When Ali Smith describes a collection of short stories as the best she has ever read it proves impossible not to follow through on that recommendation (even if the book then lies on the shelf awaiting its reader for a further two-and-a-half years!) Anyway now that this reader has read it, I can’t say that I agree (because – you know – Chekhov) but I can say that it is a pretty marvellous collection and certainly one of the best I’ve ever read.
It is the first time Fraile’s stories have appeared in English and it is thanks only to the efforts of the translator, Margaret Jull Costa, to persuade a reluctant author that they have done so. Jull Costa first submitted a few of her translations to a committee, comprising of author, his wife and his daughter. They meticulously examined these around the kitchen table and began to trust the translator when they realised that her pen was as loving as the author’s own. Fraile died during the translation of the stories that make up Things Look Different in the Light, but by that time the family trusted Jull Costa implicitly and allowed her to complete the collection, which consists of 29 stories covering the author’s career from 1954-2010.
Many are only 5 or 6 pages long, with the longest being 10 or 11 pages, so this is a collection which is ideal for carryng around and reading whenever there is a spare 5 minutes. What I particularly enjoyed was the immediacy of setting, the author ensuring that the reader is given a complete set of bearings within the first couple of paragraphs. No flailing around wondering, who, what, when? For starters, there isn’t time in vignettes such as these and secondly, there are a multitude of situations, most from everyday life. Ordinary people, everyday interactions and objects, situations we recognise and can transpose into our own lives, but filtered by Fraile to show how special or influential they may be, and how appreciative we should be. As the dying grandmother says in The Last Shout
The thing is that miracles happen so often, they seem normal to us, the morning comes and then the night, the sun and the moon rise and set, the earth gives us harvest after harvest, and we say I’ll do that tomorrow and tomorrow we’re still alive to do it. …. Reality is a miracle.
The emotional registers are varied. There are straight-forward humorous stories with punchlines as in the title story Things Look Different in The Light for what can possibly go wrong when the foreman doesn’t communicate with the underground sign-painter? In others the humour is altogether more wry as in Typist or Queen where the narrator gently mocks himself and his other male colleagues for their swarming around the beautiful office queen bee, Carmencita. The Cashier is another queen whose reign over the restaurant’s cash register is supreme until a chance of romantic happiness appears. Sadly ’tis but a fleeting moment as the uncertainities of life intervene. In other stories the melancholy consists of the inevitable passing of time: The Lemon Drop contains not only a little nostalgia for the sweets we used to enjoy as kids but also the memories they bring back when we eat them as adults; Child’s Play surprisingly defines old age as a darkening of the world. As they age Flora’s and Martita’s need for light increases each day
They needed light so that their hair would shine and heir eyes sparkle as they had when they were twenty, so that they could …. still be able to pick out the bees and the ducks on cross-stitch patterns.
Finally they install a chandelier that emits so much light, that when they die their bodies glow in the dark … For a while at least.
This slight magical element reappears in one of my personal favourites, The Shirt. It belongs to Fermin Ulía, a sailor, who falls for Maureen, his girl in the port of Dover.
He stood staring at her for a full three minutes, two of which he devoted to her nose alone. She had a turned-up nose that made her look as though she had a cold, but a very attractive cold, with no complications.
He comes back from that trip with a tartan flannel shirt that Maureen had chosen for him and ever after wears it whenever he goes sailing. But what happens on the day he fails to wear the shirt?
Each reader will have their own favourites here. I asked Ali Smith to pick out hers, when she signed the foreword for me. Without hesitation she highlighted Berta’s Presence, Things Look Different In the Light, and The Bookstall – all three have communication as their main theme. My favourites have tragedy or old age at their core, so no surprise that my absolute favourite – Reparation – has both. Is that because old age is a tragedy even if it approaches us all? Perhaps a change of viewpoint is needed. Things do look different in the light of the old lady’s comments at the beginning of this review. Reality is a miracle, and it is truly a miracle that some of us ever reach old age. So the lesson is to appreciate the small moments and enjoy. These stories are as good a starting point as any.
Stage 7 of my Reading Around the World and Back Again with Pushkin Press project, this post is my final post for Pushkin Press Fortnight 2017, organised by Stu of Winstonsdad’s Blog. Thanks, Stu. I had a blast!
Next stop: Africa