Short Story Review – Juan Villoro – Holding Pattern (trans. Lisa M. Dillman)

I’m so uneasy with reality that I find planes comfortable.

For a person who flies extremely often, there must come a time when ordinary life seems too structured and coherent to make sense any longer.  For the traveler, the time shown on the watch is not the same as the time felt in the mind or body.  Cities are reduced to the convenience of their airports, and airports are reduced to the same brightly lit stretches of identical high-end jeweler stores and fast-food restaurants.  Nothing matters, it’s all the same, and the difference come down to where the accent is placed on the name of a sign pointing towards the bathroom.

That’s what I like about airports. They’re all internal tension. The outside world disappears. You have to run to your gate. That’s it. Gate 6 is your only goal

The narrator of Juan Villoro’s Holding Pattern (translated by Lisa M. Dillman, who has herself a fascinating resume which is definitely worth hunting down) is a man who flies for a ‘water company’.  His exact role is left unclear, and it doesn’t really matter.  What concerns us – him – is that he has a lot of time on his hands, time spent looking down at the clouds rather than up at the heavens.  Time spent crafting elaborate fantasies and suppositions about the people’s lives on the ground.

My life zigzags. For some reason, the cities I fly to always require connections: Antwerp, Oslo, Barcelona. I work for the company that produces the most insipid water in the world. That’s not a disparaging remark: you don’t drink our water for the flavor; you drink it because it’s so light in your mouth. A weightless luxury.

He thinks – of his cat, which has gone missing.  Of his partner Clara, who seems mildly frustrated with his lifestyle, and doesn’t exactly believe him when his flights are delayed or rerouted.  Of his one-time mistress, whose existence proves that perhaps Clara is right to distrust him.  Of a writer, Elías Rubio, who has something of a past with Clara and who appears in the in-flight magazine.  Of airports and food and convenience and a childless relationship and London and Barcelona.

He has a lot of time to think, after all.

Villoro deftly shows us the way an ordinary, even boring situation, can be used a springboard from which to contain a world.  The complex interplay of the narrator’s history with his doubts about himself and the people he knows is the all of the story – there’s nothing else.  In terms of action, of something which actually happens, it’s only and just a plane stuck in a holding pattern above a city, slowly circuling, stretching an already lengthy nothing-time even longer.  The narrator must lose himself in his thoughts because there’s nothing else to do.  Why not elaborately connect everything?  Why not wonder about this or that?

It’s a fascinating story because it highlights the intensity with which an unoccupied mind can become entangled within itself.  And not really to its detriment, either – the narrator seems to be enjoying himself, and there’s no hint of negativity or depression or anything like that.  No, he just lets his mind wander where it will, and if that involves connecting potentially unconnected events or individuals – so be it.  If that involves twining together concepts – so be it.

The plane lands, of course, and that is where the story ends.  And that’s fitting.  But the narrator’s mind will continue to churn, continue to wonder about the lives lived by those who are stuck eternally to the ground.  And there’s always another plane to catch.

Holding Pattern is a short story by Mexican writer Juan Villoro, and was translated by Lisa M. Dillman.  You can read the story online at Words Without Borders.

Author Juan Villoro
Title Holding Pattern
Translator Lisa M. Dillman
Nationality Mexican
Publisher Words Without Borders

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.


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