that demands the construction of a narrative territory in order to betray oneself as little as possible. It is there where the desire to be a writer resides, and what lights the way to becoming one. When that impulse is transferred to the work it becomes authenticity, a virtue that for me is absolutely necessary, to the point where I abandon books that are well written if I do not find them authentic, that is to say, necessary for those who write them. If a book is dispensable for the author, it will be even more so for the reader.
ED: Where do you get the inspiration for your novels?
EV: From my life, from the dirty corners, and from what I have said in answering the previous question.
ED: What writers have influenced you?
EV: Among recent Spanish narrative, Belén Gopegui is, along with Juan Marsé, the writer who has influenced me the most. I have discovered that certain parts of my writing are close to Cristina Fernández Cubas, but that is a discovery that I made a posteriori. I am pretty devoted to Enrique Vila-Matas and Javier Tomeo. If you had asked me what writer I would have liked to be, I would have chosen Dostoyevsky. And Marguerite Duras seems to me an example of a radical writer and writing: she is always on the verge of being ridiculous, but it ends up being brilliant. I would also cite Ana Blandiana, Julio Cortázar, David Foster Wallace and Coetzee.
ED: Do you believe that it is possible to speak of a national Spanish literature?
EV: Spain, just like any other country, has a tradition (although here it would be better to speak of many traditions), even if in a globalized world it is making less and less sense to attach a [literary] tradition to a geographic or linguistic border.
ED: In addition to your novels you are working on a project called ‘Madrid es periferia’ which is an exploration of the less visible areas of the capital. What is it that attracts you to peripheral spaces in general, and in particular with regards to writing?
EV: It occurs to me something that the painter Antonio López said in an interview, that what inspired him was not the center, but rather the outskirts. When I see a picture of, for example, Paris’s Rive Gauche, Manhattan, or Madrid’s Gran Vía, I can’t help but see a postcard. These are places that are profusely talked about, that embody our current myths, that is to say, they support the narratives that identify us. In that measure, they are overinterpreted, and their legend is set in the realm of History, not of mystery. Overinterpretation can be fruitful for many writers, after all literature does nothing but tell the same story over and over again. However, I can’t put myself into this type of setting; their signifying weight is too heavy for me, and I prefer to go to places that are undefined, with an open plan, peripheral. Sometimes I get the impression that my writing is synonymous with flaneûr, and that the storylines that I cast are an excuse for justifying that my characters travel across certain spaces that tend to go from one urban periphery to another where the city dissolves. I am exaggerating, yes, but not much. Honestly, I don’t know what it is that brings me to explore inhospitable territories; that said, I guess it has to do with the unknown and with possibility and, with relation to the latter, at times I believe that the periphery, that decomposition of the habitable, represents us better, since we are failed city dwellers. Also I think that putting my characters to prowl through godforsaken places or in places that people don’t go is a way of making that territory habitable, converting it into a polis.
And finally, here is the opening to what appears in the Granta issue as “Gerardo’s Letters,” translated by Natasha Wimmer and a part of Navarro’s novel in progress. From the first sentence it is clear that we are dealing with the kind of in-between, uninhabitable space that Navarro describes above, and this setting becomes the frame for what turns out to be an emotionally tumultuous portrait of the relationship between the narrator and Gerardo.
Two roads, separated by half a mile of wasteland, flank the hostel, and I suggest that we cross over to see whether we can find some patch of countryside, but Gerardo says it’s late, we’d better explore the fields.We walk straight ahead until it’s completely dark, and we return guided by the lights of the hostel and the cars. We can’t even see our sneakers, and looking down produces a kind of dread, as if we were about to plunge into the void or step on a nest of scorpions. When we reach the basketball courts I instruct Gerardo to hold my ankles while I do sit-ups. The ground is cold and it’s hard to bend; having Gerardo crouching in front of me, with his head brushing against my knees, begins to seem unpleasant, and I stop at what seems a reasonable limit for a beginner. I feel absurd and it occurs to me that this is the nature of couplehood: the abjection of observing and participating in the other person’s obsessions. Like my sit-ups at ten at night on the dark basketball court of a hostel a mile from Talavera. Maybe there’s something positive about this that I’ve lost sight of, or maybe this foolishness applies only to defunct couples, like me and Gerardo, who claim that everybody else in the world takes such things for granted. ‘You’re crazy,’ he tells me when I try to explain what I mean, and then I feel this craziness of mine as a searing loneliness, even real madness. When I’m with him I lose my sense of judgement, and since Gerardo is the keeper of reason, I suddenly fear that without him I won’t be able to function in the world.
We get to the dining room just as they’re about to put the trays away. It’s not even eleven; we ask an old woman in a net cap why they’re closing so early. The old woman says that if we wanted to eat late we should’ve stayed at a hotel. The menu: shrivelled peas with something that looks like York ham but turns out to be chopped cold cuts, and breaded cutlets in perfect ovals whose greasy coating hides some kind of processed chicken. All I eat are the peas. The chopped meat and the processed chicken are the same pale pink colour. ‘The cutlets are raw,’ says Gerardo. At a big table the girl from last night is talking to three boys of about the same age, who must be the other high-school students. They’ve finished eating, and they’re smoking, flicking their ash on the tray; then they put out their cigarettes in what’s left of the peas. The girl doesn’t look at us.
‘I’m going to shower,’ I tell Gerardo as we enter the room. I takemy robe, toiletry bag and flip-flops out of my duffel bag, and whenI’m about to open the door Gerardo says:
‘You can get undressed here. I won’t touch you.’
I undress with my back to him. I’m conscious of his efforts to communicate his lust; it registers as a disagreeable weight on the back of my neck that makes me get tangled up in my trousers and fall down. I stand up and leave wearing my robe over my bra and T-shirt. Fortunately the hot water works and I stand under the shower head, which spits out water in fits and starts, until my fingers are wrinkled and the bathroom mirror is steamy. I don’t want to go back to the room; I pace back and forth, opening the doors of the shower stalls, where those little black bugs that seem to inhabit every dank place collect. I make a racket with the doors and stir up the bugs; a whole swarm ends up flying around the mirror, which is dripping with water. My feet are cold and I decide to get in the shower again, but the sides of the stalls are covered with insects now and I don’t have the strength to shoo them away. I go back to the room. Gerardo is lying in bed masturbating, with his pants around his ankles. He doesn’t look at me. I gather up my clothes as fast as I can and, trailing the cord of the hairdryer, I leave the room before he comes.
I return to the bathroom; the insects have retreated to the nooks and crannies of the showers and are now undetectable. I’m afraid there won’t be any outlets; if there aren’t, I can go to the TV room and dry my hair there. I imagine the four high-school students sprawled on the vinyl sofas, watching a celebrity survival show.
Asking the high-school students for permission to make a noise with my hairdryer while they watch their show doesn’t seem very appealing; and yet I’m determined not to go back to the room, even if Gerardo thinks the creepy gnome of a hostel manager has chopped me into bits and stuffed me in the pool-bar freezer. This is a good moment for us to break up once and for all: at six in the morning, while he’s asleep, I’ll go up for my duffel bag and call a taxi. A break-up plan like this might be out of the question for another couple without involving the police and having the hostel searched for the vanished loved one; but Gerardo and I have become accustomed to bad behaviour and extravagant gestures. If I decide to spend the day hanging upside down from a tree, he’ll leave me there, though he might tell me twenty times that I’m a nut. This is another one of the things that, until a year ago, made leaving him unthinkable, because I hate normal life, and in some sense and despite the awfulness, with Gerardo I seem to be safe from a certain kind of normality. With him, through the process of taking everything to the limit – rage, contemplation, disgust – I attain a kind of exasperated life and I’m convinced that this exasperation must violently propel me somewhere.
You can read this complete short story—and 21 more—in the new issue of Granta, which you can receive for free by subscribing now.
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 9 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 we’re looking at Uruguayan author Andres Ressia Colino, whose “Scenes from a Comfortable Life” was translated by Katherine Silver.
We haven’t talked about this much, but the breakdown of authors included in the Granta special issue is pretty heavily weighted toward Spain and Argentina. To be exact, of the 22 authors included, 8 are from Argentina, 6 from Spain, 2 from both Chile and Peru, and 1 a piece from Bolivia, Mexico, Colombia, and Uruguay. I’m not sure this necessarily means anything, but it’s kind of interesting to notice and to speculate about. (My momentary theory: The vast number of independent small presses in Buenos Aires have helped continue the long, vibrant literary tradition in Argentina. And Spain is just pretty. With lots of interesting things to write about.)
During our Twitter Party last week, there was a bit of conversation about whether to look at authors as belonging to a tradition based on their country or on their language. (Personally, I think authors belong more to a stylistic tradition that is built out of influences from all over the globe, in translation, in their native language, with time delays, coincidences, etc. This is why I like The Delighted States so much.)
I’m not particularly well versed in Uruguayan literature—although I am a huge fan of Juan Carlos Onetti—but reading this piece by Andres Ressia Colino reinforces the belief that literature is not bound by territory. It’s true that some pieces may be more focused on local politics than others, but the way these stories are told (the most important aspect, in my opinion) isn’t necessarily local.
Before excerpting Colino’s work, here’s a set-up from a piece on Granta‘s website by Ben Rice:
The fathers of girlfriends, or wives, are always interesting for male writers. Why? Because they offer a tantalizing and often disturbing insight into what we ourselves might become down the track.
And they seem always to be in a position of power. This is because of their age, their experience and because they have something over us: they have long ago committed to and experienced a long-term relationship with a woman who is a genetic prototype of our own partners. They have been where we have yet to go. [. . .]
In his story “Scenes from a Comfortable Life,” Andrés Ressia Colino explores the ‘meet the parents’ formula. It’s familiar territory, but Colino handles it with originality and subtlety. The father knows exactly what it is to be in the role of the young suitor. And the young man knows he knows. And as the men tinker with cars in the garage, and charge a battery, they are not just male-bonding but partaking in a primitive and rather disturbing ritual.
And here’s the opening section of “Scenes from a Comfortable Life”:
It was on a Sunday afternoon in spring, a family lunch at the house in Carrasco. The servant is clearing up the coffee cups under the watchful gaze of Isabela, Virna’s svelte mother. Bruno, her hefty Teutonic father, interrupts the conversation and turns to me: How would you like to drive the Peugeot? It’s a little old but . . . I hesitate, am astonished, like a child who’s just watched a magic trick he doesn’t understand, as Virna smiles at me, made happy, or rather intrigued, by her father’s noble gesture, and she tries to encourage me to say yes. Moments later we are in the garden watching as the garage door rises and rolls up slowly. We wait a few seconds until Bruno drives out in a white Land Rover Discovery, parks on the side of the driveway, gets out, smiles at us and returns to the garage. Then he brings out an aqua-blue Mercedes-Benz C250. He parks it next to the Discovery and on his way back to the garage motions enthusiastically for me to come join him. Between the two of us, we bring out a blue Yamaha 1800 jet ski on its own trailer, a Zodiac-style inflatable boat and a heavy old Zündapp scooter. Then we move several bicycles, a lawnmower, a ping-pong table and, finally, There it is, Bruno says. The first car I bought when I came to Uruguay. Now let’s see if we can get it started, he adds. It hasn’t been moved for about two years.
We push it outside. Don’t worry, Bruno says, the battery is dead but we can charge it with the Discovery. It then occurs to Isabela that this is a good opportunity to clean the garage floor, and she calls the servant to do it. In the meantime, Virna is looking through some of the cabinets. She finds hockey sticks, rackets, balls and dozens of objects that remind her of how active and competitive she was when she was a teenager. Let’s play tennis one of these days, darling, she shouts to me from the garage. I’m standing next to the Peugeot, trying to be useful in some way while Bruno gets to work on the engine. I look at her and make a gesture that means something like, what a good idea! but she has her back to me, caught up in what she’s doing, so for a second I check out her body, I look at her ass, then quickly turn my attention back to Bruno. Just at that point he looks up, intercepting my gaze and producing an awkward moment in which suddenly the idea ‘sex with Virna’ flashes through my mind, and at the same instant it seems as though Bruno, who is staring at me, can also see that idea. Suddenly, it is as if Virna’s voice saying play tennis reverberates between the two of us but as if she had said have sex, and he is the father and it’s obvious that we do it, and that’s why I am there and why he wants to let me use his car, because I am his daughter’s boyfriend, for only three months so far, but for some reason he’s taken a liking to me and perhaps that is reason enough. After all, it’s so obvious, their lives are not going to change in any substantial way because he lets me use his Peugeot; but making sex so explicit, even though nobody has, in fact, explicitly said anything, is surely uncomfortable, and I feel as though I won’t be able to breathe normally until, mercifully, this strange exchange of looks ends. It lasted only a second. I breathe. Bruno turns back to his task, looks at the oil stick and says, in a low voice, How about you open the cap? I’m going to get . . . He points, then returns to the garage, wiping his fingers on a rag. Virna comes running up to me while I struggle to open the cap that isn’t budging. Look, she says. She’s holding a professional tennis racket and an old ball she bounces next to the car. Let’s play later? She prances a few metres over to a green wall that stretches away from the garage, and uses it as a backboard, contributing a rhythmic tapping to the afternoon. Finally I open the cap so we can fill up the oil. Bruno still hasn’t returned. When he appears, I am watching Virna run back and forth after the ball. He looks at me, but there are no more strange exchanges. Blank mind. OK, let’s fill it, and then we’ll hook it up to the Discovery and see if it’ll start. Pock, plock; plock, ponk, the sound of the ball Virna’s hitting accompanies the stream of oil Bruno is pouring into the dirty, greasy engine. Pock, plock. Bruno! Isabela shouts out from somewhere. He keeps the oil flowing with a steady hand. The ball hits the wall again, I hear the scrape of Virna’s shoes on the ground, I picture her sprinting to hit the ball, I imagine her in a short white tennis skirt. I resist. I watch the oil flowing. Bruno, darling! The clacking of Isabela’s heels announces her arrival from the house. I look up. She comes up behind Bruno with her lovely breasts and semi-transparent silk dress. I think about Virna’s breasts. Darling, I’m going to take the SUV to María Laura’s, Isabela says. I expect this to create a conflict, because Bruno needs the Discovery to charge the battery, but I soon realize that Virna’s mother is talking about another SUV, the bigger, darker one that is parked on the pavement. Bruno finishes filling up the oil and stands up straight. Kiss, Isabela says, and they kiss each other in front of me, briefly but not without passion. She walks away, clacking her heels and brushing down her dress. Bruno intercepts my gaze . . . He must be thinking about sex now.
The sun is setting by the time we manage to start up the Peugeot and take it out on to the street. Then we put everything back in the garage. Virna went into the house earlier, so we tell her the good news when we come in; by now we’re a bit tired. After carefully washing our hands – each in a different bathroom – Bruno offers me whiskey to celebrate, and he stretches out on the sofa to watch the Bundesliga’s most important plays of the day on the gigantic screen. Not sure to what extent I should continue to thank Bruno humbly or start to behave like the already consecrated son-in-law, I decide to sit quietly and watch television while Virna holds a long conversation on the telephone at the far end of the room.
This story gets really interesting in the third section—“Facing Facts”—when Bruno sits Jimmy down to grill him about what happened the night before, what drugs they took . . .
Tomorrow we’ll have an interview with Elvira Navarro.
Till then, remember to subscribe now and receive this issue for free . . .
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 10 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—which is going up a bit late, sorry—features Spanish author Pablo Gutierrez whose new story, “Gigantomancy,” was translated for this issue by Anna Kushner.
Something about Gutierrez really appeals to me . . . I think it’s this line from his bio: “Currently a teacher of literature at a secondary school in Cadiz, he lives in peace and tranquility, very close to the sea.” Oh, and by “appeals to me,” I really mean, “makes me insanely jealous.” I want some tranquility and seashore!
But seriously, Gutierrez is one of the youngest authors selected for this list, and already has a promising start to his career having won the Tormenta en us vaso Prize for best new author in Spanish for his first novel, Rosas, restos de alas.
Since Gutierrez’s full story is available on Granta‘s website, I thought today I would just post a significant excerpt, so that you can get a taste of his work:
As cadets, we rubbed Coca-Cola on our soles so we wouldn’t crack open our heads while playing outside. The dew soaked the concrete and we glided on the court like an aeroplane when it rains, our hands hidden in our fists, the pavement greasy beneath Saturday’s frost, and just at the mouth of the airport, eleven pale giants fastened to the seats like packages, the pilot narrows his eyes so that the nose meets the blue lines, the wind, the rain, all of the gods’ lightning illuminating our enormous jaws. On those winter courts, how we broadsided those boys from the Salesian school, there go the boys having taken communion – we used to say – there go the boys parading their embroidered crests, no one breathes until the aeroplane rushes on the runway and the pilot releases the brakes. A pitch-dark night: the sky falls in pieces over Treviso, it always rains in Treviso, what does it matter if from here to the hotel and from the hotel to the field we’re watched by the guard dog, oh, how we bit as cadets, how we rushed at anyone, and one Saturday they came to see me from La Caja and they shook my hand like a gentleman, they said, aren’t your parents home? Damn, you can really hit it, how would you like to try spending some time with us? La Caja! With Izquierdo and Lafuente and that tower of curls who was shooting at just fifteen years old, a trunk with elephant ankles who moved slooooowly like a mimic, but when he got it down court, oh, La Caja. My folks said fine, but only if you go on with school, and there was Mom, crying as if I were going off to Antarctica, don’t cry, Mommy, I’ll come home every weekend, all those hours on the bus that brings back the San Fernando recruits, heads shaved and bone-thin as lepers, sad and gloomy-faced with their backpacks hanging at their shoulders, their noses covered in pimples. Two breakfasts, meat at lunchtime, fish for supper, piles of vegetables on tin trays: we also made up an army, an army of gigantean kids with sharpened hands, prominent Adam’s apples and the shadow of a moustache. We followed orders, we had leaders, punishments and uniforms, La Caja’s uniform is so pretty, with gold borders, a name and number on the back, it was the first time I saw my name printed on a shirt, like an idiot I stared at it like someone who stares at the picture of his girlfriend, I would have slept in it if my room-mate hadn’t laughed, serious as a monk and stretched-out and dry, he spent his time reading and he could throw well but didn’t run much, and there you had to run like a deer, run and bust a gut during training so during games you could fly like Son Goku when he took his weights off, we hit any one of them with a hell of a lot of blows, it would be great if you could still play that way now, if it were that easy to glide right past your rivals like an aeroplane on the runway, jump that way, hit that way, laugh and always win that way, but everything now is fight and surround and bite down on your protector so they don’t break your teeth, like here in Treviso when they ripped one of my molars out during the first charge, minute one and boom, down to the floor like a sparring, of course I wasn’t even twenty years old then and I would be shaking as I came on to that court that had the appearance of a gym and the fans shake you from the minute you step on the sporting ring and Perotti the winger ripped my tooth out with a full contact blow of his elbow, I went running to the clinic so they could sew up the hole because I wouldn’t stop haemorrhaging and there was a monsoon-like rain falling, imagine, a guy as big as a castle all covered in blood asking for a doctor, the nurse nearly fell right over at the sight of me, how the Italians shake you in Treviso or Bologna, each point is an Olympic battle, they grab on to your neck like Medusas, I don’t have the heart or the patience any more but there’s nothing else I know how to do, after what happened at the Forum, who would trust me, I thought I would end up training kids for a modest salary, I don’t want a Nordic house on the peak of some mountain or yachts or cars that I can’t park but after what happened at the Forum who would dare put me in a locker room with kids if all I’m good for is being moody and putting on weight, although I’ve also been quite refined and elegant and have kept some of that, like when we were up against Baskonia, down by two, and Otis had gotten the whistle in the fifth and in the last play, they set a trap for the skinny guy and I threw that rock that I thought would end up outside the pavilion but goddamn, it went in like Larry Bird hit them, the stands went wild, in Giants, they did a retrospective on me, I appeared in all the television news programmes, well, if this isn’t going to be my day – I thought – but then what happened at the Forum came, and because of that I understand quite clearly that before the year is up, they’re going to kick me out, if it would at least stop raining, if only I could take off this tracksuit and button up a real coat and escape from this hotel without telling anyone, just looking left and right in case the guard dog is making his rounds as if we were juniors, if only I could rip off this ridiculous smock that’s hurled down on you from a fifth floor when you’re over thirty years old, I’m fed up with being a walking adman for AGR Insurance and Univision Optics, if only I could slip away from this remote hotel dropped down on a traffic circle with decorated roundabouts and carpet-covered hallways and brass banisters, a forlorn, tiny receptionist who looks at me with round eyes from deep inside her cardboard uniform as if I were a sulphuric giant banging the counter asking for the Yellow Pages, the classifieds from the newspaper, for a taxi to take me to the city: to walk wildly, feeling splendid and lazy, sit down at a cafe and invite a blonde girl to join me, ask for a cream puff, wolf it down in one bite, make a call like in the last century from a telephone booth, talk to Luisa about the weather in Treviso, ask her if the little one is asleep already, no, not yet, she’s cheating me in Parcheesi, tell her to get on the line, you’re-so-far-away-I-have-a-burn-mark-on-my finger-I’ve-already-got-two-up-on-her, if I could, I would care very little about what happened at the Forum, but it’s raining like in the Great Flood and I’ve become a prisoner of this room watched over by the guard dog, inside this walking adman costume, sharing a room with this little acrobat boy who thinks he is Vince Carter and who has been playing video games for two hours already, imprisoned as if I were at camp training a pony and riding zip-lines while Mom and Dad go off to Paris for a week to see if they can kiss each other there like they don’t here, and even though I could escape and strip and get into that taxi, I would still be moving this mountain-like body crowned with the face of a chased aboriginal. On that peak, my forehead like a movie screen would stand out like the lamp of a lighthouse: the little blonde would squeeze her knees together like a girl who is peeing herself, there wouldn’t be any cream puffs left at the pastry shop, in this century, there’s no finding a telephone booth with anything more than an amputated cable hanging like a terrible extremity.
Humans against giants. All of those midgets spitting at me from the stands, hanging strips of toilet paper from my ears, urinating on my towel, calling me hair-raising things, the word repeated from their rounded mouths that sounds the same in every language, even syllables and fricatives and different I-don’t know-whats always sound like the same thing.
Click here to pick up reading where this excerpt leaves off.
And don’t forget: by subscribing to Granta while the “22 Days of Awesome” is going on, you’ll receive this special issue featuring the next wave of Spanish-language novelists for free. (The issue retails for $16.99 FYI.)
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 11 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.
This post marks the half-way point in our “22 Days of Awesome” series . . . It’s an interview of Argentine writer Patricio Pron conducted by Emily Davis. Enjoy!
If you flip through Granta’s new “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” issue, you’ll see a photo of Argentine writer Patricio Pron above a paragraph that begins “At the age of twenty-eight, Pron learned how to ride a bicycle through the snow in Germany, the country where the majority of his favourite childhood authors were born.” Even his biography reads as literature. And when his new story published in this issue is called “A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs,” how can you not turn the page and keep reading?
Here is a taste of the story, translated by Janet Hendrickson.
My situation was relatively different from that of the other writers from the provinces who regularly arrived in the capital, like insects that assault a cadaver and eat it and lay their larvae inside and so obtain some life from death. I hadn’t left any cadaver behind; I had some money and a few assignments — I was a journalist, a relatively bad one but for some reason in demand — and besides, I had a place to sleep. An apartment, I supposed, where I would write my first truly cosmopolitan works, insufflated with an air that I believed only blew in the capital, which for its part bragged about the quality of that air. Naturally, I was an imbecile or a saint.
At that time I wrote stories that were more like farces, stories that were dumb and sadly ridiculous. In one, a boat caught fire along the coast of a city, and its residents gathered to contemplate the spectacle and did nothing to help the crew because the spectacle was so beautiful, and so the boat sank and the crew members died, and when the only survivor of this disaster made it to the coast and asked for help, the city’s inhabitants beat him for ruining the spectacle. In another story, a horse appeared which had been dressed like a man so that he’d be allowed to travel on a train; part of its education took place on this long train trip, and when the train finally reached its destination, the horse — which had somehow learned to talk — demanded to be called ‘Gombrowicz’ from this point forward, and he wouldn’t let himself be saddled; I still don’t understand what I wanted to say by that. I’d also written a story about this guy who invited a girl he liked on an outing to the countryside, but then the girl constantly changed the radio station in the car and ate with her mouth open and did things that made this guy think he could never declare his love to her and maybe it was better that way, and I think everyone died at the end in an accident or something like that. In that story I’d tested my talents for comparison and simile; I’d written things like, ‘He and she had never seen each other before. They were like two little doves that had never seen each other, either’; and ‘The boat peacefully steered itself towards the still pool, just like a car driven by a madman heading towards a group of children.’ Those were the things I was writing: occasionally, certain people have inferred an unambiguous relationship between a person’s imaginative capacity and the quality of his or her fiction, but they leave out the fact that imaginative excess can have catastrophic results for the quality of what one writes, and still, that imaginative capacity is indispensable to every writer’s beginnings; it gives him breath and sustains him and makes him believe that his errors are correct and that he is or can be a writer. Well, I had too much imagination during that time.
The dry and self-deprecating humor here is perfectly tuned (and the backhand pun on Buenos Aires? golden), and the whole story is worth reading for Pron’s narrative voice that feels very genuine, in this piece falling somewhere between storyteller and essayist.
Today we also have a special interview with the author, so allow me to introduce him with a few biographical essentials. Born in Rosario, Argentina in 1975, Patricio Pron is a writer, translator, and critic currently living in Madrid. He earned his doctorate in Romance Philology from the Georg-Autust University in Göttingen, Germany. His three volumes of short stories and four novels include El vuelo magnífico de la noche (2001), Una puta mierda (2007), El comienzo de la primavera (2008) and El mundo sin las personas que lo afean y lo arruinan (2010). He was kind enough to answer our questions about his latest work, the Granta honor, and what it’s like to be a critic and a translator well as a creative writer.
Emily Davis: What does it mean to you to be named one of the best young Spanish-language novelists by Granta?
Patricio Pron: Naturally it is a pleasure, besides being a bit of good news in a year that, at least for me, has been especially generous with good news.
ED: Where did the desire to become a writer come from?
PP: Perhaps from the same place it always does, from the perception that there was something that existed that had not yet been said and that I could say, and from the conviction that I knew how to say it.
ED: Do you have a favorite writer from among the others on the new Granta list?
PP: Yes, I am especially interested in the work of Alejandro Zambra.
ED: What writers have influenced you?
PP: A good hundred living writers and a similar or greater number of dead writers.
ED: You’ve said before that you were influenced by German writers. And the experience itself of having lived and studied in Germany, does that figure in your work in some way?
PP: Yes. My last two books (El comienzo de la primavera and El mundo sin las personas que lo afean y lo arruinan) feature that German experience as a theme, but perhaps the more visible influence of that experience is in the separation that formed there between literary language and everyday language. There was an acceptance of literature as a labor of exploration in language aimed at creating for me and for my books a personal idiom, halfway between Spanish and the other languages that I speak.
ED: Many people are either critics who do not write, or writers who do not practice criticism. What is it like to practice both professions? Does one influence the other, do they complement one another, or do they oppose each other?
PP: Both experiences complement one another well, contrary to what people usually say, since a great number of writers are also readers and we have opinions about what we read. Not all writers read, however (and we may blame that for the worst calamities of recent literature, including literature written in Spanish by writers under thirty-five years old), but those who do, do not see any obstacle to talking about what we read, in particular if we are talking about books that contribute beauty and sense to a world that tends to be lacking in both.
ED: How did you come into a translation career as well? Do you work with a certain metaphor that describes your own way of approaching the act of translation?
PP: My wish when I began working as a writer was basically to act as a bridge between literature in German and literature in Spanish, as a way to enrich as much as possible both literary traditions. I don’t have any specific metaphor to describe what I do when I translate, except maybe that I act as a ventriloquist, making others speak with a voice that is mine.
ED: Your new story, “A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs,” is it autobiographical at all?
PP: Yes. Not exactly in its plot, which is imaginary, but yes with regard to the narrator’s opinions about literature, and to the question that permeates the entire story of why and from where the young writers in Spanish come from, and about what it’s like to become a writer based on interpretation, and the undesirable but at the same time also inevitable misinterpretations of the works of writers that we love.
ED: What are you working on now?
PP: Right now I am taking notes for an extended essay, to be published probably in 2012. In May 2011 my new novel El espíritu de mis padres sigue subiendo en la lluvia will be published in Spain. Faber & Faber will publish it in the UK, and Knopf in the US. Around that same time, a personal anthology of short stories called Trayéndolo todo de regreso a casa. Relatos 1990-2010 will appear in South America.
Don’t forget that if you subscribe now, the good folks at Granta will throw in a copy of this special issue for free . . .
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 12 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 we’re featuring Argentine author Pola Oloixara, whose “Conditions for the Revolution” was translated by Mara Faye Lethem. Mara has translated a number of really interesting books, including Javier Calvo’s Wonderful World Albert Sanchez Pinol’s Pandora in the Congo and David Trueba’s Learning to Lose. She wrote the piece below about her experience working on this story for Granta.
There is plenty about Pola to intimidate anyone. Her Facebook fan page proclaims her “The Wonder Woman of the 21st Century”. She is an expert on orchids. Her dimpled smile could launch a thousand ships. Her writing is terrifically brainy and peppered with references. So when I tried to step into her shoes, to channel her spirit to lead my fingers across the keys like a Ouija board, it involved more than the usual leap of faith. Screwing up my courage, I opted for some serious deconstruction and research, then worked to put back together the pieces while maintaining Pola’s ever-present humor.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of my best friends are Argentines. (Or was it Argentinians? Or Argentineans, as my spell check insists?) I’d translated authors from Argentina before. But never an Argentine as Argentine as Pola. The fact that her work is intensely local one of her assets, but for a translator who has never set foot on Argentine soil, it presents some challenges. I enlisted a porteño informant who wouldn’t laugh in my face when I asked such questions as “What do they sell at kiosks in Buenos Aires?” (Thanks, Nacho!) But the real challenge was not in the slightly different conjugations, the unfamiliar foods, the different school system, the slang.
The biggest challenge for me when translating this story had to do with that ineffable sense of place or, perhaps better put, the culture and politics embedded deep in language. There are so many things I take for granted when translating work from Spain or Catalonia, where I have lived for many years, that have to do with the context. Here we have a Secretariat of Linguistic Politics, officially acknowledging something many countries don’t: our choice of words is often a political act, albeit very subtly, or unconsciously.
“Conditions for the Revolution” has as its backdrop the Argentine economic crisis of 2001, and swap clubs and unrest that sprang up around it. Along with certain terms, like caceroleantes, which have no perfect translation, the atmosphere of the story was, for me, swimming in unfamiliar waters. But isn’t that one of the great things about being a translator, that we are transported to other worlds and have to find our way back to our own, leading the English-speaking reader by the hand?
- Mara Faye Lethem
And to give you a taste of Oloixarac’s work in Lethem’s translation, here’s the opening of “Conditions for the Revolution”:
That morning, Mara went by her mother’s house to get some clean clothes. She slid between the armchairs in the living room and the coffee tables overflowing with magazines; she didn’t want to run into her. On the modular shelving in the library, flanked by books by Eduardo Galeano and Gabriel García Márquez, the computer screen showed an unfinished game of solitaire. Mother Cris wasn’t there. She’d been a little depressed because Quique, her current lover, had way too much time on his hands. At first he wandered around Cris’s house, leaving his toothbrush there, and then kindly (suspiciously) offering to cook, until one day she gave him a hard stare and said, look, I think that, these days, the most important thing in a relationship is respecting each other’s space, but if you need to, please let me finish, if you really need to, you can stay here. Quique was of medium height and had brown eyes and a disorientated air about him, but he seemed stripped of everything that makes disorientation an attractive or romantic trait.
‘You don’t recognize me because I let my grey come in and now I have a ponytail.’ He had brought his snout closer.
Cris would have preferred that he didn’t make such direct mention of the ponytail; she was enough of an adult – and alone, not getting any younger – to know she could stand the sight of the ponytail, but not talking about it. Quique wasn’t intimidated by Cris’s sideways glances, the deliberate nature of some of her absent and distracted moments. He read it as a display of parameters, a female logic lubricating its own version of the conquest seconds before launching, insatiable, into mating. The sweetness of desperation was an inalienable asset in middle-aged ladies for whom casual sex would soon be a piece of Grandma’s jewellery that nobody would want to touch. Quique was an optimistic guy. He narrowed his eyes, fulfilling his civic role of mensch playing at seducer:
‘In those days I already had you in my sights, but you were with somebody else.’
Cris pursed her lips, trying mentally to distance herself from the scene: for the moment, being the recipient of Quique’s attentions was far from flattering. But ‘somebody else’ awoke Cris’s interest (vanity disguised as interest) from its lethargy and, overcome with complicity, she used the opportunity to laugh hysterically. And yes, she was always with somebody or other. Quique felt as if the fat men of the Metal Workers’ Union were urging him on, gesturing at him with full arms as if he were in a car and wanted to park; you go ahead, he thought, as he slipped his thumb cautiously through the loop of Cris’s jeans. With a quick glance, Cris detected his hand hanging close to her proud ass, her personal PR agent; unable to renounce her chance at playing the coquette, Cris commented: Hmm . . . dangerous. I’m the type that falls in love, so if I were you, I’d think twice. If Quique had been twenty years younger, he would have made a bet with himself as to how long it would take him to penetrate her anally; now, mature and serene, he stuck out his tongue slightly before touching her lips.
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 13 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 we’re featuring Mexican author Antonio Ortuno, whose “Small Mouth, Thin Lips” was translated by Tanya Huntington Hyde.
During our Twitter Party the other day, Ezra Fitz mentioned that one of Francisco Goldman’s favorite pieces from the issue was Antonio Ortuno’s “Small Mouth, Thin Lips” . . . which was one I hadn’t gotten to yet. (Admission of honesty: I still have three stories left to read. Which I will do on the plane ride home tonight. That and/or watch Cavs fans burn down Cleveland.)
Anyway, at the airport yesterday morning (where at 6am, approximately half of Rochester’s residents were waiting in line for security), I finally had a chance to read this story, which is now one of my favorites as well. (
There are two structural components to this piece: letters from the imprisoned Ricardo Bach to his jailor, and the internal thoughts of his jailor upon reading these letters. The back-and-forth is creepy and interesting, especially in the Doctor’s fears of being manipulated. (And clone orgy!) But this is one of those stories that is better experienced than explained, so here’s a (necessarily long) excerpt from near the beginning:
The first sign of Bach’s hypocrisy was his pathetic reference to Gustavo López. A real man would not have acted as grateful as a puppy upon receiving the enemy’s attentions or friendship. Thus, from the start, I had the advantage of knowing the utmost depths of the prisoner’s mind: he is a lamb in search of affection. His intention has been to portray himself as docile and confused, while at the same time vindicating his militancy, as if such partisanship did not require the kind of virility he seems incapable of showing.
Bach is fair-skinned. His mouth is small and his lips, thin. He composes certain gestures of helplessness, shielded by the two deep rings under his eyes, which have moved more than one warder to pity. I suspect they are eager to sodomize him, but the security camera and the guards I have standing watch have thwarted this. Dressed in a prisoner’s uniform and without any hair gel available, Bach has had to come up with ways to maintain that genteel veneer he seems so proud of. The tailored suits, the tortoiseshell comb and the polished shoes have been replaced by overalls and work boots, and the characteristic short mane from his portraits has given way to a crew cut.
He welcomes me with gleeful gesticulations and shadows me like a lapdog, offering me a seat with a lordly and effeminate gesture that I find humiliating: as if I were an old lady being waited on. He sits down on the cell’s straw mattress and smokes the cigarettes I have provided with childlike zest.
His answers are precise. He has turned out to be so thorough that I find myself reining him in. Gustavo López, back when I treated him, would let the cinder of his tobacco fall to the ground, and his greatest show of hygiene consisted of reuniting it by stomping out the butt with his shoe. Bach makes an effort, on the other hand, to keep the floor of his cell spotless and has procured (perhaps via some warder who has grown fond of his winking grey eyes) a broom, a dustpan and a basket he uses to rid himself of every last molecule of ash.
I have visited him three times. His courtesy is so intensely elaborate, I have begun to entertain the theory that he is mocking us. How else to explain the atrocious ‘Ode to My Jailer’s Phallus’ that he handed in together with his first report and that I have resisted including in this notebook?
On the other hand, Bach seems to possess an endless supply of items that are difficult for others to come by. His cot is covered by a wool blanket, instead of a urine-soaked sheet. Every time I hand him pen and paper, he stores them with joyous gestures next to other provisions he keeps in a lacquered wooden box. He has even offered me coffee and, to my surprise, revealed a metallic pot, filter and all, that he then proceeded to heat. I haven’t gone so far as to denounce his privileges to my superiors, but if I have truly eliminated (or at least obstructed) any possibility of his obtaining such items through clandestine embraces, only mesmerism can explain the prison staff ’s apparently blind obedience to him.
Bach seems animated, despite the puerile despair with which he writes. A single glance at his works (Virilities being his most demented title: a cantata to an astronaut who has been reproduced through cloning in order to conquer the universe, and who celebrates his career every step of the way with orgies during which he copiously mates with copies of himself ) has awakened in me the kind of antipathy I hadn’t felt for years. I comprehend why, according to his confession, other writers in the city would cross the street when they saw him. I comprehend why his co-religionists hastened to put him in jail. A man like Ricardo Bach ought to
Woe and fear have not subsided, despite our enlightened and pacifying talks. I have dreamed of a band of fierce priests, their garments spotted like jaguar skins, leading me to a mountain of fire and tossing me, naked, into its steaming maw. And yet I have also dreamed that an old man of amazing agility throws himself in after me at the last moment and manages to bring me safely ashore. What meaning might this dream have, Doctor? Perhaps there is someone kind enough to circumvent my destruction, before the final hour tolls in the bell tower of my life? I wish you were here with me now, Doctor. I would feel more at ease in your presence, the most consoling by far that has populated these, my final days.
Awaiting you impatiently,
bq. Ricardo Bach
Bach’s insinuations trouble me. Not because I see myself being compelled, like a small bird under a serpent’s spell, to rush over to his cell and possess him. No: I am certain that this imbecile is mocking us, and I need to determine how we shall crush him. Gustavo López delivered the required texts with sincerity and thus his perdition was consummated. But subduing a shifty character like Bach will require more subtle stratagems. Perhaps my initial judgement was mistaken and this is no lamb we are holding captive, but rather a jackal. Thus our first step should be to withdraw all dispensations and substitute them with other, less convenient ones. He shall have no wool blanket, but rather a pink down quilt. He shall not sport a prison uniform, but be compelled to dress in a T-shirt and short pants, like a boy. He shall have no pen and paper, but rather a machine that allows us to view his rough drafts. We shall maintain the toilet in his cell in a state of indefinite repair, permitting but one daily visit to the restroom used by the general prison population. For the time being, all lights will be turned off at Federal Penitentiary Number One at night, except for those illuminating Ricardo Bach’s cell.
In terms of Ortuno himself, he’s the author of El buscador de cabezas, which was chosen as the best first novel of the year, and Recursos humanos, which was a finalist for the Herralde Prize. He’s also published two collections of short stories, and according to the Granta bio, he’s been translated into a bunch of languages, including English. (I can’t find anything else of his in English . . . Although to be honest, I haven’t tried all that hard. If anyone knows of other stuff of his that has been translated, let me know and I’ll add it to this post.)
With a little luck and translation gumption, we should have an interview with Patricio Pron (another favorite of mine) for tomorrow . . .
As we mentioned a couple Fridays ago, we’re going to spend the next 15 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 Alejandro Zambra—a personal favorite and the first author from this list to be part of the Open Letter catalog.
So at the risk of repeating myself, I want to try and explain what it is about Zambra’s work that I really like.
I first heard about Zambra at the ALTA conference before Bonsai came out from Melville House. Megan McDowell read a bit of his work (if memory serves, she read from The Private Lives of Trees, which may have even been The Secret Lives of Trees at that time) as part of her ALTA fellowship. I’m usually pretty terrible at paying attention during readings (much prefer discussions, modulated voices, and off-the-cuff responses), but I remember being struck by the freshness and honesty of his prose.
When Bonsai came out, I read it from the perspective of a judge for the Best Translated Book Awards, and fell in love with this first paragraph:
In the end she dies and he remains alone, although in truth he was along some years before her death, Emilia’s death. Let’s say that she is called or was called Emilia and that he is called, was called, and continues to be called Julio. Julio and Emilia. In the end Emilia dies and Julio does not die. The rest is literature:
Yes! Yes, the rest is literature!
In some ways, this is a bit of a wink, a pulling back of the curtain, a metafictional moment that was popular years ago and has been written and rewritten every since. But at the same time, Zambra’s novella adopts this tone, this style, with an attitude more akin to truthfulness than game-playing. He may be young, but this youthfulness comes through less in the look-at-me-I’m-winking-back cuteness of some of his peers, and more in the I’m-young-and-believe-in-things sense. Stealing a bit of an argument Adam Thirlwell develops in The Delighted States, Zambra tries to get to a sense of reality through a style that feels alien. It’s so unadorned, it’s so non-American-realist that it feels much closer to “how things really are.” We die. The rest is literature.
I also like the way Zambra just tells things in a way that almost feels artless . . . or at least not as manipulative as some other novels (cough, Freedom, cough) can feel at times:
The first night they shared a bed was an accident. They had an exam in Spanish Syntax II, a subject neither of them had mastered, but since they were young and in theory willing to do anything, they were willing, also, to study Spanish Syntax II at the home of the Vergara twins. The study group turned out to be quite a bit larger than imagined: someone put on music, saying he was accustomed to studying to music, another brought vodka, insisting that it was difficult for her to concentrate without vodka, and a third went to buy oranges, because vodka without orange juice seemed unbearable. At three in the morning they were perfectly drunk, so they decided to go to sleep. Although Julio would have preferred to spend the night with one of the Vergara sisters, he quickly resigned himself to sharing the servants’ quarters with Emilia.
Julio didn’t like that Emilia asked so many questions in class, and Emilia disliked the fact that Julio passed his classes while hardly setting foot on campus, but that night they both discovered the emotional affinities that any couple is capable of discovering with only a little effort. Needless to say, they did terribly on the exam. A week later, for their second chance at the exam, they studied again with the Vergaras and slept together again, even though this second time it was not necessary for them to share a room, since the twins’ parents were on a trip to Buenos Aires.
(By the way, I’m pulling these passages from this issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, which included this entire novella. Not entirely sure what would happen if you tried to subscribe to VQR and access this issue, but it might be worth a try. Otherwise, you can buy the Melville House edition, which was a finalist for the Best Translated Book Award.)
After Bonsai came out—to much praise and bookseller adoration—we had the opportunity to publish Zambra’s second novel, the aforementioned The Private Lives of Trees. Stylistically, this is a lateral step. It’s got the same sort of voice, the same unadorned prose:
Julián lulls the little girl to sleep with “The Private Lives of Trees,” an ongoing story he’s made up to tell her at bedtime. The protagonists are a poplar tree and a baobab tree, who, at night, when no one can see them, talk about photosynthesis, squirrels, or the many advantages of being trees and not people or animals or, as they say to each other, stupid hunks of cement.
Daniela is not his daughter, but it is hard for him not to think of her that way. Three years ago Julián joined the family. He came to them; Verónica and the little girl were already there. He married Verónica and in some ways, also, Daniela, who was hesitant at first but little by little began to accept her new life: “Julián is uglier than my dad, but he’s still nice,” she would say to her friends, who nodded with surprising seriousness, even solemnity, as if they somehow understood that Julián’s arrival was not an accident. As the months passed this stepfather even earned a place in the drawings Daniela made at school. There’s one in particular that Julián always keeps nearby: the three of them, at the beach, the little girl and Verónica are making cakes out of sand, and he is dressed in jeans and a shirt, reading and smoking under a perfectly round and yellow sun.
It’s a shorter, tighter book, depicting Julián’s long night waiting for Verónica to come home from art class. (She’s late. Really late.) This is really the only event of the novel’s plot. As the omniscient narrator puts it,
When she returns, the novel will end. But as long as she is not back, the book will continue. The book continues until she returns, or until Julián is sure that she won’t return.
The rest of the novella is a trip through Julián’s imagination.
Getting back to this issue of Granta though . . . The piece they chose to include is “Ways of Going Home,” an excerpt from his forthcoming novel. A novel that’s much longer (or so I’ve heard), and has a very different style from the others. The presence of a first-person narrator changes Zambra’s game entirely, although he’s still trying to tell us about life (or, life as literature) in as direct a way as possible. Here’s the opening:
Once, I got lost. I was six or seven. I got distracted, and all of a sudden I couldn’t see my parents any more. I was scared, but I immediately found the way home and got there before they did. They kept looking for me, desperate, but that afternoon I thought they were lost. I believed I knew how to get home and they didn’t.
‘You went a different way,’ my mother said later, angry, her eyes still swollen.
You were the one who went a different way, I thought, but I didn’t say it.
Papa watched placidly from the armchair. Sometimes I think he spent all his time just sitting there, thinking. But maybe he didn’t really think about anything. Maybe he just closed his eyes and received the present with calm and resignation. That night he spoke, though: ‘This is a good thing,’ he told me. ‘You overcame adversity.’ Mama looked at him suspiciously, but he kept on stringing together a confused speech about adversity. Back then, I had no idea what adversity could possibly mean.
I lay back on the chair across from him and pretended to be asleep. I heard them argue, always the same pattern. Mama would say five sentences and Papa would answer with a single word. Sometimes he would answer sharply: ‘No.’ Sometimes he would say, practically shouting: ‘Liar,’ or ‘False.’ Sometimes he would even say, like the police: ‘Negative.’
That night Mama carried me to bed and, perhaps knowing I was only pretending to sleep and was listening attentively, curiously, she told me: ‘Your father is right. Now we know you won’t get lost. That you know how to walk alone in the street. But you should concentrate more on the way. You should walk faster.’
I listened to her. From then on, I walked faster. In fact, a couple of years later, the first time I talked to Claudia, she asked me why I walked so fast. She had been following me for days, spying on me. We had met a short time before, on 3 March 1985 – the night of the earthquake – but we didn’t talk then.
And I’m pretty much 100% sure that this book will come out in English sometime soon . . . .
Don’t forget! Sign up now for a subscription to Granta and get this entire issue—featuring 22 Spanish-language novelists—absolutely free!
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.
So, tomorrow morning at 9am East Coast time (which is 1400 GMT and 1500 Madrid time) we’re (meaning me, meaning Emily Davis, meaning staff from Granta) going to have a “Twitter Party” to discuss the “Best of Spanish-Language Novelists” issue, Spanish literature in general, translations, literary trends, etcetera.
I’ll be on there as
open_letter, so feel free to me all your questions, jokes, comments about Duke basketball. As someone who tends to write long, I’ve yet to really get the hang of the Twitter. So, this should be riotous! Expect a lot of ellipses and multi-tweet responses . . .
Here are the official instructions (in English and Spanish) from the wonderful Saskia Vogel at Granta. (And all apologies about the unnecessary quotes below . . . Textpattern is freaking out about all the @ symbols and transforming chunks of this post into Comic Sans.):
On November 30, 2010 at 1400 (GMT) [0900, NYC; 1500 Madrid] Granta and Three Percent Blog (’@open_letter’) will host a discussion about literature in Spanish on Twitter. The discussion will end at 4pm (GMT) [1100, NYC; 1700 Madrid].
Participation is easy. Just follow these steps:
1. Sign in to your Twitter account.
2. Search for the hashtag #literatura
3. ‘@Grantamag’ will start making posts using this hash tag. For example: “The ‘@Grantamag’ and ‘@Open_Letter’ #TwitterParty about Spanish-langauge lit is starting in 5 minutes! #literatura”
4. ‘@GrantaMag’ will start the discussion with some questions and links. For example, “Will Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize encourage publishers to commission more translations? #literatura” or “Which new Spanish-language writers should we be reading #literatura”
5. Please join in and answer any questions or ask your own. Feel free to make statements on the subject, post links, etc. The discussion can be in Spanish or English.
REMEMBER: You must include #literatura in each of your posts to be part of the conversation.
El 30 de noviembre a las 1400 (GMT) [0900, NYC; 1500 Madrid], Granta y Three Percent Blog (’@open_letter’) presentará una discusión sobre la literatura en Twitter. Se acabará a las 1600 (GMT) [1100, NYC; 1700 Madrid].
Será fácil participar. Solo hay que:
1. Iniciar una sesión
2. Buscar el hashtag #literatura
3. ‘@GrantaMag’ empezará a enviar tweets incluyendo este hashtag, por ejemplo “The ‘@Grantamag’ and ‘@Open_Letter’ #TwitterParty about Spanish-langauge lit is starting in 5 minutes! #literatura”
4. ‘@GrantaMag’ iniciará la discusión con algunas preguntas y lienzos, por ejemplo, “Will Vargas Llosa’s Nobel Prize encourage publishers to commission more translations? #literatura” o “Which new Spanish-language writers should we be reading #literatura”
5. Siéntate libre a participar, responder a preguntas o formular otras. Exprésa tu opinion sobre el tema, envia lienzos etc. La discusión puede ser en inglés o español.
ACUÉRDATE: es esencial incluir el hashtag #literatura en cada de tus tweets para particpar en la conversación.
So tomorrow. Twitterverse. Be there.
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.
As we mentioned last Friday, we’re going to spend the next 18 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: Argentine novelist Andres Neuman, whose new short story “After Helena,” translated by Richard Gwyn, is included in this issue.
One of the running themes that’s developed over the past few days of this series is just how young these authors are. I’ve complained to friends and interns about how, for me, this issue literally marks the transition between “young with promise” and “not-so-young and no more excuses.” Based on Granta‘s criteria, this would be the last year that I could personally qualify for one of their “Young X of Y” issue. (If I were a writer, if I were talented, etc., etc., I know, I know.) And it has been pretty mind-blowing going through these writers one-by-one, realizing just how much they’ve accomplished at such a young age.
What this really underscores is how out of touch I am (we are?) with what’s really going on in contemporary writing around the world. I can only imagine how many articles would be written about an American author who’s done as much, and received as many awards at such a young age as Neuman has.
At the age of 22, Neuman published his first novel, Bariloche, following which he published three more novels, including El viajero del siglo (more on that below), which won the Alfaguara Prize and the Critics’ Prize in Spain. He’s also published three short story collections, and a collection of aphorisms. Not to mention, he also published Como viajar sin ver, a travel book, and his collected poems, which received the Hiperion Prize for Poetry. Ten books and two major awards in 11 years. And he was named to the Bogata 39. Not bad. Not bad at all. (Oh to have all those wasted hours back . . . although I’m sure I’d just waste them all again.)
“After Helena” is a pretty touching story of a man who, in the wake of the death of his love makes two decisions:
One stagnant evening as I was going over my list of contacts in search of some name that it might please me to utter, I took two simultaneous decisions: to take up smoking and to announce to my enemies that I forgave them. Burning cigarettes was an attempt to prove to myself that, although Helena was no longer there, I was
still alive. To show to myself that I could survive each and every cigarette. As for my enemies, there was no plan. It was not done out of goodness. I perceived it as something inevitable, preordained. I simply saw the names Melchor, Ariel, Rubén and Nuria in my diary. At first I tried to drop the idea. But, with each match that I lit (I have always preferred the slowness of matches to the immediacy of lighters), I was thinking: Melchor, Ariel, Rubén, Nuria.
It’s a touching, sweet story, that’s at its best when Neuman is describing his four various enemies and why they are enemies. That’s all great, but to be honest, the book I’m most curious about is El viajero del siglo, the Alfaguara Prize winning novel that’s being translated into English and will be published by Pushkin Press. Here’s the description from Neuman’s website:
An unpleasant night. A mysterious traveller. A small maze-like city where getting one’s bearings seems impossible. Just when the traveller is about to flee, a strange character stops him, changing his destiny forever. The rest is love and literature: an unexpected, unforgettable romance and a narrative world that, as it unfolds, condenses to a smaller scale the history of the modern West.
Traveller of the century is an ambitious experiment: it invites us to look at the 19th Century with 21th-Century eyes. A novel that recovers the inspiration of classic narrative, written from a contemporary approach. A post-modern reading of Romanticism, set in post-Napoleonic times, in an imaginary city of Germany. A dialogue between the Europe of the Restoration and the political plans of the European Union. A narrative bridge spanning the past and the global problems of our present: inmigration, multiculturalism, nationalisms, emancipation of women.
The book represents a large cultural mosaic in the service of an intense plot, one concerned primarily with the transformative power of love. An exceptional, funny, mature novel from a writer wise beyond his years. Five hundred pages that the reader will not be able to put down for even a moment.
And as a special treat for all Spanish readers out there, here’s an excerpt from the opening (also from Andres’s website, since the fricking PDF version of this I have is tagged with some sort of voodoo security that prevents me from even copying a paragraph . . . ):
¿Tie-ne frí-o-o?, gritó el cochero con la voz entrecortada por los saltos del carruaje. ¡Voy bie-e-en, gra-cias!, contestó Hans tiritando.
Los faroles se desenfocaban al ritmo del galope. Las ruedas escupían barro. A punto de partirse, los ejes se torcían en cada bache. Los caballos inflaban las mandíbulas y soltaban nubes por la boca. Sobre la línea del horizonte rodaba una luna opaca.
Hacía rato que Wandernburgo se dibujaba a lo lejos, al sur del camino. Pero, pensó Hans, como suele pasar al final de una jornada agotadora, aquella pequeña ciudad parecía desplazarse con ellos. Encima de la cabina el cielo pesaba. Con cada latigazo del cochero el frío se envalentonaba y oprimía el contorno de las cosas. ¿Fal-ta-a mu-cho?, preguntó Hans asomando la cabeza por la ventanilla. Tuvo que repetir dos veces la pregunta para que el cochero saliera de su ruidosa atención y, señalando con la fusta, exclamase: ¡Ya-a lo ve us-te-e-ed! Hans no supo si eso significaba que faltaban pocos minutos o que nunca se sabía. Como era el último pasajero y no tenía con quién hablar, cerró los ojos.
Cuando volvió a abrirlos, vio una muralla de piedra y una puerta abovedada. A medida que se acercaban Hans percibió algo anómalo en la robustez de la muralla, una especie de advertencia sobre la dificultad de salir, más que de entrar. A la luz ahogada de las farolas divisó las siluetas de los primeros edificios, las escamas de unos tejados, torres afiladas, ornamentos como vértebras. Tuvo la sensación de ingresar en un lugar recién desalojado, de que los golpes de los cascos y las sacudidas de las ruedas sobre los adoquines producían demasiado eco. Todo estaba tan quieto que parecía que alguien los espiaba conteniendo la respiración. El carruaje giró en una esquina, el sonido del galope se ensordeció: ahora el suelo era de tierra. Atravesaron la calle del Caldero Viejo. Hans divisó un letrero de hierro balanceándose. Le indicó al cochero que parase.
El cochero descendió del pescante y al pisar tierra pareció desconcertado. Dio dos o tres pasos, se miró los pies, sonrió con extravío. Acarició el lomo del primer caballo, le susurró unas palabras de gratitud a las que el animal replicó resoplando. Hans lo ayudó a desatar las cuerdas de la baca, a retirar la lona mojada, a bajar su maleta y un gran arcón con manijas. ¿Qué lleva aquí, un muerto?, se quejó el cochero dejando caer el arcón y frotándose las manos. Un muerto no, sonrió Hans, unos cuantos. (…)
Fue al quedarse solo con su equipaje frente a la posada cuando notó aguijones en la espalda, un vaivén en los músculos, un zumbido en las sienes. Conservaba la sensación del traqueteo, las luces seguían pareciendo parpadeantes, las piedras movedizas. Hans se frotó los ojos. Las ventanas empañadas no dejaban ver el interior de la posada. Llamó a la puerta, de la que aún colgaba una corona navideña. Nadie acudió. Probó el picaporte helado. La puerta cedió a empujones. Divisó un pasillo alumbrado con candiles de aceite que pendían de un garfio. Sintió el beneficio cálido del interior. Al fondo del pasillo se oía un alborotar de chispas. Hans arrastró con esfuerzo la maleta y el arcón dentro de la posada. Permaneció debajo de un candil, intentando recobrar la temperatura. Se sobresaltó al reparar en el señor Zeit, que lo miraba tras el mostrador de la recepción. Iba a ir a abrirle, dijo. El posadero se movió con extrema lentitud, como si se hubiera quedado atrapado entre el mostrador y la pared. Tenía una barriga en forma de tambor. Olía a tela viciada. ¿De dónde viene usted?, preguntó. Ahora vengo de Berlín, dijo Hans, aunque eso en realidad no importa. A mí sí me importa, caballero, lo interrumpió el señor Zeit sin sospechar que Hans se refería a otra cosa, ¿y cuántas noches piensa quedarse? Supongo que una, dijo Hans, no estoy seguro. Cuando lo sepa, contestó el posadero, por favor comuníquemelo, necesitamos saber qué habitaciones van a estar disponibles.
El señor Zeit buscó un candelabro. Condujo a Hans a través del pasillo, después por unas escaleras. Hans miraba su figura oronda escalando cada peldaño. Temió que se le viniera encima. Toda la posada olía a aceite quemándose, al azufre de las mechas, a jabón y sudor mezclados. Pasaron la primera planta y siguieron subiendo. A Hans le extrañó observar que las habitaciones parecían desocupadas. Al llegar a la segunda planta, el posadero se detuvo frente a una puerta con un número siete escrito en tiza. Recuperando el aliento, aclaró con orgullo: La siete es la mejor. Sacó de un bolsillo un aro, un aro sufrido, cargado de llaves, y tras varios intentos y maldiciones en voz baja, entraron en la habitación.
Candelabro en mano, el posadero fue haciendo un surco en la oscuridad hasta llegar a la ventana. Al abrir los postigos, la ventana emitió un acorde de maderas y polvo. La luz de la calle era tan débil que, más que alumbrar la habitación, se sumó a la penumbra como un gas. (…)
Boca arriba en el catre, Hans tanteó la aspereza de las sábanas con la punta de los pies. Al entornar los párpados, le pareció escuchar rasguños bajo las tablas del suelo. Mientras el sopor lo envolvía y todo dejaba de importarle, se dijo: Mañana junto mis cosas y me voy a otro sitio. Si se hubiera acercado al techo con una vela, habría descubierto las grandes telarañas de las vigas. Entre las telarañas un insecto asistió al sueño de Hans, hilo por hilo.
See you next week!
As we mentioned last Friday, we’re going to spend the next 19 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.
As a Thanksgiving Day special, we’re featuring Chilean author Carlos Labbe, whose short story has one of the coolest titles: “The Girls Resembled Each Other in the Unfathomable,” which is translated by Natasha Wimmer.
To this day, investigators are still adding sightings of Bruno Vivar to the case file of the disappeared Navidad siblings. Every summer since the incident, a dozen witnesses from different parts of central Chile claim to have seen a young man fitting his description: striped T-shirt in various combinations of primary colours; shorts or bathing trunks; leather sandals; extremely thin hairless legs; dishevelled hair in a ragged cut, sometimes brown and other times dyed red. Over and over again, as if his parents’ last memory of him had been burned on the retinas of so many who never knew him (the press coverage was as intense as it was brief), they see Bruno Vivar lying in the sand, face down on a towel, staring out to sea, looking disdainfully through some photographs, or swimming in silence. Other testimonies, of course, add specific and equally disturbing details: Bruno drinking at hotel bars, beer in cans or double shots of whiskey that he pays for with a card issued in the United States, while with the other hand he fondles a die that he spins like a top on the lacquered surface of the bar; sitting on a terrace at noon, noisily eating French fries; reading, in the dining hall, a letter delivered to the hotel weeks before; tossing the die and then writing another letter never sent by the local mail.
These bits of information come from different sources: guards; waiters; store clerks; receptionists; cleaning people who at the time also yearned to assemble the missing pieces of the case but who only succeeded in helping the police to declare impossible a verdict of either homicide or kidnapping. It has been tacitly assumed that Bruno Vivar – a legal adult – simply abandoned his family all of a sudden, which isn’t a crime in Chile.
The unasked question is why the name of Alicia Vivar, the fourteen-year-old girl, appears only twice in the file. Especially after a detailed review of reports on the reappearances of her brother, Bruno. Because Bruno never once turns up alone. The various accounts agree that he arrives at hotel parking garages in different expensive cars always driven by a man whose smile also appears in police files, though in another section: Boris Real.
This is a great way to start an excerpt. The speculation, the intriguing clues, the incompleteness—all of which makes this compelling, makes you want to continue reading. Not going to give anything else away, but this is a tight, well-crafted, five-page story. Definitely one of my favorites (so far) in this issue of Granta, and I really hope this whole novel (entitled Navidad y Matanza) is eventually published in English.
In addition to his work, Labbe sounds like an interesting guy. He’s the author three novels (this one plus Libro de plumas and Locuela), and a collection of short stories (Caracteres blancos). He also co-wrote two screenplays (Malta con huevos [Malta with Eggs?] and Yo so Cagliostro), and is the author of the hypertext (?!) Pentagonal: includidos tu y yo, which is available here.
On top of all this, Labbe used to be a member of the bands Ex Fiesta and Tornasolidos. Seeing that this is Thanksgiving (which also markst the beginning of the Guadalajara Book Fair), and that there’s probably only about 5 of you actually reading this, in between turkey and pumpkin pie, looking for a momentary escape from your family (whom you love, but who can be a bit, you know, much to take at times), I thought that rather than bore you with literary analysis and endless accolades for this 33-year-old wunderkind, that I’d leave you with a song from one of Labbe’s bands. Unfortunately there’s no YouTube video of Tornasolidos rocking out (I know! I can’t believe it either), so I had to go all old-school and pull this song from MySpace (MySpace!). Enjoy!
And don’t forget, you can get this entire issue for free by subscribing to Granta.
Next up: Andres Neuman.
As we mentioned last Friday, we’re going to spend the next 20 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 we have a special interview with Federico Falco, whose new story “In Utah There Are Mountains Too” appears in this issue.
Emily Davis: What does it mean to you to have been named by Granta one of the Best Young Spanish-Language Novelists?
Federico Falco: First of all, a recognition of this caliber is a great joy, it means opportunity for my work and my career, something that I value very highly. At the same time, it is a sign that I am heading in the right direction, that I ought to continue on that path and also, of course, it is a great responsibility. One has to try not to disappoint the expectations that come of a recognition like this one.
ED: Where did the desire to be a writer come from?
FF: When I was small I lived in a village where there were no bookstores and the only libraries were not very well stocked. Fortunately, in my home and in the home of one my aunts, there were a lot of books. I grew up watching my parents read—something that not all the adults I knew did—and they always gave me a lot of freedom to rummage through the bookcases and pick out the books that interested me. As a form of entertainment but also of escape, my infancy and adolescence were marked by reading. Maybe because of that, the desire to start writing my own stories developed naturally. When I was ten or eleven I had already started and abandoned several novels and I couldn’t wait to get to high school because I figured that there they would teach me to write better.
ED: What writers have influenced you?
FF: Tons. Chekhov, Tolstoy, Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, Francis Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, John Cheever, Flannery O’Connor, Carver, Cesare Pavese, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Eugenio Montale, Natalia Ginzburg. Among Argentines, Juan José Saer, Antonio Di Benedetto, Manuel Puig, Daniel Moyano, Andrés Rivera, and many more.
ED: Do you have a favorite writer among the others on the new Granta list?
FF: I haven’t read all of the authors. There are several that I didn’t know before they appeared on the Granta list and, up until now, I’ve hardly read what they published in this issue of the magazine. Also, some of their books are hard to come by outside the country where they were initially published, so it would be difficult for me to respond to this question without being partial and unfair. Of course, among those I know and have read, there are many that I like a lot.
ED: You were born in a small city in the interior of Argentina. Does that experience figure into your stories? I am thinking for example of Villa Carlos Paz in “In Utah There Are Mountains Too,” your new story published in this issue of Granta. Is there perhaps some resonance there?
FF: Villa Carlos Paz is a fairly large city or, at least, medium-sized. Besides, it is a touristic city, and that makes it very peculiar, the social ties among neighbors are different, there are people arriving and departing all the time. General Cabrera, the village where I was born and lived until I was 18, doesn’t have any of that and so, I don’t know how much my village experience resonates with this text in particular. But certainly in many of my earlier stories the village appears as a geographic space, the pampas plain as the landscape, General Cabrera itself, a little mythologized, but barely transformed.
ED: Where did the idea for “In Utah There Are Mountains Too” come from?
FF: This text was part of a novel that I am writing, but it took on a life of its own, gained autonomy and, for structural reasons, ended up outside the original plan and became an independent story. The novel takes the form of a biography, I am writing a semifictional and novelized biography of a poet from my city and she, in her adolescence, fell in love with a Mormon missionary who couldn’t reciprocate. That was the initial anecdote that gave rise to the story.
ED: What are you working on now?
FF: On two projects at the same time, both novels. One is a false biography of Cuqui, a poet and performer from Córdoba who is my age. The other text is still in a more embryonic state, the premise is that it takes place in the sierras of Córdoba, a place that I conceive of as mythical: it’s where people flee to from the big cities, in search of peace, tranquility and contact with nature. It is also a place of hope and second chances, the characters will attempt to create a new life there, among the mountains and skies of Córdoba.
And don’t forget, Granta has a special offer for all readers of Three Percent: if you subscribe now you’ll receive this special issue featuring the “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” for free
Up next: Carlos Labbe.
As we mentioned last Friday, we’re going to spend the next 21 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.
Up today: Peruvian author Santiago Roncagliolo, whose new short story “Stars and Stripes” is included in this issue.
Last year, in the run-up to announcing the longlist for the Best Translation Book Award for Fiction, there was a bit of chatter about Santiago Roncagliolo’s Red April. This “chilling political thriller set at the end of Peru’s grim war between Shining Path terrorists and a morally bankrupt government counterinsurgency,” which was translated by Edith Grossman, centers around Associate District Prosecutor Felix Chacaltana Saldivar and his investigation of a gruesome, bizarre murder. It’s a very intriguing novel, one that Michael Orthofer of Complete Review gave a solid B, having this to say:
Red April is an intriguing if somewhat messy thriller, with no easy answers and culpability (of different sorts) all around. Chacaltana is, for the most part, an appealingly clueless figure in this world gone bad, though his own transformation seems a bit much by the end; his relationship with Edith also strains some credulity. Nevertheless, it’s a solid portrait of a place steeped almost hopelessly in the completely corrupted, with little sense of hope for change or a better future.
A somewhat uneasy mix of political and crime thriller, Roncagliolo does paint some very vivid and powerful scenes—but it is of a dark and desolate world.
Fellow BTBA judge, Monica Carter, also reviewed Red April and had this to say:
There are many disturbing things about this novel—the violence, the corruption and the religious overtones—which can all easily be filed under ‘amoral’ in the literary tricks rolodex of the thriller genre. But what makes this novel a little messier, a little more uncertain, is the narrator. Chalcatana is not necessarily unreliable, but for a reader, it’s difficult to overlook his peculiarities. It’s difficult to believe him. Chalcatana moves back into this childhood home where he lives alone except for the overwhelming eerie presence of his deceased mother. He keeps her room exactly the same, lays her clothes out as if she were still alive, talks to her pictures and even goes as far as behaving as if she were still alive by keeping appointments with her. Strange, yes. Criminal, no. Disturbing? Slightly . . .
Roncagliolo’s other books seem to fit a similar interest in crime, violence, terrorism. According to the Granta bio, Roncagliolo’s non-fiction novel La curata espada “delves into the mind of the most dangerous terrorist in the history of the Americas, Abimael Guzman of Sendero Luminoso.” His book Memorias de una dama is about the origins of the Mafia in Cuba and “its publication is prohibited throughout the entire world.” (Again, Roncagliolo is only 35 and already has a book banned everywhere. I’ve been wasting my life . . .) Expanding on the Mafia & terrorism theme, his latest novel, Tan cerca de la vida, is about Tokyo’s sex market.
“Stars and Stripes,” also translated by the amazing Edie Grossman, contains a few connection to underworld dealings, but these moments are reflected through the more innocent character of Carlitos. This excerpt encapsulates the seediness underlying the story, along with the sweet sort of awkward and hints of nostalgia that color “Stars and Stripes”:
bq Though Carlitos wasn’t to blame for anything, I was furious with him. Simply put, his company reminded me of my failure with Mily. I stopped seeing him. I didn’t want him to interfere with my difficult progress towards a first kiss. Apparently this served only to make Carlitos want to see me more than ever. He rang my bell six days in a row. He asked my parents about me. He telephoned me at midnight. I never responded. It wouldn’t take me long to regret that. Mily’s kiss never came, but at the end of the summer, I learned from other neighbours about the tragedy that had struck Carlitos’s family while I was ignoring him.
That year his parents had sent his older brother to study in the United States. Manuel – that was his brother’s name – had begun to travel back and forth very frequently, too frequently, but no one thought it strange. After all, Carlitos’s father had been promoted to the rank of admiral. His house was filled with armed bodyguards, and in all probability he earned a great deal of money. Sending the boy back and forth wouldn’t represent a huge expenditure for him.
What did surprise everyone was that the police arrested Manuel at the airport, when he was about to leave on one of his trips. This time Manuel had spent barely forty-eight hours in Lima, going out to discotheques at night and sleeping during the day. His family hardly saw him, and even though they were beginning to suspect what was going on, nobody felt like asking questions. They were probably confident an admiral’s son would not be arrested.
At first, no one believed that Manuel’s detention would last too long. It had to be a mistake. Or the admiral would make certain it was a mistake. But it seems Manuel was carrying too much cocaine for the matter to be ignored, or even for him to be given a light sentence. And apparently his father didn’t tolerate that kind of behaviour in his family. He used all his connections to get him a decent cell in a maximum-security prison, but he couldn’t or wouldn’t do more.
Another boy in the neighbourhood told me all this, and when I heard about it, I felt guilty for having ignored Carlitos’s phone calls. I went to see him right away. His mother received me with a sombre expression that I didn’t want to interpret as a reproach for my absence. His father didn’t even know who I was.
I found Carlitos with his GI Joes, which were beginning to seem anachronistic in a boy his age, and his American footballs, which he never used because nobody knew how to play the game. I didn’t know what to say and sat down on his bed. He didn’t say anything either. His room smelled strange, but it always smelled strange.
After a time spent in silence, the clock struck five, the time when Mily walked her dog, and it occurred to me that I could do something to make up for my bad behaviour. I took him to the park and tried to organize some lively talk between the three of us. When I thought everything was off to a good start, I pretended I had to go to the dentist and left them alone. I never found out more, and Carlitos never talked about it.
Some six or seven years later, I ran into Mily at a discotheque. We danced, laughed and recalled the old days. In the end we spent the night together. It was fun, and a little nostalgic. Before I fell asleep, I remembered the episode in the park and asked: ‘Listen, do you remember the afternoon when I left you with Carlitos? Did you do anything? Even just a kiss?’
‘Nothing,’ she said. ‘I tried, that afternoon and many other afternoons, but he only wanted to show me his baseball cards.’
Not nearly as gruesome and disturbed as Red April . . . Hopefully more of Roncagliolo will make its way into English. (Especially that banned book . . . What’s freedom of speech good for if we can’t read books whose publication is prohibited “throughout the entire world”? Just that line along would help sell ten thousand copies . . . And add in Cuba . . . This has the makings of a best-seller.)
And don’t forget, Granta has a special offer for all readers of Three Percent: if you subscribe now you’ll receive this special issue featuring the “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” for free.
Tomorrow: An interview with Federico Falco.
See this post about Barba for more information about this piece, which was translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman.
The ad in the “male seeking male” section said:
I’m so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.
and was in amongst others listing predictable obscenities and a series of oral necessities. Page 43. At the top. Above a bisexual named Ángel soliciting a threesome and beneath the photo of a man of indeterminate age and sadness who wore a mask that gave him the pathetic air of a terrorist just emerging from the shower; it said so alone just like that, like it was nothing, it said it with the afternoon languor pressing in through the living room window (the one that overlooked the park) almost the way you accept the ritual of Sunday afternoon boredom, with no resentment.
I’m so alone.
If he had accepted Marta’s invitation, now he would have an excuse to get dressed, go out; the doorman’s little desk would be empty, the street would be empty, the dog would stare up at him, watery eyes, panting tongue, tail wagging to the rhythm of his desire to go for a walk, “Platz. Paw. Sit,” repeated, the same as the light, an anonymous conversation beneath his bedroom window (the one that overlooked the patio), traffic.
He bought it last night and the first thing he did was check the ages of the men who’d placed the ads (almost never stated, which was worse because it meant that the majority of them were probably young). The ones who dared to send a photo took the risk of being recognized. He had gone out to buy cigarettes and ended up buying the magazine. When he got home he started to masturbate to one of the personals but ended up using an erotic art catalogue he’d bought last month. When he finished he washed his hands, made some soup and fed the dog. There were no movies on TV. Marta called to invite him over for Sunday lunch with Ramón and the kids and he declined, saying he had other plans. But he didn’t have other plans. The movies playing at the theater didn’t appeal to him enough to make him want to go out, deal with the hassle of the ticket and refreshment lines, and then return home without being able to rave about or even discuss what he’d seen. He hadn’t been to an art exhibit in years. He fell asleep thinking tomorrow he would take it easy at home, and it didn’t sound like a bad idea. Sometimes he liked to stay in, lose track of time watching TV after lunch, listen to Chopin while lounging on the sofa, leafing through a book. The magazine lay on one of the armchairs like a long-drawn-out, accepted failure. After having used it last night, he thought he’d throw it away, but he’d left it there and when he finished watching the afternoon movie it had sat there, looking up at him saying Madrid Contactos on the cover in red letters and death to hypocrisy in smaller ones, under the headline and above the photo of a woman who looked like his brother-in-law Ramón’s sister because, like her, she wore half a ton of mascara on each eye and her thin lips were made up to look fuller, filled in beyond her lip line. He opened it back up to the “male seeking male” section. He lingered over the pictures again and became excited again.
I’m so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.
Then it dawned on him that this had been going on for many years. Simply, almost painlessly, he had become resigned to the fact that he himself would never demand the things the personals were asking for, and although on a couple of occasions he had contracted a rent boy and brought him up to his apartment, the fact that he had to pay, the whole act of the wallet, the question, the exchange, turned him off to such a degree that he would then become uncomfortable at how long he took and once or twice ended up asking the guy to leave out of sheer disgust.
The dog barked and he found his shoes to take him down for a walk. He left the light on and put on his coat.
Monday everything looked the same from the bank’s office window. A Coca-Cola sign flashed on and off, as did the recently hung lights announcing the imminent advent of Christmas. He had heard something about an office party and, although he’d said he would go – declining would have launched a desperate search for excuses – they knew, as he did, that it had been years since he had last liked Alberto’s jokes (always the same, whispered to the new secretary or the newest female graduate to be hired), Andrés’s toasts and Sandra’s conversations about the kids. The fact that he was the oldest employee at the office allowed him to decline those invitations, ignore them without having to worry about subsequent hatreds that were felt but never expressed. He enjoyed that in the same way that he enjoyed his solitude, his collection of consolations and little excesses (Napoleon cognac, fancy cigarettes, a weekly dinner at an expensive restaurant) that he had grown used to and that led him to grant that he was a reasonably happy man. Jokes about his homosexuality told in hushed tones at the office met with his indifference, making him invulnerable, and although his exterior coldness had begun as a survival technique, now he really did feel comfortable in it, like someone who finally finds a warm place to take refuge and decides to make do, without yearning for anything better.
But the ad in that magazine said:
I’m so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.
And those few words had begun, since he read them on Saturday night, to unravel everything. When he finished work on Monday he felt anxious and he didn’t know why. Or he did, but didn’t want to admit it. Accepting that he wanted to call that number would have meant accepting disorder where, for many long years, there had reigned peace, or something that, without actually being peace, was somehow akin to it: his Napoleon cognac, lunch at Marta’s house once every two weeks, walking the dog, the nightly TV movie he watched until tiredness overcame him, maybe the occasional rent boy he’d bring home in his car and whose presence he would then try to erase as soon as possible, fluffing up the sofa cushions (not the bed, never the bed), opening the windows, repenting.
That night he took the dog for a walk earlier than usual and then it became undeniable. Something had broken. Something fragile and very fine had broken. He always ate dinner first, smoked a cigarette watching TV and then took the dog out. Why hadn’t he done that today? The dog hadn’t even wagged his tail when he saw him approach with the leash and, on the way down in the elevator, had looked up at him with an expression of bovine wonderment.
“Paw,” he said. “Paw” and the dog gave him his paw, tongue out and eyebrows raised, as if his owner were teaching him the rules of a new game.
When he got back he looked for the magazine. He’d left it on the table, he was sure, and now it wasn’t there. He looked in the bathroom, and in the kitchen. He shuffled through his desk drawers. Any other day at this time he would have already had dinner and be smoking his cigarette, getting ready to walk the dog, yet that night not only had he not done it but he was nervous, desperately searching for that magazine that he wouldn’t even have been able to masturbate to without the help of the erotic art catalogue he’d bought last month. Finding himself in this situation increased his desperation, but he didn’t give up until he found it. It was on the floor beside the sofa. He opened it again and became excited reading the personals again, but there was something a little different. It wasn’t the TV, or the cognac, or the dog, but himself, in the midst of all those other things. Reading all of the ads was a game he submitted to, fooling himself and yet all the while knowing precisely what he was looking for. Page 43. At the top. Above a bisexual named Ángel soliciting a threesome and beneath the photo of the nude man with the mask.
I’m so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.
Finding it was like feigning surprise when an expected visitor arrived, except this time the surprise was real; it was as if the ad had never been there and he had invented it at the bank. He had never met anyone named Roberto, so –though it was a common name – it had hung in the balance on page 43 like a riddle waiting to be solved. It wasn’t an ugly name. Roberto. Anxiety made him eat the steaks he was saving for the weekend. Now he’d have to go shopping again because the leftover rice he’d been planning to have tonight would have gone bad by tomorrow. This was no good at all. Not that it was bad to have eaten something he was saving for another time; that was one of the sorts of luxuries that made him reasonably happy. But doing it the way he’d done it, just like that, for no reason. But really, had there been reasons the other times?
Half an hour later he couldn’t sleep. He always went to bed early, capitalizing on television’s soporific effect, and that night he couldn’t sleep. He’d taken the magazine with him to bed and left it on his nightstand. He picked it up and opened it but then felt ridiculous. It was all Roberto’s fault. In the open wardrobe door, he could see the dark, faint reflection of his fifty-six year old body in the glow of the television, projecting tiredness and an obesity that, while not obscene, he had never made a serious attempt to combat. He felt pathetic for having entered into the game Roberto was proposing. How – after so many years of reasonable happiness, of peace – could so blatant a ploy have gotten the better of him? Crumpling it up, he took it to the kitchen and threw it in the trash. Then he tied the bag and left it by the door, hoping that the doorman would not have made his rounds yet. Sleep descended upon him that night serene and unburdened. He was proud of himself.
In the morning the trash bag was gone. He could have verified this simply by looking out the peephole but instead he opened the door. At the bank, they asked him if he felt all right when he arrived.
“I have a little bit of a headache,” he said.
“It’s the flu. People are dropping like flies.”
But it wasn’t the flu. The Coca-Cola sign flashed on and off, as did the Christmas lights. It was Christmastime. How had he not realized? Two years ago he’d felt a slow-burning sadness during the holidays, too, and he hadn’t been able to shake it off until they had taken the lights down. But what he felt now wasn’t really sadness. He was anxious. He made a mistake keying in the number of a bank account and spent almost half an hour arguing with a customer who claimed his deposits were not being credited correctly. At lunchtime he went to get the first-aid kit to take his temperature. But he had no fever. He took an aspirin. But he didn’t have a headache. The ad said:
I’m so alone. Roberto, and then there was a phone number. He couldn’t remember the number. He, who had always been so proud of his numeric memory, couldn’t recall the number. It started 307. It started 307 and then there was something like 4680. It wasn’t 4680 but it was similar to 4680. 5690. 3680.
I’m so alone. Roberto, and then 307…
When he left the bank he didn’t go home but instead walked to the kiosk where he’d bought the personals magazine the other day.
“Check over there,” the newsagent said.
It wasn’t there.
“Don’t you have any more?”
“Aren’t there any there?”
“I can’t see any.”
“Then we must be out.”
He couldn’t find it at the sex shop three blocks down, either, and the clerk hadn’t even heard of the magazine. He thought about filing a complaint but that seemed ridiculous. When he got home the dog was restless because he’d been gone so long. He was hungry and wagged his tail. Any other day he’d have felt relaxed arriving home, but this time he didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know if he should sit down or watch TV. He hadn’t eaten dinner yet. He had to walk the dog. Suddenly every act that, for years, he had performed in a ritual of leisurely contentment seemed an unbearable obligation. He put on the dog’s leash and went down to take him for a walk but didn’t follow his usual route. When he got back, though he had no appetite, he ate dinner and then took two sleeping pills. He dreamed of someone he had loved for three long years a long time ago, but he couldn’t see his face; there was only the familiar presence of that body lying beside him, his smell, his saliva.
Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday he went to the bank with a fever. He felt weak but at the same time he wanted to scream. It seemed impossible to him that he had held on this way for so many years. During his lunch break he went out to his usual café-bar for a sandwich and coffee but he felt excluded from everything around him. Wherever he looked, all he saw were couples, kisses, little signs of affection. The cold condescendence he once looked on with now turned against him, blowing up in his face with envy and anxiety. He had to find that magazine. Now.
I’m so alone, said Roberto. He was alone, too. He wanted to be kissing someone, like all those couples, holding someone’s hand, buying presents. Irony was a game he could no longer play.
As we mentioned last Friday, we’re going to spend the next 22 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.
First up: Spanish author Andres Barba, whose new short story “The Coming Flood” is included in this issue.
I’ve been hearing about Andres Barba for years thanks to Lisa Dillman. She’s been extremely active in promoting Barba—hailing him as one of the “great young Spanish authors” before this issue of Granta was a footnote in an editor’s dreaming eye.
Barba’s a pretty prolific writer . . . He’s all of 35 years old, and in addition to Katia, he’s the author of the novels Ahora tocad musica de baile, Versiones de Teresa, Las manos pequenas, Agosto, octubre, and Muerte de un caballo. In addition (in addition?!?), he received the Anagrama Essay Prize for La ceremonia del porno and wrote a colleciton of novellas entitled La recta intencion. (More on that in a second.)
“The Coming Flood,” the new story included in this issue, which was translated by Lisa Dillman, is about a woman willing to do whatever it takes (mainly prostituting herself) in order to get enough money to have a horn implanted on her face. Which is as strange as it sounds, but is a desire that gathers in intensity as the story progresses:
The idea has a life of its own. She closes her eyes, overcome, feeling something sweet, sharp, finally full of harmony; the safety of the bone. Operations in the past: lips once, breasts four times, ribs removed, cheekbones done, and in her diary, sometimes, between one operation and the next, she’d write ‘I’m a monster.’ Other times she’d write: ‘For my next operation . . .’ Her writing now is perky, vibrant. She doesn’t sleep that night either. Little by little the unrest subsides, but come dawn, it’s back. Now the house, a dank place, befits her large body. Because the body secretes feelings, but you’ve got to be close enough to perceive them. And one day she leaves home and lets out a low moan she’d have liked to make last. Who could say why she walks there when what she wants is to avoid the place? But she holds onto the railing at the entrance and then, as if thrust forcefully, takes one step and then another with the trusty tick-tock of a clock. ‘My face with a horn, my smile with a horn, my arms and legs and tits and cunt with a horn.’ She needs the vulgarity of those words, but there’s no more money. There are no more calls, no more film shoots.
As a special bonus, Lisa Dillman was kind enough to send us an excerpt from Barba’s Nocturne, one of the novellas from La recta intencion. Since this is a pretty long sample, and since I tend to write too many over-long blog posts, I’m going to make this a separate entry, which you can “find here.”:
And don’t forget, if you want to read all of “The Coming Flood” (and 21 other pieces), you can receive this issue for free by subscribing to Granta.
Up tomorrow: Santiago Roncagliolo.
I’ve always had a thing for Spanish literature. Not sure exactly why or how this started, although I do remember struggling my way through Cortazar’s “A Continuity of Parks,” thinking holy s— this can’t actually be what’s happening, then reading the English version, finding myself even more blown away and proceeding to devour his entire oeuvre over the course of the ensuing year. (The next tattoo I get will likely be a reference to either Hopscotch or 62: A Model Kit.)
There’s something special about the great Spanish-language works . . . They can be as philosophically complicated as the French (see Juan Jose Saer’s Nouveau Roman influenced novels), while still remaining very grounded, emotional (see all of Manuel Puig), and others represent the epitome of wordplay and linguistic gamesmanship (see Cabrera Infante’s Three Trapped Tigers).
Not trying to say that Spanish-language literature is better than that of other languages—I’m just trying to explain why I’m so drawn to it, why we published Latin American authors make up such a large portion of Open Letter’s list (Macedonio Fernandez, Juan Jose Saer, Alejandro Zambra, Sergio Chejfec, not to mention the Catalan writers, which, though vastly different in language, have a sort of kinship with their fellow Spanish writers). And why I read so many Spanish works in my “free time,” why I love Buenos Aires, the tango, etc. . . .
Regardless, when I found out that Granta was releasing a special issue of the “Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” I was psyched. (This really hits at the crux of my obsessions: Spanish literature and lists.) I tried to tease names from the forthcoming list out of the wonderful Saskia Vogel and the multi-talented John Freeman, but neither would give away any secrets. So when the list was finally announced, I was doubly pleased to see that six of the authors on there either already are published by Open Letter or will be in the near future.
But equally, if not more exciting, was the fact that the vast majority of names on this list were new to me . . .
So I’ve been counting down the days until this issue releases. (Which it technically does on Monday.) And talking with the aforementioned John Freeman and Saskia Vogel about things Three Percent could do to help spread the word about this project.
As you may have already seen, we did run the uncut introduction that appeared in the Spanish-language version of this issue, but, though fascinating, that doesn’t really explain who these 22 authors are, or what they’re actually up to.
After a series of back-and-forth e-mails—all filled with excitement and possibility—we’ve decided to launch a special “22 Days of Awesome” series, through which, starting on Monday, with the help of superstar Open Letter intern Emily Davis, we’ll be highlighting one author a day from the Granta issue. This may take the form of an interview with the author, info about his/her work, rambling appreciations, comments from the translator, or a special excerpt. The point being that Granta deserves props for putting together this amazing issue, but each of the authors also deserves his/her individual chance to be acknowledged and congratulated.
All of these posts will be stored under the young spanish novelists tag, making it easy to find the individual posts, etc. We’re also planning some sort of Twitter conversation about the issue, and as a special offer, if you click here you can subscribe to Granta and receive this issue for free!
This should be a very interesting tour of contemporary Spanish-language literature, and a glimpse into the future, since I’m pretty sure all of these authors will (or already are) be available in English-translation sometime soon . . . So please tell your friends, professors, booksellers, etc., about this little project, and feel free to chime in in the comments section with your thoughts, opinions, complaints, etc.
Concurrent with our trip through this issue, Granta‘s blog will be running its own set of interviews and whatnot. Today they have a post from Adam Thirlwell (who wrote a wonderful introduction to Macedonio Fernandez’s The Museum of Eterna’s Novel (The First Good Novel), is the author of two novels, and wrote The Delighted States, a book about translation that I’m greatly enjoying) about lists:
This, of course, is the era of Lists. But no, I’ve gone too fast. The real definition of our era is this: it’s the era when reading is difficult. We are in the kindergarten of images, the playground of spectacle: the total jouissance. When I was a kid it was the era of video; the Walkman and the floppy disc. In other words, dear remaining readers, it was still the era of words. Now, the images are so much less solid, so much more transparent and dissolving and so the images are everywhere. Which is why in minute resistance to the fact that images are everywhere, are transparent, and that reading is difficult, a certain kind of sad and noble person begins to make Lists. These are the Lists of Necessary Reading. [. . .]
Because let’s be honest about the problem. Some literature, naturally, some of the time, becomes the literature that is briefly read. Let’s delete literature: let’s call it novels. The novels that are briefly read have three categories. There are the Novels That Everyone Is Reading: the novels of momentary stardom. Apart from these novels there are two other ways for a novel and a novelist to emerge in public. There is, sometimes, the Avantgarde that enrages and disturbs – with its crazy games, its crazy sextalk, its crazy violence. And then, sometimes, there is the Lost Avantgarde that enrages and disturbs: the historical avantgarde, the rediscovered classic. These are the three categories of books that reach the category of reading. Whereas most novels most of the time inhabit a strange realm of the calmly unread: the absolutely absent. And this is why a certain kind of noble magazine decides to invent a public Reading List. They are a magnanimous form of publicity. Even if, of course, a ruthlessness is already visible: where are the Lists of the Very Old? Where are the Lists of the Very Foreign? Because this is the age of spectacle, after all. Even the listmaker knows the limitations.
And as always, Granta is planning a series of interesting events to promote this particular issue. These events kick off this weekend with two events at the Miami International Book Fair:
Friday 19 November: Granta 113: The Miami Book Fair Launch Party
Join novelists Pola Oloixarac and Carlos Yushimito and editors John Freeman, Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles to celebrate the US launch.
Gemma Lounge, 529 Lincoln Road, Miami, FL 33139, 8 p.m.
Saturday 20 November: Introducing The Best of Young Spanish-language Novelists: The US Launch
Pola Oloixarac, Carlos Yushimito and editors John Freeman, Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles ask: Why this list? and Why now?
Miami International Book Fair, Room 3314 (Building 3, 3rd Floor), Miami Dade College, 300 NE Second Ave, Miami, FL 33132, 4 p.m.
If you’re in Miami, both of these seem worthwhile checking out . . .
Finally, if you want to purchase this issue, it’ll be available next week in better bookstores everywhere, or, as mentioned above, you can receive a free copy of this issue by subscribing to Granta.
OK, I’ll be back Monday with the first of our “22 Days of Awesome” . . .
Here’s the final part of the unedited version of Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles’s introduction to the special issue of Granta dedicated to “Young Spanish Novelists.” Part I is available here, Part II, here, and you can download a Word doc of the entire piece by clicking here.
If a good part of contemporary Spanish literature seems eccentric to Europe, Latin America has always been the literary Far West, offering another way of being European, if you wish, since the traditions there incorporate all sources, not only their own. No other language shares the same territorial expanse (nor population) in contiguous “nations”. Its modernity seemed peripheral until its literature became contemporary of all men in the sixties: it brought about a renovation in the metropolises of various languages, thus moving the periphery into the center. The intellectual meridian has not passed through Madrid for over a century, although the publishing meridian cuts across both Madrid and Barcelona, where writers can be found building their reputations, which then furthers their regional prestige. The controversy over whether there are national literatures in Latin America has long become the stuff of historians, and we prefer to sustain, without excessive romanticisms, that the literary homeland is the language itself. Although in reality all literature is a magma of forces and traditions or trends in opposition, fluctuation and influence; of the living and the dead, of all languages—as is proven by reading the authors selected for this issue—and put in circulation by other hidden legislators: the translators, the editors and the critics (since without criticism there is no literature, either). In order to discover this, though, one needs to know the works, and this can only be done by reading, obviously, in translation. This issue, for example. Need we be reminded that a literary culture in which there is no translation is doomed to repeating the same things to itself over and over again?
This issue is being published almost simultaneously in English and Spanish, as witnessed by the cover. Fifteen years ago, a selection of the best young writers in Spanish would not have encountered such favorable circumstances for translation. Until recently, above all in the U.S. and given the rule of English as lingua franca and the relevance of its publishing industry (although we must not forget that the lion’s share of corporations are owned by the Germans or the French, which is to say Europeans, and London and New York are not the only hubs of power in the literary world), the lack of interest in Spanish language writers has been notable. Perhaps such cultural customs as using the labels of “Latino” or “Hispanic” to things written in Spanish, which seems more to suggest the idea of quotas, confusing literary values with those of integration, could be a culprit in the U.S. A sort of mental isolationism. Perhaps the Latin American authors who were consecrated in the 60s satisfied the scarce curiosity of the wider readership and so there was no more room. Some writers, in search of an audience, went so far as to write directly in English. There are many prestigious examples. But the city with the third largest Spanish-speaking population is in the U.S. and Spanish is the country’s second language. Latin American and Spanish writers have been somewhat perplexed by this lack of interest in translation, given the fact that the foundation for the English literary tradition is itself a translation (the Bible). The center is more provincial than the periphery. In Latin America and Spain literary translation from many languages is the norm, evidenced by the authors admired by the writers chosen for this issue: still Faulkner, Nabokov, Joyce, Bernhard, Cheever, Salinger, among others (Borges and Onetti). Obviously then, although it should be repeated, the intermediation of translation guarantees the exchange between the centers of literary power.
The situation in the U.S. is changing more quickly than in the UK, thanks to a new generation of small independent initiatives in the wake of others like New Directions, which has been publishing translations since 1936. Eliot Weinberger has keenly pointed out that the recent disposition and aperture to translated literature is a consequence of the attacks on September 11th almost a decade ago. The influence of Cien años de soledad on American and world literature and the wide readerships gained by genre novelists, or the recent popularity of authors like Carlos Ruíz Zafón on one hand and the work of Roberto Bolaño among the young writers on the other, or the universal critical acclaim for the work of Javier Marías, have all served to up the ante and renew the narrative credit of Spanish language literature in its diverse strata. The collection of young writers selected by this conspiracy of readers in Granta aims to seal a pact, a secret handshake of sorts, which we hope in ten years will prove the value of this arsenal of shared references, as has been the case in prior Granta selections; in ten years we will see if our choices were correct, how many of these writers will still be read, how many of them will endure.
Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles
Here’s the second part of the unedited version of Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles’s introduction to the special issue of Granta dedicated to “Young Spanish Novelists.” Part I is available here and you can download a Word doc of the entire piece by clicking here.
To select the young writers within the last named context we invited four writers, who exercise the trade in diverse ways from a variety of origins to serve as jurors, each offering a somewhat detached vision of the spirit of what is being written in this language: the Argentine writer and filmmaker Edgardo Cozarinsky, who has lived between Paris and Buenos Aires for many decades; the British journalist Isabel Hilton, previously a correspondent in South America who currently divides her time between England and China and the jury member who is the most involved in public affairs, together with the novelist Francisco Goldman, American of Guatemalan descent (whose influence has also been decisive in the publication of many Hispanic American writers in the US, among them Bolaño), and who lives between New York and Mexico City; and the Catalan writer and literary critic, Mercedes Monmany, who lives in Madrid. Those who write these lines make up the last two members of the jury, writers and editors, one an American and the other a Canadian-Mexican who have both lived in Barcelona for a very long time. So, endowed with our inevitable prejudices and carefully cultivated arbitrariness, we chose twenty-two authors. We reiterate the fact that this verdict does not constitute any kind of manifesto, nor is it the fruit of a marketing scheme between an editor and a literary agent. Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists aims to offer a true-to-life portrait of the vitality, the diversity—it deals with individual talents—that thrive in the contemporary literature (literatures?) of the Spanish language.
It has been an ambitious endeavor, covering the entire area of the second most widely spoken language in the world, in more than twenty countries. We were as meticulous as possible. The flood of mediocre work, along with the depleted state of literary criticism outside of the academic world spurred our anxiety. We believe that we couldn’t have come up with another list with the same merit as this one with 22 other authors, as one juror had commented to Ian Jack, then editor of Granta, regarding the first issue dedicated to the best young American authors. We searched publicly and privately in the most diverse ways for recommendations and discoveries, from telephone calls to internet blogs and cultural section,s and, of course, to books. Duomo ediciones, the publishing house that sponsors Granta en español in Barcelona, received the work of more than three hundred Spanish language writers from all over the world. We read through everything and came up with a list that included suggestions from members of the jury throughout the course of voting. Early on, we renounced the possibility of a unanimous vote, establishing a system of four rounds in which authors received at least a majority vote. It almost goes without saying that we didn’t take into account the nationality or sex of the candidate, only the certainty, at times more enthusiastic and others less so, that what we read corresponded with our intentions: our reading as vice impuni, to recognize talent that was either already consolidated or that would, in our opinion, strengthen in the passage from objective to accomplishment, as narrative writing with artistic intention (what heresy . . .) and the pretense of perdurability. Members of the jury opposed the inclusion or exclusion of this writer or that one, but in the end the majority ruled. There were laments over writers who were not included. Such a diverse jury found, then, the diversity that the reader is about to discover, which has little to do with creative writing workshops or a pedestrian idea of exoticism: profoundly ironic and demanding female writers on the one hand, but also male writers who represent women in a much less passive and traditional role than earlier generations; there are parodies and formal innovations: revision and even exacerbation, as could be expected, of diverse sentimental customs and literary traditions more or less regional and even local, although not necessarily belonging to the author, since many have chosen to live in foreign countries and are more open, thanks to their own backgrounds, to the inventions of other places.
A necessary digression: the preface to one of the previous Granta selections mentions that already in the eighties attention was being called to the way writers were presenting themselves to the public instigated by agents or editors as personalities who give interviews to the media; not as engaged intellectuals but as celebrities whose physical appearance was also relevant for widespread coverage since it was no longer the work itself, but the writer who spoke to the reader. This type of publicity became routine in Spain since the early nineties, thanks to the fact that the publishing sector is subjected to the same circumstances that have prevailed in the English language for many years. Yet in Latin America it is still not the case, authors tend to be much more reserved since the figure of the celebrity writer who directs their work exclusively to the widest possible audience has not yet been imposed. The changes commented on a quarter of a century ago in this magazine have now given way to the current explosion, unimaginable in those days, of blogs, videos, social networks and all the thousands of new means of promotion, that distract us like fireworks from keeping that minimum amount of concentration needed for considered reading. Most of the writers selected here have had their own blog at some point and some of them have explored the narrative possibilities of this media explosion. Nothing new. But the talent we are searching out could not be evaluated through these accessorial phenomena, as they have not yet encompass the present in full. It’s possible that the reader might expect some sort of a defense of the Internet and the currents of its parallel world in this forward or in our selection, but in light of the enthusiasms of last century’s Futurism, we need not give them any greater literary importance.
Click here for Part III.
This is really cool . . . Over the weekend, Aurelio Major sent me a copy of the foreword that he and Valerie Miles wrote for the special “Young Spanish Novelists” issue of Granta that’s coming out in a couple weeks. According to Aurelio, this foreword—which appears in full in the Spanish language edition—was trimmed for the English version of the magazine, leaving out some of the bits about Spanish and Hispanic American literary culture in order to reach “a wider public with perhaps less concern about context.” Well . . . It’ll be interesting to see what the differences are between this version (which is very well-crafted) and the one that appears in the official issue. Personally, I think the more context the better, although I’d love to hear what all of you think, so please feel free to comment below.
And putting aside any possibile editing controversies, what this piece really does is make me even more excited to read the issue.
The essay is pretty long, so I’m breaking this up over three posts. If you’re impatient, of just want to read the whole thing in one file, you can download the Word doc here.
Granta has never before put together a selection of the best young writers in a language other than English. The first, highly influential Best of Young British Novelists proposed a group nearly twenty five years ago. After that landmark gathering, four more “Best of young” lists were created: two for Young Americans and two more for young British writers. Now, in _Granta_’s first gleaning of young Spanish language talent, we present both renowned authhors, and less familiar names. Only a handful of them have been translated into English. We limited participation to writers under thirty five, meaning they were born after January, 1975; with at least one novel or story collection to their name. Given the proliferation of Spanish language publishing over the past few decades with access to publication made much easier, even when modest, we found it wiser to impose certain limits on such a vast universe to avoid a list of already established authors. But there are other motives. In fact, this issue is a conspiracy.
1975 marked the end of the dictatorship in Spain. It was a year of preludes and apogees of the South American dictatorships and their subsequent exiles, the end of the Viet Nam war and a time when the political opportunism of those who still venerated the other, radiant dictatorship in Cuba became apparent. There were other events: the tradition of the South American émigré writer in Paris came under examination and writers began seeking publication in Spain, first in Barcelona and later in Madrid, as the publishing industry grew in the post-Franco years. For writers born after 1975, the complex, often misleading warp and woof of politics and literature (different after the end of “actually existing” communism in 1989) is more of an exception than the rule. The censorships of the left as well as the right, black lists, forced exiles and persecution, are now ensconced in the process of transition between memory and history (except in modern day Venezuela and Cuba), and these young authors have not suffered the social and moral circumstances that perturbed their elders. When asked, many of the writers gathered here expressed skepticism, in varying degrees of reticence or nervousness or irony, over the idea of an author having an active influence in the public sphere, outside of the work itself, a role which had been an unavoidable engagement for many writers (not always the most lucid) from earlier generations. Yet now there are other perhaps more insidious censorships: those of the cultural powers that be, of the market whose forces erode the pact of a referential consensus, of the attention deficit disorder caused by a sea of virtual autism, of fleeing readerships—without readers there might be books but not literature—censorships that can be contested through strategies like the one we propose here in Granta. It’s obvious that these young writers have to fight other sorts of phobias and restrictions; but they all coincide in their admiration for many canonical authors, almost all of them read in various languages and are confronted by the same inveterate enemies of promise as those that Connolly signaled when he was thirty five: activities outside of the act of creation that serve to restrict or pervert it.
We are writing this forward before the novelists and story writers chosen know who will accompany them in this issue, which represents the culmination of the efforts which began seven years ago with the first issue of Granta en español.
Among those included by the six members of the jury, there are writers who are full of promise. For most their best work is yet to be written. By contrast, Cabrera Infante, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, Donoso or Juan Goytisolo had already written some of their fundamental books before turning thirty five. Of course that is not the case with other authors such as Saer, or Benet, who wrote their greatest works later. Despite the fact that some claim that nobody is young after thirty, it is also fair to say that the novel is almost always a product of maturity, of life lived and decanted. We felt the need to impose the thirty-five under stricture because of the eruption of numerous summary anthologies throughout the nineties, more or less improvised, and the plethora of local lists of young writers in all the Spanish speaking countries (one could almost do an anthology of anthologies) and because we wanted to be more forward looking. We had to also take into account here the readers who are not versed in the literary traditions, evolutions, tyrannies, excommunications, revolutions and betrayals of this language. Moreover, a variety of manifestos have been launched over the past few decades emulating the procedures and strategies of ideological opportunism, as a measure for crossing the threshold to recognition by the literary power establishment, in other words, as a means for survival. But time has quickly proven their insufficiencies and even their puerile nature: must it be repeated that despite attempts to collectively interrupt literary tradition (McOndo in Chile, Crack in Mexico, Nocilla in Spain), talent is individual and the irruption of a single writer can suddenly upset all readings of the past and the future? Who could have imagined fifteen years ago that the work of an outcast Chilean washed ashore in Barcelona via Mexico would exercise as wide an influence on enthusiastic young writers not only in Spanish, as Cortázar a few generations earlier? Writers, readers, critics and editors working in Spanish, feel less exasperated now that the English language references to literature in our language are no longer reduced simply to the binomial Borges-García Márquez. Now at least Bolaño is also being mentioned. But this trinity is still not enough.
Since this selection includes authors from a variety of countries and at least four regional hubs (Barcelona-Madrid, Buenos Aires, Lima-Bogotá, México), we should remember four very important moments in the literary relationships of reciprocal influence and cumulative effect between Hispanic America and Spain, always complex and unbalanced due to national peculiarities and collective susceptibilities: the commotion in Spain caused by the Nicaraguan poet Rubén Darío’s work within the context of the loss of the last Spanish colonies to the US in 1898; the influence of the Spanish generation of ‘27 after the Republican exile throughout Hispanic America principally in Argentina, Venezuela and Mexico within the context of the Spanish Civil war at the end of the thirties; the rise of the South American novel in Spain during the sixties in the context of the seismic Cuban revolution; and the present, which appears to be branded by the works of Bolaño and a bit earlier by Marías and Vila-Matas within the context of the radiant plebiscite populism in Venezuela, anti-globalization (anti-Americanism) and narco-terror.
Click here for Part II.
For years, Granta has had some amazing employees (like Matt Weiland) and published some interesting things, but with the recent hiring of both John Freeman and Emily Cook for the American office, the magazine has quickly come back onto my radar . . .
And in addition to hiring good literary folk, Granta‘s online initiatives are pretty cool, including the new series highlighting important contemporary poets, which includes a new poem from Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska.
The Guardian provides a short history of Granta:
Buford then performed a clever trick. For Issue 7 he seized upon an initiative of the Book Marketing Council to promote the Best of Young British Novelists, and a whole new publishing gimmick was born. The list included Amis, McEwan, Julian Barnes, Kazuo Ishiguro and Pat Barker. This list was repeated a decade later in 1993 (Alan Hollinghurst, Hanif Kureishi and Esther Freud) and 2003 (Zadie Smith, Nicola Barker and David Mitchell), and worked for young American writers as well. To be on this first roster in 1983 promised a certain amount of attention, not least as it was the first Granta to be distributed by Penguin. Adam Mars-Jones, who holds the unique position of being on the list in 1983 and 1993 despite never producing a novel, believes it kept his literary ambitions alive. ‘It certainly helped me stay marginally above freezing point,’ he says. ‘It extended your sell-by date.’
Originally published in French in 2007, We’re Not Here to Disappear (On n’est pas là pour disparaître) won the Prix Wepler-Fondation La Poste and the Prix Pierre Simon Ethique et Réflexion. The work has been recently translated by Béatrice Mousli. . .
Even though the latest from Jean Echenoz is only a thin volume containing seven of what he calls “little literary objects,” it is packed with surprises. In these pieces, things happen below the surface, sometimes both literally and figuratively. As. . .
Who is this woman? This is the question that opens Xiao Bai’s French Concession, a novel of colonial-era Shanghai’s spies and revolutionaries, police and smugglers, who scoot between doorways, walk nonchalantly down avenues, smoke cigars in police bureaus, and lounge. . .
For the past 140 years, Anna Karenina has been loved by millions of readers all over the world. It’s easy to see why: the novel’s two main plots revolve around characters who are just trying to find happiness through love.. . .
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .