Latin American fiction has always had a connection to the bizarre, from numerous countries you can find dark horror tales, bleak speculative narratives containing the stuff of nightmares, bodies, zombies, all blended with the everyday. Julio Cortázar, Jorge Luis Borges, César Aira a few names that spring to mind, however it is not only the male writers who explore these dark depths, as Bolivian writer Liliana Colanzi has proven with her short story collection “Our Dead World”.
This is the first Bolivian fiction I have encountered and even my massive reference guide “Latin American Women Writers: An Encyclopaedia” has no entries for Bolivia, therefore it was a revelation when reading a number of the stories, the ones that contained cultural references, but more on that later. According to census data quoted at Wikipedia, “There are approximately three dozen native groups totalling approximately half of the Bolivian population – the largest proportion of indigenous people in Latin America.”, and this melting-pot and indigenous theme runs throughout Liliana Colanzi’s book. Although the nuances and slight references would obviously be lost on most readers, myself included, where our understanding of Bolivian culture is virtually non-existent.
A collection that contains eight short stories, we have the mystical, the metaphysical, a collection of dark tales blended with local folklore, references to Aztec human sacrifice, the afterlife…
I remembered the story my nana Elsa told me once, about an uncle the devil possessed in body and soul. Elsa’s uncle sold his soul to the devil in exchange for a house for his mother, an old lady. The devil gave him powers. He could wake up anywhere in the world just by wishing it, and also knew how to do tricks. Want to eat? he would ask my nana, and put a stone in an empty burlap bag. When Elsa opened the bad, she’d find it bursting with white or sweet potatoes. Want to see a viper? he’d ask, and throw his belt on the ground. As soon as it touched the earth it turned into a snake that fled slithering from the room. One day he died from a sudden illness. When his relatives lifted the casket to take it away, the realized it was light as a husk. They opened it and found only a few small black stones inside. The story gave me nightmares, and Mama threatened to throw Elsa out of the house if she kept making up nonsense.
This story, “Alfredito”, blends the spiritual (the visitation of ghosts), the human (“beginning to decompose and feed the worms”) and the everyday mundane (childhood recollections).
As with numerous adult stories of despair we also have the rational correlation back to childhood images, in one case a pig being slaughtered, in another a mother burning the family history, these events are bleak and “do permanent harm”. As a reader you feel as though our narrator, our writer, is exploring her own inner demons and is revealing them along with her depressive, angst ridden, nihilist views;
But how could I tell the others about the Wave/ At Cornell nobody believes in anything. Many hours are wasted discussing ideas, theorizing ethics and aesthetics, speedwalking to avoid the flash of others’ looks, organizing symposiums and colloquiums, but people wouldn’t recognize and angel if it blew in their faces. That’s how things are. The Wave arrives on campus at night on tiptoe and sweeps away seven students, and all the doctors can think to do is fill your pockets with Trazodone or give you a lamp with ultraviolet light.
As mentioned local folklore is woven through the fabric of these stories; “The Collas even had a name for the bearer of bad omens: Q’encha.” One of the short narratives, “Story with Bird” uses the stories of the indigenous Ayoreos collected testimonies taken from anthropologist Lucas Bessire’s “Behold the Black Caiman: A Chronicle of Ayoreo Life”;
I don’t know what story to tell. I don’t know what I’ll say, I don’t know. I don’t know my story.
the plight of the natives relayed to us, as their past is enveloped by progress and their lives fall apart, so does our story, it disintegrates in front of your eyes.
There was a water tank. Full. A white man. So fat, wearing a red shirt. We waited. Trembling. Blood in the water. Lots of blood. We didn’t sleep. We ran. Crying, we ran. Tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack tick tack
A modern day Latin American Edgar Allen Poe, these are creepy tales, the stuff of nightmares, for example, the tale “Cannibal”, the opening line reading “The day we arrive in Paris the police confirm the cannibal is hiding in the city.”, will their paths cross? A tense story where the undercurrent of evil is lurking forever in the background.
I would be interested to know if the stories in this collection are arranged in sequential order, as they were written, as the further you read the more experimental and quirky the works become,. Is this effect simply the progression and development of Liliana Colanzi as a writer or is the arrangement part of the overall effect of disintegration, decay, a descent into chaos? Graffiti from the back of toilet doors is quoted, including the striking though and even the passing of time, everything is reduced to noise…
At times this did feel like an uneven collection, however the experimental form can lend itself to this type of criticism, some of the stories less accessible than others. I am glad I have discovered a work from Bolivia, and for it to be via a female writer is an extra joy, a worthy inclusion to my long list of “Women In Translation” reads.