Although Yuri Rytkheu (1930–2008) wrote in Russian, he preserved through his fiction the history of the Chukchi people—the native Siberian tribe of Chukotka, the region lying just across the Bering Strait from Alaska. There are maybe 12,000 Chukotka inhabitants today, but in spite of revival efforts in the post-Soviet years, few are able to read in their native Chukchi language. Indeed, under Communism, Rytkheu’s efforts to depict the customs and values of his ancient people faced crippling censorship from the state or were marred by painful self-censorship. Only with the emergence of glasnost and the subsequent demise of the Soviet Union was the author able to liberate himself fully and publish more freely abroad. In the last decade much of his work has enjoyed repatriation. This story is taken from Rythkeu’s remarkable collection The Chukchi Bible (forthcoming in English translation by Ilona Yazhbin Chavasse and Archipelago Books).
On the day of Bachmaier’s funeral there were two messages from my mother waiting for me on the answering machine. In the first one she asked me to call her back, in the second she said that the village was in an uproar: I was to come at once. Calls from my mother were rare.
In Tropical Bestiary: Dictator Chronicles, Colombian author Alfredo Iriarte wrote hilarious, grotesque biographies of nine Latin American dictators. The following chapter narrates the heartwarming tale of Bolivian dictator Mariano Melgarejo and his equine sidekick Holofernes. A profile of Alfredo Iriarte can be found here in the current issue of The Quarterly Conversation.
Providence (2009) is Juan Francisco Ferré’s most ambitious novel, his longest and more complex fictional work to date. Written during one of his stays at Brown University, Providence, as much as Ferré’s previous books, is a deeply erotic, abrasively satirical, gargantuan fiction dealing with both contemporary American culture and Spanish literary tradition. But rather than focusing on cultural differences, Ferré investigates the common literary roots of the new global culture, producing a true “transatlantic” fiction—in some sense. Providence could be considered as much a Spanish novel about America as an American novel written in Spanish.
I thought it strange the baby not crying. I wanted to get up and check that it was all right, but I was worried I’d hurt myself, plus I was in a bit of a daze—it was as though my eyelids weighed more than usual. I asked myself: what dreams would I have had while I was under? I couldn’t remember a thing. Strange, because I always dream, and I always remember my dreams. I’d had a recurring nightmare over the previous nine months, over and over: in agony, I’d be giving birth to a baby that made a sound like a cat.
Germán Sierra’s work is a rare exception. A respected neuroscientist at the University of Santiago de Compostela, he is one of a small group of writers to have considered in earnest the challenges contemporary science presents to the narrative model that has come down to us from the nineteenth century, with its emphasis on the sovereign role of individual psychology as an engine of plot. He brings to mind Philip K. Dick, but less speculative, more uncanny, and tinged with a hard-edged griminess reminiscent of Darby Crash–era Los Angeles.
Auster has always just been my kind of writer. Whatever anyone else says, I’ve always found him simply charming. And just as I can allow him his minor faults, I’m also glad when he does well. There’s something graceful about his writing that places him, along with the likes of Stevenson, in Fernando Savater’s category of enchanters. “It’s hardly scientific as a literary critical category, I know”, says Savater, “but I’m only writing for proper readers, and I know they’ll know what I mean.” This charm, for Savater,is easier to distinguish by what it isn’t: it isn’t genius, profundity, brio, or formal perfection, and neither could it be called an innovative or a classical bent; a minor author might have the touch and still never break into the highest ranks of world literature. But when combined with other qualities, it can make addicts of us.
One thing led to another, and that was just the beginning. I’m talking about the head resting in the plate of cannelloni. Heavy, still, and deaf, and attached to Pedro Akira’s compact body by a strong and manly neck. Oblivious to all the consequences this stillness began to unleash outside the Italian restaurant, in other heads and along other streets, more primary than secondary. Consequences transformed into actions that now, seen from here, from this requisite distance, seem like terrified ants running away from each other, ants fleeing from their own shadows. But that came later, five hours after the first memorable event of the day already briefly described—the breaking of the string on my double bass—which doesn’t seem worth mentioning but really is, and the reason shall soon be seen by those who are listening to this.
Alicia didn’t go in for moderation, and was even excessive in many ways, but she was just what I needed at that time, the only relationship that could give me back some form of enthusiasm for Madrid and so postpone my return to Mexico, which I’d been announcing to family and friends during the last months, fed up as I was with my solitude and, more specifically, my single state.
The new, much-discussed attraction at Disneyland, begun three months ago, has become now the highlight, the main fascination of daily, unending crowds. The attraction in question is a gargantuan maze, which claims to lose all who dare enter its meter-wide lanes, its gray three-meter-high walls, offering mirror after mirror of varying size, depth, deceptive illusion. There is no short supply of the brave: on the average there are eleven-hundred-twenty three entrants per day.
No one had seen the first accident coming. True, it might still seem fairly mild: a brief tremor brought the beginnings of panic to the countryside around Mouscron, doing damage to a few farms, uprooting fences and signs. Streets and people were, for the most part, spared. The authorities had quickly taken control of the situation and proved reassuring. The accidents that followed were more significant in other ways.
El dorado (2008), Juan-Cantavella’s breakthrough novel, turns its attention to the conflicts and issues of Spain today. Juan-Cantavella begins in Marina D’Or, one of the huge, bunker-like mass tourist traps built on the Spanish coast over the last decades. Halfway between A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (things are not helped by the protagonist’s deviant ways . . .), the book’s blistering opening sets the tone for what follows. Fearing for his life, our hero flees to Valencia, where the Pope is about to celebrate the World Families Meeting. There, with the help of Brona, his faithful sidekick, he intends to find the mythical Eldorado. Obviously, things are about to go awry . . .
The Girl with the Golden Parasol follows Rahul, a non-Brahmin, who finagles his way as a student into the department of Hindi: one of the most corrupt in the university, and a “den of Brahminism.” He does so after falling utterly for Anjali, a Brahmin girl, who, through simple bad luck, could find a home in no other department. The narrative chronicles exactly how the powers-that-still-be in India have harnessed globalization to further consolidate power over language and culture at the most local of levels. It’s also a love story, and a tale of students protesting the corruption of the Indian university system.
My name is Domingo. Actually, Domingo is my password here in the laboratory. Just by uttering this name—which I chose—I can enter bedrooms and bathrooms, I can make phone calls, obtain food and drink, access the temperature, hygiene, and communication systems, send and receive email, carry out Internet transactions to purchase any supplies we need. Without it, I’d be trapped in my room. If I were to suffer a psycholinguistic disruption, or if the effect of some microorganism rendered me voiceless, I’d just die of starvation.
“Lizard à la Heart” is the opening story in Roberto Ransom’s short story collection Desaparecidos, animales y artistas (Conaculta, 1999), which I’ve translated as “Missing Persons, Animals and Artists.” Ransom is an award-winning Mexican writer whose published work includes novels, short-story collections, poetry, essays as well as children’s literature. The stories in “Missing Persons, Animals and Artists” possess great humanity—in their exploration of character, emotional depth, and universal themes—and deliver an impact akin to Cortázar and Poe. Told in a clean, elegant prose style, they make use of irony and premises that are whimsical, and at times fantastical; their protagonists are elusive animals and artists or other individuals. In the story that follows, for example, the narrator speaks to her pet, a lonely crocodile she keeps locked in her bathroom, imagining it swimming in the tub. Thus begins Ransom’s mysterious and existential tale.
Los Muertos is what one might call post-Sebaldian catastrophe literature: how can we talk about horror, war, violence, camps today? If one thing is clear, it’s that Carrión doesn’t want to do it à la 19th-century realism, which sets him apart from many Spanish writers (Antonio Muñoz Molina comes to mind) and makes him close, in spirit at least, to Juan Goytisolo, W.G. Sebald, and Ricardo Piglia, authors to which he dedicated lengthy critical studies. That Los Muertos talks about such loaded themes in what seems to be an entirely fictitious framework is probably its strongest achievement. This debut novel is the first volume of a trilogy that might very well become one of the high points of Spanish fiction thus far this century.
The chronicles of Itaguaí tell that long ago there lived in town a certain Doctor Simeon Blunderbuss, a man of noble birth and the greatest doctor in Brazil, Portugal, and both Old and New Spains. He had studied at Coimbra and at Padua before returning to Brazil at the age of thirty-four. The King could not manage to convince him to stay on in Coimbra as regent of the university, nor in Lisbon directing royal affairs.
That was around the time of the spectacular accident in the Chilean mine. Thirty-three workers trapped almost half a mile beneath the earth. In real time, heart in mouth, the world followed the tragic events that, for seventy days, TV news bulletins the length and breadth of the planet led with. As did the press, and the radio. It was practically the only talking point. First, a tunnel was opened up through which the rescue teams could introduce the medicines and provisions from the outside world that were deemed most urgent. Direct, fluid communication was then established with those trapped below, their fear probed, their hopes of making it out alive broadcast, their attempts to say farewell in the darkest hours, their messages of love, their ham-handed poetry, filled with a candor that was chilling in its simplicity—pure naïf horror. People wondered what it might feel like to be trapped beneath a hillside, with tons of earth above and all that uncertainty as to whether one might ever again see the sunlight and all that it normally bathes.
At the moment when the wind gusts in from the south, the wind that arrives from Arizona, soaring up and across the several sparsely populated deserts and the dozen and a half settlements that over the years have been subject to an unstoppable exodus to the point that they’ve become little more than skele-towns, at this moment, this very moment, the hundreds of pairs of shoes hanging from the poplar are subjected to a pendular motion, but not all with the same frequency—the laces from which each pair hangs are of different lengths. From a certain distance it constitutes a chaotic dance indeed, one that, in spite of all, implies certain rules. Some of the shoes bang into each other and suddenly change speed or trajectory, finally ending up back at their attractor points, in balance. The closest thing to a tidal wave of shoes. This American poplar that found water is situated 125 miles from Carson City and 135 from Ely; it’s worth the trip just to see the shoes stopped, potentially one the cusp of moving. High heels, Italian shoes, Chilean shoes, trainers of all makes and colours (including a pair of mythical Adidas Surf), snorkelling flippers, ski boots, baby booties and booties made of leather. The passing traveller may take or leave anything he or she wishes. For those who live near to U.S. Route 50, the tree is proof that, even in the most desolate spot on earth, there’s a life beyond—not beyond death, which no one cares about any more, but beyond the body—and that the objects, though disposed of, possess an intrinsic value aside from the function they were made to serve.
I’ve left and returned a few times over the years—I don’t mean the village, but the bar; there have been periods when I’ve abandoned it entirely, but I’ve always come back in the end, to that stimulating daily journey, the one that prises me out of my solitude at the workshop in the evenings: down Calle de San Ramón where I live, along Calle del Carmen, Calle de la Paz, Paseo de la Constitución (formerly known as General Mola), and here I am—as on so many evenings for so many years—in Bar Castañer, my refuge: the protective gauze of cigarette smoke, which, today, like the snows of yesteryear, has vanished. You can’t smoke inside any more. Although, even after all these months of the smoking ban, the smell of nicotine that used to impregnate walls and tables may have gone, but other components of that comforting olfactory gauze linger on: the smell of old cooking oil, damp wool, sweaty vests and overalls, the smell of cheap beer and sour wine. All of these still allow me to recognise the place, to snuggle down in my nest and shuffle the cards. Lately, I’ve been coming almost every evening. Saying goodbye to all this was the dream of an empty-headed youth who ended up staying and who has, in the meantime, become a decrepit old man without ever passing through maturity.
“You’re not taking my leg.”
“Mother . . . “
“Out of the question. I’m sixty-three years old and I’ve had this leg all my life. Nothing changes that.”
“This is a matter of life and death.”
“Well, then I’ll just die!”
It looks impossible to get out,” he says. And also: “But we’ll get out.”
To the north, the forest borders a mountain range and is surrounded by lakes so big they look like oceans. In the centre of the forest is a well. The well is roughly seven metres deep and its uneven walls are a bank of damp earth and roots, which tapers at the mouth and widens at the base, like an empty pyramid with no tip. The basin gurgles dark water, which filters along faraway veins and even more distant galleries that flow towards the river. It leaves a permanent muddy peat and sludge specked with bubbles that pop, spraying bursts of eucalyptus back into the air. Whether due to pressure from the continental plates or the constant eddying breeze, the little roots move and turn and steer in a slow, sad dance, which evokes the nature of all the forests slowly absorbing the earth.
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