In 2007 the Bogotá39 project identified and promoted 39 promising young writers from Latin America, bringing the works of writers like Juan Gabriel Vásquez and Junot Díaz to a wider readership. This 2018 collection follows on from the original with, ten years later, 39 exciting new voices from the vast and varied Latin American world. At a recent launch event at London’s Free Word Centre, where some of the writers were in a discussion expertly chaired by translator Sophie Hughes, it was said that Latin American writing is still shrugging off stereotypical expectations that it’s all about drug trafficking and armed conflict. Refreshingly, those topics hardly feature here: this collection features rather the contemporary experiences of the urban and the rural world, managing and responding to the digital age, relationships of all kinds in these settings, with some pieces of futuristic, surreal and apocalyptic writing to echo the increasingly unstable times in which we live.
Now, as any fan of short stories will know, a collection of short stories is often more than the sum of its parts, and nowhere is this truer than with a collection of short stories in translation: as I was reading this collection, I became more and more aware of the consummate skill with which these stories have been translated. The short form requires that the translator very quickly renders the voice, the tone, the style, the rhythm of the original, to draw us in, to unsettle and surprise us. This collection, with its broad and varied range of writing, displays a huge range of translation skills and for me is as much a showcase for the feat of translation as a feast of new Latin American writing.
A number of the stories take place in urban settings which add to the tension and sometimes bleakness of the tale: in Naked Animals the narrator catches sight of a woman in a car, her face shaped by tears, whom he then stalks by car through the city. In An Unlucky Man, the family are caught up in urban traffic while rushing their daughter Abi to the hospital after swallowing bleach. An ironic distance is taken in Work in Progress where a couple liken their never ending building project in a Buenos Aires condominium to the creation of a novel. And in The Art of Vanishing the city bars and brothels permit exhibitions of violence and lust at odds with the protagonist’s feeling for family.
The urban stories often feature solitary, lonely, sometimes displaced protagonists. In Perhaps an Animal Elvira is a young woman down on her luck in São Paulo. The story starts, disturbingly, with Elvira surreptitiously rooting round in a bin for thrown away food. Her landlord has offered to forget her rent arrears if she gives him a hand-job. In Teresa and Children the protagonists are emotionally disconnected young men, whose actions seem random and motivation unexplained: in Teresa the protagonist is more interested in planning his TV viewing than in other people, in Children the protagonist seeks out random meetings and events to relieve his solitude and lies guilelessly when finding himself at a séance.
I enjoyed, in contrast to the tension and sometimes claustrophobia of the city, the stories with a feeling for landscape. The Days Gone By describes a journey by bus and boat to visit a childhood friend- through a chilly landscape of lakes and volcanoes. The political dimension of land in South America moves to centre stage in Chaco: the narrator’s grandfather was said to have participated in moving the indigenous Mataco people from their land to make way for an oil refinery. The narrator finds the body of a Mataco lying by the roadside and then finds himself haunted, disturbingly, by the Mataco. In Forests Where There Was Nothing, Father Félix and his young seminarian disagree about the value of turning the great, bare expanses under the celestial vault into forest. The seminarian believes forestation provides more work for local people and is therefore a good thing-Father Félix denies there was nothing before forestation, remembering the empty pampas and the furious waves. Every grain of the dunes.
All kinds of relationships are explored in this collection. Papi’s False Teeth is told from Daughter’s point of view after he’s died: she ended up shouldering the burden of his care, and through the technique of slow reveal we learn the disturbing nature of Papi’s needs and the significance of the title. In Fictio Legis the narrator, returning from Spain to Mexico with her husband, is listening in to the conversation of another couple and a third man, Hans, on the plane. Her condescending narrative- the tone so superbly rendered- is interleaved by comments from Roman legislators on the payment of a dowry when the marriage is to a eunuch. A delicious twist is in store for the reader when the narrator and her husband prepare for landing. Friendship and kindness are displayed in Snow. The narrator and his friend arrive in Chicago from the Dominican Republic to study. Absolutely floored by the cold, they encounter help in finding and furnishing their apartment from a range of people of different nationalities.
The importance of tone in conveying the complexity of relationships is seen again in Titans on the Beach, so skilfully conveyed by the translator. The story is set on a beach in Germany, where the narrator is with his German girlfriend, Sue K, watching German children playing. He is aware of his physical difference, both from the baby Teutons and his girlfriend- he with his body-hair and construction worker’s stomach, she with her washboard stomach. He resents her calling him Chewie rather than his real name, Jesús, but puts up with it-he’s more fed up when her friends ‘tease’ him by calling him Chewbacca. Unpleasant patronising attitudes leaning into racism start to emerge and when the narrator’s pet name for his girlfriend morphs from my queen of hearts into my Prussian monarch we feel even more uncomfortable.
There are superb examples in the collection of the translator’s skill in creating mood. Lid/1981 is about a family memory and strikes a nostalgic note from the beginning, saying the family has now fallen apart, but what we once were is still present, the way the sun is present for blind men who can’t see the light, just feel its warmth on their faces. And of a family memory: my own memory doesn’t count; it’s not mine. It’s like a borrowed suit, one that fits in some places, pulls and sags in others.
There’s a wonderful recreation of incantatory rhythm in Chaco, where the narrative voice changes as the Matanco man takes over the narrator’s head and voice: the river was poison, the fish were dead. The hunger was great, the food all gone. Three men were sent hunting, none returned. Sucking on pig bones, they were found. Ayayay. And I am in awe of the translator’s success in rendering word play in How do Stones Think? The story begins with a riff on rhymes: with rhymes the words finish the same way just like two stories with happy endings. For example: slow and grow, grass and vast, never and forever.
Now this really is a collection of 39 stories and extracts and it’s been impossible to mention all of them in this post. Rest assured that there are many other intriguing stories in the collection, which also contains information about each writer and translator, a map of Latin America, and a helpful introduction from Gaby Wood, Literary Director of the Booker Prize Foundation. This is not just a collection but a cornucopia in that it serves as an introduction to the work of a new generation of Latin American writers. And at the modest price of £ 12.99 from Oneworld it should be on the bookshelf of every lover of Latin American Literature.
Stories mentioned here in order of appearance:
Naked Animals by Jesús Michael Soto, translated by Emily Davis.
An Unlucky Man by Samanta Schweblin, translated by Megan McDowell.
Work in Progress by Mauro Libertella, translated by Nick Caistor.
The Art of Vanishing by Felipe Restrepo Pombo translated by Daniel Hahn.
Perhaps an Animal by Natalia Borges Polesso, translated by Sophie Lewis.
Teresa by Eduardo Plaza, translated by Rahul Berg.
Children by Juan Pablo Roncone, translated by Ellen Jones.
The Days Gone By by Gonzalo Eltesch, translated by Katherine Rucker.
Chaco by Liliana Colanzi, translated by Julia Sanchos
Forests where there was Nothing by Valentín Trujillo, translated by Simon Bruni.
Papi’s False Teeth by Mónica Ojeda, translated by Anna Milsom
Fictio Legis by Valeria Luiselli, translated by Christina MacSweeney.
Snow by Frank Báez, translated by Anwen Roys.
Titans on the Beach by Alan Mills, translated by Delaina Haslam
Lid/1981 by Damían González Bertolino, translated by Lily Meyer.
How do Stones Think? by Brenda Lozano, translated by Lucy Greaves.