Short Story Review – Martha Bátiz – Still Watching; Watching, Still

Please note – this short story collection was kindly provided to me by Martha Bátiz.  

What would Father say now, seeing himself in bronze, his name on a plaque, flowers adorning our flag placed at his feet?  Did he like birds?  I don’t know.  But he’ll be surrounded by them in the park.  They’ll defecate all over his statue.  In this country, even the most sacred things become shitty.

When it takes seventy-two bullets to kill a man it is clear that perhaps the death of an ordinary man has birthed a Great Man, one whose deeds will resonate throughout history, or at least for a little while.  But Great Men have wives, and children, and what happens to them when they are dead and gone, immortalised in increasingly cloying tales and songs?

Martha Bátiz’s short story, Still Watching; Watching, Still, is a story about the young daughter of a man who glimpsed immortality through the lens of guerilla warfare and dissent.  When she was very young he was absent, returning only rarely, and exhausted, his breathing ‘devoid of peace’.  Her mother kept the house running though she, too, was a rebel.

What were they rebelling against?  It doesn’t matter.  The government, I suppose.  This isn’t about the heroics of a populist struggle but the damage it, and any military retaliation, leaves in the wake of their battles.  The adults choose death and conflict, the children suffer and die.  So it goes.

The majority of this story is set decades later, with the daughter grown now, her young son with her.  She remembers.  She can’t help it – the legend of her father has grown, and invariably she will see his face on the television.  A revolutionary becomes part of the government institution, and the wheels that grind, grind on.  She remembers.  She wants the best for her child but is constantly on the run, unable to set down roots, unwilling to relax and breathe.  The trauma of her childhood has poisoned herself as a woman, and nothing will ever be good or feel safe.

Her father – dead from seventy-two bullets.  Her mother – disappeared.  Her guardian – beaten for her silence and courage in the face of violence.  She can’t trust anyone, and knows that she has been broken beyond repair.

But, at least, there’s a statue of him now.  The filthy revolutionary has become the celebrated Great Man of contemporary history, helping pave the way from a violent Then to a peaceful Now.  Good enough substitute for a living, breathing father, no?  No.

Still Watching; Watching, Still is a short story written by Martha Bátiz.  This collection was published by Exile Editions and is available from their website.

Other stories from this collection include:

Author Martha Bátiz (Twitter)
Title Still Watching; Watching, Still
Nationality Mexican
Publisher Exile Editions

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

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Short Story Review – Empar Moliner – In Search of a Man for Friendship and Possibly More (trans. Novia Pagone)

I work alone, and I don’t keep secrets from myself.

Empar, probable homebody, is on the search for a man who will take her to the Ebro River Delta, a place where ‘boyfriends tend to take their girlfriends’.

By the third sentence of this story she’s off to a dating agency to see what they might be able to do for her.  Why can’t she find someone on her own?  Doesn’t matter, I suppose.

“What don’t you like about your personality?” she ventures. “I like everything,” I tell her. And it’s the truth. When she asks me about my life goals, I declare that I don’t have any. “How important is sex to you in a stable relationship?” she wants to know. If I say five, will that look bad?, I wonder. In the end, I rate it a four, but only because I’m feeling romantic this year.

Empar, or rather, the character in the story named Empar, is an entertaining and funny woman.  Her inner self makes jokes and pokes fun at who she is and what she’s trying to achieve, though outwardly she comes across as a touch awkward and uncertain.

She seems here, at this dating agency, less to find a match, and more to understand the kinds of questions a dating agency would ask in order for her to better know the milieu that is contemporary dating.  It’s all so much to think about, so much to plan for.

The idea that we can boil down a potential partner to a series of questions and answers is absurd, of course, but it is an appealing concept nonetheless.  But how can it possibly be true if we find it difficult to boil ourselves down in such a manner?  We don’t know ourselves well enough to condense our personality on to a single page, and yet here Empar is attempting to recreate a full man from a series of yes/no.

Empar, the character, recognises this absurdity, and she loves it.  And then Empar, the writer, finishes the story with a fine comic twist, and away we go, off to write an email to a fascinating woman.

In Search of a Man for Friendship and Possibly More is a short story by Spanish (Catalan) writer Empar Moliner and was translated by Novia Pagone.  You can read the story at World Literature Today.

Author Empar Moliner
Title In Search of a Man for Friendship and Possibly More
Translator Novia Pagone
Nationality Spanish (Catalan)
Publisher World Literature Today

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

Short Story Review – Simonetta Olivo – Microverses (trans. Sarah Jane Webb)

Oh now, I do like this.  Let me wear my opinion on my sleeve, hold up my affection right here at the start.  I am very fond of stories such as these – clever, twisted, turning, playful with the structure of a story without being tiresome in its trickery.  Take everything I write with a large grain of salt because I am, it appears, congenitally disposed towards like such fictions as this.

We open with the heading “Panic”, and then:

There’s still some snow on the path. Last week, this same mountain went suddenly quiet. It was snowing. Just like in fairy tales, she had thought, slowing her pace, beautiful and sad. And so unlike today’s desolation: everything looks naked, cold, inanimate.

A woman, nature, mountains, snow.  The beauty of nature.  Yes, yes.  Two paragraphs later, the sky explodes and the world ends.

Another section, also opening with mountains, snow, a woman.  It begins calmly and then a sting at the end – a date far in the future, a reference to robots, and to humanity being dead.

Another section, another repeat.  What’s happening here?  On the cusp of this becoming tiresome, the woman is extracted from these scenarios, revealed to have been logged into some kind of virtual reality or Matrix-like environment.

Very good, very good.  Ha ha, quite the twist you put me through there, Simonetta Olivo!  The woman wants to go back into the simulation and her partner (lover?) puts her back in, though he has misgivings.  Is she losing her self to the simulation?  We don’t know, because we don’t spend enough time with her outside of the snowy mountainous world.  That suggests that yes, she’s losing her identity.

Another section, this time titled ‘Making Universes’.  The snow, again, and mountains, again, but this time written in italics.  This is a shift for us, and it’s unclear what it might mean.

The world tilts, and we are taken out of the simulation to arrive not with the disgruntled man who wants his lover back with him and unhooked from the machine, but the writer herself, the creator of the text, a layer placed upon the other layers. She acknowledges that her task is to create universes, and the story ends.

There’s so much here in so few words.  It’s quite astonishing, particularly given how Olivo refrains from succumbing to overblown terminology or the philosophical underpinnings of what it means to create.  Instead it’s simply there, clear on the page.  I become tired, sometimes, of writers who play games with structure and form also overburdening their text with the weight of the thesauruses they have purchased.

So, what does it mean to participate in a created world, and to create a world?  Olivo doesn’t say, but it’s clear that the woman in the story has given up on the world she properly exists in in order to spend time in a doomed place where humanity is extinct and robots have survived.  And isn’t that, in a way, what a writer does every time they sit down at their desk and conjure up people and places that never existed?  Isn’t it, no matter how closely hewn to the essence of humanity, a rejection of living?  Does a writer truly live in the world, or do they instead consciously separate themselves from it in order to dispassionately observe the world created by others?  I would say yes, emphatically so, and would be surprised to find much resistance.  Writers may not create a utopia in which to devote their intellectual and emotional talents, but they certainly attempt to reflect back to the readers their vision and understanding of the world, and in this reflection we are able to better determine who they are, too.

And we don’t need to like what we see, do we?

Microverses is a short story by Italian writer Simonetta Olivo and was translated by Sarah Jane Webb.  You can read the story at Words Without Borders.

Author Simonetta Olivo
Title Microverses
Translator Sarah Jane Webb
Nationality Italian
Publisher Words Without Borders

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

Short Story Review – Vladimir Poleganov – The Feather (trans. Peter Bachev)

My last few letters–five, to be precise–went unanswered and the sixth one . . . well, it was certainly not the response I’d been hoping for or anticipating

Without becoming too overblown about such things, a work of literature is a written act of inclusion and exclusion.  It must be – all texts are.  The author writes and not y in service of their intention and their art.  Clearly, clearly.  The author may be dead, but words must still be chosen, and here we are.

A clear example of this is Vladimir Poleganov’s The Feather (Trans. Peter Bachev), which is a series of letters written by the protagonist to ‘X’.  We are not privy to the responses, and indeed know nothing about X other than the details provided by the unnamed protagonist.  While X does not respond to all of the letters, its clear they do respond to some, and we don’t properly learn their perspective on events, read their words, know their side.

So what, then, do we make of such a text?  It is clearly an exercise of bias, and absolutely must be one-sided.  The letter-writer is not well, it seems, vacillating between affection and disappointment, admonishments and lectures on birds and on memory.  There is an ill-defined ‘they’ referred to which reads to me as medical staff, or caretakers.

I am sorry for that time I called you up at four in the morning, to complain, to talk to . . . someone, really, about how the unknown . . . the unknowable bird’s dark silhouette tortured and terrified me every time I closed my eyes: its blackness, the Feather itself–a single bright spot bringing the vortex of void around it into even sharper relief. Here, it no longer holds power over me. I still see it, perhaps not quite as clearly, in the corner of my eye from time to time, like a diorama of death or a small shadow, a haze, rather, of suppressed desire, but it doesn’t jump out at me anymore, from the depths of my subconscious, indifferent to my frantic attempts to pull myself out of its invisible, murderous tide.

The letter-writer defers explanation, defers telling, and prefers instead to tangle themselves with words far more grandiose than their subject requires.  Why?  Well, because they are avoiding talking about that which truly matters to them, a history between X and themselves which is alluded to but never entirely elucidated.  And why should it be?  I would not lay out my life story in a letter I am writing, because the person receiving it should know.

What this means, then, is that we shift from obsessive detail about birds to lamentations of guilt and exhortations for X to be kinder, be better, be faster at responding, be clearer with their words.  The letter-writer is not well.

In the mid-point of the story the letters attain a higher sense of clarity, become more formal and less epic in scope.  They assume the character of two professors discussing their specialty, sparring gently with their words, leaving enough of a barb in to sting but not cut.

At night, on the other hand, be it due to phosphorus residues or by magic, the graveyard bathes in a light that some may call ghostly, but to me looks more sub-­marine. Whenever I come here after dark, I feel like I’ve just sunk to the bottom of a crisp mountain lake. I look up at the stars, barely visible through the greenish light haze, and all I see is the eyes of some predator, come to hunt at the watering place. I once met an old woman, an augur, negotiating her way across the overgrown alleyways, looking for small bones suitable for divination. It is an art well­-preserved in Avinia and people really believe in it still. I didn’t dare ask her anything, even mundane things like whether it is hard to collect enough bones for a whole session, or what birds carry the brightest futures under their feathers and flesh. I just watched her for a while, her feet dancing between the fragile skeletons, collecting the white letters of tomorrow’s histories.

And then the tone shifts once more, and we wonder if these letters are being written to anyone at all, and might perhaps instead be for the letter-writer themselves, used as an act of cleansing, to explain yourself to yourself.  They become too internal, too intimate, too closely hewn to the endless inner dialogue of a person’s mind.  Why write this, if not to determine what it is, exactly, that is inside your own brain?  We are thinking creatures, but we don’t always know exactly what it is we are thinking about until we can hear ourselves.

I think the use of birds as a way to tie the letters together works, though for me – and this is purely a personal aside – I do not care for birds, so some parts fell flat.  But conceptually it is quite clever.  At times, Poleganov is able to be quite academic in his writing, almost scientific in his literary coldness; and at other times birds are metaphors for life, for death, for travel.  These shifts are bracing and rather effective, but.  But.  Again.  I don’t like birds.

Which makes me the problem here.  Just a touch.

Though I do like the way the story ends with an ‘I’m sorry’.

The Feather is a short story by Bulgarian writer Vladimir Poleganov and was translated by Peter Bachev.  You can read the story at The Brooklyn Rail.

Author Vladimir Poleganov
Title The Feather
Translator Peter Bachev
Nationality Bulgarian
Publisher The Brooklyn Rail

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

Short Story Review – Susana Vallejo – Returning (trans. Lawrence Schimel)

Crystalline water in movement, crossing the green. God, just thinking about it made her tremble.

The protagonist of Susana Vallejo’s flash fiction piece, Returning (translated by Lawrence Schimel), is about to return home to Earth.  She has been gone a long time, and all of the people she knew are dead.  That was the deal – a new planet, interesting science and technology, the chance to be a part of history – and all you had to do was never see your family again even if you were lucky enough to survive and come home.

The others weren’t.  It’s unclear exactly how many people were with her during this science experiment, but the years have gone by and she is the only one left.  Her mouth has breathed the same air for years.  Used the same water.  Recycling run amok, keeping her alive, keeping her able to perform the scientific tasks she has been assigned, but incapable of nourishing her soul.  She misses greenery, roast chicken, her mother.

That was her favorite place. The landscape for 360 degrees showed nothing human. Just the dry sea, the gentle hills and the whimsical rock formations. The glimmers, the infinite reds and yellows and oranges. With the first sunset, the sky would begin to burn and would transform into a palate of purples and violets.

And then as she is about to leave she turns and looks at the planet.  There’s nobody but her.  Is she ready to go back?

No, it seems, and so she does something foolish, commits an act of romance to the life she is about to leave, and to which she spent her whole life completing.  She takes off her helmet and breathes the air of her planet.

And dies.

Returning has a fine rhythm to it, managing to balance the sense of loss and excitement well across its several hundred words.  Less successful, I think, was the lack of a name for the character.  At times, the text wraps itself up in knots using words like ‘she’ and ‘her’ and not a name (other characters are named), and the effect here is clumsy and doesn’t add to anything I could decipher.  Why not call her – well, anything?  Susana would have been a nice touch, I think.

The clumsiest example is this – “Only she and that metallic box would return, the case that still had room to store something more.”  And unfortunately, with flash fiction, a clumsy sentence is disruptive beyond that of a larger piece.  It has to be, of course, and here it is.  It comes early in the piece, and for the rest of the text I was noticing the word ‘she’ wherever it was written, and after a couple of paragraphs it lost all meaning.  Odd how words can do that, how they are able to be broken down into nothingness by virtue of repetition.  And none of the remaining sentences were really all that clumsy!  Ah, well.

Returning is a short story by Spanish writer Susana Vallejo and was translated by Lawrence Schimel.  You can read the story at Speculative Fiction in Translation.

Author Susana Vallejo (Twitter)
Title Returning
Translator Lawrence Schimel
Nationality Spanish
Publisher Speculative Fiction in Translation

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

Short Story Review – Tanja Mravak – Meat (trans. Antonija Primorac)

The first section of Tanja Mravak’s Meat (trans. Antonija Primorac), which takes up perhaps a third of the entire story, is something of a love song to the varieties of food available, methods of cooking and types of diet.  It’s a paragraph of lists, it’s food, food, food, unctuous and fresh and cooked and clean, and deliciously detailed.  Scattered within are short descriptions of Magda, she of the ‘massive tits’, who, according to women would be ‘pretty if she wasn’t fat’, and according to the men, a rather jolly good time as she laughs, laughs, laughs.

She’d cook stews, Bolognese sauces, carbonaras. She’d fry potato chips, make crepes; twice a week she’d roast veal. She was beautiful, our Magda was; green eyes, olive complexion, full, brownish lips, thick hair, and button nose.

She diets, but it seems it’s more to try different foods and odd combinations.  It’s less about losing weight or health issues and more about celebrating the different ways in which food can be enjoyed.  And – I can get behind this.  I love food and spend much of my weekend time exploring new recipes and trying out interesting techniques.  For me, then, this was a very appealing opening.

People loved Magda, even men liked her, you know, really liked her. They’d take a fancy to those green eyes, those juicy lips, the button nose, but most of all they liked her laughter. She’d laugh and her belly wobbled, she’d laugh even on a diet morning while squeezing a grapefruit at the crack of dawn.

I was reminded somewhat of Günter Grass’ The Flounder – less the historical journey and more the physical pleasure of food and how it can help an individual connect to their body and provide a sensual outlet.

Enter the second section.

In this, Mravak more explicitly marries food with sensuality by way of the relationship between Vatro, a butcher, and Magda:

“There you go, miss, it’s as tender as your soul,” Vatro offered, growing bolder, too.

“Let me feel it,” laughed Magda. “Dear me, my mouth is watering, just from thinking about nibbling on it, imagining how much I’ll enjoy it.”

Vatro’s mouth started watering, too, and his own flesh stiffened a bit.

By this stage Magda, who has always been overweight, has become sufficiently so that when Vatro has sex with her he is in fact thrusting against her thighs and, upon completion, Magda is left to take care of herself or lie awake unfulfilled.  She’s happy, though, because the food is good and Vatro is himself a good man.

But it can’t last, and after a while they separate.  Here, Mravak escalates the speed of the story, whizzing through a bacterial infection, staying with her mother, losing close to 30 kilograms, marrying (!) someone.  The constant is food, and it’s no accident, I think, that as Magda’s weight goes down, the amount of words devoted to her decreases.  She’s less important as she loses her obsession with food, and by comparison the food itself takes centre stage.  It’s a story about food, and as soon as Magda loses her jolly belly, the story loses interest in her.

Meat is a short story by Croatian writer Tanja Mravak and was translated by Antonija Primorac.  You can read the story at Asymptote.

Author Tanja Mravak
Title Meat
Translator Antonija Primorac
Nationality Croatian
Publisher Asymptote

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

Short Story Review – Saša Stanišiç – A Classical Education (trans. Saša Stanišiç and Janet Hendrickson)

I offer, without context, a snippet from this rather short story which encapsulates, I think, the comedy and zaniness of the piece:

“Are you violating our security guidelines, Sir?” the stewardess politely screamed at me.

The polite scream.  The use of ‘Sir’ and ‘violating’.  The matter-of-fact tone of the narrator.  It’s all here, the whole story is like this, playing off the wacky with the ordinary.  It’s great.

We have, then, the narrator on a flight.  He becomes entangled in a conversation with a five year old girl who is adamant about making him suffer.  She says that her name is Johann Sebastian Bach and gives him the finger, and then following a series of ridiculous events the whole plane becomes convinced he is a predatory pedophile who has also attempted to rob the girl’s mother.  Everything happens at a massively fast clip, and overwhelmingly the sentence structure and word choices are calm, clear, slightly formal, and juxtaposed brilliantly against the absurdity of the events.

The mother is convinced her blonde angel doesn’t even know what lying is, and worse, I held the empty pack of gum in my hand. Also, “make music with me” sounded damn unsettling. No one would have believed me if I said that the little girl was playing a perverse game with me, as innocent as she looked and as unshaven as I was.

Beyond that, there’s little to say.  It’s a funny story.  It’s also very short – a touch under 700 words – and would, I suppose, be considered flash fiction, though it was written back in 2007 before that particular art form exploded across the internet.  It’s an encouraging format (generally it means a piece of writing under 1,000 words, though I have seen limits of 400, 700, etc.  Short, anyway) as it encourages a writer to jump, to explore, to take risks and to experiment.  Sometimes, this means a writer will write bad poetry and purple up their prose beyond blushing, but often – as in this excellent story – it will result in a wonderful, tight, fun, funny piece.

Highly recommended.

A Classical Education is a short story by Bosnian writer Saša Stanišiç, and was translated by the author and Janet Hendrickson.  You can read the story at Words Without Borders.

Author Saša Stanišiç
Title A Classical Education
Translator Saša Stanišiç and Janet Hendrickson
Nationality Bosnian
Publisher Words Without Borders

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