Short Story Review – Clelia Farris – Holes (trans. Rachel Cordasco)

It’s nice to have holes. I like having holes. Knowledge is the world falling into a hole. The human being has evolved because it has holes. Alice found Wonderland at the bottom of a hole.

When I was a teenager I spent a lot of time, too much time in fact, reading bad fantasy books instead of, well, anything else.  I’m talking DragonLance, Terry Goodkind, and endless, endless Fighting Fantasy books.  None of them hold up today (Goodkind is a wannabe fascist), though I have something of a fondness for the Lone Wolf books by Joe Dever (though can someone please explain why all of these series seem to come out of D&D adventures?  What does this say about them, and us for reading them?)

Anyway something I didn’t do much was read science fiction.  I tried.  I read some Asimov, and I liked the stories about robots.  I read some of Greg Egan’s short stories, and they were good.  Mind opening.  Perhaps that’s why – I wasn’t ready to be challenged?

Science fiction is – or can be – about challenging preconceived notions, putting ideas and ideals into relief to see what might happen when taken to an extreme, or when explored to its fullest.  It offers an extension of where we are now via where we could end up, and perhaps whether we do or do not is reliant on the stories we are able to tell ourselves.

I don’t want to be too prescriptive.  Or too grand.  Space operas exist, of course, and they often woefully rotten junk.  Or just plain old grand adventures, which is fine, but not really what I’m talking about here.

Holes by Clelia Farris, is an ideas story.  Specifically, the ideas of nurturing, womanhood, being a mother.  It’s contained within the prism of a robotic/machine-like egg which seeks to create holes in itself, holes to encourage understanding.  And, unfortunately, pain.

This time, the pain is piercing, ferocious. Incandescent awls hammer my body from the inside, hooks soaked in acid widen the nicks, tear the skin to shreds, small drills from the tip thin as a strand of baby hair slip into the smooth albumen of my egg and emerge from the other side after leaving me a hole of infinitesimal diameter. They’re called pores, and they bloom like little spring flowers over every centimeter of my body.

The pain was not what ‘the server’ wanted, but overall she’s – cough cough, sorry sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself – fine with it.  The pain is worth it.  It’s no accident, I think, that the paragraphs in the story become longer, the sentences more elaborate, as the egg is pierced.  There are fewer sentences which begin with “I”.  The narration is more complex, and more pleasing to the ear.

De Sade Inc. contacts me to offer their services: What is full, with us becomes empty. Do you want to tear off the mask?

Clever, clever, clever.

I think short stories are a fine medium within which to explore the confines of a single idea.  I do.  I wonder if, perhaps, this short story is a touch too short.  For me, anyway, I was left without enough context to really sink my teeth into the ideas presented.

I’m intrigued by Farris.  I think this idea was successfully explored, but at the same time, for me, I wanted a bit more meat with my egg.  A bad metaphor, but you know what I mean.  The ending, when it arrives, is pretty obvious, but it’s a nice touch and works well.  This is a complete and coherent piece, and that, while perhaps seeming like simply damning with faint praise, really isn’t.  I’ve read DragonLance, remember?

Holes is a short story by Italian writer Clelia Farris, translated by Rachel Cordasco.  You can read the story at World Literature Today.

Author Clelia Farris
Title Holes
Translator Rachel Cordasco
Nationality Italian
Publisher World Literature Today

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

Short Story Review – Olga Grjasnowa – The Legal Haziness of a Marriage (trans. Eva Bacon)

This is something of a prologue to a larger novel, one that has not, I believe, been translated into English.  I suppose writing about a prologue – and about a female Azerbaijani writer – has value simply because of the rarity of the combination.  And so, here we are.

What to make of a woman who has done something utterly distasteful but suffered punishment entirely out of whack with what she has done?  Sympathy, I suppose.  But it’s hard.

Leyla is involved in illegal street racing in Baku.  It’s a pastime of the idle rich children of the monied political class and corrupt businessmen.   Supposedly, the fact that pedestrians might be run over and killed is all part of the thrill.  And Leyla loves it.  It is, she thinks, the “last remaining option for rebellion”, which is a frankly reprehensible way of looking at a dangerous and thoughtless activity.

However:

The presidential family frowned upon street racing. It was among the few offenses that couldn’t be smoothed out with money. The young drivers—none of the arrested had been older than twenty-six—were usually held at the police station, and the officers took turns giving them beatings. A common, even harmless, practice in this area of the world.

[The prison guard’s] right hand slowly wandered up Leyla’s thigh, lingered on her crotch, found its way into her underwear and there did its damage with slow determination. It only retreated to wipe off the snot that Leyla spit into his face. He might have even enjoyed Leyla’s unyielding disdain. When he was done, he hit her a few times with such force that she lost consciousness. She would wake up later with the taste of blood in her mouth and a hand on her breast.

It’s too much.  It’s too much.  She doesn’t deserve sexual assault as punishment for what she has done.  And, unfortunately, as the only woman detained, she bears the brunt of male attention.

Leyla’s thoughts fade in and out of the present as she is assaulted and beaten, coming to rest often on her history as a ballerina.  Those days are gone.  Grjasnowa creates an interesting comparison of the physical duress under which a ballerina-in-training and a prisoner suffer.

And yet and yet and yet.  I am sympathetic to Leyla.  I am.  She should not have to suffer like that.  But I am of course in moral opposition to what she has done and the enjoyment she has derived from it.  The violent games of the idle rich do not interest me, and if anything I support the state’s ability to round them up and teach them a lesson via fine and/or imprisonment.

But not the sexual violence lesson.  Or the physical violence lesson.

And I suppose this is the point.  I’m in an uncomfortable situation.  I would like to believe I have a strong moral compass, but here I am conflicted.  The easy answer is to say – stop the violence, stop the sexual assault, clean up the streets and give the kids something to do.

Really easy to type.  Really easy.

The Legal Haziness of a Marriage is a short story by Azerbaijani writer Olga Grjasnowa, translated by Eva Bacon.  You can read the story at Words Without Borders.

Author Olga Grjasnowa
Title The Legal Haziness of a Marriage
Translator Eva Bacon
Nationality Azerbaijani
Publisher Words Without Borders

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

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.

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.