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 . . .
César Aira dishes up an imaginative parable on how identity shapes our sense of belonging with Dinner, his latest release in English. Aira’s narrator (who, appropriately, remains nameless) is a self-pitying, bitter man—in his late fifties, living again with. . .
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. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .