Something I’ve tried to do over the past few years is to widen the range of languages I read in, and while I have made inroads with Italian and (to a far lesser extent) Korean, the one I’ve read most in outside my usual French and German is Spanish. My most recent Spanish-language read was Antonio Muñoz Molina’s El invierno en Lisboa (Winter in Madrid), and after enjoying that one, I decided to browse the library database for more of his work. Sadly, I’ve read all his books that the library has in stock, but I didn’t come away entirely empty-handed, instead stumbling across a rather intriguing title in the course of my search 🙂
New Penguin Parallel Text Short Stories in Spanish is a new version of an old idea. Edited by John R. King, the book contains ten new stories with the Spanish on the left-hand page and the English mirroring it on the right. The original version, created to cash in on the ‘Boom’, was primarily a Latin-American affair, but the new edition is more balanced, with half of the inclusions coming from Spain and the other five from the Americas.
In another way, it’s rather less balanced as only three of the ten stories are by women. The first of these, Soledad Puértolas’ ‘Eva’s Indifference’ (translated by John R. King), kicks off the collection, introducing us to a writer intrigued by the two very different sides to a woman who wants to interview him. Laura Freixas’ ‘Absurd Ending’ (tr. King) also involves a fascinating encounter of the sexes. What begins as a detective story with the visit of a hysterical woman on a dark, rainy night becomes a whole lot more interesting and meta-fictional as the visitor accuses the private eye of being the reason for her miserable existence. Is this a case of mistaken identity, or is there more to her words than the man realises?
As interesting as these two are, my favourite of the three was Isabel Allende’s ‘Walimai’ (tr. Margaret Sayers Peden), a first-person narrative from an elderly indigenous man. Addressing a young relative, he speaks of the customs of his tribe before the talk turns to the arrival of outsiders in his land:
Pero luego vinieron los extranjeros hablando contra la sabiduría de los ancianos y empujándonos fuera de nuestra tierra. Nos internamos cada vez más adentro de la selva, pero ellos siempre nos alcanzan, a veces tardan años, pero finalmente llegan de nuevo y entonces nosotros debemos destruir los sembrados, echarnos a la espalda los niños, atar los animales y partir.
But then came the white ones speaking against the wisdom of the grandfathers, and pushing us off our land. We move always deeper into the jungle, but always they overtake us; sometimes years pass, but finally they come again, and we must destroy our planted fields, put our children on our back, bind our animals, and depart.
‘Walimai’, pp.58/9 (Penguin, 1999)
‘Walimai’ is a wonderful exploration of colonisation seen from the native point of view, and the story goes on to describe the man’s closer encounters with the intruders and his attempt to free a woman in captivity. It provides insights into a way of life very different to our own and has definitely piqued my interest in Allende’s other work.
Among the male writers introduced here, there were several I’ve encountered before. Antonio Muñoz Molina was, of course, the reason the collection came to my attention in the first place, and ‘The Possessed’ (tr. King) is an excellent piece looking at how a pedantic office drone’s routine is upset by his sudden attraction to a schoolgirl in a café. By contrast, the female protagonist in Gabriel García Márquez’s contribution, ‘María dos Prazeres’ (tr. Edith Grossman), is at the other end of the age scale. In this one, an elderly former prostitute prepares for her imminent death, arranging her final resting place in Barcelona, far from her Brazilian home. The impetus for her preparations is a dream she has, but by the end of the story, we’re left wondering whether her interpretation of the revelation may have been rather misguided.
The most familiar piece, however, was Javier Marías’ ‘On the Honeymoon’ (tr. Eric Southworth). A woman becomes unwell on honeymoon in Seville, and while she rests, the husband people-watches from the balcony, until, that is, a woman on the street looks up and starts to address him – and then approaches the hotel… If that sounds familiar, then you’ve probably read the novel A Heart So White, as I’m convinced that this piece was transported to Havana and used in the longer work (a few minutes Googling confirmed that suspicion!). In the novel, we know how the scene ends, but this ur-version ends with the sound of steps on the stairs…
Luckily, not all of the stories were as well-known, and the collection introduced me to several writers whose work I hadn’t tried before. Peruvian author Julio Ramón Ribeyro’s light-hearted ‘A Literary Tea Party’ (tr. Clive Griffin) was thoroughly entertaining, a dialogue-based piece in which a group of middle-class literati wait (in vain) for the visit of a famous writer. More complex and slow burning is Carlos Fuentes’ ‘Las Amigas’ (tr. Alfred MacAdam), the story of a racist elderly lady living in Chicago and the silent war she wages against her hired help. As she says to her nephew:
– Te prohibo que toques mis clichés, sobrino. Son el escudo de mis prejuicios. Y los prejuicios, como la palabra lo indica, son necesarios para tener juicios. Bien juicio, Archibald, bien juicio. Mis convicciones son definidas, arraigadas e inconmovibles. Nadie me las va a cambiar a estas alturas.
“I forbid you to touch my clichés, young man. They’re the shield of my prejudices. And prejudices, as the word itself indicates, are necessary for making judgements. Good judgement, Archibald, good judgement is prejudgement. My convictions are clear, deep-rooted and unshakeable. At this point in my life, no one’s going to change them.”
‘Las Amigas’, pp.110/1
However, when her nephew arranges the arrival of a new Mexican housekeeper, she’s forced to revise her opinions (and her tactics) when Josefina fails to live down to her expectations.
I tried not to look too much at King’s excellent introduction (including brief analyses of the stories), so I didn’t notice until the end that the stories were actually placed in order of linguistic difficulty. In the case of the penultimate piece, Julio Cortázar’s ‘Second Time Around’ (tr. Griffin), this difficulty was largely due to the first couple of pages, which contained copious amounts of Argentine slang and references to locations in Buenos Aires. Set in the 1970s, this one has a group of people waiting for an interview in a dingy public building, and anyone with more than a passing knowledge of the country’s history will sense that there’s far more to the harmless procedure than meets the eye.
The last story in the collection, however, was the only one where I really had to admit defeat in my linguistic struggles. Juan Benet’s ‘Syllabus’ (tr. Southworth) is one of the shorter stories, yet it’s by far the most complex in terms of language, and I spent a fair while lost in the writer’s lengthy sentences before switching my attention to the translation. The story tells of a retired academic’s return for a series of valedictory lectures and how an unwelcome visitor brings the whole thing crashing down around his ears (which is pretty much how I felt after this reality check as to my Spanish-language reading ability…).
Despite this chastening experience, I enjoyed the collection immensely, and I’d heartily recommend it to anyone whose Spanish is less than perfect (I’m sure even native speakers would enjoy it purely for the stories). With a concise but informative introduction and helpful notes to assist with some of the trickier language and cultural information, Short Stories in Spanish is a great way to read more work by some of your favourite writers, or be introduced to some new names. Now, I wonder which writer’s work I should try next – in Spanish, of course 🙂