14 July 2012

Masterworks of Latin American Short Fiction

Masterworks of Latin American Short Fiction: Eight Novellas, edited by Cass Canfield Jr., introduction by Ilan Stavans (HarperCollins, 1996)

The eight novellas in this anthology represent a diversity of Latin American styles. Each is retrofitted with a theme distilled from the writer's worldview. Each represents an articulation of the writer's linguistic brio. There is one work translated from Portuguese—that of João Guimarães Rosa. The rest is from Spanish.

As with any discussion of the novella form, the accessible introduction by Ilan Stavans notes the apprehensions surrounding a story whose length ranges inconsistently between a long short story and a short novel. What really makes a novella? Is it the mileage of pages or the wattage of effect? To be more precise, what makes for a Latin American novella? The scholar has an elegant answer:

   From the Latin American writer's point of view, a novella is a most challenging endeavor, a trial of will and muscle. It requires the meticulousness, the mathematical approach of a short story, each word sitting in its right place so as to carry the plot's overall effect; but it also needs the panoramic appetite and ardor of a novel, its wider cry and spell, to be properly effective. Parsimonious by nature and perhaps even avaricious, a [short] story succeeds by subtraction; its beauty is in its smallness, its delicate balance between brevity and scope. The novel ... is an anything-goes, hodgepodge genre whose main principle is addition ... The novella is far less flexible—"the middle ground," in García Márquez's words, "an addition by way of subtraction."

As noted also in Stavans's introduction, a useful reference point around which to gauge the effect of the novellas assembled before us is the period of la generación del boom. This Latin American burst of creativity in the late 1960s put many writers on the world literature map and set a new literary aesthetic and standard. The "Boom" is represented in the collection by Gabriel García Márquez, G. Cabrera Infante, and Julio Cortázar. The signature works of this fertile period (One Hundred Years of Solitude, Hopscotch, Conversation in The Cathedral, Terra Nostra, and Three Trapped Tigers) still cast their awesome shadows.

Succeeding writers, those enamored by the spell of magic realism and intergenerational sagas, failed in their imitations of this generation. Magic realism, unfortunately, is the literary movement that has been largely associated with the Boom. Those who took a crack in overthrowing the old vanguards also didn't come up with lasting alternatives. It was not until the late 1990s and onwards that new novelists emerged from the shadows of their predecessors and made an emphatic generational break through works that better "explain contemporary Latin America" (to borrow the words of Mempo Giardinelli cited by Stavans).

The trio of Alejo Carpentier, João Guimarães Rosa, and Felisberto Hernández represents the preboom era in this collection. Collectively, their works are as varied and inventive as can be. Carpentier is baroque; Guimarães Rosa, avant-garde; and Hernández, surreal.

Ana Lydia Vega is the only female writer here, a reflection of what Stavans observed as a "male-dominated affair" in Latin American letters right up to la generación del boom. Vega's is the only post-boom response in the collection while Alvaro Mutis, while almost contemporaneous to the famed generation, writes his own restrained series of existentialist novellas.

Here are brief descriptions of the "masterwork" novellas included in the volume.

1. The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother by Gabriel García Márquez (43 pages), translated by Gregory Rabassa

Here presented in its full revealing title, Innocent Eréndira has the tired mannerisms of magic realism but is nevertheless engaging for crisp descriptions and forward plot movement. (It made me realize how some of César Aira's fantastical short experiments, such as The Seamstress and the Wind and Varamo, are but more whimsical variations of magic realism.) The story of young Eréndira was conditioned by the seasonal blowing of the "wind of her misfortune." Her abject fate was to be pimped by her ruthless grandmother to countless men. García Márquez relied on absurdity on top of absurdity to propel Eréndira's tale into an incredible and sad and heartless conclusion.

2. Ms. Florence's Trunk by Ana Lydia Vega (67 pages), translated by Andrew Hurley

Ana Lydia Vega's historical novella is framed by old Florence Jane's reading of her diaries stored in her ancient trunk. When she was young, the beautiful and timid Florence became tutor to the scion of a slave-owning household in Puerto Rico. Based on real life figures like the anti-abolitionist Samuel Morse, the grandfather of Florence's student, the novella is a sentimental period drama of family and racial conflicts. Feelings of loneliness, physical and spiritual imprisonment, and unrequited loves are so unabated and freely flowing that the whole sob sister narrative feels like an unapologetic subversion of female psychological fiction, racial inequality, and male swagger, all at the same time.

3. I Heard Her Sing by G. Cabrera Infante (53 pages), translated by Donald Gardner and Suzanne Jill Levine in collaboration with the author

The tragic story of the obese and proud diva-in-the-making La Estrella, I Heard Her Sing (Ella cantaba boleros) is a self-contained excerpt from the Cuban novel Three Trapped Tigers. It is animated with the chic rhythm of the Cuban bolero and the angst of its outcast characters. Set in the pre-Castro days (and nights) of Havana, La Estrella's rise and fall is recorded by a photographer who spotted her in one of his bar hops and immediately recognized her latent talent, her naked a cappella.

Without any music, I mean without orchestra or accompaniment from radio record or tape, she started singing a new, unknown song, that welled up from her breasts, from her two enormous udders, from her barrel of a belly: from that monstrous body of hers, and I hardly thought at all of the story of the whale that sang in the opera, because what she was putting into the song was something other than false, saccharine, sentimental or feigned emotion and there was nothing syrupy or corny, no fake feeling or commercial sentimentality about it, it was genuine soul and her voice welled up, sweet, mellow, liquid, with a touch of oil now, a colloidal voice that flowed the whole length of her body like the plasma of her voice and all at once I was overwhelmed by it. It was a long time since anything had so moved me and I began laughing at the top of my voice, because I had just recognized the song ...

Cabrera Infante's sentences are serpentine, with a certain rhythm to them, and charged with cunning and punning. It's no surprise that two translators collaborated with the author to bring the novel into English. Not every passage sounds natural or unconstrained but the bearable lightness and the wit make this stand-alone novella stand out as a verbal triumph.

4. The Snow of the Admiral by Alvaro Mutis (67 pages), translated by Edith Grossman

The Snow of the Admiral is the first of seven novellas featuring Maqroll the Gaviero (the Lookout). Like Vega's Ms. Florence's Trunk, it is an epistolary story consisting of the Gaviero's diary entries accidentally found by the narrator inside the pocket of an old book. This is probably representative of the Maqroll novellas as it references earlier adventures (that are still to be written!).

   When I boarded the barge I mentioned the sawmill, but nobody could tell me its exact location or even if it really existed. It's always the same: I embark on enterprises that are branded with the mark of uncertainty, cursed by deceit and cunning. And here I am, sailing upriver like a fool, knowing ahead of time how everything will end, going into the jungle where nothing waits for me.

The fatalist, world-weary voice of Maqroll is sustained throughout. His long journey upstream of a river as a businessman intent on buying and selling timber is rightly compared to Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. But his story is not so much about him as about people (reader included) who interacted with him and has gained insight into their own lives. The transformation of people around him matters more than his own. His journey is not so much physical as the spiritual descent of Jorge Luis Borges in "The South" where the nature of man is revealed by the flash of a knife. As long as the pages of this story last, Maqroll's story is immortal between the pages. The many aphorisms contained in the diaries are worth underlining and thinking about.

Although I console myself eventually with the thought that the reward was in the adventure itself and there's no reason to search for anything but the satisfaction of trying every one of the world's roads, they all start looking suspiciously alike. And yet they're worth traveling if only to stave off tedium and our own death, the one that really belongs to us and hopes we can recognize her and take her as our own.

5. The Road to Santiago by Alejo Carpentier (31 pages), translated by Frances Partridge

The shortest story in the anthology oddly feels like the longest. That is because Alejo Carpentier is a maximalist. His sentences are packed, no, choked with details, often dangling interminably, extended by clauses dependent and independent. Digressions happen at the level of the sentence such that one paragraph is like one novel already, and one chapter is a Proustian sequel. The story: massacres, indoctrinations, wars, escapes, invasions, plagues. I will have to reread as I failed to get the gist.

Next there was a battle with syringes filled with sea water; a pole was tied to the next of an infuriated dog, which broke more than one head with its gyrations; a blindfold man chased a cock tied between two planks and decapitated it with a single sabre-stroke; and when all this had become tedious and money had changed hands ten times over at games of quinola or rentoy, fevers broke out, people collapsed with sunstroke, someone left his teeth in a ship's biscuit already gnawed by mice, a dead man was thrown overboard, a jet-black negress gave birth to twins, some vomited, other [sic] scratched themselves, yet others voided their entrails; and when it seemed that the fleas, lice, filth and stench had got beyond endurance, a cry from the look-out announced one morning that at last he could see the headland by the port of San Cristobal at Havana.

6. The Pursuer by Julio Cortázar (49 pages), translated by Paul Blackburn

The story makes evident to me how much Roberto Bolaño's insouciance and improvisational brilliance in The Savage Detectives and his free style stories owed to the spontaneity of Cortázar's jazz. The pursuer is Bruno, the jazz critic and narrator of the story of the self-destructive, genius horn player, and heroin addict Johnny Carter. The latter is also the subject of Bruno's recently published biography. The entire story is framed as a kind of essay or criticism where the critic tries to capture the essence of his subject, if such a thing is possible at all. Johnny seems to be past saving. He hallucinates about "fields full of urns" (Sir Thomas Browne's Urn Burial?).

The Pursuer is dark and funny and emotional. It is my runaway favorite in this anthology. An excerpt:

This is not the place to be a jazz critic, and anyone who's interested can read my book on Johnny and the new postwar style, but I can say that forty-eight—let's say until fifty—was like an explosion in music, but a cold, silent explosion, an explosion where everything remained in its place and there were no screams or debris flying, but the crust of habit splintered into a million pieces until its defenders (in the bands and among the public) made hipness a question of self-esteem over something which didn't feel to them as it had before. [...] Johnny had passed over jazz like a hand turning a page, that was it.

That first Cortázarian sentence is surprisingly Bolañesque. The story's carefree attitude reminds me of Jean Rhys's "Let Them Call It Jazz." Near the end of that story the protagonist couldn't care less for any version of the song she first heard.

   But then I tell myself all this is foolishness. Even if they played it on trumpets, even if they played it just right, like I wanted—no walls would fall so soon. ‘So let them call it jazz,’ I think, and let them play it wrong. That won’t make no difference to the song I heard.

The first version is the only authentic one, just like Johnny's life is the song only he can play.

7. My Uncle, the Jaguar by João Guimarães Rosa (39 pages), translated by Giovanni Pontiero

The story appeared in a second translation in David Treece's The Jaguar which also contained another brilliant novella by Guimarães Rosa called In the Name of the Grandfather. (It also appeared along with six stories by the Brazilian writer in Oxford Anthology of the Brazilian Short Story which I wrote about here.)

I find in Guimarães Rosa the same handling and concentration of language in César Vallejo's Trilce. The neologisms and archaisms, the visually suggestive puns, the auditory effects. In fact, the first difficult-to-translate word (nonada, "the slightest thing", literally "a trifle") in GR's celebrated novel Grande Sertao: Veredas appeared in one of Vallejo's poems in Trilce ("XXVIII").

8. The Daisy Dolls by Felisberto Hernández (41 pages), translated by Luis Harss

The Daisy Dolls is the kind of story Hitchcock would have filmed. The childless couple at the center of the story has a collection of life-sized female dolls which they dress and put in different places according to a selected "theme" for the day. The surface of Hernández's story is the collapse of a marriage in a suburban home. Underneath, however, is the encroachment of perversity on the normal course of things as the dolls begin to be treated as members of the family.

"Why must the transmigration of souls take place only between people and animals? Aren't there cases of people on their deathbed who have handed their souls over to some beloved object? And why assume it's a mistake when a spirit hides in a doll who looks like a beautiful woman? Couldn't it be that, looking for a new body to inhabit, it guided the hands that made the doll? When someone pursues an idea, doesn't he come up with unexpected discoveries, as if someone else were helping him?"

This tale of psychological tension is perfect finale in an anthology whose myriad ideas were single-mindedly pursued and seen through to their end, by writers and readers both.

* * *

As bonus track, I'm copying here the titles of "memorable" novellas that Stavans enumerated in his introduction. They are for him "prime examples covering a vast stylistic and thematic territory", attractive for "their individual beauty, their distinctive mood and joie de vivre" and the consolidated effect they give to readers: Esteban Echevarría's The Slaughterhouse, Machado de Assis's The Alienist, Sallarué's The Negro Christ, Carlos Fuentes's Aura, María Luisa Bombal's The Shrouded Woman, García Márquez's No One Writes to the Colonel and Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Augusto Roa Bastos's Kurupi, Ernesto Sábato's The Outsider, Guimarães Rosa's The Opportunity of Augusto Matraca, Antonio Skármeta's Burning Patience, Juan Carlos Onetti's The Pit, José Donoso's The Closed Door, Vargas Llosa's The Cubs, José María Arguedas's Amor Mundo, Adolfo Bioy Casares's The Invention of Morel, Reinaldo Arenas's Old Rosa, and Elena Poniatowska's Dear Diego.

The anthology appeared in 1996 and already felt dated from the lack of translated works ambivalent to the masterpieces of the Boom generation. Meanwhile, novella-length works that define their own aesthetic have appeared in translation in the intervening years. My reading in this genre is limited but I submit for consideration of a new critical Latin American novella anthology: César Aira's Ghosts, Bolaño's Distant Star, Clarice Lispector's Água Viva, Fernando Vallejo's Our Lady of the Assassins, and Luis Fernando Verissimo's Borges and the Eternal Orangutans.

Read for the Spanish Lit Month, presented by Richard and Stu.


  1. What a wealth of suggestions here, including for some writers I don't know in the least. I'm particularly intrigued by the Hernández story: I love the title. Most of all, though, I look forward to one day seeing that new anthology you propose (I'm reading Ghosts right now).

  2. The Pursuer is the only one of these I've read, but it was my runaway favorite as well in a collection of Cortázar short stories (and, perhaps, novellas). And great point about Bolaño getting some jazz influence from him.

    I saw this collection recently and wondered about it, since I wasn't familiar with the titles themselves. Sounds interesting.

  3. Killer post, Rise! I've only read the García Márquez novella out of the eight included, but I hope to get to at least one more of those before the month is over. In terms of the novella vs. short story question, it's funny to see the Cortázar included as a novella as I've always thought of it as a short story. I guess the page count's about right, though. My version of the Mutis title is a 200-page book, though--hardly a novella even if the font could be reduced in size. Anyway, loved your breakdown and in particular that slam about "the tired mannerisms of magical realism." LOL! Also, liked your and Stavans' suggestions for other titles along the same lines (I wouldn't consider your Bolaño and Vallejo picks as novellas though I do think they're great choices in terms of quality). Los adioses [Farewells], a 1954 Juan Carlos Onetti novella, is another great pick for anybody wanting a high-quality non-Boom choice.

  4. This sounds like an amazing collection. I was of course very interested how you would like the Mutis. It sounds as good as the one I read but different. It seems this novella is the most Conrad-like and I can see why. I'm looking forward to reading it soon as well.
    Most of the other noevllas sound good too. I'm particularly interested in Cabre Infante. I have the novel and need to move it up on the pile.
    I always think a novella is a long short story from the point of view of the technique and a short novel plot-wise. Maybe that makes no sense.

  5. And what have you got against magical realism anyway? ;)

  6. Scott, I figure the best way to discover new writers is reading anthologies where one gets to sample different works in small doses. The Daisy Dolls is really wonderful for its understated horror. It's from a collection called Piano Stories. Aira is probably the most prolific novella writer (novellist?) in the world.

    nicole, I do think Bolaño studied closely Cortázar's style. I also read The Pursuer earlier in Blow-Up and Other Stories, a collection I treasure.

  7. Richard, there really remains some gray areas in distinguishing between story & novella. I don't think a threshold (say, fiction more than 30 pages = novella) will solve the classification. I would say the 'novelistic' content of a piece matters too. Same length issue between novella & novel. I picked out the short novels of Bolaño and Vallejo for lack of choices. Though the fonts of these books seem to be unusually large too in my editions. I saw there are two translations of the Onetti: Goodbyes and Stories & Farewells.

  8. Caroline, The Snow of the Admiral was a discovery. Nothing seems to happen in it, and the ending is almost predetermined and yet I liked it very much. Stu is very enthusiastic about the whole of Three Trapped Tigers and based on this particular excerpt from it, it's bound to be a good read. Your distinction makes sense to me. It's got to be a combination of technique and plot and overall effect. There's no one criterion.

  9. Tony, nothing really. I do like magic realism in some books. One Hundred Years of Solitude, for one, uses it very well and to great effect. It's prone to abuse though, by writers who do not have the discipline to use it or who use it gratuitously. There's a tendency to use magical elements that are not otherwise supported by context.

  10. Great post & although dated this sounds like an ideal book for someone looking for an overview of this literature & as to your addition have both the Bolano(read) and the Verissimo (yet to read). totally agree with your comment on anthologies being a way to discover new writers, last year discovered some great writers through Granta's Spanish language writers.

  11. Rise, I'll add Rodrigo Rey Rosa's 1996 The Good Cripple from Guatemala and Fogwill's 1982 Malvinas Requiem from Argentina as candidates for your list of a more modern Lat Am novella anthology. Haven't read the Fogwill yet, but both Rey Rosa and Fogwill come from traditions that seem to not be partic. interested in the Boom authors (if at all). Fogwill's "Muchacha punk" short story is on a par with Aira's "Cecil Taylor" and Rodolfo Walsh's "Esa mujer" as untranslated tales from Argentina that you and others with similar tastes would just die for: incredibly great stuff!

  12. Gary, I think it's the only survey of Latin American novellas available so far. And yes, it's ideal for anyone interested in modern Latin American writing.

    Richard, the publishers should be consulting you on Spanish writings the English world are deprived of.

  13. Fascinating. I have just read two, both from the sub-list, one of them just this minute. I mean, I posted about it just this minute. The Echevarría story belongs on that list.

    1. Fantastic that you mentioned the Echevarría story/novella was in the Oxford anthology. Because I have had that book for some time. I must look in the TOC of that book soon.