Sunday, November 13, 2011

Good Short Fiction: 4 tales from The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories

Collection: The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories
Editor: Roberto González Echevarría

Title: Journey Back to the Source
Author: Alejo Carpentier
Translator: Harriet de Onís

Journey Back to the Source tells the story of Don Marcial's life from end to beginning. Time flows backwards.
Crow's-feet, frowns, and double chins vanished, and flesh grew firm again. One day the smell of fresh paint filled the house.

Sometimes the story seems like a video being rewound, but often there's a forward-moving feeling to the backwards flow of time. Don Marcial is escaping from what he's become, retracing a path towards innocence. There is no other way to reclaim this innocence, except to go forward into the past.
And a splendid evening party was given in the music room on the day he achieved minority. He was delighted to know that his signature was no longer legally valid, and that worm-eaten registers and documents would now vanish from his world. He had reached the point at which courts of justice were no longer to be feared, because his bodily existence was ignored by the law.

However, even in his comparatively innocent childhood, there's death and darkness (beliefs that he might have taken into himself unquestioned as a child and then with adulthood fully embraced or allowed to flourish, without bothering to understand them).

The story is full of rich language and psychological insight, as in the following observation of Don Marcial on his death bed:
What had begun as a candid, detailed confession of his many sins grew gradually more reticent, painful, and full of evasions.

The final lines of the story blend beginnings with endings.
Then he shut his eyes - they saw nothing but nebulous giants - and entered a warm, damp body full of shadows... Clothed in this body's substance, he slipped toward life.


Title: Midnight Mass
Author: Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis
Translators: William L. Grossman and Helen Caldwell

A seventeen-year-old student is visiting an older male relative, a man who openly cheats on his wife. One evening before midnight mass, when the rest of the household is asleep, the student and the wife have a long conversation.

The two are intimate. They don't have sex. They're intensely aware of each other. She speaks more freely and has a more open expression than he's ever seen. He observes her closely, noting minute changes in her appearance: her posture, the expression in her eyes, the way she moves her hands and arms.
Usually her gestures were slow, her attitude calm. Now, however, she rose suddenly, moved to the other side of the room, and, in her chaste disarray, walked about between the window and the door of her husband's study. Although thin, she always walked with a certain rocking gait as if she carried her weight with difficulty.

On that one evening time is suspended. There's an atmosphere of possibility and revelation. The neglected wife is seen for who she is and for what she could be, and that's part of the intensity of her conversation with the student. They are alone together, removed from other people and from the conventions of daily life.


Title: The Switchman
Author: Juan José Arreola
Translator: George D. Schade

A traveler arrives at an empty train station and wonders when his train will come. He speaks to an an elderly switchman who finds it funny that the traveler expects any train to show up. At length the switchman describes the irregularities and inefficiencies of the country's rail system.

The elaborate description of train troubles is what first drew me into the story; the switchman talks about inaccurate railway maps and about trains that stop where they shouldn't, don't move for days on end or just appear at random hours.
"This country is famous for its railroads, as you know. Up to now it's been impossible to organize them properly, but great progress has been made in publishing timetables and issuing tickets. Railroad guides include and link all the towns in the country; they sell tickets for even the smallest and most remote villages. Now all that is needed is for the trains to follow what the guides indicate and really pass by the stations. The inhabitants of this country hope this will happen; meanwhile, they accept the service's irregularities and their patriotism keeps them from showing any displeasure."

I could see the trains as a metaphor not only for life and its unpredictability but also for people's tendency to passively give themselves over to a governing power:
"The hope is that one day the passengers will capitulate to fate, give themselves into the hands of an omnipotent management, and no longer care to know where they are going or where they have come from."

Does the right train ever come? And by the end, does the traveler still care about its destination? What he might content himself with is just the feeling of being on a train, of going somewhere (anywhere) or at least having the illusion of motion.


Title: The Third Bank of the River
Author: João Guimarães Rosa
Translator: William L. Grossman

This story makes sense to me on a gut level (I think).

When the narrator is a child his father decides one day to get into a rowboat and live out on the river.
Father did not come back. Nor did he go anywhere, really. He just rowed and floated across and around, out there in the river. Everyone was appalled. What had never happened, what could not possibly happen, was happening. Our relatives, neighbors, and friends came over to discuss the phenomenon.

The father's strongest connection is with his son, the narrator, who leaves provisions for him on the river bank; they don't interact in any other way. The father remains on the water in all kinds of weather, in all seasons, staying mostly out of sight and not speaking to anyone. Years pass, and the narrator is the only family member who doesn't move away from the river. Then one day he figures out what he needs to do to get his father back on land.

It's an eerie and absurd story. There's never a clear explanation for why the father chooses this course in life and what it even represents. It's as if he's pursuing an obscure path or calling that his son, the narrator, might be drawn to one day. Or maybe the narrator will escape from his duties and from the burden of his father's legacy and leave the old man behind on the river, completely cut off from everyone.

[Edited: 1/2015]