Monday, August 31, 2009

De González to González

Mes (autoproclamado) del cuento, entrada número 31.

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 31. [In English below]

Desde que comencé este mes del cuento he querido reseñar un cuento puertorriqueño. La antología más conocida (o al menos la más accesible) de literatura puertorriqueña en este momento es la de Mercedes López-Baralt, publicada por la Universidad de Puerto Rico; Google Books la muestra aquí. Leí su sección de cuentos por sorbos, y de hecho ahí encontré uno de los cuentos que reseño hoy: “La carta”, de José Luis González. Pero para esta entrada quería algo más. Realicé una cacería infructuosa del cuento con el cual Mayra Santos-Febres se ganó el Juan Rulfo. Pensé en incluir un texto reciente de Luis López Nieves (“Los pedazos del corazón”, disponible aquí), básicamente una angustiosa literalización de una metáfora. Finalmente me topé, en The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007, con lo que buscaba: “Lotería”, del puertorriqueño Kevin González. Es un cuento en inglés, lo que me pareció perfectamente apropiado para la cartografía lingüística de Puerto Rico. Así que haré una reseña que va de un González a otro González, y que va de español a inglés. Ilustra bien las complejidades de la isla.

José Luis González es un personaje complejo: nació en República Dominicana de padre puertorriqueño, se consideraba puertorriqueño (así lo caracteriza Ciudad Seva, sin más), y relativamente joven se radicó en México hasta el punto de hacerse ciudadano mexicano. En todo caso, dos de sus cuentos están incluidos en la antología de literatura puertorriqueña que mencioné hace un momento. Y el que quiero destacar es bastante sencillo (y muy breve: sugiero leerlo antes de seguir): “La carta”, disponible aquí.

En medio de su sencillez y su brevedad, “La carta” es un buen cuento. Muestra una carta escrita a su madre por Juan, un puertorriqueño que se fue de su casa en busca de una gran vida en la ciudad. La ortografía de la carta nos revela el nivel de educación de Juan. Luego de leer la carta, nos enteramos rápidamente de que la prédica de prosperidad era falsa, y que de hecho Juan tiene que mendigar incluso para poder enviar la carta por correo. Este contraste es bien manejado. Y es, además, una crítica social, una denuncia de las condiciones en las que vivía la gente en Puerto Rico a mediados del siglo XX. A veces González deja que sus textos se ahoguen en el sentimentalismo de esa crítica, como en este otro cuento recogido en la antología que mencioné. Eso no sucede en “La carta”, que logra ser un cuento simple, astuto y crítico. Antologizable, creo yo.


Let’s turn now to Kevin González. As I said, his short story “Lotería” was included in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007. González had the peculiar misfortune of having his name misspelled (as “Gonzáles”) a grand total of four times in that book. The short story was first published in 2006 in the Indiana Review (here), but I couldn’t find its full text online.

“Lotería” is not a tiny story (25 pages in the BANR edition), but it swooshes by as if it were. It revolves around a Puerto Rican man called Hector (without an accent), who’s son of Hector and father of Hector (this Hector is an eighteen-year-old nicknamed Tito). He is a wreck. He’s lived his whole life under his father’s shadow, studying what he studied (law), trying his best to get his father’s attention (being expelled from boarding school after boarding school, for instance, thinking “his father would have no choice but to take him home” [p. 177]). It all fails. Hector’s father is a powerful, even suffocating, presence in the story: he became wealthy after winning the lottery, and with the money he toured Europe (upon his return he prefixed his last name with a presumptuous “Di”: “What kind of man adds two letters to his surname to make him seem more exotic? More glamorous?” [p. 181]). He became a power-hungry and corrupt politician, he was forced to resign after a scandal provoked by a cover-up, he bought an apartment in Miami for his mistress.

Now Hector’s father is dead, and Hector has to deal with the young Tito (Hector’s father named Tito the executor of his will) in order to get his share of assets. But this will take a while. For now, he’s an impecunious middle-aged man inured to a life of riches, living in a cockroach-infested apartment in Miami, hitting on a waitress much younger than him (who makes plans to move in with Hector that quickly turn into blackmail), and sneaking into hotel swimming pools to get some exercise. Plus, he has to deal with his aging mother, who upon losing her home has had to move into the Miami apartment where her dead husband’s mistress lived (and died).

The story is filled with quirky details, which may seem over-the-top at some points, but, well, people are quirky. These details spice up the story considerably: a book of plagiarized essays Hector’s father used as an excuse for his Miami escapades, Hector’s obsession with a giant roach, photocopied suicide notes stuffed into every nook and cranny of the apartment, Hector’s father’s bankruptcy-prone obsession with Get Out of Jail Free cards in Monopoly. The story weaves all of this together with cleverness and humor, through a narrator not abashed of playing with the narrative. For instance: “[…] he […] went out for a stiff drink. / Okay, make that eight stiff drinks” (p. 166). Some themes keep cropping up, enriching the story as unlikely elements appear juxtaposed (in the context of the story, this is a provocative phrase: “In the sky, the stars glistened like all the periods that suicide notes have forgotten” [p. 179]).

All this denotes craft. It was very refreshing to find González’s voice in my search for a strong Puerto Rican story for this short story month. “Lotería” made me laugh, and it also made me appreciate the story’s narrative technique. I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more of González’s fiction.

Today’s linguistic medley ends this self-proclaimed short story month. I’ll post a summary of sorts tomorrow.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

An Ethnic Story

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 30.

[T]hat’s why I respect your writing, Nam. […] You could totally exploit the Vietnamese thing. But instead, you choose to write about lesbian vampires and Colombian assassins, and Hiroshima orphans—and New York painters with hemorrhoids.”

That’s a line from Nam Le’s short story “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” first published by Zoetrope and available on their website, here. I read it in the Best American Nonrequired Reading 2007 volume. The quote captures words said by a friend of the narrator (the narrator is also called Nam, and we are probably supposed to think of him as the author himself). So wait: Nam Le wrote about Colombian assassins?

Indeed, he did so in a story called “Cartagena,” and please humor me by reading the first few paragraphs of it, available online here. I’ll come back to them in a minute. It seemed strange to see a Vietnamese man raised in Australia and now living in the States writing about the thorny subject of teenage Colombian killers. “Cartagena” is part of a much talked about collection of short stories called The Boat. The San Francisco Chronicle reviewer said exultantly that “what is truly remarkable about these stories is that the language and tone of each one is perfectly suited to the characters and setting, even incorporating snatches of Colombian gangster slang.” Really?

The story I quoted at the beginning of this post also comes from The Boat. Before I go on, let me say this: it’s a good story. It works. It’s about a man—called Nam—from a Vietnamese family; he grew up in Australia and is now living in Iowa while attending the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Nam had a very difficult relationship with his father growing up. As an adult, he still hides his drinking habits and his non-Vietnamese girlfriend from his father. Now Nam has to write a story for his class, he’s suffering from writer’s block, he’s running out of time—and his father shows up for a three-day visit. Nam decides to write about how his father survived the My Lai massacre, and how he was tortured later, after Saigon fell. Nam’s first try goes sour; his father says he’s getting stuff wrong. A story finally grows out of all those discussions. I can’t say a word else about the plot without ruining it, so there.

The language of the story is crisp and it has a good rhythm. We don’t get poetic flourishes, but we do get tight, precise, and suggestive descriptions like this one, said of a bum warming his hands by a fiery drum: “I smelled animals in him, and fuel, and rain.” Or this one near the end, about the nearly frozen river: “On the brink of freezing, it gleamed in large, bulging blisters. The water, where it still moved, was black and braided.”

The story combines quite well the mundane life of Nam with the (literally) tortured life of Nam’s father, weaving them together into the increasingly refined short story and the continuously shifting relationship between father and son. The attempts to write, and the musings about writing, are handled with ease.

In fact, the story has a very interesting discussion about one specific type of writing: ethnic fiction. “Ethnic literature’s hot,” says one writing instructor. Some literary agents say that “background and life experience” are what make fiction stand out from the vast array of polished writing. A friend of Nam’s complains: “I’m sick of ethnic lit […]. It’s full of descriptions of exotic food. […] You can’t tell if the language is spare because the author intended it that way, or because he didn't have the vocab.” A little later he goes on to praise Nam for not writing about Vietnam—the bit I quoted at the beginning of this post. We know Nam searches everywhere for his stories. In fact, we had already heard him say this: “Things happened in this world all the time. All I had to do was record them.” When he does research, as in the story about his father, he’s sometimes “sloppy” with it. His father finds fault with some details, and Nam’s retort is this: “‘They’re stories,’ I said, casually. ‘Fiction.’” His father questions him for wanting to write that story specifically: “You want their pity,” he tells Nam.

Now all that’s very thought-provoking and convincing. Let’s bring it to bear on “Cartagena.” You can read a bit more of “Cartagena” here (some pages are missing). I have to be completely honest, though: I couldn’t read the story, at least not continuously and not with a straight face. It is just too flawed. For someone with a modicum of Spanish, and a smattering of knowledge of Colombia, it’s really difficult to take that story seriously, to see it as anything beyond a never-to-leave-these-four-walls classroom exercise in writing on something you know nothing about.

Let me share some of my discomforts. People familiar with colloquial Colombian Spanish wouldn’t go through the formality of saying the “autodefensas” would shoot them; a much snappier “paracos” would fit the bill. “Pipí,” in the context of the discussion, sounds bookish, amiss. “Salésio” (p. 30) would never bear an accent mark in Spanish. On page 36 (I’m referring to the page numbers from The Boat) and again on page 44 you find “puto,” an irredeemably flagrant case of a word extracted from a completely different linguistic landscape than that of Colombian slums. What on earth are the “mocós” (with an accent mark), on page 43? “Nero” (p. 50) means nothing in Spanish; “ñero,” instead, is true-to-life slang.

So my simple question is why? Why flaunt dubiously used Spanish lingo in a narrative voice allegedly translated into English? Why bother to go through all this, to produce a piece of fiction about Colombia that can only be read without grimaces by people utterly unfamiliar with Colombia? Why ruin what was working so well in the story I described earlier, in order to go off in a completely uninformed escapade? Of course, writers can write about things they’re not all that familiar with. Perfectly fine. However, please ask around. Look it up online. As Pynchon says in his brilliant introduction to Slow Learner, factual mistakes are unforgivable in a world with such easy access to information. Wouldn’t it be better to play it safe (at least, safer)? Or perhaps the answer comes from a voice in Nam Le’s story: “Ethnic literature’s hot.” As I said in a previous post, I don’t want to think Le’s stories would’ve gone unnoticed if they hadn’t become so obviously, freewheelingly ethnic—even if they refer to ethnicities foreign to the author.

I hope to read more of Le. He’s talented. And I hope what I read will be stories more of love and honor and pity and pride and compassion and sacrifice—not of neros and mocós. Such details gone amiss shouldn’t turn good stories into difficult or even unviable reading.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Unaccustomed Earth

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 29.

Jhumpa Lahiri’s Unaccustomed Earth enjoys the rare distinction of being a short story collection sold not only in bookstores but also in the cluttered stands of department stores like Wal-Mart. Lahiri is darlinged by the publishing world, turning out bestseller after bestseller. Today’s story will be the title piece from that 2008 collection I just mentioned: “Unaccustomed Earth.” I couldn’t find it online.

Put briefly: it’s a wonderful story. It’s a long story, too: unlike the short short fiction I mentioned a few days ago, Lahiri likes her stories long. The shortest piece of the book takes up 24 pages (it was originally published here), and the longest is the title story, at 57 pages. Even then, I flipped quite quickly through “Unaccustomed Earth.” I wasn’t prodded on by suspense, by the urge to know what’ll happen next, but rather because the language flows so smoothly. There are none of those rough patches I’ve mentioned in stories by Mitchell and Barth. The characters’ insights blend in well with the action, and it all moves along effectively.

The story is about a young American woman of Indian descent (Ruma), who is married to an American man who is not of Indian descent (Adam). They have a son, Akash. Ruma’s mother died recently, and her father—retired (he had been moved by “ambition and accomplishment, none of which mattered anymore” [p. 51])—changed many things in his life: he sold the old family house, he started traveling through Europe. There is another significant change that blossoms into a climax at the end, subtly and persuasively, thrusting itself powerfully into the final paragraphs.

Lahiri has a very good sense of her characters’ voices, aspirations, and reasoning. She threads their thoughts into the narrative to great effect. She does this without presenting philosophically precise solutions, or using a language that would seem foreign to the characters involved. This is an achievement. Many of the most provocative ideas revolve around familiar events and objects. Take this simple description of Ruma’s mother: “Her mother had never cut corners; […] she had run her household as if to satisfy a mother-in-law’s fastidious eye” (p. 22). About Ruma’s mother passing away: “There were times Ruma felt closer to her mother in death than she had in life, an intimacy born simply of thinking of her so often, of missing her” (p. 27). Here’s Ruma’s father, reflecting on the tiresome buildup of stuff that accompanies a family: “He didn’t want to live again in an enormous house that would only fill up with things over the years, as the children grew, all the things he’d recently gotten rid of, all the books and papers and clothes and objects one felt compelled to possess, to save. Life grew and grew until a certain point. The point he had reached now” (p. 53). No need to belabor what that point is; enough is said by mentioning it.

One of Ruma’s central concerns in the story is being pressured by different cultural demands: she is pressed to work 56-hour-weeks, she is pressed to keep Indian values and traditions. Her mother’s disappointment and her father’s taciturn dissatisfaction are powerful motivators. She often finds herself at a loss: “She’d always felt unfairly cast, by both her parents, into roles that weren’t accurate: as her father’s oldest son, her mother’s secondary spouse” (p. 36). She also experiences this tension in the way she is raising Akash: “In spite of her efforts, he was turning into the sort of American child she was always careful not to be, the sort that horrified and intimated her mother: imperious, afraid of eating things” (p. 23).

Finally, I wanted to underscore this apparently simple reminiscence about Ruma’s son: “He was her flesh and blood, her mother had told her in the hospital the day Akash was born. Only the words her mother used were more literal, enriching the tired phrase with meaning: ‘He is made of your meat and bone.’ It had caused Ruma to acknowledge the supernatural in everyday life” (p. 46). There you have a great and simple way of describing what writers do: use words that enrich tired phrases, and thus highlight the supernatural qualities of our day-to-day experience.

My main objection to the story regards Ruma’s father’s voice. The first few times in which the narrative put the spotlight on him (it alternates between Ruma and him), I wasn’t fully convinced. Ruma’s sections seemed much more at ease, more introspective and rich. About halfway through, Ruma’s father’s sections work quite well, too. But those first few times could’ve been compressed and strengthened. Aside from that, though, the story works very well, on many levels.

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Massive Rat

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 28.

The Guardian had an interesting “Summer short story special,” with stories by authors like Dave Eggers (yes, again) and A. M. Homes. Well, today’s pick for a short story comes from that summer special: it’s David Mitchell’s “The Massive Rat.” It’s available here.

The story is good. It describes a couple (Nick and Lorna) whose marriage is on the verge of collapsing. The story kicks off with snippets of a conversation about divorce, Lorna about to drive off with their child (Fred). It rains, Nick goes out to do some gardening, he smashes a window in a fit of rage (“[s]hark-fins of crashing glass” fall down), and then Lorna shows up again, asking Nick for help with a rat stuck behind the fireplace.

We learn they’ve had some economic troubles (“there’s no denying that the money stuff hasn’t helped the marital stuff”), and Nick has felt like a “Kept Man.” Every bit of casual conversation provokes a riposte aimed at the carotid—or just plain nonsense (after making up a fact on rats, Nick says this about himself: “Classic Nick Briar bullshit: Lorna provokes it out of me, like a laxative”). They verbally abuse each other all the time: “We are learning a lot about contempt, Lorna and me.”

Mitchell can put together some funny phrases. I liked this one, in all its simplicity: “It felt like a humid Friday noon-time because it was.” (The same pattern comes up at a key moment toward the end: “[…] because this is what it was”). The details with which the story is textured are well picked and clever. Some characters (like the lawyer Patrick Beeman) are rather funny.

And yet, those same details and that same humor often grow malignantly and take over entire sentences. The result for us is not always smooth sailing. The action in the first couple of paragraphs seemed briared (that use of the word “gob,” for instance, was absent from Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged and the American Heritage Dictionary, and only showed up in the OED, neatly tucked in at the end of the entry on “gob”; at first I kept misreading it as “amassing”). The end of the rain is announced through a dripping scarecrow, and then we’re off to the garden, advancing to this and through this by spurts.

We get used to this progression, but the kind of language in the story was still, well, very particular. The imagery often becomes so involved, even if it’s brilliant, that the overall sense you get is of looking at the inner workings of the factory, rather than at the factory’s product. It’s cluttered. In this, the story reminded me somewhat of John Barth.

Let me illustrate liberally with examples: “Me and Lorna have sort of Berlinned the house into her zone and mine.” More: “Fourth – and this shook me most of all – Ms I-Will-Survive looked alarmed and needy. In an instant, a prayer was hurtling its way to the headmasterly God of my C of E childhood: ‘Please please please, don’t let anything have happened to Fred.’” Here’s another: “Like Captain Sensible a lifetime ago, I said, ‘What?’” And another: “Waiting at a zebra crossing for an old woman I had one of my Tourette’s Moments. It’s not real Tourette’s Syndrome – it’s a spasm of remembered shame – but it made me whack my knuckles against my temples and shriek like a Bee Gees harpy, ‘I’m so sorry!’” Finally: “Lorna was slicing tomato and basil – we never eat together – but she came to the living room, to avert charges of Not-My-Problemism.” The nouns stringed together with dashes, the heavy use of capital letters, all that slows down the story, while blaring its humor at us.

Still, the story has its good moments, and it’s a good snapshot of a marriage on the brink of disaster.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

This Is What It Means to Say Sherman Alexie

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 27.

I had to double-check it was the same Sherman Alexie. It was, of course. I remembered reading—and liking—Alexie’s short story “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona” a few months ago. (A garbled version of the story is found here.) It’s a somewhat stolid, carefully knitted description of a Native American who lives in a reservation and who has to fly down to Phoenix to pick up his dead father’s things. Native American traditions, embodied in a visionary character called Thomas Builds-the-Fire, are subjected to perplexity and even mockery by others. Native Americans in the reservation have to cope with modernity, represented by both appliances and alcohol. I generally liked the story; some recurring themes give it depth and speak well of its author’s technique. It was part of Best American Short Stories 1994.

A couple weeks ago, Sherman Alexie published a story in The New Yorker called “War Dances.” It’s available here. It feels like a completely different voice from that of “This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, Arizona.” This time, it’s all-out, without the prim narrative approach of the earlier story. It’s a fierce autobiographical voice, the narrator’s concerns gushing out and often being made fun of. The narrator is sick, and he builds up to this fact, piecing together what happened and at one point leading us to believe it’s less serious than it was.

The story is divided into titled sections. They sometimes read like stanzas of a pantoum, with elements being passed along from one section to another, with slight variations. This disjointed cohesiveness ties in well with one of the central concerns in the story, and it’s the relationship between fathers and sons. Parents and children are different, yes, and independent, yes, but some things are certainly passed along from one generation to the next. This is true of the sections and themes in the story, too.

Some sections of “War Dances” are quite different from others. We suddenly get a transcript of an interview of a WWII veteran who recalls how the narrator’s father was killed in combat. (The interviewee says he resisted the temptation of making up a poetic flurry to fill in for the grandfather’s last words.) There’s a clever and elaborate “exit interview for my father.” We read of the narrator’s childhood hydrocephalus, and his anguished conversations with his doctor.

We see the narrator visiting his ill, reckless and amputated father in the hospital. The father says he’s cold, and begs his son for blankets; this poignant request is left for us to mull over while the narrator deals with impatient nurses and then roams around looking for another Native American who may have a spare blanket. About the nurse: “Yes, she was a health-care worker and she didn’t want to be cruel, but she believed that there came a point when doctors should stop rescuing people from their own self-destructive impulses. And I couldn’t disagree with her, but I could ask for the most basic of comforts, couldn’t I?” And here’s the fellow Native American, when the narrator asks for a blanket: “So you want to borrow a blanket from us? […] Because you thought Indians would just happen to have some extra blankets lying around? […] That’s fucking ridiculous. […] And it’s racist. […] You’re stereotyping your own damn people. […] But damn if we don’t have a room full of Pendleton blankets. New ones. Jesus, you’d think my sister was having, like, a dozen babies.”

The story is wild and clever. Every piece fits. As you can tell, it draws much more enthusiasm from me than did the earlier, often anthologized piece. This is what it means to say Sherman Alexie now, and that’s a good thing.

Short (short) story day

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 26.

Flash fiction (or short short fiction, as it’s sometimes called) is a tough genre. You have to deliver a punch in a few hundred words, and many times the urge for that punch makes the story indistinguishable from a joke. Besides, many good literary devices need some elbowroom, and, well, flash fiction is all about not having that kind of space. Every word that goes in displaces a handful. Some stories flitter and pass away silently by the curb. Some stories become surreal, as to make you feel tsk-tsked for not having gotten it. Some stories deliver.

As part of this short story month, I decided to make a small sampler of noteworthy flash fiction. I picked from a self-constrained version of flash fiction: the 500-word pieces from the magazine Quick Fiction, already 15 print numbers old and still going. I chose four pieces that are available online: Claudia Smith’s “Groove,” Anthony Tognazzini’s “Westminster March,” Rebecca Donnelly’s “One Word a Day, Five Hundred Days,” and David Schuman’s “Spot.”

In less than 350 words, “Groove” manages to create a vivid picture of a marriage with a few well-placed brushstrokes. The small details of the couple’s life together (the fruit, the knit hats) all blend in nicely to create a sense of a person struggling hard to adapt. These lines were well done, I thought: “His family was large and old, occupying most of a small cemetery on the hill at the edge of a small town. She knew he would never leave them. This might mean he would never leave her.”

“Westminster March” cheats a little, reaching almost 800 words. It produces these long, drawn-out sentences that mimic an eighth-grader’s language and logic. The story describes a rich clarinet player’s relationship with a poorer but abler clarinet player at school. There is something about the tone that, in the end, didn’t seem persuasive: perhaps it’s phrases like “excruciating injections to counteract the rabies virus” bobbing up from a sea of simple sentences and self-justifying thrusts. But there are flashes that seem unconvincing. The profound hatred between the narrator and Terreto (an attitude that gives shape to the text itself) appeared somewhat excessive.

“One Word a Day, Five Hundred Days” churns out exactly 500 words, true to its title. The story describes the life of a young creative writing student who aims to write a 500-word story, a word a day. It’s narrated by that student’s father, who puzzles at this project, which nevertheless ends up growing on him. I don’t find the father’s voice very convincing, or any quotables to share here, but it’s funny to see how words seep from her.

“Spot” stays well below the 400-word mark. It’s a good idea: a woman leaves the narrator, and he thinks of what she would’ve named the dog. He describes how he feeds the dog, and what name he’s picked. It’s a clever way to present a substitute for the man’s grief. I don’t like the second sentence: it seems superfluous (and, well, superfluity in short short fiction doesn’t seem right). I would’ve preferred to leave the matter of the dog’s name less resolved than what we get at the end.

So, as I said, here’s a small sampler of flash fiction. Rules have mushroomed with regard to what can be done with this genre (like these, in Spanish), but it’s still difficult to pull it off. The Spanish writer Juan José Millás has been publishing some interesting “artistories” (articuentos, in Spanish) that fit in SMS messages. The stiff word limit will offer a good opportunity for writers to test their skills. Despite the limitations, some interesting products will keep popping up.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

No muy amante de Todos los Santos

Mes (autoproclamado) del cuento, entrada número 25.

Desde hace un tiempo le tenía curiosidad a Los amantes de Todos los Santos, una colección de cuentos de Juan Gabriel Vásquez, publicada por Alfaguara en 2008. El libro recibió buenos comentarios. Además, me atraía el hecho de que la narración se apartara de la temática de la violencia que es tan recurrente en las letras colombianas. Terminé el libro hoy, y en realidad no me puedo declarar amante de Los amantes de Todos los Santos.

Lo vi como un libro de transición. El autor se tornaba evidentemente mejor en cada uno de los siete cuentos que componen la antología: dentro de ese espectro, al primero no lo considero antologizable (un ejercicio literario de un escritor que prueba voces narrativas) y el último tampoco llegó a ser una obra maestra. Los últimos dos textos son claramente más robustos, más maduros, y muestran destrezas técnicas y sutilezas narrativas casi ausentes en los demás. Pensando en una hipotética antología de cuentos, como lo sugerí al final de una entrada anterior, creo que el penúltimo (“Lugares para esconderse”) sería un buen candidato.

Las tramas se desarrollan en Francia y Bélgica. “El regreso” describe el retorno a la casa familiar de una mujer solitaria que fue condenada a décadas de prisión por asesinar a un ambicioso pretendiente de su hermana. “Los amantes de Todos los Santos” muestra un matrimonio agónico, en el que el esposo (un cazador, como muchos personajes del libro) termina escapándose una noche del hogar (en un acto de infidelidad, como muchos en el libro). “El inquilino” pasa a otra relación tortuosa, esta vez causada por un romance de la esposa con un amigo del esposo; un acto trágico durante una cacería trae viejas tensiones a flote. “En el café de la Republique” presenta a un señor que, al verse enfermo, le pide a su ex esposa (a quien él abandonó unos meses antes) que lo acompañe a visitar a su papá, un viejo reportero que tiene un temperamento difícil. “La soledad del mago” retrata un romance entre un mago y una mujer embarazada, que asciende hacia un clímax estrepitoso e ingeniosamente sorpresivo. “Lugares para esconderse” describe la visita casual que hace un escritor a la casa de unos amigos en Bruselas; en esa noche, le toca acompañarlos en el dolor por la muerte de un familiar. “La vida en la isla de Grimsey” narra un amorío entre el muy desorientado hijo de un famoso jinete y una mujer que es experta en caballos (los castra, los duerme) y que carga mucho dolor por la muerte de su hija; hay discusiones religiosas, y un final bien manejado.

Muy pocas de estas tramas son realmente impactantes o cautivantes. Eso no es necesariamente un defecto. Los cuentos podrían ser fuertes en su lenguaje o en su estructura. En ambos aspectos tienen debilidades, especialmente en el lenguaje.

Empiezo por aclarar que, sin lugar a dudas, hay frases buenas y descripciones acertadas. Por ejemplo, al descubrir algo que sucedía al escondido, un personaje “temió que el pasado comenzara a transformarse” (p. 78). Un personaje enfermo dice despreciar a “los demás niños que veía en la calle, limpios y sanos, irresponsables de su cuerpo” (p. 97). Al ver una trucha moribunda, el narrador dice que “imaginaba la intensidad del dolor y la maravilla de unas facciones […] en las que el dolor es invisible” (p. 153). Finalmente, me gusta la manera en que el último cuento describe a un meteorólogo que presenta pronósticos sobre Francia en televisión: “Movía los labios, pero no decía nada, porque abajo de Francia, entre Niza y Marsella, la palabra Mute le ordenaba silencio” (p. 184).

No obstante, las frases que me molestaron fueron más frecuentes que las que me gustaron. Un ejemplo: “Madame Michaud no estaba sola en la casa, pero la otra presencia no se hubiera delatado ni por todo el oro del mundo” (p. 21). ¿Alguien puede pensar en una comparación más cliché que “por todo el oro del mundo”? El siguiente caso recurre a un lenguaje artificialmente pesado, que pierde la armonía con la narración circundante: “El salón era un inmenso ejercicio de mímesis: nada en él probaba que Zoé tuviera gustos propios, menos aún caprichos decorativos” (p. 40).

Los problemas más recurrentes fueron las comparaciones. Al autor le encantan las símiles, pero no siempre las usa con acierto. Algunas veces simplemente no comunican muy bien la idea. En un momento emotivo, cuando una trucha está agonizando por fuera del agua, el narrador dice: “el pez todavía doblándose en su puño cerrado, dando boqueadas como un enfermo de asma” (p. 153). Si al menos dijera un ataque de asma, pero la referencia sosegada a un enfermo de asma le resta mucha contudencia al pasaje.

Y hay otras que, bueno, mejor lo muestro con ejemplos: “nadie entendía que desperdiciara los veranos vagabundeando por las tres hectáreas como un gato que orina para marcar su territorio” (p. 15); “me llegaban los ruidos mínimos de Zoé, que se movía por la casa como un ratoncito” (p. 43); “Vivianne me pone una mano en el pecho, delicadamente, como si levantara a un pajarito del piso” (p. 117); “su mano derecha se dio la vuelta en el aire como una salamandra muerta sobre el pavimento” (p. 126); “El flujo de la sangre [en la bañera] era […] la tinta de un pulpo en pleno escape” (p. 209). ¿Como un gato que orina? ¿Como un ratoncito, un pajarito, una salamandra muerta, un pulpo en pleno escape? Este tipo de imágenes abundan en los cuentos de la colección, y me sorprendió que llegaran a la versión impresa. En los cuentos posteriores, incluso las malas metáforas —aunque siguen siendo débiles— se cargan de sentido, al resonar con otras preocupaciones: “La furgoneta reposaba junto a la acera como un caballo anestesiado” (p. 213).

Otro detalle sobre el lenguaje. Los personajes casi siempre hablan en francés, aunque los leemos traducidos al español. Dada esa convención, me parece injustificado que el autor presente caprichosamente algunas palabras directas del francés, como merde (p. 32), conasse (p. 153), Trop tard (p. 153), Mais que faites-vous (p. 161), Ah oui (p. 212). O bien presentemos los diálogos franceses del todo en francés (como hace Franco en Melodrama), o que sean del todo traducidos (¿acaso en español no hay mierda o muy tarde?). El capricho con el que se ejecuta esta alternancia da la sensación de ser un descuido o un acto de pedantería.

Estos problemas no me dejan declararme fanático del libro. Sin embargo, como lo dije, creo que es un libro de transición, y la prosa del autor fue mejorando in crescendo. Esto (además del hecho de que la compré hace unos meses) me da suficiente interés para leer la novela tan sonada del autor: Los informantes. Más adelante, por fuera de los confines de este mes del cuento, la comentaré.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Guy de Maupassant

Mes (autoproclamado) del cuento, entrada número 24.

Juan Bosch tiene un ensayo breve que se llama “Apuntes sobre el arte de escribir cuentos”. Está disponible aquí. Es un texto bien curioso, algo que un contemporáneo no creo que podría escribir sin sonrojar. Plantea el afán cientificista tan característico de los siglos XIX y XX (miren por ejemplo la obsesión con la técnica y la disciplina, además de la fe en una serie de “principios del género […] inalterables”). Combina este afán con un culto organicista y espiritual de la literatura, también típico de un mundo que fue quedándose sin fe y buscó sustitutos artísticos para la teología.

Pero ese no es mi punto. Mi punto es que, en cierto momento del texto, Bosch dice: “El cuentista joven debe estudiar con detenimiento la manera en que inician sus cuentos los grandes maestros; debe leer, uno por uno, los primeros párrafos de los mejores cuentos de Maupassant”, y menciona a tres autores más. A Maupassant se le considera uno de los fundadores del cuento moderno, y mucha gente recuerda su nombre con reverencia. Así que, en este mes del cuento, hagamos rápidamente el ejercicio que propone Bosch.

Tomemos seis cuentos de Maupassant, todos disponibles en Internet por cortesía de Ciudad Seva: “El collar”, “Dos amigos”, “La cama 29”, “Miss Harriet”, “Las sepulcrales”, y “Ese cerdo de Morin”. Antes de pasar a los inicios específicamente, confieso que uno puede sorprenderse al ver el entusiasmo con el que la gente sigue leyendo a Maupassant. Un historiador de las ideas y un antropólogo cultural ciertamente lo tienen que hacer, pero nuestros gustos literarios han cambiado mucho desde esa época.

Recurriendo a un término inglés, muchos de los textos han quedado dated, tanto en temática como en técnica. ¿Quién se puede tomar muy en serio una descripción como esta?: “Una brisa acariciadora les cosquilleaba el rostro” (“Dos amigos”). O peor aún: “Arrodillado, inclinándose, se bebe agua fresca y cristalina que moja el bigote y la nariz, se bebe con ansia, como besando a la fuente labio a labio. A veces, cuando se descubre un hoyo en esos arroyuelos, el cuerpo desnudo se baña, sintiendo sobre la piel, desde la cabeza hasta los pies, como una caricia helada y deliciosa, el estremecimiento de la corriente viva y ligera” (“Miss Harriet”). Las tramas que son tan famosas, como la de “El collar”, parecen desenvolverse con la lógica de un cuento infantil, en la que los protagonistas son los únicos que no han descubierto lo que está pasando. (¿La pareja de “El collar” cómo no sospecha cuando le dicen que el joyero vendió el estuche “vacío para complacer a un cliente”?). (El narrador de “Las sepulcrales” nos da una pista muy evidente de lo que sigue cuando indica que lo dicho por la viuda tenía “visos de sinceridad”).

Quiero ser muy enfático: lo que he dicho no debe entenderse como un argumento en contra de los clásicos. Hay clásicos que se mantienen frescos, no obstante el cambio en cosmovisión y no obstante el hecho de que la novedad de muchos clásicos ha naufragado en los ríos de tinta de sus imitadores. ¿Cuántas personas no se han apropiado de Shakespeare, y sin embargo uno lee los sonetos como obras supremamente ingeniosas y arriesgadas? ¿Ha dejado de ser retadora la antinovela Tristram Shandy, no obstante un siglo o más de esfuerzos por desarticular las estructuras literarias tradicionales? Lo que me gustaría sugerir es que Maupassant sí corre el riesgo, con sus descripciones azucaradas y sus tramas previsibles, de perder su vigencia tanto para el público en general como para los escritores deseosos de apreciar su técnica.

Volvamos entonces a Bosch. Los primeros párrafos de los últimos tres cuentos que señalé son casos perdidos, a mi juicio. Se desgastan por generar un marco narrativo (como el de The Turn of the Screw o Heart of Darkness, o incluso El banquete de Platón), dentro del cual contar el cuento. Hace unos días me referí a una estrategia semejante usada en dos cuentos de Stephen King (con variaciones).

Por otra parte, el inicio de “El collar” ofrece un principio ágil, pero no es exactamente una lección magistral en inicios. La irreverencia de sus prejuicios sociales lo vuelve llamativo en una época en la que las voces públicas no suelen hablar así. “La cama 29”, con su caricaturesco capitán Epivent, es antes que nada gracioso. El párrafo tiene una buena simetría con las descripciones escalonadas del bigote, la cintura y las piernas. El mejor para mí es el principio de “Dos amigos.” La situación que plantea es atractiva (todo agoniza), y además el párrafo es muy bien pensado: la frase “Se comía cualquier cosa” cobra cierto sentido en ese momento, pero a la luz del final del cuento reverbera con un significado macabro e ingenioso. El cuento en general no me fascina, pero ese inicio vale la pena.

¿Debe ser Maupassant, entonces, una lectura obligada para los jóvenes escritores de cuentos, como lo propuso Bosch? A pesar de lo que he dicho, mi respuesta es (y en negrilla). Pero lo digo por otra razón: todo es lectura obligada para un escritor que no quiera reinventar la rueda o caer en reiteraciones desgastadas. Un escritor debe ser omnívoro y necrófago en sus lecturas, porque de todas, por más malas que sean, aprende (ojalá no se estanque en las malas, como sugerí hace un tiempo). Pero los escritores de cuentos deben buscar hoy en otras direcciones. Deben darse cuenta de que las reglas canónicas ya están reventadas. Hay excelentes cuentos sin inicios espeluznantes, sin conflictos para comerse las uñas, sin clímax (Lorrie Moore es genial sin recurrir necesariamente a estas estrategias). Hace más de treinta años que Barthelme se burlaba del modelo chejoviano de cuento que se despide con una epifanía. Pues hay que ver qué propuso e hizo Barthelme, claro. Y hay que buscar mantenerse al tanto de los ejercicios más prometedores que se están generando ahora. Al afirmar esto, no estoy diciendo nada nuevo, claro. Pero, en vista del fanatismo por Maupassant, hay que tener cuidado para que ciertas formas de reverencia no nos jueguen una mala pasada.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Management of Grief

A couple of days ago, when referring to two of Michael Cunningham’s short stories, I said I liked the tempo of “Pearls” better than that of “White Angels,” probably because “it’s a tale of yearning, rather than of mourning.” I don’t want to give the wrong impression that I think there is something inherently wrong with tales of mourning. A good candidate to dispel that impression came to mind. It’s Bharati Mukherjee’s short story “The Management of Grief,” which excels in its tempo (and in many other things, too). It’s been anthologized often, and one of those anthologies offers the only full-length version I found online, here.

This is a good story. It’s about a woman called Shaila Bhave, who lost her two sons and her husband. They were all from India, but lived in Toronto. Her husband (Vikram) was taking the boys to India when a Sikh terrorist blew the plane up. The story recounts how Bhave (and other grieving relatives) cope. Bhave and others travel to Ireland to identify the bodies (some of them were not found), then to India for proper burials. People cope with grief differently: some deny the deaths of their relatives, some crumble, some remarry. Bhave becomes curiously withdrawn, which give people the appearance of aplomb, and thus some come to her for relief. The use of the present tense throughout the story underscores the uncertainty of the future.

The scenes that take place in Ireland are particularly unsettling. Bhave walks out to the beach, and recalls “what good swimmers my boys were,” expecting them to turn up any time, alive. While this hope may sound deranged, a fellow in grievance, a renowned engineer, tells Bhave that “‘[i]t’s a parent’s duty to hope.’” And they all do this, at least those unlucky enough to not have identified their relatives (“The lucky ones flew here, identified in multiplicate their loved ones, then will fly to India with the bodies for proper ceremonies”). One suspects Bhave’s hope has blinded her when she is shown snapshots of bloated, disfigured corpses thought to show one of her sons; she insists they are not pictures of her son. After that, “[t]he nun assigned to console me rubs the picture with a fingertip. ‘When they’ve been in the water for a while, love, they look a little heavier.’ The bones under the skin are broken, they said on the first day—try to adjust your memories. It’s important.”

Trying to adjust the relatives’ memories, their whole lives, in fact, is a central concern in the story. Life back in Canada becomes disfigured. The government appoints an officer to help people through the tragedy, in all its multicultural implications. The officer is young, and can quote “textbooks on grief management” without having had experience in a “tragedy of this scale.” The relationship between Sikhs and Hindus becomes terribly strained. Some of the relatives of the victims don’t know how to get by without those who died; the growling pace of normality threatens to leave them homeless and without food or utilities.

Bhave, as I said, seems to have managed with sang-froid. She is not well, though, unlike the appearances. Bhave has several visions of her family, daubed in Hindu religion. I cannot retell some of the more compelling ones without completely ruining the story, as I almost have done already. The ending of the story picks up this theme again.

“The Management of Grief” is not only about grief, and about how a person and a community manage it. The story is also about how a short story can manage the thorny subject of grief, and how it can do it so well, without being maudlin or insensitive, without lapsing into platitudes and without offering easy ways out.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Five Heridas

Self-proclaimed short story month, post number 22.

About a month ago, The New Yorker published a short story called “Five Wounds,” written by Kirstin Valdez Quade. It’s posted here. Aside from the distinction it was granted by being published in The New Yorker, I read some encouraging remarks on it yesterday. Plus, I just looked the story up online, and I found rave reviews, with people celebrating that there’s “not a word out of place” and sharing other ebullient comments. All of this foregrounded again a subject I had mentioned before, about the wide appeal of exotica in literature. An exoticized Latin culture has become a popular choice.

Before we go on, yes, the story is finely built. It picks up momentum as it goes, as the story centers on its strength: a tortured, guilt-laced relationship between the main character (Amadeo Padilla) and his daughter (Angel). Amadeo is 33, Angel is going on 15—and eight months pregnant. Every family mentioned here is a mess, but Amadeo’s relationship with Angel has been especially distant; it is only now, when Angel is so close to giving birth, that Amadeo finds out that Angel is pregnant. Amadeo is ashamed of his daughter’s pregnancy, and this is made worse when an ominous figure of the story, the crippled Manuel García, calls her a “puta whore.” Amadeo feels guilty for having nearly abandoned her all his life (he “left her to rental after rental, money always tight, the long series of [Angel’s mother’s] boyfriends—some worse even than Amadeo—around his daughter”).

The plot of the story revolves around a reenactment of the Passion, in Easter. Amadeo, a very unlikely candidate, has been offered the part of Jesus. He prepares himself for the event by rehearsing his pained gestures in the mirror, and improving his habits (trying not to drink, for instance). The reenactment, Amadeo explains to his daughter, is “like a way to pray.” There is plenty of real pain involved when the time comes: whips, thorns, nails, flesh torn by grinding against the cross’s rough wood, blood. All of this adds up to an epiphany, built with heavy religious imagery, which transforms Amadeo’s understanding of his life and his relationships.

Having said all that, I wonder why the story bothered to play up its exotic streak, its impenetrable Latin quality, so much. Take this paragraph, for instance, the fourth paragraph in the story:

“Amadeo builds the cross out of heavy rough oak instead of pine. He’s barefoot like the rest of the hermanos, who have rolled up the cuffs of their pants and now drag the arches of their feet over sharp rocks behind him. The Mayor Hermano—Amadeo’s grand-tío Tivé, who owns the electronics store, and who surprised them all when he chose his niece’s lazy son (because, he told Yolanda, Amadeo could use a lesson in sacrifice)—plays the pito, and the thin piping notes rise in a whine. A few hermanos swat their backs with disciplinas. Unlike the others, though, Amadeo does not groan, and he is shirtless, his tattooed back broad under the still hot sun.”

I’ve written in bold every word drawn directly from Spanish; in the story, they are presented in plain font. So why not just say brothers, and horn, and lash? To people who are fluent in Spanish, this is just pointless. Awful, even. Perhaps the point is to force-feed those readers who are not fluent in Spanish with enough strange words to make it seem we are entering an alien and indecipherable world. If that was the point, it doesn’t seem very satisfying.

An alternative would be to be bolder about all this: if there’s going to be so much Spanish littering the narrator’s own voice, how come dialogues are not truly drenched in Spanish (like you’ll hear people flipping from Spanish to English and back in Puerto Rico)? It may be because it would be asking for too much. The longest Spanish phrase in the story is this: “Bendito, bendito, bendito sea Dios, los ángeles cantan y daban a Dios.” If you know enough Spanish, the last verb will sound weird; the verb tenses don’t match, and the meaning is just off. And that’s because it’s a mistake. The prayer really says “alaban a Dios,” not “daban.” Maybe it was for the best that dialogues were not crammed with this kind of Spanish.

As the story advances, Spanish words are not nearly as abundant as they were in that fourth paragraph, which seemed to set the stage. You get an occasional “hermanos,” an occasional “morada,” an occasional “puta.” But the story moves on to focus on its strengths, as I had mentioned. It gets better. And it would’ve been much better without all that mishandled interference. I don’t want to think that if “The Five Wounds” had been just a good, intense father-daughter story, without all those exotic elements, it wouldn’t have interested a top-notch publication.