Swans Commentary » swans.com February 14, 2011  



Young, Spanish Speaking, And Following The Crowd


by Peter Byrne


Book Review



Granta 113, The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists, 2010, London & NYC, ISBN 978-I-905661-23-9, 324 pages.


(Swans - February 14, 2011)   Granta, the "Magazine of New Writing," can't be accused of editorial sleepwalking in its issue 113. The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists have made it through a very fine-toothed comb and there are twenty-two of them. This is change and progress from Granta 108 that sold Chicago short (see Swans, November 16, 2009) and Granta 112, whose Pakistan floated in space cut loose from history and its own latitude and longitude (see Swans, January 31, 2011).

Granta pulls itself together in this 113 issue thanks to collaboration with the Spanish edition, which appears concurrently and whose editors, Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles, were active in the choice of texts and production. In the Foreword they tell us how the choices were made: Writers had to be under thirty-five and to have published at least one novel or story collection. After recommendations were weighed and new talents uncovered, more than three hundred submissions had been gathered in from twenty countries. The cosmopolitan array of judges didn't then seek unanimous decisions but adopted a four-round selection system in which each candidate had to receive one majority vote to survive.

While the process tells a dramatic little story of its own, the proof of this anthological pudding will be in the reading. A political parallel could be put forward: However exhaustive and finely-honed the primary elections in a democracy might be, quality material does not necessarily result. Luck, flare, or prejudice have their input.

The Foreword prepares us for a veritable bumper-car session with no end of changes of pace. Twenty countries can't be expected to travel at the same speed. "Latin America," we are told "has always been the literary Far West." So we can look forward to variations in scenery like those between Idaho's Craters of the Moon and California's Mojave Desert. Moreover, since "a good part of contemporary Spanish literature seems eccentric to Europe," we could be in for some startling surprises. The fact that "No other language shares the same territorial expanse (or population)" would seem to point in the same direction of infinite variety, though the other fact that the Spanish language is "the literary homeland" of every writer suggests a wobbly equation. Wouldn't the language iron out their differences? In any case we are assured that "The fiction in this issue is profoundly diverse [...]."

Well, it isn't. The writers not only use the same language but in the main write about the same things. Their interests are not very different from items hung out on the publishers' clothesline that stretches from Los Angeles to Manhattan to London to Paris.

Let's start with what the authors don't much write about, the political and social state of their respective countries. The editors note this trend in the younger generation and seem to find it quite natural:

While writers such as Julio Cortàzar, Ariel Dorfman and Isabel Allende adopted a moral and political stand against unacceptable political conditions and wrote sweeping social epics, the writers in this issue, by contrast, tell stories which are quotidian. For them, censorship, blacklists, exile and persecution are historical facts rather than actual memories, although it is obvious that they have had to fight other difficulties and fears.

But does the Argentine Lucía Puenza in Cohiba, her well-written story of Cuba, even see the island as an historical fact? For her the country is a sleazy swamp waiting to have its human scum drained off.

Carlos Yushimito from Peru puts forward a vision of uncrossable class lines in his story Seltz. But Conditions for the Revolution by Pola Oloixarac, an Argentine, tells us that politics for her country's middle class are henceforth simply play-acting.

Small Mouth, Thin Lips by the Mexican Antonio Ortuño looks back at an authoritarian regime, but with irony and a legerdemain that leaves it with no specific national home. In Stars and Stripes, Santiago Roncagliolo, a Peruvian, signals an obsession with American pop culture, noting only incidentally that a character was trained for his role in the dictatorship at a US war school.

The "quotidian" invoked by the editors used to mean "daily," as in "each day" half the population of Latin America still struggles to line up three meals and bankrupt Spain has a record number of workers who no longer have a job to go to. Now "quotidian" seems to mean middle-class lifestyle detail. Elvira Navarro, Spanish, tells us in her novel Gerardo's Letters:

"I'm going to shower," I tell Gerardo as we enter the room. I take my robe, toiletry bag and flip-flops out of my duffel bag and when I'm about to open the door Gerardo says: "You can get undressed here. I won't touch you."

As it happens, the separating lovers have been engaged in a last weekend of what used to be called "slumming" until political correctness tabooed the word. They rubbed shoulders with the lower classes for kicks.

After Helen by the Argentine Andrés Neuman tries to lift the severing of a couple to a higher level. But what we find up there are only the same leisure-class monkeyshines.

In chapters from their novels, Alberto Olmos, Spanish (Eva And Diego), observes the same he-she friction through the lens of consumerism, whereas the Chilean Carlos Labbé (The Girls Resembled Each Other In The Unfathomable) relies on a pinch of pedophilia or maybe incest. Never mind which, one spice is as good as another.

The constant in all these and other ruptured couplings, whether marshmallowy or brutal, is narration in the first person. In fact it's the narrative mode that dominates the entire anthology. Now storytelling from the "I" can be a powerful technique, but it demands a steady controlling hand that not all "Young Spanish Language Novelists" possess. They often yield to first-person spread and flashback disorientation, stumbling into the ditch of self-indulgence. Since many of the authors boast their personal blog, one wonders if the gushing "I" isn't a byproduct of the Internet age. They should remember that the eureka moment of the great prose artist Samuel Beckett -- his move into the first person -- came when he was already a seasoned writer and past master of third-person narration.

It's therefore refreshing to come upon Olingiris, a story by the Argentine Samanta Schweblin told briskly at third-person distance. The author reminds us that some characters still have to go out to earn a living. The heroine's job of work is to lie immobile, suffering, while sister proletarians pluck the fine hairs from her legs to furnish the luxury trade.

In Utah There Are Mountains Too by Federico Falco, also an Argentine, uses the third-person to fix an adolescent sharply in our minds as she lives an intense, short, entirely imaginary romance with a plodding Mormon missionary. Falco demonstrates that it pays to keep close to classic short story form and to prize simplicity. A novel excerpt like The Hotel Life by Javier Montes, a Spaniard, underlines the temptation of cleverness in a tradition that bears the heavy imprint of Jorge Luis Borges. This applies with bells on to the Argentine Patricio Pron's story A Few Words On The Life Cycle Of Frogs. Pron, who has moved to Spain, has a go at the Buenos Aires provincial he used to be. His remarks on a writer as a social being chime with the attitude of several others. (With, for instance, that of the Bolivian Rodrigo Hasbún, author of the moving The Place of Losses.) This assumption that the writer has a place in the social hierarchy quite detached from what he actually produces -- his written words -- is certainly not an Anglo-Saxon point of view.

Many cannot fairly be judged because they are represented by excerpts from novels. While a short story is the ultimate self-contained literary form, a mere slice of a novel leaves us with only one piece of a larger puzzle: In The Cuervo Brothers by Andrés Felipe Solano, Columbian, and in Ways of Going Home, by Alejandro Zambra, Chilean, boys find the world as strange as an alien planet. Matias Néspolo, Argentine, gives us a taste of his novel in progress, The Bonfire And The Chessboard. It promises news of the brutal regime that not so long ago ruled his country.

Andrés Ressia Colino from Uruguay extends the interest in middle-class love affairs to family matters. His young man character in Scenes From A Comfortable Life is corralled into a discussion of their mutual drug use with the father of his girlfriend. After Effects by Oliverio Coelho, Argentine, touches another base in this thematic when a boy goes on a hesitant hunt for his father.

Sónia Hernández, from Spain, in the The Survivor takes middle-class disenchantment full circle: Her hero, granted six more years of life, wishes he could have refused the gift. Gigantomachy by Spaniard Pablo Gutiérrez implies that the only way out of bourgeois life our authors have found is, literally, "to freak out." Of this more later.

Their diversity won't serve to define the writers in this anthology. They are anything but "profoundly diverse" as the editors have it. Most of them seem to have joined a secret society that demands a leveling out of differences and a set program of themes. They write about what interests and doesn't upset the globalized middle class. Their family problems, limited to spats and temperamental conflicts, loom large. It's understood they are eating and spending regularly so writers keep from burdening readers with tales of their money and from where it came. Society members are strongly advised, if not born in Spain, to take up residence there as soon as possible. It's where the publishers are and the homogenization process is most rapid. The writers' task is to throw off parochial difference and present themselves in North Atlantic style.

The Spaniard, Andrés Barba, finds a way beyond these criteria, but not many would consider it humanly satisfying. The Coming Flood could have been written in New York in the 1960s -- Hubert Selby, Jr., William Burroughs, John Rechy, Alexander Trocchi? -- or, with a few local touches added, in London or Paris in the next decades. Barba gives a strong answer to the first/third-person narrative question and writes a partly hallucinatory monologue from a third-person perch on the edge of his character's brainpan. She's a veteran of cosmetic surgery -- cheekbones, rib removal, and lip enhancement, all done, breasts four times. At once hyper-aware of eyes on her and indifferent to other people, she puts her disturbed psyche in the hands of the author who will turn it into dark poetry. Too erratic to hold her job in films, she retreats into the Internet. It's not beauty she dreams of but escape from the human condition into monstrosity. She wants to have a horn in the middle of her forehead.

Her illegal clinic poses no objection if she can scrape up the fee. Her film income has stopped, so she turns to prostitution. Customers turn up and money accumulates, but she literally falls apart and loses herself in musing over that horn. She fears how things will finish, but at the same time courts danger. A sentence haunts her: "I am the wound and the knife." She commits robbery. Events -- the men (one equally mixed-up guy falls in love with her), the collapse of her remodeled flesh, sleepless nights -- all pass in a blur while she contemplates the clear image of her longed-for horn.

Finally she has got the required fee together and the surgery takes place. Her ghastly dream under the anesthetic is the last hurdle. When she rips off her bandages, the horn is there and at last she feels that the whole world comes together seamlessly. The reader can take this story for a middle-class nightmare par excellence: Surrender of a proper place in the world for a mad obsession. Far into the new century it will not take him, but Barba must have thought that a nightmare beat a middle-class dream. Let's hope that before "The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists" grow old they find a better alternative to prosperous globalized life than turning into freaks.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published February 14, 2011