Short Story Review – Casandra Hernández Ríos – Abuelo Castro

 

Ah, so it’s a ghost story, then.  

Casandra Hernández Ríos’s short story, Abuelo Castro, is a remarkably leisurely piece for a three thousand word short story.  She takes her time to let the piece unfold, stinging slightly at the end as the story comes into focus and its purpose is revealed.  I am not entirely convinced, however, that this langorous style is entirely in keeping with the desired effect of the story.

The inside of their abuelos’ house had never made Eduardo uncomfortable, though it was different from his home in the city. The casita was a simple, but spacious with large rooms and sparse furniture. There were three bedrooms with large wardrobes and robust bed frames but were always dark because the rooms had small windows and their curtains were always drawn. Dark gray stones were laid to cover concrete floors in various intentionally broken directions. Spanish style rectangular picture frames of different sizes lined the walls of every room. Inside gilded frames were black-and-white portraits of family members Eduardo had never met. Enclosed in thicker, more detailed wooden marcos were paintings of holy saints, ángeles, La Virgen de Guadalupe, and of “La Última Cena,” all in color.

Eduardo is off to visit his grandparents.  The drive takes a while.  Very often he would fall asleep, including this time, which annoyed his sister, Carmen.  For unknown reasons she never enjoys visiting her grandparents.

After a while they arrive, matters are somewhat still and eerie, and then they listen to a radio station – 

“Change the station, Papá, por favor. Your grandson will have nightmares,” Eduardo’s mother said in a low voice, as she rocked Carmen in her arms to hush her.

“The boy is old enough,” Abuelo Castro said. “Ghost stories don’t scare you, verdad mijo?”

Later, later, Eduardo falls asleep, wakes up, goes outside, and sees his grandfather (abuelo Castro) involved in an odd task.

This is all very fine, I suppose, but what’s missing, for me, is a certain spark of language.  The text reads very slippery – it just as easily could have been written in 1930s Poland or 2040s New York.  Or nowhere, more accurately.  Aside from the language choices, none of the text feels like it is anywhere.  

I do not, to be clear, require from any text the colour of nativity, and in fact would find that offensive unless handled well (this is true of all matters literary).  What I am looking for instead is something concrete, an anchor upon which to locate the text.  Eduardo, perhaps due to his age, is free of personality – but so too are the characters swirling around him like his parents and his sister.  With the exception of his family members slipping into Spanish occasionally they are as colourless as him.  But to what end – what purpose is being served here?  If the story is set in Mexico (and it is), then why are some of the words in Spanish, and not all?  What does this mean?  If the story is presented as being from the Spanish to English (which I guess it must be if they are all Mexicans in Mexico?), are these words, then, actually English in the original?  I appreciate it’s not a translation, but this is confusing to me.

I would have perhaps approached the story more postively if the encroaching creepiness of the ending was foreshadowed to a stronger degree. I like where it went, but I think the getting-there parts of the story (2,500 of 3,000 words) were not sufficiently strong.  It’s a shame, because I try to come at all texts positively and with love in my heart.  The how of something written is perhaps most interesting – and the how here simply isn’t sufficiently interesting.

A story can be written about anything, in any way, at any length.  James Joyce wrote seven hundred pages about a single day – Mathias Énard wrote Zone in a single sentence – Georges Perec wrote a book without the letter – Italo Calvino wrote a book comprised of the beginnings of twenty other books – Raymond Queneau published a book which was the same short story told using ninety-nine different style.  My point is not to compare the author to these great writers (this would be unfair), but to identify that what is exciting, to me, is when a story is told in a way before unseen, using flair or flash or vim or vigor in a new and fascinating manner.  This same story could have been told using bolder language, stronger characterisation, deeper themeing – and how wonderful it might have been.

To compare a story such as this to masterpieces such as those is immensely unfair.  I apologise in advance to Casandra Hernández Ríos for using her story as a springboard to discuss what I admire about literature.  There are the bones of something here – though this might be true of any ordinary story.  The nights need to be darker, the fabrics more vibrant in colour.  The dirt should grit in the mouth, and I would have loved to smell the spices used to cook dinner.  Eduardo, as much as your preceding ten years may have been dull to create the dull boy you are now, I hope perhaps that the next ten are exciting and fulfilling, and that you grow into your own.

Eduardo kicked off his shoes and climbed into bed next to him, still wearing jeans and the knitted sweater his mother had chosen for him, and pulled the covers over his head. He told himself that Hell wasn’t real and that stories on “La Mano Peluda” were just fiction. He tried to clear his head and instead imagined fluffy white sheep jumping over the moon. Eduardo counted the sheep like his father had taught him and when he got to sixty, he fell into a restless sleep.

But anyway a shame, yes.

Abuelo Castro is a short story by American writer Casandra Hernández Ríos

Author Casandra Hernández Ríos
Title Abuelo Castro
Nationality American
Publisher Verdad Magazine

See Also

United States of America

Short Story Review – Ho Sok Fong – Dark as a Boy (trans. Natascha Bruce)

 

He said he was from a human rights group. He said he could help us.

To say that puberty is tough is something of an understatement.  Hormones rage, boys look, girls talk.  Virginity is offered, taken, snatched, stolen, given.  Bodies change and shift.  And it’s not just your peers who notice.

Ho Sok Fong’s short story, Dark as a Boy (trans. Natascha Bruce) navigates the intricacies of female puberty through the unsettling lens of the threat of exploitation endemic to developing countries.  These young girls are forced to deal not only with the permanently tumescent boys in their classes, but also their teachers, and also, it becomes clear, tourists and other foreigners.  They aren’t safe.

And they live in a world where dead girls don’t mean much.

Saw Ai’s sister’s case was mentioned in a tiny square at the bottom of the local paper, but there was no photo and she wasn’t named. My cousin said it was a shame. “I heard she was pretty,” she said. “I want to see how pretty she was.”

Saw Ai dreams of bigger things, grander places.  She wants to escape, and wants to use her body to do so – to be a model.  She’s a vulnerable girl in a vulnerable situation, and unfortunately her parents push her, her teachers threaten her, and it’s all going over her head.  She isn’t bright enough to navigate these waters.  Sharks circle.

When it was Saw Ai’s turn, I could hardly look. Her Europe page was empty. So were the pages for India, South America, North America. All she had managed was Africa. Her class notes were so scattered that they weren’t even full sentences; in some classes, she had only jotted down a couple of lines. We were in high school now, where all the textbooks used the twenty-six letters of the Roman alphabet. Saw Ai’s Malay and English were terrible, and she never understood what the teachers were saying.

Menace hangs heavy throughout the paragraphs of this story.  Here and there are dropped details of another woman’s murder, or a missing girl.  It’s commonplace and routine.  Saw Ai and her friends do not see lessons or warnings here – they don’t see anything.  It won’t happen to them.  And even when it happens to Saw Ai’s sister, it still won’t happen to them.  It’s always someone else.

“You don’t even know the Western alphabet.”

“So?”

“Top models have to speak English. You have to go to university, and ideally take art and dance classes.” 

That was what the magazines said.

It was a sore point for Saw Ai. She was failing every subject. She said that sooner or later she was going to pack up her schoolbooks with all the old posters and magazines and go to trade them in.

This story is long, and awful, and ever paragraphs promises something terrible.  It’s always girls and it’s always women – Saw Ai and her friends have internalised the fact that they will die in poverty, they might be raped, they won’t be looked after by their parents or teachers, authority figures are there to exploit them, and their bodies have value for a short period when they are young.

Saw Ai is almost, but not quite, an effective product of her environment.  Instead, she shows what it means to be a girl who is pretty enough, but not clever enough, to make her way through a system designed to exploit her.  This isn’t her fault – this particular system shouldn’t exist at all.  But it does, and though she’s attractive enough to gain attention, her other talents are sufficiently small that we know she is destined to become a meal for the hungering predators all around her.

This is a harrowing story.  The menace doesn’t quite arrive, but it’s there, always, circling and present.  Her friend, who narrates the text, knows this, and though she tries to warn Saw Ai, the warnings fall on deaf ears.  It’s too exciting to be watched by boys when you dance.  And, sure, perhaps, it is – but there are others watching, and they are even less positively inclined than a teenage boy.  Imagine that, if you will, and shudder.

Dark as a Boy is a short story by Malaysian writer Ho Sok Fong (trans. Natascha Bruce)

Author Ho Sok Fong
Title Dark as a Boy
Translator Natascha Bruce
Nationality Malaysian
Publisher Words Without Borders

I Remember – #1018

I remember Ashley messaging me while she was drunk and celebrating EOFY with various work people to complain about poor treatment from a jealous old nag.  At the time I was sitting in a hotel room in Kyoto while Anna slept, bored and watching, I think, Jurassic Park.

-5 July 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

I Remember – #1015

I remember endless yakitori skewers in Osaka, with my favourites being chicken thigh, neck, heart, liver, skin – all of the good bits which were never served back in Brisbane, Australia (2021 Update – Bird’s Nest in Fortitude Valley and West End serve these skewers.  There may be other places).  And the endless beers with their enormous heads, drunk by Anna and I from tiny izekayas scattered around the Dōtonbori area.

-2 July 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

I Remember – #1014

I remember a Western-style cafe in Dotonbori which had an enormous map of the World up on the wall, huge really, with the prime coffee growing regions of the world identified and little text boxes jutting from each space, and instead of information about the geographic area or coffee type grown, instead there was lorem ipsum…

-1 July 2017

This post is part of the I Remember series.

Short Story Review – Paul Bowles – The Hyena

 

A stork flies through the air.  At Khang el Ghar there is a pool of water at the bottom of the ravine.  The stork descends, drinks.  Nearby, a hyena watches.

The stork isn’t foolish – it knows that the hyena is an animal of death, not mercy.  They discuss their respective natures; the hyena assures the stork that it is not interested in feeding.

“You are very lucky [the hyena tells the stork] Men never try to kill you, because they think you are holy.  They call you a saint and a sage.  And yet you seem like neither saint nor sage.”

When the stork asks the hyena why, the hyena admonishes it and suggests he look for Allah.

And so it goes – they discuss religion and the true nature of themselves as beasts.  Eventually, the stork comes to trust the hyena, and soon alights on the ground to discuss matters of great import (magic, Allah, man).  After a while the stork flies away, but hurts itself and is encouraged by the hyena to go to a nearby cave where they hyena lunges at the stork, ravages its neck, and leaves it for ten days, the better to eat as putrid carrion.

The story is told like a fable – it is a fable.  But fables are not always so connected to religion and the gifts that Allah has bestowed upon his creatures.  In this, both the stork and the hyena are cognisant of their natures while thankful to Allah for creating them so.  The stork is thoughtful but naive, whereas the hyena is presented as living entirely in the moment, aware that going to sleep and waking up alive is a luxury not always afforded to those hunted and hated by men.

The hyena is detatched and calm – not quite cold, and certainly not angry.  It exists because it was born and lived.  The hyena believes, it seems truly, in Allah, and praises him multiple times for what he has been given.  There is no anger in the death of the stork, though the hyena is satisfied with his ability to use his intellect to beat his opponent.  In this, he is more subtle and sophisticated than his prey, for all it may be worshipped by men.

A saint and a sage?  Perhaps.  Synonyms for food?  Perhaps.  

The Hyena is a short story by American writer Paul Bowles

Author Paul Bowles
Title The Hyena (from Pages From Cold Point)
Nationality American
Publisher Zenith

See Also

United States of America

Greek literature – contemporary recommendations, and a confession

A day or so ago it became clear to me that I am woefully under-read when it comes to Greek literature, and particularly contemporary Greek literature. It’s an almost complete unknown to me, and I assume (or assumed) that Greek literature was reasonably minor on the world stage.

Appreciation goes to Damon Young (Twitter: @damonayoung) for helping me recognise this

I don’t really know where this idea came from. Unpacking it a little, it could perhaps relate to the idea that the Ancient Greeks were so influential and important that the language and its literature must be in a decline/decadent phase now. But I have no evidence to support this. Contemplating other languages around the world, and I don’t really share this feeling with any other – though perhaps slightly with Italian (for the same reason??). That said, I have read and own a lot more Italian literature, so this prejudice is vague and fading.

This is clearly an issue and something I need to resolve within myself and address. I was surprised to discover I felt this way because, before now, I haven’t really even though about Greek literature at all. Yet my initial reaction was negative. There’s a problem here, and it’s entirely with me.

I spent an hour or so looking through my books, and outside of a couple of novels by Nikos Kazantzakis, I don’t own anything by any Greek writers other than the pre-AD writers.

None!

So, I sent out a query to Twitter – who among contemporary Greek writers are worth looking into?

Happily, the response was significant, and now I have lots of names to slowly address. This is very fine, and the details of the recommendations are below.

I decided also to review a Greek short story writer or two, with the first being Sophia Nikolaidou. You can see the list below (I’ll update as I add more):

  • Nikolaidou, Sophia – Houses Without Windows

Something that jumped out to me was the lack of Greek writers among the journals and publications I own. I am not naming and shaming as such, but these include – Dalkey Archive, Absinthe, Two Lines, Overland, Granta, The Black Herald. Weighty names. Granted, I don’t own everything published under those umbrellas, so it’s entirely possible I am missing many fine Greek writeres, but they weren’t there when I went looking.

At any rate, the below represent recommendations from various Twitter folk. I haven’t read a single word by any of these writers (well, excluding today’s read and review of Houses Without Windows), but I certainly respect the individuals mentioned below. Follow them! And perhaps buy and read some of these authors and their books –

  • Susan Pigman (@1SusyQ) – George Seferis, Constantine Cavafy, Yannis Ritsos
  • Tom (@TomWsf) – The Parthenon Bomber by Christos Chrysopoulos
  • @vivastory38 – Three Summers by Margarita Liberaki
  • Michael Holtmann (@michaelholtmann) – anything translated by Karen Emmerich
  • Ryan Ruby (@_ryanruby_) – Before Lyricism by Eleni Vakalo; What’s Left of the Night by Ersi Sotiropoulos; Amanda Michalopoulou; Christos Ikonomou
  • Marina Sofia (@marinaSofia8) – Ersi Sotiropoulos; Petros Markaris; Nikos Kazantsakis; Christos Ikonomou; Theodor Kallifatides; Ioanna Karystiani
  • Charles Lee (@charlesbrownesq) – Alexandros Papadiamantis; Sophia Nikolaidou; Vassilis Vassilikos
  • Tom (@AmateurReader) – George Seferis; Angelos Sikelianos; Odysseas Elytis
  • Jamie Richards (@JRichWords) – Margarita Karapanou; Vassilis Vassilikos; Giannis Ritsos