Short Story Review – Luís Romano – Old Isidoro (trans. Jeff Hessney)

Beware the vengeance of a discomforted priest.

Isidoro is a stinking old man, homeless, a beggar, and perhaps evil.  It is said that

at night he turned into a spirit and that during the day he hid in cliffside caves where no one could come near him. Others swore he stole children’s souls on the seventh day after they’d been given birth.

The rumour of his misfortune and turn to evil is that he was excommunicated by a priest.  An old lady gives the story to the narrator, explaining that Isidoro was once rich and fortunate, but things turned sour on the night of his wedding.

What happened?  Well, he was out at midnight, and so was the priest who was to bless the marriage.  In his enthusiasm, he shot a gun into the air which spooked the priest’s mule, who bolted and fell off a cliff, drowning the priest.

But not before he hurled a curse at the man who had frightened his animal.

And so, because priests have power, Isidoro went from riches to rags, literally cursed via the power of Christ.

“The priest’s body disappeared forever, and to this day his malediction still pursues Isidoro, now a tortured soul, forever doing penance in this world of tribulations because of a curse sworn before dawn by a priest, the rightful representative of Jesus Christ on Earth, at the moment of his death, in the times when we on the Island believed in the Devil’s doings and in the power, art, and cunning of that Beast . . . by the sign of the Holy Cross . . . LUCIFER!”

Romano confuses the power of Christ and Lucifer, and clearly has sympathy for Isidoro, who was punished too much for what was, in effect, a tragic accident.  He doesn’t quite go far enough as to expressly write this sympathy into the characters, leavening the criticism of the priest with hints that Isidoro had learned witchcraft in his travels, and perhaps because of this, somewhat deserved his fate.

Is it fair to be punished so?  Does fairness come into the machinations of good and evil?  Perhaps.  Or perhaps we are unable to understand completely how an act could be good or ill when seen through the prisms of such elemental forces.  The story itself is not long enough to address these concerns, but they are there, and the lack of judgement over Isidoro’s actions, and criticism of the priest’s, sends a pretty clear message.

This is the first short story I’ve read from Cape Verde, and certainly the first translated from the Santo Antão dialect of the Cabo Verdean language.  The footnotes alone suggest that there are layers to this piece that I am unaware of.  This comes from the May 2020 Words Without Borders magazine, and perhaps now will herald the start of more literature arriving in English?  Time will tell.

Old Isidoro is a short story by Cabo Verdean writer Luís Romano, translated by Jeff Hessney.  

Author Luís Romano
Title Old Isidoro
Translator Jeff Hessney
Nationality Cabo Verdean
Publisher Words Without Borders

 

Short Story Review – Jean Back – European Clouds (trans. Sandra Schmit)

At some point I am going to realise that these stories exist to celebrate or critique the EU, and not necessarily because they possess independent literary merit.  At some point.

Our narrator is off to the supermarket to buy some provisions for a barbecue.  He accidentally locks his keys in his car on the way out, listen to accordion music, hears a racist conversation, then goes home.  This is told in a style that is a mix of onomatopoeia, stream of consciousness, associative thoughts, descriptions.  It’s quick, sharp, short, effective but a bit grating.  The narrator gets on your nerves even though there really isn’t much personality to speak of.  And then there are bits like this –

Two minutes from home with the car. Ordinary, but practical,
that supermarket. Good. It is a clear autumn day. Just like on
9/11 in Manhattan, at eight o’clock in the morning. The sun
had been shining just before. Like now, bright, but not warm.

Yikes, where did that reference come from?  It isn’t brought up again, and nothing in the story itself seems in any way related to 9/11.  I was actually shocked to read it and my mind kind of tumbled over it, tripped.  What’s it doing there?

Out of sheer laziness I stay next to the lamppost, looking and waiting and listening to the man playing the accordion, because I like accordion music, because that kind of music reminds me of René de Bernardi, at the erstwhile dancing club Beim Heuertz: dance parties, thé dansant, smootch slow and English Waltz. And also reminds me of Astor Piazzolla.

Some references are more neatly placed into the text, but as we can see from the above, and the next two quoted paragraphs, what is happening here is the narrator inserting the cosmopolitan nature of the EU into the story.  Back is adding worldliness without putting in the hard work, as these concepts aren’t engaged with, just written down.  I could do it, you could do it – throw in five musicians/writers/cheeses/wine varieties/chemists from around the world.  Five anything.  Are you sophisticated now?  Probably not.  It takes a touch more.  you need to do something with these words.

Don’t do this

What nationality are the clouds? Are they French, when they’re hovering over the Elysée? Spanish, when they’re hanging over Seville? What does a Swiss cloud look like? A Belgian one? Are the clouds
Portuguese when they drift over Dudelange? Luxembourgish,
when they arrive in Porto?

I mean like, maybe they are?  Maybe clouds have a nationality and maybe they are clouds and the idea is a human construct and it is ridiculous to place such an idea on to a non-human aerosol consisting of a visible mass of minute liquid droplets, frozen crystals, or other particles suspended in the atmosphere of a planetary body or similar space (thanks, Wikipedia!).

The above is the kind of thought I would hope a sixteen year old stoner would have, but an eighteen year old stoner would not.  They should have moved on by then to like, how, you know, death affects us all and everyone you can see is a walking corpse.  Man.

Also on today’s barbecue menu: three bottles of Chianti, two
packs of olives from Portugal, one Romanian brandy and at
five o’clock there’s Barça playing against Red Bull Salzburg.
Olé!

Perhaps I am being unfair.  I wouldn’t mind so much if there was more to the story, but the above paragraphs represent about a fifth of the total story.  There’s not much here, so why this?  What is it adding to the discourse of what it means to be European?  It is true, no doubt, that any one country is unable or unwilling to meet the entirety of its citizen’s needs, and that there are significant benefits to free trade and the movement of good, ideas, peoples.  This is something to explore.

But listing items and attaching a nationality isn’t doing that.  There isn’t enough here for this story.  The clouds aren’t impressed, man – they’re crying.

European Clouds is a short story by Luxembourger writer Jean Back, translated by Sandra Schmit.  

Author Jean Back
Title European Clouds
Translator Sandra Schmit
Nationality Luxembourger
Publisher European Union Prize for Literature

Please see also the other stories under review from this series:

The Journal of Failure – Week 19 of 2020

Week 19 of 2020 – 13 May to 19 May 2020

Goals

Reading

  • Goal – 100 / day, or 700 / week
  • Achieved – 730/700 – Success!

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 14 / week
  • Achieved – 9/14 – Success!

Writing – Small Projects (Fragments, short stories, etc)

  • Goal – 2.5 minutes / day or 17.5 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 29 minutes – Success!

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 4 minutes / day or 28 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 30 minutes – Success!

Getting myself out there

  • Short story reviews – Zero (Five total for the year)
  • Submissions – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Rejections – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Acceptances – Zero (Zero total for the year)

Commentary

Week 19!

A bit of a strange week, this one.  I achieved most of my goals, but it felt like a low-impact week.  Odd how that is.

I think part of that could be that I’m reading a lot of novellas at the moment.  There’s a reason for this – limited time means limited opportunities for reading, and I have so many massive books on the go where I’m completely lost as to what’s going on.  I can comfortable read 20-30 pages at a time (unless it’s late at night), which is nothing when the book is 600 pages, and a huge amount when it’s 80 pages.  So, novellas.  I have also long had a fondness for them, as I briefly touched on in this post.

I’ll get the “I Remembers” out of the way.  Realistically I need to write seven per week to stay constant (because there are seven days in a week!), so anything above that is good.  I try to do 14/week because I am…behind.  But nine is fine.  Nine is fine.

For small projects, I am back on a story I’ve been tinkering with for a while.  It involves a small time lawyer who is all-too-rapidly falling into corruption.  My primary problem is I can’t quite figure out how many words I’m aiming for, so I alternate flexing grand and small depending on whether I think it’s a long story or not.  There’s a subplot I like, but if it’s only a 2,000 word story, it doesn’t really need it.  But if it’s 5,000, well – perhaps!  Anyway, I’ll figure it out in the writing.

The longer project is the same as last week.  I have two longer projects on the go. One on Rasputin, which I believe I have mentioned is in need of a total overhaul as the last solid work on it was so long ago now that there isn’t really a cohesive understanding of it from when I started to now.  The other is a story that borrows the worst of Bolaño while trying to emulate the best.  It’s very much in the vomit-on-the-page stage, to see what might come and which areas are worth salvaging into something else.  Anyway, I spent most of my time on the latter, tightening up areas, moving about sections, writing notes about things I know I want to have happen but for which I don’t quite have the words.  It’ll slowly taking form, and at about 8,000 words there’s enough there now to get a feel for it.  I expect it to be no longer than 40,000 words at this stage.

Otherwise, I recommend people listen to this great podcast by Open Letter Books.  I’ve listened to Chad and Tom for years and years, but this one really hit home because it’s clear that booksellers and publishers are facing enormous challenges at present.  I have lost count of the number of times I’ve filled up a shopping cart to order books to then stop and think – but what if I lose my job?  What if this cash is needed for food or housing?  I don’t normally worry about that, but with coronavirus it’s hard not to think about it.  The particular podcast was #179 from April, and I expect things have gotten harder if anything.  Anyway, if you can, buy a book from any of the fine indie publishers who need it now more than ever.

Disclaimer – I wrote something for Open Letter years ago, but I’m pretty sure I bought the book myself anyway.  At any rate, let’s be above board, folks.

Ok, let’s talk about reading.  It was quite a week – five books!  Like I said above, it’s novella time.  The longest was 197 pages, and the shorted was only 52 (a book of poetry).

First up was Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East (trans. Hilda Rosner).  Generally speaking, I have a lot of time for Hesse.  I think The Glass Bead Game (trans. Richard and Clara Winston) is a magnificent work of intellectual literature, and I also think that his early work around homeless itinerants is also quite strong.  But – the mysticism sometimes gets to me.  I really need to be in the right mindset for it, otherwise it all comes across as hogwash.  And, this week, for me, it was hogwash.  Which is a real shame.

Following on from this was Rodrigo Rey Rosa’s Severina (trans. Chris Andrews).   There’s a lot going on in 80 or so pages – a bookstore owner falls in love/infatuation with a young book thief, and becomes embroiled in her strange living situation with her father/grandfather/???.  The mystery is there, and the books are there, and the writing is sharp and effective, but I think the general plot didn’t quite push far enough.  There are hints that the male figure in Severina’s life is an eternal role filled temporarily by seduced men, men who grow old and become dependent while she lives on and on and steals books, but this is hinted at and, frankly, I think I’m adding too much.  I would have liked it if the book really went further down this path, but it didn’t.  Nonetheless, it’s a fine novella.

Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys (trans. Julia and Robin Whitby) (also translated as Boys of Zinc) is phenomenal.  I’ve read it before and both times I was appalled at the violence and death and heartache of the survivors.  As with most (all?) of Alexievich’s work, this is constructed as a series of short, one to two page sections where an ordinary person talks about a significant event in their life and how they have struggled with the repercussions.  In this instance, it’s the Russian war with Afghanistan, which is near to 40 years old at this point.  The young soldiers weren’t provided with enough equipment, weren’t supported, weren’t valued during the conflict, and weren’t valued afterwards.  So many coffins returned to mothers or wives who couldn’t see their dead loved ones, weren’t told how they died, and weren’t looked after by the state over the following years.  Their lives were cheap and thrown away.  This book examines the failure of the state through the eyes of people it has failed most strongly, and is an excellent counterpart to her novel, Chernobyl.  Most curious, to me, are the wounded soldiers who miss Afghanistan, who recognise that it was the primary event in their life and now that it is over, there’s nothing for them to do but exist until they die.  And in this, sometimes without legs, or sight, or memory, or arms.  Harrowing.

Georgi Tenev’s Party Headquarters (trans. Angela Rodel) was quite good.  I was somewhat reminded of Svetislav Basara’s The Cyclist Conspiracy (trans. Randall A. Major), though it was less zany than that.  It has an exceptionally strong opening 20 pages, and while the rest of the novel is very good, it struggles to stay at that high level of shocking writing.  Nonetheless this is a pretty fascinating book, managing to explore various aspects of Bulgaria’s history in the lead up to the collapse of the Soviet Empire, with a particular focus on corruption, greed, and sex.

Maryam Azam is a young Australian poet.  The Hijab Files is, I believe, her first collection (and a very quick Google search confirms this), and deals primarily with a young Muslim woman’s final years of school as she grapples with sex, love and the constraints of being a Muslim woman in Australia, which essentially means living in an unfortunately quite racist society.  I’m not very well equipped to comment on poetry, but I did like this book, if mostly because it offered a sensitive perspective on a life that I know very little about.  I’m simply not a young Muslim woman growing up in Sydney, but at least know I am able to be more understanding of those challenges.

And that was my week of failure.

Each week I aim to provide an update on the Journal of Failure.  These reports are intended to provide an impetus for me to achieve as much as I should/more than I do, and also to provide a further ongoing record of my life, as it is. 

(Translated) novellas to read in an afternoon – the Spanish edition

A little while ago Derick Dupré mentioned on Twitter that was interested in reading a novella and so I dutifully recommended Aura by Carlos Fuentes, which is definitely a go-to recommendation for me.  But it got me thinking – why not recommend a bunch more?

I love the novella form.  I try to read either 500+ monsters, or books under 200 pages.  I want something sprawling, or I want it tight and effective and honed in on an idea.  Novellas are an exceptionally interesting form, and one that seems to be in fine favour across the world.

All of these can be easily read in an afternoon, and should be – novellas benefit from single-sitting reading, and the afternoon is best as you can then discuss it over dinner with your loved ones while they dutifully listen and smile and nod.

Today I am going to focus on novellas that were originally written in Spanish.

And so, here a handful I strongly recommend –

Juan Goytisolo – The Garden of Secrets (trans. Peter Bush, published by Serpent’s Tail); 192 pages

 

Twenty-eight people come together to tell the story of Eusebio.  Each of the chapters conflicts with and complements the others as Eusebio’s life comes into focus.  Though each chapter is short, they are wide-ranging, and the description of Hell comes to my mind quite often, particularly those weeping on a metal bed in a tower made from fire.  Eusebio’s many lives are fascinating and there’s just enough in each chapter to whet your appetite for this to be a full-fledged novella on its own.  To do this 28 times is pretty incredible.

Lorenzo Silva – The Faint-hearted Bolshevik (trans. Nick Caistor and Isabelle Kaufeler, published by Hispabooks); 149 pages

It begins simply enough.  A man out driving accidentally slams into the back of a woman’s car.  She is abusive to him (somewhat rightly), but he decides to exact his revenge by destroying her life.  This is all fine and entertaining, but then the narrator meets Rosana, the woman’s sister, and finds himself in love,then –

And then, read for yourself.  I’ve read this book a couple of times, and each time as the novella comes to a close my heart beats with dread and hope.  There’s a palpable sense of death that is evident from the first pages and concretely realised by the end.  The book drips blood.

The narrator is not a fine person by any stretch, and even his affection for Rosana is really just lust for a teenage girl.  But Rosana herself is appealing, and her inevitable destruction hurts when it comes.

Horacio Castellanos Moya – Dance with Snakes (trans. Lee Paula Springer, published by Biblioasis); 156 pages

Eduardo Sosa, unemployed, accidentally assumes the identify of a homeless man who lives in a car.  With four poisonous snakes.  Sosa finds this precarious existing appealing, even sexually appealing, and engages in a bout of rampant murder across San Salvador while fornicating with the snakes.  This is a strange, violent, hilarious book which lands a little less successfully than his novella, Senselessness, but seems to be less well-known and so deserves a mention.

Castellanos Moya blends humour and violence together very well; there is a kind of casualness to death in his books that helps spark ridiculous situations.  Death isn’t cheap, but it is common.  I also quite like the novella being written in the present tense, as it helps create a sense of urgency around the madness of death and snake-sex.

Rodrigo Rey Rosa – Severina (trans. Chris Andrews, published by Yale University Press); 86 pages

I must say that a book which has its main character own a bookstore, is alright with me.  The narrator notices a beautiful young woman in his bookstore, and notices too that she is stealing.  Rather than confront her he instead keeps an eye on the books she steals, in an effort to better understand her.

It turns out the woman, Severina, is stealing these books for Señor Blanco, a man who is – her father?  her grandfather? her husband?  Some mystical force?  It isn’t clear, and everyone, including Señor Blanco himself, has a different story about his identity.

What starts as a concrete and understandable story of infatuation quickly becomes strange and dream-like, with the answer to the mystery of the two always a paragraph away from being revealed.  The stringing-along sensation of Severina is fascinating and intense, and Severina herself remains continuously appealing as a motif for the narrator’s uncertainty and ambitions.

Chris Andrew’s introduction is phenomenal, and helps to place Rey Rosa among other Spanish-language greats who might already be familiar to an English-language reader.

Enrique Vila-Matas – Bartleby & Co (trans. Jonathan Dunne, published by New Directions); 178 pages

Vila-Matas is one of the four or five writers who mean the most to me in life, and Bartleby & Co. is among his best.  In it, the failed writer Marcelo chronicles the world of delayed, stumped, deferred writers – those who would ‘prefer not to’.  Each of the 86 sections serves as a footnote to the text Marcelo is unable to write, and offers a typically Vila-Matas blend of fiction, reality and literary history.  Many of these authors exist; many do not.  Many of these works exist; many do not.  Anecdotes are probably – probably – not true.

What does it mean to fail, and how do we know when we have?  If a writer takes thirty years between books, but after his break writes a masterpiece, have they failed?  If they write an unpublishable jumble, have they failed?  Vila-Matas is interested in what failure means and why literature-sick people often view their lives through these lens.  Phenomenal stuff.


And there they are.  And here is a picture of all of them together having a good time, with the exception of Goytisolo’s work because I can’t find it.

(Also, buy direct from the publisher if you can!)

The Journal of Failure – Week 18 of 2020

Week 18 of 2020 – 6 May to 12 May 2020

Goals

Reading

  • Goal – 100 / day, or 700 / week
  • Achieved – 1,003/700 – Success!

Writing – I Remember

  • Goal – 14 / week
  • Achieved – 14/14 – Success!

Writing – Small Projects (Fragments, short stories, etc)

  • Goal – 2 minutes / day or 14 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 32 minutes – Success!

Writing – Large Projects

  • Goal – 3 minutes / day or 21 minutes / week
  • Achieved – 25 minutes – Success!

Getting myself out there

  • Short story reviews – Three (Five total for the year)
  • Submissions – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Rejections – Zero (Zero total for the year)
  • Acceptances – Zero (Zero total for the year)

Commentary

Week 17!

Not a bad week.  Not a bad week.

Reading is clearly here with a vengeance.  More on that later.

Writing actually went well for a change.  I vacillate between wanting to write in the morning or the evening.  This week it was evenings only, which worked well.

I have a small child – she’s 1.5 years old.  19 months or thereabouts.  We’ve changed our dynamics such that when she eats between 5:30 and 6pm, we eat.  We all eat the same food now (she has less or no salt), and then the dishes are done, the bath is done, she’s put to bed and it is – 7pm.  The night is ours.

And thus, writing can get done.

I spent most of my writing time working on a short story.  It has echoes of my time in Madrid, though refracted through the lens of a young woman who wants to be a revolutionary even though all she has experienced is middle class life, and all she has read are the novels of Mario Vargas Llosa and Antonio Lobo Antunes.  This went well enough, with a neat (unintended) switch of perspective mid-way through, but I was stumped for what to write about with a larger novel.  I’m stuck between resurrecting something old and dead, or starting afresh.  Every time I want to start from scratch I flick through all of the novels I own (well, a percentage of them) and then… copy a favoured writer.  That’s a base at least.  But I was stumped and stuck.

Eventually, though, I folded the above story into something I was working on mid-last year, and I think it went well.  That helped me formulate some further thinking about where I’m going with it.  There’s something here, I think, but the key is less about appreciating the potential of that which exists in my mind and more about forcing through the daily routine of writing, writing, writing.

For anyone who may be interested, I have read from an excerpt before, as part of a Sublunary Editions event, which you are welcome to watch and listen to here.

I’d certainly encourage anyone who is interested in fine literature to subscribe to Sublunary Editions.  Of course, I have been published there so I am somewhat biased, but all of the writers are handsome in their own way and very talented.

Otherwise, I have been quite taken by a YouTube project recently begun by two people I follow on Twitter – Derek Maine and Knowledgelost.  They are putting on weekly YouTube chats about literature (alongside their other videos), and I definitely recommend a listen.  Here’s the most recent.

I often think up projects involving YouTube or podcasts or what have you, but execution has never been my strong point.  I am pleased to see a growing literary YouTube channel.

In terms of reading I read bits and pieces from a lot of books, and finished a few.

I finished a short poetry collection by Miroslav Holub called Vanishing Lung Syndrome.  Skinning is a very fine poem, and the whole collection (which runs to 70ish pages) is worthwhile.  Holub is concerned with internationality, death, and the violence of damaged body parts.

Marguerite Duras’ L’Amour was excellent.  I quite like the spare, almost script-like prose of later Duras.  I never warmed to The Lover, but L’Amour and Abahn Sabana David (both published by Open Letter Books) are wonderful and really represent the kind of literature I love to read.  She’s rapidly climbing the ranks of one of my favoured writers, and there’s still so much to read.

Charles Baudelaire’s Paris Spleen was what I needed when I read it, which is to say I wanted something urbane, witty, dark, and claustrophobic to the city.  I got it.  I hadn’t read a word of Baudelaire before this, though I do have a bilingual edition of Flowers of Evil somewhere.  I was missing Paris, and missing the ability to walk through a city street, and this helped somewhat with that.

I had some trouble with Seamus Heaney’s New Selected Poems 1966-1987.  It is the second time I’ve read it, and I want to like it more than I do, but I have real trouble with writing that is focused so intently on nature, trees, bogs, mountains.  Whether in prose or a poem.  It doesn’t seem to stick in my brain, my attention wanders, time passes and pages turn and I have taken in nothing.  I have never much liked nature and it’s become more apparent as I have gotten older that I can’t read about it either.  Just slides right off.

Lastly, I have begun an ambitious project to read all of Pynchon again.  20-30 pages a day until it’s done.  It is a long, long project.  I’m about a hundred pages into Pynchon’s V, which I have not read since May 2004, which is astounding to me.  I remember parts of it, too, which says quite a bit about Pynchon as a writer, doesn’t it?

We’ll see if this project has legs or not.  I am very good at creating projects.  Very good.

And that was my week of failure.

Each week I aim to provide an update on the Journal of Failure.  These reports are intended to provide an impetus for me to achieve as much as I should/more than I do, and also to provide a further ongoing record of my life, as it is. 

Short Story Review – Rubem Fonseca – Night Drive (trans. Clifford E. Landers)

We’ve all been there.  Long day, work that won’t stay at the office, briefcase or bag bulging with papers, reports, briefs.  Things to do.  Maybe you have a wife, maybe you don’t.  Maybe children, maybe not.  Maybe a maid who can serve a meal French style, maybe your maid can only copy the English.  I don’t know.

And maybe you relax by taking the car out late in the night and perfectly executing a hit and run.

Rubem Fonseca’s short story, Night Drive (trans. Clifford E. Landers), is pleasingly banal until it becomes something else entirely.  Fonseca plays it straight, outlining an ordinary evening for our middle-aged narrator, who seems pleasant enough, though he is worn down from work and the needs of his family.  Relatable, I suppose.

The usual house sounds: my daughter in her room practicing voice modulation, quadraphonic music from my son’s room.  “Why don’t you put down that suitcase?” my wife asked.  “Take off those clothes, have a nice glass of whiskey.  You’ve got to learn to relax.”

The evening is built, piece by piece, across two very ordinary pages.  The narrator lets slip no hints as to his later adventure, and isn’t even all that glum or miserable about his life.  A son who asks for money during the coffee course – sure.  A daughter who asks for money during the liqueur course – sure.  These are middle-class issues, but nothing out of the ordinary.

A couple of hundred words later and the narrative shifts.  Details increase and time slows down.  Fonseca takes his time here, luxuriating in the description of the car hitting a woman out running.

I caught her above the knees, right in the middle of her legs, a bit more toward the left leg – a perfect hit.  I heard the impact break the large bones, veered rapidly to the left, shot narrowly past one of the trees, and, tires squealing, skidded back onto the asphalt… I could see that the woman’s broken body had come to rest, covered with blood, on top of the low wall in front of a house.”

Here is a man who takes pride in his work.  Contrast with the quoted paragraph above.  The “usual” house sounds versus the “perfect hit”.  It’s clear as to which part of his life he takes seriously, or where he becomes most alive.  Few people in the world, he muses, “could match my skill driving such a car”.

It’s a fine opening story.  Short enough to keep the reader going, but there’s a lot here.  How this will compare with the remaining stories is something we will find out together, but I leave you with this, a quote from the front cover of the book:

Each of Fonseca’s books is not only a worthwhile journey; it is also, in some way, a necessary one.

From our very own Thomas Pynchon.

Night Drive is a short story by Brazilian writer Rubem Fonseca, translated by Clifford E. Landers.  

Author Rubem Fonseca
Title Night Drive (from The Taker and Other Stories)
Translator Clifford E. Landers
Nationality Brazilian
Publisher Open Letter Books

 

Short Story Review – Najwa Binshatwan – The Government Sea (trans. Sawad Hussain)

An enticing concept for a short story can romance me to go just about anywhere the author pleases.  Najwa Binshatwan’s story, The Government Sea (trans. Sawad Hussain), sees a group of mental hospital patients, all old men, as they grapple with the sea near their hospital having suddenly vanished – gone to Malta.

Okay, from there you can take me anywhere and I’m happy to go.

Why, one individual wonders, would the sea have gone to Malta?  It has no relatives there.  Another person marvels at the garbage hidden underneath the water, the wreckages and dead bodies and discard junk.  We were swimming in that?

“Now that the sea’s run away, what we couldn’t see before is now in broad daylight,” added another.
“Dead fish, migrant bodies, and all sorts of garbage. Before, the surface was swollen with jellyfish, sea turtles, and boats abandoned by those who’d decided to travel by foot instead.”

And

“Of course it drowned, a painful death. Just look at all the migrant bodies that filled it up, and still there was no drainage system installed. Just look at all that trash and sewage.”

There’s a lot to like here.  The narrative is played straight but the people speaking are clearly bonkers.  Has the sea truly vanished, or are they just held back by a sign which admonishes them not to swim in the water?  The sea is “Under maintenance”, which sends the patients into paroxysms of confusion.  What they fail to realise is that signs can be moved from their original place, the classic ‘do not move from here’ written on every cleaner’s wet floor sign – where is here?  Where is the sea?

For me, the story is at its weakest when Binshatwan describes ordinary scenes, such as the below –

Angered, one of the men stomped against the floor, making the stale bowl of spaghetti by the door jump.  Cockroaches scurried out to seize the caked dregs of noodles and sauce that spilled out of the airborne bowl.

This reads clumsy.  The use of “Angered” takes away my own ability to interpret the man’s actions, and bowls don’t jump.  “airborne” doesn’t fit to my ear, and the whole section reads like an unedited first draft.  The flow just isn’t there.  Not so with dialogue, which is excellent; equally pleasing is the description of the vanished sea and the exposed sea-bed.

Through all of the patient’s hijinks and japes there is a strong undercurrent of violence and death.  Everyone is having such a good time (including the dear reader) that you don’t, at first, notice just how many body parts are on display, how many dead, how much violence.  The story floats on blood and flesh but my, aren’t we laughing?

And then everyone dies from a terrorist’s bomb.

With appreciation from M Lynx Qualey for providing the copy of ArabLit.

The Government Sea is a short story by Libyan writer Najwa Binshatwan, translated by Sawad Hussain.  

Author Najwa Binshatwan
Title The Government Sea
Translator Sawad Hussain
Nationality Libyan
Publisher Arablit Quarterly