When starting Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories, Santiago Roncagliolo’s second work to be translated into English, I was expecting Roncagliolo to explore the line between evil and religion that was front and center in Red April. Admittedly, I could have not been more wrong. Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stories makes no direct mention of religion or evil, instead consisting of four dark short stories, each focusing on isolation and detachment. What draws the reader to the characters of this work is that each of us has analyzed such a withdrawn individual in ourselves, or in another, with gross curiosity and misunderstanding.
The first story, “Hi This Is Conchita,” is a collection of telephone conversations, unrelated at first, but which over time magically and seamlessly come together to reveal a social network of underlying love, deceit, and irony among the callers. The conversations are stripped of all literary fluff, leaving only the dialog exchanged on the line. One conversation involves an obsessive-compulsive phone sex customer who cannot reach climax due to his concern of the placement of a green filing cabinet in the office in which he secretly makes the calls. Another conversation concerns an ex-boyfriend who obsessively counts the most mundane things about his past relationship on his ex-girlfriend’s answering machine, trying to attribute these tallies to meaning in their failed relationship. The third conversation concerns a customer who uses a customer service line as his only daily form of human contact. The last focuses on a hit man who falls in love with his target, only to find that he has misidentified the target after it is too late.
“Despoiler,” the second story in the collection, is an intriguing and atypical example of fabulism where Carmen, an isolated women crossing the right of passage of turning forty, is reacquainted with the beloved stuffed animals of her childhood in human form during Carnival. Of course, these animals appear to be adults in costume, but as we all learned at a young age—looks, especially when masks are involved, can be deceiving.
The third and probably most disturbing story, “Butterflies Fastened With Pins,” is a compendium of individuals who have committed suicide and whom the narrator has encountered. What is most troubling about the recollection of the suicides is how detached the narrator is from the victims, but how vividly he is able to describe everyone else’s personal reactions to the suicides and their aftermath. The narrator always remains detached, calculated, and controlled in descriptions of the facts surrounding the suicides, but provides an almost poetic account of how the other observers succumb to grief, misunderstanding of death, and inability to cope with the suicides.
The collection closes with “The Passenger Beside You.” Although “Butterflies” was the most disturbing, “Passenger” is by far the most eerie in the collection. In this account, Roncagliolo explores a corpse’s last moment of intimacy during a final examination by a medical examiner mechanically performing his job function. What is most unnatural about the account is how closely the reader will experience these last moments of intimacy from the perspective of the corpse. The corpse narrator vividly describes the methodical carefulness of the medical examiner’s touch, starting from the outside surface of the body and moving to his calculated exploration inside the corpse’s body. The progression will cause you to shudder, but will also leave you almost invigorated and intrigued by the intimate connection between the corpse and her detached examiner.
Roncagliolo is an incredibly gifted storyteller who is able to execute many writing styles, as evidenced in the shock thriller Red April and the delicate and sensual exploration of the relationships between the connected and detached in Hi, This Is Conchita and Other Stores. In each of these works, Roncagliolo reminds us that, although we are isolated by default, we are all connected to each other in some way. For this reason, in addition to Roncagliolo’s partnership with the translator, Edith Grossman, I urge everyone to actively follow the presence of Roncagliolo’s work in the English (and Spanish) language.
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