After my recent dalliance with poetry, it’s time to return to fiction, but don’t think that means I’ve left the Shakespeare celebrations behind. Today sees another book commissioned to mark the four-hundredth anniversary of the death of the Bard of Avon, one which takes advantage of a historical coincidence to introduce Anglophone readers to some Spanish-language stories. Two for the price of one? Now that sounds like something I might enjoy🙂
Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: Twelve Stories after Cervantes and Shakespeare does exactly what it says on the cover. Those wonderful people over at And Other Stories, in conjunction with the Hay Festival, have taken advantage of the fact that Shakespeare died on the same date (if not the same day…) as Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra to commission stories from twelve authors to commemorate the two literary legends. Six English-language writers have taken on the task of producing a story inspired by the creator of Don Quixote, while six of their Spanish-language counterparts tackled the job of coming up with a Shakespeare-inspired tale. Of course, this entailed the need for a translator or two, and editors Daniel Hahn and Margarita Valencia have put together a fine team of twelve (six for the Spanish-language version and another half a dozen, familiar faces all, for the edition I read) for the occasion. Throw in an introduction by Salman Rushdie, and it all makes for an enticing proposition.
Cervantes’ body of work is, of course, dominated by his story of the man of La Mancha, so it’s little surprise that most of the stories in English take that as their starting point. Ben Okri kicks off the collection with ‘Don Quixote and the Ambiguity of Reading’, in which a scene alluded to in the book, set in a printer’s workshop, is relocated to Nigeria:
Afterwards all one heard of him were legends. He had waged battles with corrupt government officials, and embarked on campaigns in the forests of the North where Boko Haram terrorised the nation. It was even rumoured that he had been selected to join a resettlement programme on Mars. These are stories his madness generated. It is hard to say whether his deeds exceeded our imagination, or whether we are poor reporters of the marvellous.
‘Don Quixote and the Ambiguity of Reading’, pp.16/7 (And Other Stories, 2016)
This (meta)fictional encounter, in which a print worker narrates his impressions of the great man, introduces us nicely to the style of the stories in the collection.
Other writers take a more tangential approach to Cervantes’ major work while also taking the story on the road. Kamila Shamsie’s ‘Mir Aslam of Kolachi’ is set in Pakistan and features an ageing storyteller with a desire to travel abroad, a man whose tilting at bureaucratic windmills can only be described as Quixotic. Hisham Matar’s ‘The Piano Bar’ instead takes us to Egypt, where a returning ex-pat, carrying a copy of Don Quixote into a bar, is sucked into stories of the past when he encounters a couple of familiar faces.
By contrast, the Spanish-language writers have chosen a far wider range of inspirations for their pieces. In Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s ‘The Dogs of War’ (translated by Anne McLean), a class on Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar evokes memories of an assassination far closer to home. The story switches between the lecturer preparing his notes and the deadly cat-and-mouse game Pablo Escobar plays with his enemies. An excellent, taut tale, it manages to tie the two strands together unexpectedly on its last page.
Yuri Herrera attempts a similar feat with ‘Coriolanus’ (tr. Lisa Dillman), with the action, and characters transported to Mexico, without ever quite hitting the mark, but Marcos Giralt Torrente’s ‘Opening Windows’ (tr. Samantha Schnee) was far more to my taste. A widower with a striking daughter, having moved recently to a new town, attends a local festival at which his nephew unexpectedly appears on stage in a piece featuring adultery. As the narrator looks around at the young people enjoying themselves, he muses:
We often cling to our past selves, not allowing new things a fair chance. Which goals replace outdated ones? What ideals do we keep when we discard old ones? When you look at it this way, the passage of time is terrifying, because, as we gradually let go of our baggage, we grow further and further from ourselves.
‘Opening Windows’, p.100
An excellent, melancholy story, ‘Opening Windows’, takes a much calmer look at one of the Bard’s more famous plays. Which one? Well, that would be telling😉
Where the stories above are closely linked to the original play, some focus a little more on the new characters. In ‘The Secret Life of Shakespeareans’ (tr. Rosalind Harvey), Soledad Puértolas has her writer narrator become involved in his sister’s stories and dramas, bumping into one of her old boyfriends and wondering just what to make of all the symbolism he finds in their anecdotes. While this is a rather modern affair, Vicente Molina Foix takes a different approach, setting his piece, ‘Egyptian Puppet’ (tr. Frank Wynne) in Elizabethan London, complete with visits to the Globe Theatre🙂
Several of the Anglophone writers also had a different take on their task. Nell Leyshon’s ‘Glass’, a story of a shy teenaged girl’s sexual awakening, is inspired by Cervantes’ novel The Glass Graduate, with the protagonist convinced her body has turned into glass, leaving her afraid to move lest she be shattered into pieces. However, for me, Deborah Levy does this more successfully in ‘The Glass Woman’, set in nineteenth-century Bavaria, in which a famed physician does his best to cure a princess of her glass-related delusion…
If you’re going to take inspiration from the classics, though, you might as well let your imagination run wild, and two of my favourite stories in the collection have certainly taken that advice to heart. Valeria Luiselli’s ‘Shakespeare, New Mexico’ (tr. Christina MacSweeney) follows a Mexican family living in the US as they relocate to a historic ghost town, employed to act in a Wild-West-era never-ending show. Although it starts slowly, by the end the story cleverly weaves in comments on contemporary issues, such as migration and gun control, all the while developing the character of the mother of the family, a modern-day Lady Macbeth if ever there was one.
For sheer lunacy, though, I have to take my hat off to Rhidian Brook and his (hopefully wholly imaginary) ‘The Anthology Massacre’. Another story inspired by Don Quixote, this one takes a unique approach, focusing on a writer who dreams of fame and fortune after producing a lengthy novel, one retelling Cervantes’ work in the voice of Rocinante, the good knight’s horse. Meanwhile, elsewhere in London:
Yes, this country’s ‘twelve finest writers’ are tonight congratulating themselves on the launch of their dubiously conceived and pretentiously named ‘The Anthology’, a collection of short stories celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of the death of Cervantes, who will no doubt be turning in his recently located unmarked grave.
‘The Anthology Massacre’, p.194
Twelve pompous authors (among whom Brook himself is numbered), one jealous wannabe – what could possibly go wrong? I’ll leave you to find out😉
An excellent idea and one that has been carried out successfully, Lunatics, Lovers and Poets is the perfect way to celebrate two undisputed giants of literature. Perhaps more importantly, the hybrid nature of the inspiration means readers are likely to be introduced to some exciting new names. For me, it was an opportunity to try writers such as Shamsie, Brook and Levy; for most, it’ll be a first visit to the world of Giralt Torrente, Herrera and Lusielli. No matter which side of that divide you find yourself on, though, I’m sure that the stories featured here will spur you on to seek out more of those writers’ works, which can only be a good thing🙂