Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, Alvaro Uribe and Olivia Sears (eds.). Dalkey Archive Press. 450pp, $15.95.
The preface to Dalkey Archive Press’s Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction begins by warning readers against judging a nation’s fiction by any single anthology, and yet it is hard not to draw some conclusions from this fine collection of short stories. All of the writers collected here were born after 1945, and the concerns found in their stories are what might be expected from a generation of children brought up under the expansion of Mexico’s middle class and its longest period of political stability. That is to say, these stories are frequently very ironic, and they often feature narcissistic characters leading hermetic middle class lives. Notably, in the one story in this collection in which urban poverty and social malaise play a central role, the locale is not anywhere in Mexico but rather an invented African nation. The socio-political concerns that suffused so many of the pages written by the earlier generation—Paz, Rulfo, Pacheco, Fuentes, and Ibarguengoitia among them—are not to be found in these sixteen stories.
But these stories are good. If their protagonists often fall into the trap of self-infatuation, rest assured that they just as often experience their deserved comeuppance—or at least existential angst—in interesting ways. Moreover, these sixteen writers are largely unavailable in English, but after reading this anthology I’m persuaded that many of them should be translated immediately.
What seems to have replaced the grittier tales told by the last generation of Mexican authors is something that, for want of a better term, might be called “Bolañoian.” Although this is not the place to speculate on the influence Roberto Bolaño has exerted on these writers (it’s worth noting, though, that much of the work represented here was published after Bolaño became famous), the protagonists of many of these stories bear more than a little resemblance to Bolaño’s favored storytellers: the literate, cynical youth (frequently a failed intellectual) who tells a shimmering, elusive tale ostensibly about nothing in particular. In this way these stories also recall Chilean Carlos Zambra’s prize-winning 2006 novella Bonsai, a sort of hedonistic, postmodern love story where characters are discarded offhandedly (because the author has lost use of them), and several sub-narratives are nonchalantly combined into a larger structure.
For an example of the intellectual, ironic narrator that characterizes so many of these stories, look to the opening lines of Enrique Serna’s fine “Living Treasure,” which could well be the opening lines to several stories in Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction:
Stuck on a paragraph with abstruse syntax and several subordinate clauses she didn’t know how to bring together, Amelie tried to arrange the onslaught of ideas into some kind of verbal fabric. She had written herself into a dead end, but weren’t such crossroads where the life of language began? She needed to find the opposite of the sign, the point where representation and meaning converged, but how would she ever achieve that when the words she had on the tip of her tongue dashed off like frightened hares the moment she tried to ease them into new patterns?
Amelie, we soon learn, is a thirtysomething grown tired of writerly frustrations and her bohemian Parisian lifestyle. A friend helpfully connects her with a cushy literary job: a trendy leftist French magazine will pay for her to spend a year in the tiny, desperately poor African nation of Tekendogo, from where she will report back on the nation’s literature for educated, bourgeois French.
What follows is an entertaining, noirish story as Amelie gets sucked deeper and deeper into political intrigue surrounding what exactly is in the many books written by Tekendogo’s “Living Treasures,” the name the state gives to its favored artists. The story is skillfully put together and poses a couple of questions that resist simple answers, although at times its postcolonial critique is a little too obvious: “We want you to study only literature written in French,” Amelie is commanded by the all-but-unseen director of the French literary publication.
“Living Treasure” is similar to about 1/3 of the stories represented in Mexican Fiction in that, underneath, it is about what it is about. That is, this story looks like a morality tale about a bourgeois liberal learning a harsh lesson in Africa, and after re-reading it I’m pretty sure it is a morality tale about a bourgeois liberal learning a harsh lesson in Africa. It’s the kind of story that, though well-written and instructive, doesn’t telescope inward. Yes, readers can argue about what exactly Amelie’s decision at the end means, and whether she chooses correctly or not, but the basic facts of “Living Treasure” are non-negotiable. It is what it is.
The other 2/3 of the stories in Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction are precisely the opposite. For instance, Cristina Rivera-Garza’s “Nostalgia” is, on the surface, the story of a man who keeps dreaming about the same city. In dream after dream he obsessively explores and maps this city until one day, he loses the ability to dream about it.
This story could be a metaphor for all sorts of things. Unfortunately, “Nostalgia’s” last line imposes a somewhat constricted reading on this intriguing structure (it’s a good reading, but I still wish Rivera-Garza hadn’t imposed it on us); but if we ignore that last line, then “Nostalgia” could be about almost anything—except what it’s ostensibly about. Being able to do this with singular virtuosity was what made Borges great, and, indeed, there are echoes of Borges in “Nostalgia,” even if Rivera-Garza’s story is diminished when stood next to the towering Argentine.
There is, however, one story in Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction that does bear favorable comparison to Borges, or perhaps the more accurate reference is to the Spanish postmodernist Enrique Vila-Matas. There are elements of both to be found in the playful, portentously named “On the Death of the Author” by Alvaro Enrigue. Enrigue is such a talented writer that he manages to describe, from within his own story, exactly what makes his story superlative, and he pulls this off without making the inclusion seem the least bit strained:
There is a story, and a very good one at that, told by Bernardo Atxaga. He says that one day, as he walked through a town in his native Basque country, all of a sudden he came upon a man by a door with a hole in it. He chatted with the old man for a spell and then the man asked, Did he know why there was a hole in the door? Atxaga answered, It would be for the cat. No, said the man. They made it years ago, in order to feed a boy who, having been bitten by a dog, had turned into a dog.
The stories I like, the ones that make me wildly jealous and yearn to be able to write that well, have the bedazzling logic of that old Basque: they lack a piece, and this lack transforms them into a myth, appealing to the lowest common denominator that makes us all more or less equal.
“On the Death of the Author” lacks a piece; in fact, it lacks about four or five pieces, as there are four or five “mythical” sub-stories found within this work. Impressively, Enrigue manages to join these sub-stories together with thematic and particular links that make the entire piece come together as a deeply mysterious yet quite comprehensible whole.1
There are two stories in Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction that seem to especially blend the realism of the first 1/3 and the allegoricism of the other 2/3; the first is “The Woman in the Red Coat” by Guillermo Samperio. The story feels somewhat out of place in this volume, fifteen pages of pure modernism that, as if Samperio were creating a written version of a Renoir or a Manet, do little beyond paint a portrait of the titular character. The woman in the red coat, crying and bothered for obscure but largely guessable reasons, smokes a string of cigarettes while she crawls into the corner of a cafe, sips espressos, and mulls her life.
A dense cloud of indecipherable news. Sketchy ideas that went into the mirror. A false night behind the glass. A stain like red wings fallen on the back of the chair. A ribbon of smoke crossing her face, like the photograph on a poster, stuck to the side wall. No one would notice the difference. I’m sure of it. I could be on the wall, well removed from my sadness. And nobody here would move an inch.
Who, really, is the woman in the red coat? What is her story about? Samperio gives us little suggestion as to either question’s answer, although that doesn’t stop this woman from coming across as the collection’s most substantial character. The sentence-chips that Samperio scatters on the page—very faithfully and successfully translated from the Spanish (which, as throughout this volume, can be viewed on the facing page)—elegantly drift from third to first person; loosely organized into paragraphs, they make an astringent corrective to the whimsicality, mordancy, and casual metafictionality that typifies stories like “On the Death of the Author,” “Nostalgia,” and “Living Treasure.”
The feel of “The Woman in the Red Coat” is similar to that of Daniel Sada’s “The Ominous Phenomenon.” Here, and for virtually the only time in the collection, we finally see Mexico’s poor close up, and although these rurals are possibly illiterate, this story still feels the most Bolañoian in the collection. As with so much of Bolaño, “The Ominous Phenomenon” narrates a perfectly purposeless tale full of trivial peaks and valleys that finally just up and quits before reaching any sort of climax. It is also the anthology’s grittiest work, the one that feels the most in the tradition of Rulfo’s peasants.
This is the story: A poor man has been stationed by a landowner on a “ranch” in the middle of the desert, where there is little for him to do other than eke out a life of subsistence. One day the landowner deposits another man with him and charges them to “make bricks,” a job that necessitates a painful trek over the sun-scorched earth to bring back precious water for mud, water that should more properly be drunk by two men who, it becomes clear, are abandoned in the desert. Why are they making bricks? Will the boss even come back to inspect their progress? Who knows? After negotiating some minor brushes with machismo likely to occur between two such men in such a situation, Sada leaves them, the bricks unmade, the daunting task of dragging back the water still ahead, neither man any closer to any sort of answer, or even an explanation.
This frequently enjoyable, occasionally profound collection ends, quite appropriately, with a story titled “The End of the World.” It is a lurid tale of porcine catastrophe, imprisoned alligators, and biblical plagues of cockroaches, tarantulas, and jellyfish. This often surreal depiction of a married couple trying to rediscover their love sits just on this side of realism. Its meaning inheres both in the protagonists’ lovelorn struggles and the symbolist framework, here given an organic, almost jungle-like feel appropriate to the verdant Mexican landscape.
“The End of the World” is typical of most of the pieces in Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction in its sheer readability, and in the author’s attempts to combine borderline outrageous imagery with realist characters. But for a couple of misfires, this anthology delivers several interesting stories that feel unified but seldom repetitious. It is a fine book for either those curious about current Mexican fiction or those simply in search of some good things to read.
Scott Esposito edits The Quarterly Conversation.
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