Critica y reseña: A Taste of Contemporary Spanish-language Fiction Delights All Palettes

Valerie Miles, editor
Translated from the Spanish by various translators
Open Letter, 2014, 721 pp.

Reading A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-language Fictionwas both wonderful and frustrating. Wonderful, because of the opportunity to read selections by authors both familiar and new, along with their thoughts on their writing and their influences. Frustrating, because many of the works excerpted here have not yet been translated into English in their entirety. Is Open Letter using this collection as a litmus test to choose which Spanish-language authors to introduce (or re-introduce) to English-language readership? If so, I definitely have a few nominations—but I don't think they would go wrong with any of the authors represented here.
The idea behind the collection (which was inspired by a similar collection of English-language authors, This is My Best: Over 150 Self-Chosen and Complete Masterpieces, Together with Their Reasons for Their Selection, published in 1942) was to ask several influential senior Spanish-language authors (the youngest was born in 1958) to select the works that they feel represent "their best creative moment," or the work that best represents them. The selections are accompanied by the authors' own words on why they chose the works in question. For each author, there is also a section called "In Conversation with the Dead," referring to a poem byFrancisco de Quevedo: "vivo en conversación con los difuntos, / y escucho con mis ojos a los muertos" ("I live in conversation with the deceased, / and listen with my eyes to the dead"—an allusion to reading), where the author discusses those writers(and other people) who most influence their work.

This anthology doesn't pretend to be comprehensive; it's a product of editor Valerie Miles' choices, and of which authors had the time and interest to participate. A few authors whom you might expect are missing: no Gabriel García Márquez, no Isabel Allende. Even so, the selections cover a broad range of countries, topics, and literary styles. It's impossible to summarize the style or sensibility of "all" Spanish-language fiction (even just that part represented here), any more than one could summarize the sensibility of all English-language fiction. All the same, a collection invites you to search for patterns and themes. There were a few in particular that jumped out at me.
First, Faulkner. It's remarkable how many of the authors in this collection acknowledge the influence of Faulkner—more than any other English language author, perhaps more than anysingle Spanish language author (that's a subjective impression; I didn't count). He was mentioned enough, at any rate, that I went back and re-read some Faulkner after finishing this collection, seeing with new eyes the skill with which Faulkner delineates his characters, links a story's environment and its mood—to paraphraseMario Vargas Llosa's Nobel lecture, the way his writing and structure elevate his subjects. I also saw quite a few nods to Uruguayan author Juan Carlos Onetti (who himself cited Faulkner as an influence); I've not read Onetti, but now I'll have to.
Second, I was struck by  how fluidly many authors—realists as well as fantasists and magical realists—treat what we normally consider immutable: time, space, person. (Faulkner often does this, too, come to think of it). I'm thinking of the way Mario Vargas Llosa's two selections switch continuously between second or first and third person; the ebb and flow between past and present in Antonio Muñoz Molina's selection from Sepharad, or in Rafael Chirbes' excerpt from Crematorio. Memory is also a common theme: the complicated, ever-renegotiated relationship between memory, history, and truth, expressed in different fantastical ways by Carlos Fuentes(excerpt from Terra Nostra), Juan Goytisolo (excerpt from The Blind Rider) andJavier Marías (the short story "When I was Mortal").

Exile and In-Betweenness

In his commentary, Salvadoran author Horacio Castellanos Moya talks about "the condition of exile" or "wandering foreigner" state so characteristic of Latin American authors (and Spanish ones, too, at least during the period of time covered in the anthology). It's easy to see why so many of these writers lived in exile: the artistic and social repression of Franco's Spain and Latin American dictatorships; the violence that accompanies regime change. Even those who stayed in their native countries would constantly have to watch their words, mute their criticisms. Perhaps these conditions contribute to the attraction to in-betweenness and ambiguity present in so much of the work represented here.
I enjoyed almost all the selections in the collection, and I had a hard time limiting down to a few to mention here. The anthology opens with an excerpt from Aurora Venturini's novel Las primas (The Cousins), the first person account of Yuna, a cognitively impaired 17-year-old girl who is also an art prodigy. Using Yuna's stilted language and limited awareness, Venturini still manages to convey all the subtle (and not so subtle) conflicts and troubles among her family members, and her ambiguous relationship with her art professor, whom she has a crush on. It appears that Venturini's work has never been translated to English; that's a shame.
Mario Vargas Llosa's story of a young girl who is bartered by her own father in his bid to regain political favor, from La fiesta del chivo (The Feast of the Goat), had me simultaneously sickened and enthralled—fascinated by the way they say snakes fascinate their prey: you can’t help but know something awful is about to happen, and yet the storytelling—like a snake’s gaze—is so beautiful, you can’t tear yourself away. I loved Enrique Vila-Matas' hilarious blend of memoir and fiction, "Because She Didn't Ask," based on a (non)-collaboration the author had (or didn't have) with the French writer/photographer/installation artist Sophie Calle. Also, the dark humor of Horacio Castellanos Moya's excerpt from Insensatez (Senselessness), about a journalist's one-night stand gone wrong. As Moya says in his commentary, he had fun writing it—and I had fun reading it.

 Pre-Hispanic America (1950) by Diego Rivera;
 oil on canvas

Expecting the Expected

As one might expect, the collection contained some excellent examples of magical realism and fantasy (more in-betweenness and ambiguity). Cristina Fernández Cubas' "Angle of Horror" and Elvio Gandolfo's "The Moment of Impact" are both worth mentioning; my favorite was José María Merino's reality-jumping short story "The House with Two Doors." Merino is also an enthusiast of flash fiction (or as he calls it, microfiction) as a medium to explore the ragged edges of perception and reality. I'd love to see more of all of these authors' works translated.
Colombian author Evelio Rosero's selection was the children's story "Lucia, or The Pigeons," which is not a piece I'd imagine reading to children here in the UnitedStates. The little tale of everyday aspects of the world blinking out of existence is incredibly unsettling for a children's story; it represents one of the major themes of Rosero's work: the desaparicidos, the forced disappearances that have occurred all too often in the author's country, and in many other Latin American countries, as well. I also enjoyed the excerpt from Ana María Matute's fairy tale novel Olvidado Rey Gudú (The Forgotten King Gudú), whose title character has been magically deprived of the ability to love—and thus, of the ability to weep. The story struck me as a sort of complement to Scottish fantasist George MacDonald's The Light Princess;it would be fun to compare the two (so—translation, please!).

An Anthology With More Dimensions

The authors' commentaries add an extra dimension to the reading, not just as complements to the excerpts, but on their own, as portals into the minds of writers. I especially liked Javier Marías' confession that sometimes, and perhaps not consciously, he's written entire novels specifically for the sake of a few paragraphs, or even just a few sentences, that wouldn't stand on their own. Ricardo Piglia's anecdote about the Chinese writer Lin Shu, who knew no foreign languages, but "translated" Don Quixote into Chinese based on an assistant's verbal recounting of the novel, is worthy of Borges—especially when you add Piglia's follow-up comment: suppose you re-translated Lin Shu's version (The Story of a Crazy Knight) back into Spanish?
Each section also contains the author's bibliography, a list of English translations, and a list of awards. This is useful for tracking down more work by authors who catch your interest, but there are a few gaps and errors in the bibliographies: for example, Carlos Fuentes' translated collection of short stories Burnt Water is mislabeled as a novel, and the 1990 translation Constancia and other stories for Virgins is missing (the original short story collection, Constancia y otras novelas para vírgenes, is also mislabeled as a novel). Since the authors' commentaries generally refer to the Spanish titles of the books, it would be nice to have a mapping between the Spanish titles and the titles of the English translations, for readers not literate in Spanish (and also because translations sometimes have their titles changed—I couldn't make the connection between the translations and their originals in a few cases).
Overall, this was a fascinating overview of contemporary Spanish language fiction and a good introduction to many new authors. There is something here for readers of almost every literary taste, and a lot of new works to add to my to-read list. I hope that the reader reaction to this book spurs more translation of the writers who are less known to English-language readers.

September 11, 2014

Nina Zumel examines aspects of the supernatural in literature and in folk culture at her blog, She writes about folklore, ghost stories, weird fiction, or anything else that strikes her fancy. Follow her on