The Old Gringo – Carlos Fuentes (translated by Margaret Sayers Peden & the author)


What they call dying
is merely the last pain
– Ambrose Bierce (epigraph)

In December 1913 American writer, journalist and Civil War veteran, Ambrose Bierce travelled through Louisiana and Texas to El Paso in Mexico to gain first-hand experience of the Mexican Revolution. In Ciudad Juárez he joined Pancho Villa’s army as an observer and witnessed the Battle of Tierra Blanca. He travelled onto the city of Chihuahua, writing a letter to a friend dated 26 December 1913. He was not seen again.

Although not specifically pointing out that the “Old Gringo” is a fictionalised Ambrose Bierce there are enough breadcrumbs throughout the text alluding to him, he’s a journalist who works for William Randolph Hurst, he refers to his two sons who had died, one by his own hand the other from complications due to alcoholism, the character carries books written by Bierce. Therefore, naturally a number of readers head to Bierce’s works to enrich their reading of Carlos Fuentes’ ‘The Old Gringo’. However, whilst the work is a fictionalised account of the American writer’s last days in Mexico, it is also a much deeper work than simply an exploration of an American writer, the novel reflects on subjects such as the border between Mexico and the United States, the Holy Trinity, identity, the desert and writing itself.

The novel centres on three main characters, the nameless “Old Gringo” an American travelling to Mexico “to die”, rebel leader Tomás Arroyo and Harriet Winslow and American schoolteacher who has travelled to Arroyo’s lands to teach English to the children of the Estate (they have left, being overthrown before she had arrived).

Are these three the Holy Trinity?

…the body of Christ (the mystery that enlivened her memories, the mystery that teased her imagination: a body in a piece of bread, the body of a man born from a woman who had never known man’s flesh, you know, Miss Winslow, we speak in terrible circumlocutions here, we were taught as girls never to say legs, but that’s what I walk on, never buttocks, but that’s what I sit on – she laughed softly, almost sighing; the body of a man who was God, the body of a man who shares his Godliness with two other men; she imagined them as men: a second bearded man, old and mighty, sitting on a throne, who was at the same time the young man nailed to the cross; and a third, spectral, ageless man, a magician who called himself a Ghost, and Holy at that, and who was surely responsible in her childish imagination for all the other transformations: one into three, three into one, one into the virgin, then out of the same virgin, then dead, then resurrected and presumably back into three without ceasing to be one and then three-into-one into wafer, many, many millions of tiny pieces of bread all containing Him, and the Magician working away, the Ghost of a Spectral World). (pgs 150-151)

Besides the physical movement across borders, by the old gringo and Harriet Winslow, the clash of cultures, and national identities bubbles along;

…each of us carries his Mexico and his United States within him, a dark and bloody frontier we dare cross only at night (p187)

“They’re right when they say this isn’t a border. It’s a scar.” (p185)

The desert, a harsh environment, where the oppressive heat shimmers are reflected in the oneiric prose. I recalled French philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s descriptions of the desert in his work ‘America’ (translated by Chris Turner) – although America, the desert descriptions felt apt;

Geological – and hence metaphysical – monumentally, by contrast with the physical altitude of ordinary landscapes. Upturned relief patterns, sculpted out by wind, water, and ice, dragging you down into the whirlpool of time, into the very remorseless eternity of a slow-motion catastrophe. The very idea of the millions and hundreds of millions of years that were needed peacefully to ravage the surface of the earth here is a perverse one, since it brings with it an awareness of signs originating, long before man appeared, in a sort of pact of wear and erosion struck between the elements. Among this gigantic heap of signs – purely geological in essence – man will have had no significance. (p 3)

Desert: luminous, fossilized network of an inhuman intelligence, of a radical indifference – the indifference not merely of the sky, but of the geological undulations, where the metaphysical passions of space and time alone crystallize. Here the terms of desire are turned upside down each day, and night annihilates them. But wait for the dawn to rise, with the awakening of the fossil sounds, the animal silence. (p 6)

A diversion by myself, however I feel this landscape description, from another writer, is warranted as Carlos Fuentes prose in ‘The Old Gringo’ reflects the harsh desert environment, a shimmering dreamlike approach where each of the character’s thoughts and musings meld into a blur of experience. And their experiences are looked at in detail, a reflection of themselves;

“Did you look at yourself in the mirror?” (p 43 – and repeated many times)

The mirrors in the ballroom of the estate have been preserved, with the local workers finding amusement in being able to see their reflections, the old gringo and Miss Winslow using the mirror to muse on their own places here.

Harriet looked at the old gringo exactly as he wanted to be looked at before he died. He felt that her gaze completed the fragmented sequence of his imagination of Harriet Winslow that had begun in the reflections in the mirrors in the ballroom that was but a threshold of the road to dream, atomized into a thousand oneiric instants and now joined again in the words that told the old gringo that Harriet would not allow a living testimony to her sensuality, that she was giving the old man the right to dream about her, but not Arroyo. (p149)

A shimmering novel of travel to find oneself to search for one’s own death, this is a complex and multi layered work;

They reminded her of Mantegna’s Christ, so lonely at his death table, His feet, His whole body jutting out of the canvas, kicking the spectator as if wishing violently to arouse him or her to the fact that `death was not noble but base, not serene but convulsive, not promising but irrevocable, unredeemable: the glassy half-opened eyes, the skimpy two-week beard, the ulcerated feet, the breathless half-opened mouth, the clogged nostrils, the blood-clotted flanks, the matted hair soaked in dust and sweat, the terrifying sensation of the presence of the newly dead, of their swearing and bearing and walking and standing erect just a few hours before. (p191-192)

To boil this novel down to a narrative about Ambrose Bierce is too shallow an approach.

Think of the circular hint Carlos Fuentes is providing with the opening and closing sentences being identical, the epigraph about death, the musings on finality, this is a complex but highly engaging novel, one that demands re-reading, the nuances would become more fruitful at each visit.

A wonderful find in the local charity shop, the edition being the 1986 first edition (in English), a bargain for $4, making me happy to extend my Carlos Fuentes collection.

Antígona González – Sara Uribe (translated by John Pluecker) – 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry


Today more from Mexico, moving from Valeria Luiselli’s latest book “Tell Me How It Ends” back to the 2017 Best Translated Book Award Poetry longlist. Sara Uribe’s “Antígona González” uses the daughter/sister of Oedipus and the tale where she attempts to secure a respectable burial for her brother Polynices who was killed in battle, and transposes the search for a corpse to the present Mexican landscape where numerous people go missing.

My name is Antígona González and I am searching/among the dead for the corpse of my brother. (p7)

A work that is a grieving book, for a missing brother, for nameless bodies, for an uncaring society that allows disappearances to become the norm.

I came to San Fernando to search for my brother.
I came to San Fernando to search for my father.
I came to San Fernando to search for my husband.
I came to San Fernando to search for my son.
I came with the others for the bodies of our people. (p103)

Our poet’s missing brother is Tadeo and Sara Uribe uses a raft of inputs to explore disappearance, “the verb to disappear”, this is a heart wrenching work gives voice, and life, to the nameless, the anonymous;

 In my dream, I’m certain one of those suitcases is
Tadeo’s. Mamá gave him that name because he was
the one who struggled most at birth. She promised
ninety novenas to Saint Jude if he would save her son.
She prayed those novenas and baptized him in his
honor so that the hope of the hopeless would always
shine on him. So that the smallest of her children
would never forget that from his very birth he had
overcome adversity. (p43)

Through extensive use of space, some pages with central text, others from the top, others from the bottom of the page, the English translation appears alongside the Spanish text. The all-encompassing vastness of the Mexican desert, the missing persons and a fruitless search is relayed through the visual open presentation;

So I head out to my job on an empty stomach and as
I drive I thank of all the gaps, all the absences no one
notices and yet are there. (p81)

The stress, tension of not knowing comes through in the tight language, it is easy to imagine the poet ranting these lines at you, yelling her frustration at you. The book contains fourteen pages of references and notes, a detailed explanation of the resources used to create this multi-layered work, quotes from blogs, italicised text an interloper’s voice, facts including testimonies from victims and family members as compiled by journalists and quotes from other writers, including a sequence of questions by Harold Pinter from the poem “Death”, such as “WHO WAS THE DEAD BODY?” with answers coming from various other sources, the book resembles a performance art piece rather than simply a poetry collection.

All of us here will gradually disappear if no one searches
for us, if no one names us.

All of us here will gradually disappear if we just look
helplessly at each other, watching how we disappear one
by one. (p 165)

A book that explores the impacts of people disappearing, the grief that remains behind, the questioning, “the interpretation of Antigone is radically altered in Latin America – Polynices is identified with the marginalized and disappeared” (p23)

Also including seventeen pages of translator notes;

There is a startling specificity to this Antígona. We are in Tamaulipas, a state along the Gulf coast in Mexico and bordering the Río Bravo/Rio Grande in South Texas. It is a time of brutal violence that strains the very definition of the word “war,” as it evades any previous understanding of what “war” might be. A specific moment and a specific horror.

Antígona González is not Sophocles’ Antigone, though Uribe’s book is inexorably tied to the long trajectory of Sophocles’ tragedy. In his version, Antigone could not bear the dictate of Creon to leave her brother’s dead body exposed and unburied on a dusty plain. In Uribe’s version, Antígona González is bereft of a body to mourn, a body to bury. (p191)

Including a rationalisation process where the poet wonders what to do with Tadeo’s killers, the various stages of grieving are walked through as you become further and further frustrated at the lack of knowledge, the unknown and the endless missing persons, this is a very complex and moving book. Yet another worthwhile inclusion on the 2017 Best Translated Book Award longlists.

Umami – Laia Jufresa (translated by Sophie Hughes)

Three in a row of Mexican women’s writing, with today’s review being the recently released “Umami” by Laia Jufresa (some places have this slated for release next month, however I purchased my copy a few months ago and it has been with me since June!!) I came across the work ‘umami’ a few years ago when my eldest child came home from primary school and explained that there are five basic flavours, sweet, sour, salty, bitter and umami (discovered by the Japanese), the novel also gives a description;
“Umami is one of the five basic flavours our taste buds can identify. The others, the ones we all know, are sweet, salty, bitter and sour. Then there’s umami, more or less new to us in the West. We’re talking a century or so. It’s a Japanese word. It means delicious.”
But this is not a novel about food. The “umami” here is the name of one house in a collection of five, all named by the landlord Alfonso, an expert in flavour (or more precisely pre-Hispanic diets). These five homes are in an urban environment and from the opening page you know that you are in for a desolate tale:
The three of us looked out of the sliding door to the yard where the picnic table lives. Once upon a time it was folding and portable. The benches on either side slot underneath like the retracting feet of a turtle, and the whole thing transformed into a neat aluminium travel case. Not anymore. It’s probably still fold up, but no one seems keen on picnics these days. Around the table there’s just gray cement (dirty gray), and a row of flowerpots full of dry soil, the remains of some bushes, a broken bucket. It’s a colorless, urban yard, If you spot something green, it’s moss you’re looking at; something red and it’ll be rust.
The future holds no picnics, it is bare, it is urban. But one of our voices, the young Ana wants to start a garden, she is breaking out of the desolation that has befallen these people and she is planning a future.
The book is broken into three sections each containing five chapters, five different voices, the chapters move backwards through the years. 2004 is the voice of a young girl, the older sister of Luz who drowned a number of years ago, 2003 the story of Marina, an unstable adult girl who suffers an eating disorder, 2002 the voice of Alfonso, the anthropologist who studies pre-Hispanic diets, and husband of the recently deceased Noelia, 2001 the immature voice of Luz who drowns in that year and the year 2000 another young girl, Pina.
The five voices live in five different houses named after the five basic flavours,
Bitter House: Marina
Sour House: Pina and her dad, Beto.
Salty House: Linda Walker and Víctor Pérez.
Sweet House: The Pérez-Walker Academy of Music.
Umami House: Alfonso Semitiel…and The Girls.
With wonderfully rich characters and distinctive voices, the culture exploration is also prominent, for example the study of amaranth, the Aztec rituals and how the Spanish wiped out the main grain source, amaranth, creating the now held misbelief that corn was the primary source of grain in Mexico is raised.
Again, although it may appear so with eating disorders, professors of diets, houses names after flavours, this is not merely a novel about food. This is a book that works on many other levels, exploring loss, motherhood, maternal love, and innocence. As well as the allegory of tending a garden, the meticulous work and the slow involvement of others in the “community”, showing the voices who are coming to terms with loss and moving towards a brighter future.
Just like umami, reading this book became a craving, you need a satisfying fill of this group of ordinary humans all coming to terms with ordinariness, death, loneliness, admiration, self-awareness, innocence. With characters that are believable, and small revelations that are peppered throughout the five distinct voices all become similar in their needs. Whilst Marina with her eating disorder believes that she is isolated and alone, Ana looks up to her for her individuality, her determination and her unique fashion style. Whilst Alfonso is living in the past, and the memories of his life with the recently deceased Noelina, Marina lives in the now, the immediate, no past, no future.
Whilst personally I found the voice of Alfonso the most enjoyable to read, that may be because he is the only male voice in the novel, all five voices are distinct, uniquely different and address, from a range of angles, maternal love and loss.
A book that must have been challenging to translate, given the different tone, nuances, styles and ages of all the voices, and as per her wonderful work with Ivan Repila’s “The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse”, Sophie Hughes has brought to life a seamless work in English. I am looking forward to reading her recently translated “Affections” by Rodrigo Hasbun.
A sparkling work that I am sure would reveal even more secrets on a second reading, one that combines all the flavours of the palate, which rounds out nicely and leaves you with a feeling of loss, something “to remember, not to keep”.

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Natural Histories – Guadalupe Nettel (translated by J.T. Lichenstein)

I have been involved in Women In Translation Month since its inception three years ago and each year I plan ahead my potential reading titles for the month, this year electing to stay with the Spanish language translations and primarily from Central or South American nations. After Diamela Eltit’s difficult experimental work from Chile and the feminist short stories of Inés Arredondo from Mexico I thought a further stay in Mexico would be beneficial and over the course of this week I will look at the short stories from Guadalupe Nettel and a recent novel by Laia Jufresa, both Mexican writers receiving a lot of current press, before finally ending the week by heading back to Chile and the approachable novel “Ten Women” by Marcela Serrano. All of these works a lot more “commercial” than the books I generally read and review here.
“Natural Histories” is a collection of five short stories, described on the back cover as unfolding “in fragile worlds, where animal behaviours parallel the ways in which human beings interact”. Or in other words each of the stories feature a protagonist and an animal theme, fighting fish, cockroaches, cats, fungi and snakes are the five themes that exist and interact alongside the narrative.
The collection opens with “The Marriage of the Red Fish” where the actions of a couple, expecting the birth of their first child, mirror the activity of the fighting fish they have recently been given and have moved into a large tank, the action drifts along like the fish themselves;
We first placed the fish on a small corner table in the living room where the afternoon sun fell. We thought they cheered up the room, which faced the patio behind our building, with the quick movements of their fins and tails. I don’t know how many hours I must have spent watching them. A month earlier I had requested maternity leave from the law office where I worked to prepare for the birth of my daughter. It wouldn’t be forever, and it wasn’t uncommon, but still it troubled me. I didn’t know what to do at home. The too-many empty hours filled me with questions about my future.
Meanwhile the couple’s behaviour starts to become territorial, they start antagonising each other;
I always kept an eye on them whenever I was home, as if with that look, severe and exact, an imminent confrontation could be averted. I of course felt solidarity with her. I could feel her fear and her anxiety at being cornered, feel her need to hide. Fish are perhaps the only domestic animals that don’t make noise. But they taught me that screams can be silent. Vincent adopted an ostensibly more neutral position, betrayed nonetheless by the humorous comments he dropped now and again: “What’s wrong with the female? Is she against reproduction?” or “Keep calm, brother, even if you’re getting impatient. Remember that laws today are made by and for women.”
Although the longest story in the collection, this is a simple story of family antagonism and breakdown, an ordinary tale that you know is not going to end well, if it is to follow the lives of fighting fish put into the same tank!!! A story that is unsettling, because as a reader you understand the fate of the narrator before the inevitable happens.
“War in the Trash Cans” is a tale of an unwelcomed niece living a façade of the suburban “American” style dream, set to the backdrop of invading cockroaches.
“Felina”, follows the more traditional domestic animal and the cycle of a cat’s pregnancy;
The ties between animals and human beings can be as complex as those that bind us people. There are some who maintain bonds of reluctant cordiality with their pets. They feed them, they take them for walks if need be, but rarely do they speak to them other than to scold or “educate” them. In contrast, there are others who make of their turtles their closest confidants. Every night they lean in towards their tanks and tell them about what happened to them at work, the confrontation they put off with their boss, their doubts, and their hopes for love. Among domestic animals dogs get particularly good press. It is even said that they are man’s best friend because of their loyalty and nobility, words that often signify nothing more than a tolerance for abuse and abandonment.
“Fungus”, as the title implies, is a story of parasites, bodily growths and love, “my fungus wants one thing only: to see you again.” there is attraction but also rejection, “eradicating a fungus can be as complicated as ending an unwanted relationship.”
The collection ends with “The Snake from Beijing”, where a married man, a famous playwright, who although French was adopted when he was two years old. After returning to China for a theatre production of one of his works, he returns home a changed man.  He secludes himself in a pagoda and buys a pet venomous snake.
This collection is very straight forward in the metaphoric and allegorical telling of the stories and very approachable and is written in a readable candid style, unlike some works I have recently read, there is no complex layer upon layer of deciphering to be done – for example, if a snake is shedding its skin, the human character is also being reborn. It was refreshing to read a short collection of stories that didn’t require an in-depth knowledge of the political landscape, so a decent work for readers wanting to dip their toes into the world of translated literature without becoming overawed.

Does it make me want to leap on the “to be read pile” and grab her latest novel “The Body Where I Was Born”? Not really, although I will probably get to it before the end of the month, a longlist candidate for this year’s “Best Translated Book Award” means it was on the pile for a number of reasons (not just Women In Translation Month).

Underground River and Other Stories – Inés Arredondo (translated by Cynthia Steele)

I’ve been in central and South American (not physically but with my reading choices) for about six weeks now and I am going to continue the theme for quite a bit longer, with a wonderful pile of originally written in Spanish titles, all by women writers, sitting awaiting my attention.
When I read the collection of Mexican short stories, “Sun, Stone, and Shadows” (edited by Jorge F. Hernández)  I mentioned the Inés Arredondo short story “The Shunammite” (translated by Alberto Manguel) and given the impact her story had in eleven pages, I wanted to hunt down more of her work. Inés Arredondo (1928-1989) published only three line volumes of stories and at present the availability of her work in English is minimal. The University of Nebraska Press edition of “Underground River and Other Stories” that I managed to source was published in 1996.
The collection opens with an “Introduction” by the translator, Cynthia Steele, and if you don’t want to have the themes revealed, some of the plotlines revealed, I would suggest you skip this and revisit it after you have enjoyed the stories. Here Steele tells us;
Arredondo resisted being called a woman writer, since she believed that this label relegated women artists to a ghetto, to a second-class status with critics and readers. “I don’t want to be the best woman writer in Mexico,” she said in an interview, “I want to be one of the best Mexican writers.” At the same time, her short stories focus obsessively on female subjectivity (along with other marginal beings, adolescents of both genders and gay men) within the context of a perverse Gothic “family romance” set in provincial Sinaloa at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Revolution has not yet happened, or else it has passed through without disturbing centuries-old power relations.
The “Introduction” is followed by a “Foreword” by Elena Poniatowska;
She was troubled by the problems of purity, pride, mercy, and love. Her central themes are reflected in her characters’ solitude, in the importance that she confers on the couple, and in her dissection of the human souls; these are what make her works unique.
This collection opens with the same story that appears in “Sun, Stone, and Shadows”, “The Shunammite” (this translated by Cynthia Steele, although I must admit I thought I was re-reading the story I had already read a few months ago, so the versions must be very similar indeed). A check of the opening lines shows:
“The summer had been a fiery furnace. The last summer of my youth.” (Alberto Manguel translation).
“The was a blistering summer. The last of my youth.” (Cynthia Steele translation).
Having said that, on a second reading the themes are much more poignant, the lechery and the biting tale of patriarchal society and the role of single women in such is captured perfectly, no wonder Poniatowska says “The Shunammite” is one of the most celebrated short stories in Mexican literature. I think this is the second reading, not the different translation, however I did seem to enjoy the story more the second time around. 
What keeps him going is lust…
The story “Marianna” tells the tale of a young girl in school who, during class, draws clumsily as though a pre-schooler. As she gets older she comes to school with make-up, and of course is punished, becomes sexually active and is the centre of all of the fellow school girl’s rumours. Becoming defiant to her family, her teachers and their superiors, this only leads to ruin. There are no happy endings for these fallen women in Arredondo’s stories.
The more stories we read the more we learn of humbled people, those who do not understand their dire situations, there are no tidy, neat endings, awkwardness prevails. In “The Sign” we have a person who is drawn to visit a church and is then asked by the Sexton if he can kiss his feet, or the two paragraph story “New Year’s Eve” where rawness, loneliness and compassion are profoundly portrayed, depth you can sometimes not find in works that run to 100’s of pages.
In Cynthia Steele’s “Introduction” she says “her opening are so memorable” and every single story sucks you in within a mere few sentences, a few examples:
I have led a solitary life for many years, a woman alone in this immense house, a cruel and exquisite life. That’s the story I want to tell: about the cruelty and exquisiteness of a rural life.
When I saw him brush her cheek with the whip, I knew what I had to do.
Great lovers don’t have children.
“Nocturnal Butterflies” is a story of procuring virgins for the master of the house to sleep with, “five hundred pesos in gold for your virginity. One night for two hours.” Or the story “The Mirrors” where we have a mother relaying the tale of her son’s exploits with sisters, one of whom is mentally impaired, she justifies her behaviour.
A collection full of predators, sexually and morally, these stories are a wonderful representation of Central American female writing. Dark, disturbing, but at the same time revelatory the sense of time, country, mores and the plight of the defenceless or innocent, in their pursuit of happiness is served up to you raw. As one of Arrendondo’s protagonists says;
I have a destiny, but it isn’t mine. I have to live my life according to other people’s destinies.
And to finish the collection we have “Shadow in the Shadows”; our protagonist opens up to us “When I turned fifteen Ermilo Parades was forty-seven.” A rich man Ermilo Parades tells us of the ppower of money “It can buy other people’s humiliation”. An outstanding story to conclude a wonderful collection.

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Sun, Stone, and Shadows – edited by Jorge F. Hernández

“The Big Read” is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts and offers grants to support community reading programs designed around a single book. With over 1,250 programs being funded to date and more than $17 million handed out in grants there have been more than 4.2 million Americans attending a program. The events last approximately one month, include a kick-off event and other major events devoted specifically to the book, for example author readings and panel discussions.
With a listing of thirty four titles recommended by The Big Read, the majority being well known American texts, it is refreshing to see a translated text on the listing, as well as an acknowledgement that the understanding of their southern neighbours culture is a step forward. Books by writers such as Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Ernest Hemmingway, Jack London, Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett and Edgar Allan Poe feature on their listing, so to have Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo and Rosaio Castellanos alongside the giants of American literature is hopefully an opening that broadens the readership of Mexican fiction. The “marketing description” of the collection;
Mexico and the United States share a long border and a common history. Although our two nations remain separate and independent, they are also deeply interrelated not only through economic ties, political cooperation, and cultural exchange but also by flesh and blood through the many millions of Mexican-Americans who personally embody the intermingling of our two great and complex countries.
There is perhaps no better way for two nations to learn about one another than through sharing their stories. Sun, Stone, and Shadows presents a superb selection of the finest Mexican short stories of the twentieth century. No one can read this arresting volume without experiencing the wonder and surprise of discovery.
As the cover suggests this collection is made up of twenty short stories, which have been chosen using the following criteria; Born in Mexico and before 1939 and published in the first half of the twentieth century. As per most translated fiction it is, yet again, disappointing that the female representation is low, with only three stories of the twenty being written by women, this collection even falls below the 30% average for women in translation!!! On the positive side, however, is the fact that promotion of translated fiction is happening via such a large program. Of course this may result in a homogeneous collection, something that has all the “name” players, and stories chosen to meet a teaching curriculum not representative of a national literature canon. Although bottom line is awareness of a nation’s literature, written in a different language, has to be a step in the right direction.
The collection opens with Nobel Laureate, poet and iconic figure Octavio Paz and an example of one of his examples of prose poetry. A story where our narrator falls in love with a wave and takes it home to live with him. In his Nobel lecture Octavio Paz said, “We pursue modernity in her incessant metamorphoses yet we never manage to trap her. She always escapes: each encounter ends in flight. We embrace her and she disappears immediately: it was just a little air.” For a full translation of his Nobel lecture go here(it is worth the read).

Interestingly this quote has been used in “teacher’s notes” for this collection of short stories, as a hint as to how to interpret the story. Another connection, also worth reading, this one being a brief read, would be Paz’s Nobel acceptance speech – Yet we can be certain of one thing: life on our planet is endangered. Our unthinking cult of progress together with the very advances in our struggle to exploit nature have turned into a suicidal race. Just as we are beginning to unravel the secrets of the galaxies and the atomic particle, as we explore the enigmas of molecular biology and the origins of life, we have wounded the very heart of nature. This is why the most immediate and most urgent question is the survival of the environment, regardless of whatever forms of social and political organization nations may choose. The defence of nature is the defence of mankind. (The full speech can be found here)

Personally highlighting the surrealist link, man’s abuse of nature, is attempting to quantify the beauty and passion in Paz’s words. There is the potential for a different interpretation, a parallel theme. The “teacher notes” also refers to the original publication of this story in a collection called “Águila o sol” (Eagle or Sun), a collection of prose poems dealing with the creative process. Is the wave simply Paz’s muse? Elusive, tempestuous, demanding? And is the title of this collection a veiled reference to Octavio Paz’s 584 line poem “Sun Stone”, representing the five hundred and eighty-four day cycle of the plant Venus?
Apologies for the long ramblings for a single story, but I think the depth of this whole collection can be explained by simply looking at the opening story. For each inclusion in the book you can spend hours on researching the writer, where did was the story originally published, given these are stories published decades ago there are also published reviews, interpretations and in a number of cases reflection from the writer themselves. All of this extra curricula reading could take place for every single story.
A couple of other stories that I’d like to comment on; Inés Arredondo’s “The Shunammite” (translated by Alberto Manguel) is narrated by a woman and tells the tale of an uncle on his deathbed wanting to marry our narrator (his niece) so she can inherit his estate. Coming after the section “The Tangible Past”, where the brutality, slaughter, self-administered justice, corrupt political systems are the norm this stood out as a sparkling gem of another kind of male brutality, domestic violence, manipulation, sexual abuse, “ownership” all captured in twelve pages. It is a pity there aren’t more examples of female writing here. Personally I have found a copy of Inés Arredondo’s “Underground River and Other Stories” (translated by Cynthia Steele) published twenty years ago by The University of Nebraska Press, to continue reading her works.
Another story written by a female writer is Rosario Castellanos’ “Cooking Lesson”, a brilliant portrayal of the role of women in Mexico, through the lens of a recently married woman who is cooking a meal for her new husband (literally or metaphorically is not important):
I’ll ruminate my resentment in silence. All the responsibilities and duties of a servant are assigned to me for everything. I’m supposed to keep the house impeccable, the clothes ready, mealtimes exact. But I’m not paid any salary; I don’t get one day a week off; I can’t change masters. On the other hand, I’m supposed to contribute to the support of the household and I’m expected to efficiently carry out a job where the boss is demanding, my colleagues conspire, and my subordinates hate me. In my free time I transform myself into a society matron who gives luncheons and dinners for her husband’s friends, attends meetings, subscribes to the opera season, watches her weight, renews her wardrobe, cares for her skin, keeps herself attractive, keeps up on all the gossip, stays up late and gets up early, runs the monthly risk of maternity, has no suspicions about the evening executive meetings, the business trips and the arrival of unexpected clients; who suffers from olfactory hallucinations when she catches a whiff of French perfume (different to the one she uses) on her husband’s shirts and handkerchiefs and on lonely nights refuses to think why or what so much fuss is all about and fixes herself a stiff drink and reads a detective story with the fragile mood of a convalescent.
I have more works from Rosario Castellanos on backorder so I am hoping to feature more of her brutal honesty reviewed here over the coming months.
Juan De La Cabada, in “The Mist” manages to bring the issue of discrimination, treatment of local Indians and privilege to the fore in a short noir story where the narrator, on a dark misty rainy night, picks up four Indians, who have waived him down, in his car. “The Mist” not only being the incessant mist like rain…
With stories by Carlos Fuentes (a Chac-Mool sculpture that comes to life), Salvador Elizondo (a surreal tale on existence), Octavio Paz, Francisco Rojas González (icons being made to stop a storm), Juan Rulfo (a past finally catching up), Rosario Castellanos, Alfonso Reyes (a mysterious dinner), Juan José Arreola, José Emilio Pacheco, Jorge Ibarüengoitia, José Revueltas (hunting), Elena Garro, Martín Luis Guzmán (brutal revolutionary story), Edmundo Valadés (a corrupt local official), Sergio Pitol, Juan García Ponce, Juan de la Cabada, Efrén Hernández and Francisco Tario, this collection covers some heavy hitters of Mexican literature in the 1900’s. A decent grounding to understand some of the works the new faces of Mexican writing would have been reading in their youth.
I really enjoyed reading this collection, a flash back to the past, a collection of writing from decades ago and a useful reminder of the “roots” of some of the more recent Mexican writing successes. Reading this collection has resulted in me not only searching out more short works by a few writers (especially the underrepresented female writers), it has also added to my future reading pile as I sourced a number of other short stories from the region (not just Mexican writers) that were read many many years ago and were gathering dust on my shelves. I may “review” a few of these in the coming weeks, I may simply re-read and enjoy. Time will tell.
For those interested in the “Teacher’s Notes” for this collection, they are available here.

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The Large Glass – Mario Bellatin (translated by David Shook)

Mario Bellatin, artist, film-maker, a member of the Honorary Advisory Committee at dOCUMENTA 13 (more on that later), Guggenheim Grant recipient in 2002, and of course writer, is never far from publicity. Having been born with  a deformity, he wears a “variety of striking, artist designed prostheses in lieu of his missing right forearm”, including a giant can opener, and recently demanded that Planeta “unpublish” his novel “Salón de Belleza” (the English language translation appearing as “Beauty Salon” translated by Kurt Hollander). This novel appeared on the recent Publisher’s Weekly list of “ten essential Spanish-language books”, compiled by Daniel Saldaña Paris but now appears to be out of print and therefore no longer available in English!!!
Described by Daniel Saldaña Paris as “one of the most interesting writers working in Latin America right now. His writing is an offshoot of contemporary art, but also a marvel of the imagination and an inexhaustible wellspring of eccentricities.” Graciela Mochkofsky in The New Yorker (December 2015) saying; “In Bellatin’s stories, the line between reality and fiction is blurry; the author himself frequently appears as a character. His books are fragmentary, their atmospheres bizarre, even disturbing. They are full of mutations, fluid sexual identities, mysterious diseases, deformities.” Larry Rohter on 9 August 2009 in the New York Times saying; “In a score of novellas written since 1985 he has not only toyed with the expectations of readers and critics but also bent language, plot and structure to suit his own mysterious purposes, in ways often as unsettling as they are baffling.”
Add the dOCUMENTA 13 guest membership on the Honorary Advisory Committee and we have a very interesting character indeed. Every five years in Kassel, Germany, the documenta exhibition of modern and contemporary art takes place. The concept came to life in 1955 as an attempt to bring post-war Germany up to speed with modern art, after the banishment and repression of the cultural fringe during the Second World War. In 2012 dOCUMENTA 13 had Carolyn Christov-Bajargiev as the artistic director and curator and was based on the theme “Collapse and Recovery”. Enrique Vila-Matas in his work “The Illogic of Kassel”  was a guest writer-in-residence at dOCUMENTA 13, appearing in a Chinese restaurant so customers and staff could watch them “write”, observe them “creating”.
Mario Bellatin’s most recent release to appear in English is the autobiographical “The Large Glass”, three works appearing under the one title, so named after Marcel Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), housed in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Very much like Duchamp’s sculpture, described in the Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections; it “has gradually become the subject of a vast scholarly literature and the object of pilgrimages for countless visitors drawn to its witty, intelligent, and vastly liberating redefinition of what a work of art can be”, Bellatin’s book also pushes the boundaries, redefining what autobiography can be.
Courtesy of Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp, here is a precis of The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass); the work depicts abstract forces, not worldly objects and it portrays a sequence of interactions not a static tableau. The abstract forces are ones that shape human erotic activity – the realm of ego, desire. It is a comical look at the uncertainties of human romantic aspirations. It shows a sequence of interactions, suspended in time, hence the subtitle “a delay in glass”. Duchamp wrote notes to accompany “The Large Glass”, they were meant to complement the visual experience, but they “are the stuff of sublime nonsense, driven by free association and wordplay, and resolutely anti-rational”. It is worthwhile reading the full text at the Making Sense of Marcel Duchamp website, as the alignment to Mario Bellatin’s work is unquestioned.” Sublime nonsense”, “a comical look at the uncertainties of human romantic aspirations”, “art can engage the imagination and the intellect, not just the eyes”….Or for a more detailed explanation you could visit the page an alignment of Duchamp’s artwork to the novel “Days and Nights” by Alfred Jarry (a French symbolist or absurdist writer) is discussed. Reading a few quotes of Jarry’s work, I’m thinking a new book is to be added to the “to be read” pile!!!
Mario Bellatin’s “The Large Glass” opens with “My Skin, Luminous” a section of 363 numbered sentences, mainly dedicated to his youth in a mental institution and his visits to the public baths with his mother so she could gather the gifts showered upon her for showing off his extraordinary testicles. A few short examples;
117 – The gifts began to appear as soon as my mother took off my pants.
134 – Those are some of the few memories that I have of my school years.
135 – Although it is strange, to an extent, to consider events that have occurred as memories.
181 – From time to time they are joined by lovers that have been suddenly abandoned or those afflicted by transmissible diseases – who generally take refuge next to some sewer.
The imagery in a number of these short sentences is startling, and although they may appear obscure, even random, there is a semblance of order as Bellatin’s tale of childhood is revealed. Are these notes following Duchamp’s theme and his release of The Green Box scraps and notes that accompanied his sculpture?
The second section “The Sheikha’s True Illness”, loosely follows Bellatin’s publication of an article titled “The Sheikha’s Illness” in Playboy magazine. Bellatin is a Sufi and his religious influences dabble along the edges here, along with hairless, toothless dogs on death row, protagonists who are the protagonists is his previously published work which he doesn’t like but the protagonists do, a Sheikah with fancy shoes and a hospital bed in a garden. That’s just a taste of what you’re in for here. A crazy melting pot of memories, anecdotes and experiences, all contributing to the character who is Mario Bellatin.
The final section of Bellatin’s autobiography is titled “A Character In Modern Appearance” and follows a forty-something year old woman (who is the narrator, therefore Bellatin), his stunning German girlfriend, a 1970’s Renault, living at home with her parents, grandparents and siblings, a home which has been demolished by a north-south highway, breeding rabbits and rats and acting as a marionette to fend off the landlords.
One of the main characteristics of my personality is lying all the time. I think that this, somehow, makes me amusing to others. I know that the stories that the puppets interpret always have a lie at their center. Maybe that’s why I have assimilated aspects of my performances into my daily life. I lie, for example, about my age. I love to say I am forty-six when in fact I am just forty-five years old. I always lie to the store’s salesman, as many know that I tend to buy sweets for my nephews with money stolen from my father’s wallet. I lie about my hobbies. It is not true that I had a trigonometry book under my arm when my grandfather crossed the railroad tracks. That is false. I am actually interested in writing books. Making them, inventing them, writing them. I know that I can hardly write my name. Instead of a J I always put a Y. Nonetheless, almost no one knows it, but I made a book about dogs.
To say that this book is a bizarre form of autobiography would be to sell it short, our avant-garde (surely he would hate that) writer is pushing the boundaries of what is autobiography, if not fiction, a collection of memories. As the translator David Shook notes, in a very short section titled “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (the long title of Duchamps sculpture):
Between Bellatin’s original composition, made entirely of his words, and this translation, made entirely of mine, lies a process that ultimately results in a text that is both entirely its own and entirely a reflection of the ideal text it came from, something, in my own experience, no matter how technically or scientifically approached, cannot be categorized as other than a mystical experience.
If you fancy your fiction a little off centre, if you want to delve into the world of a writer who once presented an invented Japanese novelist at a literary convention, the invention being cited as a deep influence on his work, the resultant presentation being so convincing he wrote a whole fake biography about the imaginary writer (“Shiki Nagaoka: A Nose for Fiction”), and if you like your reading to challenge you, to force you to think of genres as being interchangeable, then Mario Bellatin is probably a writer you would enjoy. If you like the standard narrative style, I’m thinking you best look elsewhere.

As a suggestion a little research into Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass), may assist with some of the references. A writer who is crossing boundaries with his art, challenging the status-quo, someone who would certainly excite with each new work or stunt, whether they all meet their mark is still to be known, this work certainly does.

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