I have a problem with translated Latin American writing – there’s a large stack of it in my TBR, lying unread because a lot of it concerns dictators and fascism and man’s inhumanity to man. Now, given the history of the place, that’s understandable but I can handle such subject matter in very small doses. I chose, therefore, to read this anthology published by Granta in 2010, simply because, as it states in the prefaces, all the writers were under 35 years of age at that time of publication, and, therefore, not as obsessed with the Pinochets as the older generation(s) of writers. A secondary benefit of reading this anthology – a literary tapas, if you like – is that I discovered a plethora of new-to-me authors and visited 8 Spanish-speaking countries. (Thereby accepting the subliminal challenge of the Spanish Literature Month badge – how many countries can you visit in one month?)
Full list of authors, pictured on the right. I didn’t know many of them before. I had read Zambra and knew of 2 others; Roncagliolo who won the 2011 IFFP and Andres Neuman, whose epic Traveller of the Century is on my Edinburgh Book Festival reading pile. Perhaps the authors on this list are household names now in their home countries. Certainly, if the list of awards listed on the individual biography pages is anything to go by, I was keeping illustrious company. That statement is also applies when referring to the list of 20 translators, which includes the big hitters of Spanish translation Peter Bush, Edith Grossman, Anne McLean and Frank Wynne alongside others less familiar to me. (Let me add that caveat lest I insult someone).
The showcase writings are either short stories never previously published, or excerpts from novels in progress. The subject matter is far ranging: the life of an anonymous hotel reviewer, excerpts from the family life of a drug addict, the sly and witty revenge of a university profession on his enemies, a teenager’s crush on a Mormon missionary. I can’t possibly mention them all individually but I will name my top 3.
3) The Bonfire and The Chessboard – Matías Néspolo (Argentina)
A 2-part extract from a novel in progress. In the first part the protagonist El Tano flees to the hills to a wooden shack where a lady friend awaits him. Only he doesn’t seem to know her, although she is very familiar with him. In the second part, two men meet over a chess board. It soon becomes obvious that Mr Manicure is seeking to track down El Tano. The chess game is actually a metaphor for an interrogation. Will the other player crack? On the strength of this, I immediately purchased Nespolo’s 7 Ways to Kill a Cat, published in 2011. Whether I get to it later this month, remains to be seen.
2) A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs – Patricio Pron (Argentina)
The final story in the book and one in which a budding writer finds inspiration in the night-time back and forth pacing of the established author who lives in the flat above. (The reasons for that unrest so mundane that they are laughable.) Incidentally this story provides a matching bookend to the collection which begins with a story by Lucia Puenzo (also from Argentina), set in a writing school. The less-than-generous tutor is none other than Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
1) Small Mouth, Thin Lips – Antonio Ortuño (Mexico)
A story designed to make me eat the words in my opening paragraph because it’s set in a prison where a writer, imprisoned by one of those dictatorships, awaits his execution. But before he can die, his spirit must be broken. This is not a tale of physical brutal violence. He is subjected to psychological torture. 14 pages long, with two narrators: the writer and the letters he writes, the tormentor elucidating on his methods. It is a marvel of compression and all the more powerful for that.
More information on the anthology here, including interviews with all the authors.