‘Untold Microcosms: Latin American Writers in the British Museum’ (Review)

Not content with scouring the Americas for gems of literary fiction, Charco Press have recently decided to spread their wings a little, adding other strings to their already impressive bow.  One of these is the simultaneous release in the UK of both the translation and the original work for some of their selections (of which more another time), while today’s choice is from another of those projects, Charco Essays.  Here, they aim to bring us some slightly less fictional work from Latin America, but as you’ll see, just because the book has the word ‘essays’ slapped on it, that doesn’t mean there’ll be no flights of fancy – quite the contrary, in fact…

*****
Untold Microcosms: Latin American Writers in the British Museum (review copy courtesy of the publisher) seems like one of those ideas somebody had down the pub that are then miraculously brought to fruition.  Why don’t we get ten Latin-American writers to take a look at items housed in the British Museum (some of which are rarely, if ever, on public display) and get them to do what they do best, write about those items from whatever angle they choose?  The result is a collection of intriguing texts that approach the theme from a number of directions, all of which are fascinating reads.

The collection features ten writers, some familiar, some new to me (and perhaps to you), with each text brought into English by a different translator.  There are the usual Charco suspects, complemented by some big names in the field, which always helps the reader’s confidence.  Another nice touch is how the pieces are accompanied by a photo of the inspirational object and a one-page explanation of its history by Laura Osorio Sunnucks, María Mercedes Martínez Milantchi and Magdalena Araus Sieber, all curators at the Santo Domingo Centre of Excellence for Latin American Research at the British Museum (and presumably experts in their field).

From the first piece, there’s a sense that this will be a slightly different kind of essay collection.  In ‘Letter to a Young Mixe Historian’ (translated by Ellen Jones), Yásnaya Elena A. Gil, produces a letter written in 2173, from an aunt to her niece, about an old artefact which used to be housed, well, you know where:

I should say that this obsession with accumulating and classifying reached eyewatering levels.  In particular, one of the most important museums in the now non-existent northern isles that were submerged in the great flood at the end of the twenty-first century housed countless objects of different sizes that had been torn from communities and cultures subjugated by the colonising metropoles.
‘Letter to a Young Mixe Historian’, p.11 (Charco Press, 2022)

Gil’s story muses on the ridiculous idea current museums have of ‘preservation’ (or hoarding stolen artefacts) in a post-apocalyptic text that makes Brexit look like a minor inconvenience.

Other pieces go in the opposite direction, using their objects to dive into the past.  In Juan Cárdenas’ ‘Extract from the Diary of a Journey along the North Coast of Peru’ (tr. Christina MacSweeney), the writer speculates on the ancient Moche potters, imagining how one decided to branch out from traditional moulds to create something more appropriate for his time.  Meanwhile, ‘The Name of the Trees’ (tr. Frances Riddle) sees Dolores Reyes imagining an old woman leading a group of girls on a search for the goddess of the ground.  Why?  To save the trees, of course…

Of course, there are some writers who stick to more traditional interpretations.  Gabriela Cabezón Cámara’s contribution, ‘The Wichí Community’ (tr. Carolina Orloff), is centred upon a visit the writer makes to a community of women struggling to maintain their traditional way of life in the face of encroaching modernity – which often has awful consequences:

We are going to spend several hours completing a journey that should only take one.  We are going to talk to people in three communities.  We are going to see roofs blown away in the last storm and replaced by tarpaulins.  We are going to be told that there is no nurse and no doctor in the local clinic.  That there are no longer trees yielding fruit.  That there are dead fish floating down the river.  That they want them to leave their land.  That bees are dying and there is no honey left.  That planes fumigate from the sky, killing their animals and whatever they had managed to grow in their garden.  That their children are falling sick.

They’ve forgotten about us.
‘The Wichí Community’, pp.24/5

GCC finds out first-hand from the women what her object, a bracelet, is all about, but as far as these women are concerned, the foreigners can keep it – just send them doctors, nurses and scholarships instead.

Some of the pieces are slightly more personal affairs.  ‘The Strength of Exu’ (tr. Daniel Hahn), sees Djamila Ribeiro reclaiming her identity.  The text (slightly drier than the other essays, including dreaded footnotes) delves into her region’s past, exploring the racism experienced by those with African roots.  Slightly less academic is ‘In the Land of Weeping Trees’ (tr. Fionn Petch), in which Joseph Zárate tells the story of his grandmother, and his object, a tribal headdress, evokes memories both good and bad:

It was above all a system of oppression that reflected an aspect of late-nineteenth-century Western thought: the widespread idea that Amazonian societies were located at a lower stage of evolutionary development, a possible ‘missing link’ between monkey and human.
‘In the Land of Weeping Trees’, pp.124/5

His grandmother’s death makes him realise that the stories of those exploited by the rubber companies are being lost, and need to be recorded before it’s too late.

However, the majority of the inclusions here do take a more fictional route, whether it’s Velia Vidal’s ‘Otilio’ (tr. Annie McDermott) and its resourceful, youthful protagonist, Cristina Rivera Garza’s ‘Late Blight’ (tr. Robin Myers) and a botanist rambling on a misty mountain, or ‘Heritage’ (tr. Frank Wynne), where Carlos Fonseca blends his own family history into the story of an explorer and ‘discoverer’ of a large water plant, all inspired by a portrait the author found at the Museum.  It seems that if you give them an inch, most writers of fiction will happily take a literary mile!

Untold Microcosms is an excellent collection, one to go through slowly, taking your time with each piece.  The stories, the essays, the photos – all the parts of the book come together beautifully to create a fascinating work.  Perhaps the best example of how these disparate parts come together is Lina Meruane’s ‘Tongues Hanging Out’ (tr. Megan McDowell), inspired by a mask ‘with prominent lips and tongue’.  The writer skilfully links slavery with the modern drudgery of work and the upheaval of the COVID age in an excellent collection of little thoughts which is a fitting representation of the book as a whole.  In short, Untold Microcosms is something a little different from a press that has hardly put a foot wrong over its short existence, and I’m looking forward to seeing what other ideas they come up with in the future.

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2 thoughts on “‘Untold Microcosms: Latin American Writers in the British Museum’ (Review)

  1. Thanks Tony for this review of a book I’m very keen to read. I’ve heard about it in various plaees but latterly in a podcast I listen to called Colombia Calling where on 18th October Emily Hart interviews Velia Vidal from Choco, Colombia, who contributed to the project. Fascinating reflections there and from your review. Thank you.

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    1. Mandy – Well, I think you’re already ahead of me in terms of the content by the sound of things, so I’m sure you’d enjoy it 🙂

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