The January 2011 issue of Words Without Borders is now available, and has a number of really interesting pieces. This issue’s theme is “The Work Force,” which is elaborated on in the little intro to the issue:
Whether loathed or loved, work provides both livelihood and identity; and in times of economic depression and shrinking labor markets, jobs assume even greater importance, determining both personal and political stability. Whether reinventing themselves in a new economy or sticking it out in an old one, the characters here demonstrate the variety of the international work force.
Here’s a list of the pieces that most caught my eye:
The blue building was empty, the name of the factory had been changed, and tough shit for the men and women who had been tossed out—“report to the occupational reclassification department,” which wouldn’t reclassify many people. (I’m writing in March 2004: this reclassification task, which began fifteen months ago, was finished three months ago and still no statistics are available.)
Layoffs continue, and if we’re talking about businesses—their holy name, “business“— that employ less than fifty people, the layoffs are not even accounted for. At Fameck, the blue building is still there, looking sharp with its white gate, while the condition of cars parked in town attest to everyone else’s general health: not so great. But the serious cracks running across the surface of the old world today do not readily reveal the reasons that make them apparent.
(Translated from the French by Alison Dundy and by Emmanuelle Ertel)
The hundred people who work at the Tutto Colore clothing factory have hardly noticed me. I could have been an actor, but here I’m invisible, like an extra. I’d like to think that I’m a spy with a good cover but the truth is that I’m a guy who works in a warehouse; and I have been for a month, for ten hours per day. In the course of these four weeks at work I have repeated a handful of phrases that seldom vary: “Yes, Sir. No, Sir. I’ll do it right now.” I’ve learned to move around the second floor, where I’m stationed, with the agility of a sailfish.
Every day I warehouse garments on metal shelves that look like the skeleton of a space shuttle. I also take inventory of T-shirts and sweatsuits on a long table like the ones in high-school cafeterias and I take orders from my boss—a neurotic man who won’t let me and my coworkers listen to music—with Benedictine humility. On the other floors in the factory, people knit their brows less. They relax, listening to rancheras, merengues, ballads. We work without a sound track. If we could mumble along to any song, whatever it would be, I’m certain of two things: 1. The men I work with would stop obsessively discussing how to keep their women happy and 2. I wouldn’t keep picking my life apart as if it were a Rubik’s cube.
(Translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee)
The recent announcement of Shakespeare and Company’s “Paris Literary Prize,” to be awarded to the best novella by an unpublished writer, set me thinking about my inspiration to go into publishing: Shakespeare and Company’s founder Sylvia Beach. (Like many teenagers with literary aspirations, I spent an intense few months working for the bookshop’s current owner, George Whitman.) Beach’s Paris bookshop and lending library was more than just a space where writers could meet and find inspiration; it became a publishing house as well when Sylvia stepped into the breach to produce the first edition of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Sadly, without a mother in Princeton to whom I could cable “Opening bookshop in Paris. Please send money,” I was forced to take a more conventional route into publishing: I got a job as an editorial assistant at Chatto & Windus, an imprint of Random House UK. And given that I was unexcitingly conventional, it was initially hard to see how I could inspire writers to want to work with me. I couldn’t give them an exotic bookshop to hang out in, or—at that point—sign up their novels and trumpet them to influential friends in the media. The only thing of value I had to offer, I decided, was my willingness to read their books closely and carefully, and to make suggestions about how those books might be improved. Thus began my attempt to teach myself to be a good editor.
Notebook # 1. Monday, October 2.
I’ve already been back three days. I returned to Djibouti for professional reasons, not to feast at the table of nostalgia or reopen old wounds. I’m twenty-nine, and I’ve just signed a contract with a North American company; my remuneration will be substantial. I must hand in the results of my investigation, which cannot fail to satisfy its gargantuan appetite: a complete file, with notes, maps, sketches, and snapshots, to be delivered to the Denver office ASAP. I have just under a week to wrap up the whole thing. I will be paid in Canadian dollars transferred to my account, based in Montreal—like me. After that, I am no longer covered by the company. It will be at my own expense. At my own risk, their legal counsel Ariel Klein repeated to me, frowning with his one long eyebrow, as bushy as Frida Kahlo’s. He wished me good luck, turned on his heel and walked away. I headed to the airport with my little trapper’s suitcase.
So here I am on assignment in the land of my birth, the land that would not or could not keep me. I have no talent for sadness, I admit. I don’t like good-byes or returns; I hate all emotional demonstrations. The past interests me less than the future and my time is very precious. It has the color of a greenback. In the world I come from, time doesn’t stretch out before you into the mist. Time is money. And money makes the world go round. Money is the stock market, with its flows of pixels, algorithms, figures, commodities, manufactured goods, rating indexes, ideas, sounds, images or simulation models that pop up on screens the world over. It is the life force of the universe, it’s about killing the competition and grabbing the coveted market.
(Translated from the French by David and Nicole Ball)
At nine a.m. the few people standing around on the subway platform are watching the news on the screens provided by the Barcelona Channel. The trains comply scrupulously with the minimum-service laws. They are running half-empty and many seats are unoccupied, which would be unthinkable at this time of day any other day, when occupancy approaches that of sardines in a can.
In front of the Goya Theater, at the top of Joaquín Costa, there are fewer whores than usual. Perhaps in keeping with the minimum-service notice. The overwhelming majority of shops are closed: from supermarkets to cosmetics stores, including bakeries and auto-repair shops. On Sepúlveda a charcuterie uses the old ploy of keeping the metal gates half-open, so that if a client shows up they can serve him, but if a picketer shows up they appear to be closed. In contrast, the local bar is open, which even the strikers are grateful for. “You’re very brave,” one of them says to the owner of the establishment, as he drinks his beer. “It’s not about bravery. If we don’t work, we don’t eat.” On the sidewalks lie piles of uncollected garbage in enormous black bags, some of them split open. A beggar pisses on one of them, and when he’s finished he lies back down on his piece of cardboard.
(Translated from the Catalan by Mary Ann Newman)
As always, it’s worth checking out the whole issue . . . including the so-so review of Zone.
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!
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