“The fact that I am writing to you in English already falsifies what I wanted to tell you. My subject: how to explain to you that I don’t belong to English though I belong nowhere else” ― Gustavo Perez Firmat, Bilingual Blues
Some of us don’t really have a choice when it comes to where we physically spend our summer. We want clean beaches but we get packed subways, and that is only the beginning of our urban realities. However, and I know this sounds cheesy, literature offers an intangible opportunity to travel beyond our subway cars and buses, and outside into the worlds and minds of those who came before us. And, if you choose wisely, you might even be transported to the beaches of Santo Domingo without even leaving your air-conditioned apartment in Brooklyn.
This summer is the summer of short stories. That’s what’s up with Latin American literature. Now, more than ever, it has become harder and harder to commit to a—with all due respect—novel. People in transit enjoy brief, portable stories that they can digest in between destinations. Of course, if the eye-opening novel we’ve been waiting for comes along, we might eventually convince our attention spans to tackle those. Maybe these microfictions are a way in.
Below is your summer reading list for 2015.
The Musical Brain, César Aira
Another virtuoso of microfiction is Argentina’s César Aira, who seems to be taking the literary world by storm thanks to the publishing of his works in translation by New Directions. The Musical Brain, once a single short story published in the New York Times, is now a collection of short stories whose cover is an almost hologram. Yes, go ahead, shake it sideways and see it change. The collection presents 20 tales about oddballs, freaks, and crazies, playing on the out-of-context plots and the bizarre realities of what others—those less romantic—call our everyday lives. Invention, logic, and real life render contradictory. For example, in “A Thousand Drops,” the Mona Lisa disappears when its oil paint escapes and decides to explore the world, see the sights, and have some fun.
Faces In The Crowd, Valeria Luiselli
Luiselli’s narrative works on the basis of three ostensibly unrelated stories, similar to the way Amores Perros’ camera switches from narrative to narrative. In Faces In The Crowd, a young mother in Mexico City writes a novel of her days as a young translator living in New York. Adrift in Harlem, she is desperate to translate and publish the works of Gilberto Owen, an obscure Mexican poet who lived in Harlem during the 1920s, and whose ghostly presence haunts her in the city’s subways. Simultaneously, Owen is dying in Philadelphia in the 1950s. Convinced he is slowly disappearing, he recalls his heyday decades before, his friendships with Nella Larsen, Louis Zukofsky, and Federico Garcia Lorca, and the young woman in a red coat he saw in the windows of passing trains. As the voices of the narrators overlap and merge, they drift into one single stream, an elegiac evocation of love and loss.
At Night We Walk in Circles, Daniel Alarcón
Many of us already know Daniel Alarcón thanks to Radio Ambulante, a podcast that collects the stories hidden inside different corners of Latin America. In At Night We Walk in Circles we are submerged into Alarcón’s written account of Nelson, a young man trying to make it in the theatre industry after the Civil War. During a personal exchange with Alarcón, I asked him if not including that he was referring to Peru was a conscious choice in the novel. He said it was. Why? Because many who read the book do not recognize it as such. They read it as their own hometown: Karachi, Delhi, and many others. But for us, Lima is written all over this passage. “The sky was smeared across the top of the page in its traditional blue–here, in a city that suffers beneath thick gray clouds for ten months out of the year. Why do locsal children insist on coloring it this way? Is it simplicity? Wishful thinking? Nelson felt certain he’d done the same when he was Ana’s age- Did the sky-blue sky reflect a lack of imagination? Or an excess of the same?” Luiselli was born in Mexico City, grew up in South Africa, and spent a considerable amount of time working as a translator in an independent press in Harlem, NY. She merges three historical presents, two settings, and many, many themes.
My Documents, Alejandro Zambra
Following the success of The Private Lives of Trees and Bonsái, Chile’s Alejandro Zambra strikes back with another piece of fiction to feed our souls. Through his usual metafictional intentions, he presents a collection of short stories that play with the idea that they have all been hiding inside the “My Documents” file on his desktop computer. Yes. They are disjointed, sometimes miscellaneous and free. And, since these reference the ’90s, the machine we are talking about is not a sleek MacBook Pro, but rather, as the New York Times described it in their review, “unwieldy desktops, paid for on installment plans; in one scene, a character lugs a monitor, C.P.U. and keyboard on a long bus ride. The cumbersomeness and impending obsolescence of the machines sets the tone for the book, with its sad-funny stories of the lost and the out-of-sync.” Some of the titles in the collection include, “Memories of a Personal Computer” and “The Most Chilean Man In The World.”
The Adventure of The Busts of Eva Perón, Carlos Gamerro
Those of you who had the opportunity to watch the film Wild Tales, depicting a satirized, almost-too-real view of Argentina’s current political situation, will find this novel to have an almost perplexing resemblance. In the midst of Argentina’s Dirty War, Carlos Gamerro’s tale follows the main character Ernesto Marroné’s quest to rescue his boss who’s been kidnapped by the Montoneros. Following the current Argentinean trend for ridicule, the story turns into a picaresque turmoil. Marroné carries a copy of How To Win Friends and Influence People, as well as Don Quijote throughout his journey and creates a humorous tale adorned with business rhetoric and quirky observations. He satirizes the political past and yet still manages to make an accurate observation of the present.
AMOR FORENSE: Birds in Shorts City: Anthology of bodies writing in San Diego, Various Authors
Little has been said yet about Amor Forense, mainly because it is just fresh out of the oven, and it involves a combination of rigorous training and an experimental, transdisciplinary philosophy. In fact, I would say it is the embodiment of what Gustavo Pérez Firmat refers to when claiming, “I don’t belong to English, though I don’t belong anywhere else.”
This bilingual anthology compiles the work of a group of authors and translators based in the San Diego/Tijuana border zone, where some attend the UC San Diego MFA program, training in cross-genre writing. The poems, stories, spells, and hybrids found in here were originally written in English and then translated into different styles of Spanish (Mexican, Peruvian, Puerto Rican, etc.). What I was able to find after some research were the following spreads—designed by Careli Rojo—that not only illustrate great talent, but do it through unconventional layout and typography.
Authors include Pepe Rojo, Frank Ken Saragosa, Maria Flaccavento, Marco Antonio Huerta, Nicolee Kuester, April Peletta, Brett Zehner, Ethan Sparks, Hanna Tawater, Grant Leuning, J. M. Baker, Jose Antonio Villaran, Kiik Araki-Kawaguchi, Kendall Grady, Kim Schreiber, Keith McCleary, Nate MacDonald, Paola Capó-García, Sarah Ciston, and Tina Hyland, who were translated into Spanish by Aurelio Meza, Estela Mendoza, Gidi Loza, José Antonio Villarán, Julio Ortiz, Marco Antonio Huerta, Paola Capó-García, Pepe Rojo, and Patricia Torres Maciel.
Coming Up Soon
Also! Coming up August 4th is The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, a genius in her own right who was born in Poland but moved to Brazil as a child and fully embraced Portuguese as her mother writing tongue.