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In high school, I had the exceptional good fortune to take a literature course in Spanish with a teacher who had both immense knowledge and a very stimulating literary taste. He trusted his students to tackle, at times, baffling subjects – and taught us a new way of reading, one I would liken to stepping into a lazy river at a water park. If a book seems too strange to you to decode, stop decoding: just let it take you away.
Three Books by Latin American Writers New to Translation — Yesterday, family album and New and Selected Stories — reward this approach, albeit in very different ways.
Juan Emar, a cult early 20th-century Chilean writer who was hated by critics and readers during his lifetime, sends the characters from his novel Yesterday run from one surreal surprise to another. It plays into readers’ efforts to guess what might happen or to figure out what it means. Cristina Rivera Garza, a Mexican writer and winner of the MacArthur Genius Fellowship, writes stories that help her “share the unintelligible,” as she puts it in the introduction to her New and Selected Stories, which covers more than 30 years of his career. And Ecuadorian writer and editor Gabriela Alemán, whose family scrapbook is by far the most traditionally written of these three books, plays with tropes ranging from the Robinson Crusoe story to the classic Betrayed Wife setup to combat the impossible-to-decode weirdness of human life, which the old stories can not hide that long.
Yesterday, by Juan Emar, trans. Megan McDowell
In his charming introduction to the even more charming novel by Juan Emar YesterdayChilean writer Alejandro Zambra describes falling in love with Emar’s signature blend of surrealism – a radical stylistic choice in the pre-World War II period when Emar was most prolific – and “an indescribable sense of humor … perfectly recognizable humor, though, as with all truly good humorists, we often don’t know if his narrators are speaking seriously or jokingly.” Yesterday – in the original and in Megan McDowell’s witty and formal translation – is one of the sweetest and funniest novels around. It is the portrait of a happy marriage; a picaresque of a bizarre day; and a story that resists logical understanding, but still has a clear message to convey.
YesterdayThe narrator adores his wife. Even when describing moments of great drama, he can’t help exclaiming, “Oh, my dear and beloved wife, why must I love you so dearly? His feelings for her ground the novel, which is a rush from one adventure to the next. First, he and his wife witness the execution of a man whose only crime was to “say freely to anyone who would listen that the pleasures of love exist in the mind”. This scene, with its clear social critique, tricks the reader into believing Yesterday will make sense – until its characters start singing along with a chorus of monkeys in the next scene.
Before the day is out, the narrator will have watched an ostrich eat a lion, imagined himself as a ball of fur in a stranger’s pocket, and been terrified of a gelatinous legged object that probably isn’t. , but who could be! – hidden behind his parents’ couch. He valiantly tries to extract a “revelation” from these events, but it’s obvious to everyone but him (and, perhaps, his dear and beloved wife, though I suspect she’s in the plan of Emar) that none come. Yesterday teaches his readers to relax in the hilarious incomprehensibility of his world – and ours.
New and Selected Stories, by Cristina Rivera Garza, trans. Sarah Booker, Lisa Dillman, Francisca González Arias, Alex Ross and the author
Cristina Rivera Garza has had a massive artistic practice – and artistic career – writing her way into the incomprehensible. Much of her work revolves around gender-based violence and Mexico’s so-called war on drugs, which in her collection of essays Mourning, she calls “the war against the Mexican people, the war against women. The war against the rest of us.” His fiction could easily be extremely angry, and sometimes is; in one of the earliest stories of her New and Selected, she calls female desire “worse than heroin, although nobody tells you that.” In a later story, “Pascal’s Last Summer”, she shows the reader the enraged tragedy of a young man recruited into misogyny.
But more often than not, his work, which reads like a hybrid of reportage and haunted Juan Rulfo fiction, writhes in the cracks between emotions. Her more recent stories, in particular, are full of the creepy, drifting feeling that sets in at some stage of processing the loss: not quite rage, not quite grief, but the sense of a new and perhaps permanent void.
Longtime Rivera Garza translator Sarah Booker handles the majority of the stories here, and does it beautifully. Rivera Garza, in his introduction, asks readers to “do like me and get into [the mystery of her stories]experience the thin air, watch their vanishing horizon. Booker excels at this in the translation process. It turns out that Rivera Garza does too. Few writers, regardless of their mastery of the target language, are ruthless enough -translate. , “Revenge” and “My Voice in Sin Narrates”, are among the highlights of the collection – although, frankly, once you get used to the New and Selected Stories‘Strange weirdness, it’s hard to pick a favorite or convince yourself to put the book down.
family scrapbook, by Gabriela Alemán, trans. Dick Cluster and Mary Ellen Fieweger
Gabriela Alemán writes in deceptively simple prose, using deceptively simple structures. His novel Poso Well, the first of his works to be translated into English, used the form of a thriller to spit-roast Ecuador’s long legacy of colonialism. In the stories of family scrapbook, she diversifies her tactics, borrowing from old school adventure novels, noir and, in “School Trip”, the newer but no less codified genre of Brooklyn’s muted tragedy. Regardless of the style, however, his stories all revolve around twin themes: the “nonsense” of human behavior and – much like Juan Emar – the impossibility of guessing what’s next.
Alemán takes particular pleasure in turning familiar tales and tropes into “Chinese boxes, Russian dolls, stories within stories”, as one of his narrators put it. In family scrapbook, she digs beneath the surface for old stories of adventures about buried treasure and missionary journeys in the Amazon. She also gets more modern, like in “Honeymoon,” in which a young Argentinian woman spends a night with Lorena Bobbitt’s ex-husband, going from pity to revulsion as he tells her more and more about himself. (Lorena Bobbitt, it should be noted, was born and raised in Ecuador.)
In “Marriage”, the book’s climax, a woman travels to the southwestern town of Machala to learn the truth about her dead husband’s double life – but instead of finding a solution, as the plot seems to require, ends up watching one crowd open another. the man’s coffin. She leaves Machala determined to “assume temporary blindness and go on living”, but at the last moment of the story, her phone starts ringing, suggesting to the reader – as Alemán does, somehow , at the end of so many stories – that even if she’s done with her husband’s secrets, they might not be done with her.
Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.