‘The Portable Museum – Issues 1 & 2’, from Ox and Pigeon (Review)

OxFor those who have never heard of Ox and Pigeon, it’s a digital-only press set up a while back to bring relatively unknown Spanish-language literature to the masses.  I’ve already covered a couple of their titles, both here on the blog (Chilean writer Álvaro Bisama’s Dead Stars) and elsewhere (my review of Salvador Elizondo’s Farabeuf appeared last year over at Necessary Fiction).  Their latest release is Issue 3 of what they like to call The Portable Museum – but what happened to Issues 1 and 2?  Well, coincidentally enough…😉

*****
The Portable Museum (digital review copy courtesy of the publisher, all stories translated by Lucas Lyndes) is an interesting idea, a digital magazine containing stories by Spanish-language writers which are appearing in English for the first time.  Each issue costs a few dollars, meaning it’s an inexpensive and convenient way to sample a few writers you might not have otherwise come across, with the first two volumes containing a total of nine stories (four in the first, five in the second), the majority by Latin-American authors.  What’s more, each story is preceded by a brief introduction, featuring a biography and more information about the story and the collection it originally appeared in.

Issue 1 kicks off with Mexican writer Fabio Morábito’s ‘The Mothers’, and it’s certainly an impressive start to the project.  A bizarre piece, it recounts an annual ritual where a town is inhabited each June by creatures hanging in the trees, descending only to look for prey.  The twist is that these creatures are simply mothers:

It was commonplace to hear at dawn, coming from a vacant lot or a building under construction, the panting of the mothers subduing their prey.  One could approach with complete calm because a mother who already had her prey did not represent any danger.  The victim (an office worker, a manual laborer), gripped between large thighs, would twist like a worm in the beak of a bird.  The mother did with him as she wished for the whole month of June.

Over the course of the story, we are told what the mothers get up to, and how it all ends – the why is something we are left to imagine for ourselves.

Next up is another story from Bisama, ‘Nazi Girl’, a strange tale in which a woman raised by PM1admirers of Hitler and the Nazi aesthetic grows up  to enjoy bondage and trysts with a man who turns out to have a secret history.  It’s just unfortunate for the woman that she’s there when that secret comes to light…  This is followed by a story by another Mexican writer, Antonio Ortuño‘The Japanese Garden’ has a boy remembering his experiences with a girl paid to spend time with him in his youth, one he later seeks out again after learning that she has become a prostitute.

The most notable writer featured in Issue 1, though, is undoubtedly Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas, and the collection is rounded off by his piece ‘Loves that Last a Lifetime’.  In this story, a woman living with her grandmother returns from a visit to an old friend (one she secretly adores) with bad news that she needs to break gently in consideration of her grandmother’s ill health.  Part of the charm of this one is the cat-and-mouse game the narrator plays with her grandmother (who is angry at being left to her own devices for a few days), with this story within a story serving to string out the news – which is still a surprise when it comes.

*****
The five stories in Issue 2 come from five different Spanish-speaking countries, and the collection kicks off with the only piece by a female writer (Hebe Uhart from Argentina).  ‘The Event Planner’ is a rambling tale about a woman sick of taking care of the people who come to give talks at her university (and when she recounts what they get up to, you’re inclined to believe she has good reason to be).  This is followed by Uruguyan author Mario Levrero’s excellent story ‘The Boarding House‘, a mesmerising, one-sentence look around a labyrinthine boarding house, a Hotel California (or, perhaps, Montevideo) the writer longs to leave…

Leaving Latin-America, Spanish writer Javier Sáez de Ibarra’s ‘The Gift of the Word‘ is a polyphonic affair, with a man caught in flagrante at a brothel interspersing his comments with a variety of voices (one discussing Nietzsche, another Brod and Kafka, others chatting about their families, including a woman talking to her unborn child).  There is a connection of sorts, but it takes a couple of reads to see how the pieces are linked.

There’s nothing obscure, however, about Dany Salvatierra’s ‘Conversation by the Pond’.  In the first lines, the Peruvian writer’s tale grabs the reader’s attention:

On the afternoon they were supposed to go to the zoo, Rosario realized she had forgotten to get her mother out of the freezer.

PM2From here, the story develops into a bitter stand-off between a middle-aged woman trapped in a bitter existence and her mother, an old woman who refuses to die, even though she has every reason to.  The resolution is excellent, and I’ll leave it to you to find out how it all ends – it’s safe to say, though, that there will be blood😉

Rounding things off, again from Mexico, is Juan Villoro’s ‘Mariachi’, in which a wildly famous Mariachi singer alternates between chasing women and complaining about the price of fame.  Sick of his concerts and dull interviews, he’s talked into starring in a Spanish indie film, mainly in the hope of getting close to an attractive woman.  However, the new career has a rather unexpected effect on his reputation, leaving him with a lot to live up to…

*****
Two short collections with some excellent stories at a price that won’t break the bank – and ready for download whenever you are :)  I enjoyed my time wandering the halls of this particular museum, and for those interested in more of the same, Issue 3 is the first of two focusing on Buenos Aires, with five writers from the Argentinian capital featured this time around.  I suspect this is an institution I’ll be visiting again in the near future…

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