(I’ve been working my way through Granta 113: The Best of Young Spanish Language Novelists. The previous installments are here, here, and here. This post covers the final five stories.)
Having now finished Granta 113, I think there is one lesson to take away from all this, and it is a lesson for editors: don’t include so many excerpts from forthcoming novels. Three of the final five authors—Matías Néspolo, Andrés Felipe Solano, and Alejandro Zambra—are represented by excerpts, and the excerpts are all perfectly ok but don’t really make me want to run out and buy the work. I’ve never understood how this was supposed to work as a marketing ploy. When I read a story in a magazine or literary journal, I would much rather see a completed work. Zambra’s bio says he is working on a collection of short stories—why not include one of those? I will probably buy and read the novel the editors have excerpted here, but it will be because I’ve read his previous novels, not because of the excerpt. Give me something that shows the writer can deal with a beginning, middle, and end.
The real standout in this regard is Samanta Schweblin’s story, “Olingiris,” which tells of a bizarre business that allows women to come in and perform a ritualistic hair removal—by tweezing out the leg hairs of another woman one by one. The story has just the right mixture of the unexplained (Why do people line up to do this? How did this start? Who is running it, and what do they do with the hair?) and the explained, giving us the back stories of two women who work in the establishment. The story is amazing because its surreal events evoke all sorts of contemporary rituals—consumerism, the beauty parlor, prostitution, sex tourism—without being reducible to any of them. For me, this kind of story is the narrative equivalent of Emily Dickinson’s saying that poetry should spin your head like a top: it demands certain connections yet doesn’t easily add up to anything, producing a kind of sublimity and dizziness.
Patricio Pron’s story, “A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs,” ends the volume. It is a well-told first-person story about a young writer who lives in an apartment underneath one of his major influences, dwelling incessantly on the life of the older writer and letting that shape his work. The general idea, as it develops, seems to be the way that writers fabricate ideas about their influences, making the line of literary development less clear and more a matter of happenstance and invention. [Insert your own longer Harold Bloom flashback here.] The story develops this idea fairly well, and it works as the final bookend to a volume about new writers; I was less interested in the reflections on writers who come to the city. I also feel I might be missing something just through a lack of thorough familiarity with Argentinean writers—for example, if there is a particular older writer Pron has in mind, I’ve missed the cues entirely.
Coming out the other side of this collection, there are really two writers I am eager to follow up on: Lucía Puenzo and Samanta Schweblin. To a lesser extent I also want to follow up on Carlos Labbé’s novel and on Pola Oloixarac if/as they are translated into English. Alejandro Zambra, as I said above, I’ll read more of, but not because of the excerpt here. Other writers I have some interest in and would quickly be persuaded to read by the right review: Javier Montes, Federico Falco, and even Carlos Yushimito, the last of whom I didn’t write about in my previous post. I’m not really sure that I would call the volume overall a big success, but I am happy that at least I came away from reading it with a few women writers in Spanish that have my interest, given the general problem with the lack of translations of women writers I’ve mentioned before. In that vein, hopefully next time someone makes a list of good new Spanish writing they will be able to do a little better than having only five women out of twenty-two writers.