Sample Book Reviews
Steven G. Kellman
Translated by Peter Bush
Open Letter Books
125 pages; cloth $12.95; ebook, $9.99
Narrative endings constrict the imagination, but an enticing opening liberates us to ponder possibilities not yet foreclosed. You could probably classify all readers by whether they prefer “Isn’t it pretty to think so?” to “Robert Cohn was once middleweight boxing champion of Princeton” and “It was with the devious-cruising Rachel, that in her retracing search after her missing children, only found another orphan” to “Call me Ishmael.” In “Books,” the last of the fourteen stories collected in Quim Monzó’s Guadalajara, an unnamed “passionate reader” buys several books at a time but never ventures beyond a volume’s initial pages. “When the forking paths fanning out at the start of a story begin to fade and the book is beginning to bore him, he puts it down….” Monzó’s own short stories are brief enough—about five pages each—that readers are likely to want to see each through to its resonant end. “Writers err,” he writes, unerringly, “when they develop their initial expositions. They shouldn’t. They should systematically set out their opening gambits and abandon them at the most enthralling point.”
The reference to “forking paths” might be a conscious echo of Jorge Luis Borges’s famous story “The Garden of Forking Paths,” and Monzó’s terse, tantalizing pieces have much in common with the Argentine maestro’s ficciones—concise conceptual exercises that thrust us into a labyrinth without insulting us with directions to the exit. Each of the three short sections of “Strategies” provides, but does not exhaust, another premise: a diligent test-taker decides for once to fail an exam; a political candidate considers voting for his opponent; an actor in a long-running play yearns to abandon the role that has made him famous. In “Life Is So Short,” an unnamed man and woman, strangers to each other, develop a tentative intimacy while trapped in an elevator. Eventually rescued, they are on the verge of parting, the woman back into the elevator and the man out into the street, when the man rushes back and catches the elevator door just before it closes. However, the story ends there, leaving any resolution up to the reader’s invention. In “Centripetal Force,” a man suddenly discovers that he is incapable of leaving his apartment. It is the same narrative device as in The Exterminating Angel (1962), but Monzó abandons his exposition at its most enthralling point, whereas Luis Buñuel spends ninety-five minutes of his film challenging his audience’s patience by spelling out what happens when guests at a dinner party find themselves trapped for days in their hosts’ elegant drawing room.
“Monzó creates tenacious tales that, like the familiar, kitschy mariachi tune ‘Guadalajara,’ continue to reverberate in the jukebox of the mind.”
A native of Barcelona, Monzó is the contemporary Catalan writer who has earned the widest reputation outside Spain. The title of Guadalajara, his fifth book to be published in English, in a lapidary translation from the Catalan by Peter Bush, seems a prank, like the whimsical title of Arthur Phillips’ 2002 novel Prague, which is perversely set not in Prague but Budapest. The stories in Monzó’s collection have no obvious connection to either the Guadalajara in Spain or the one in Mexico. Most are located in unnamed cities that seem provincial capitals of the Twilight Zone. “During the War” could take place anywhere that a military coup is possible and fretful citizens find temporary distraction in an Elvis Presley movie. However, the setting of “Gregor,” in which a beetle awakens one morning to find himself transformed into a fat adolescent human, might be Franz Kafka’s Prague. In “Outside the Gates of Troy,” the setting is ancient Ilium, where Greek warriors hidden inside a giant wooden horse wait in vain for their enemies to lead it inside the gates. Sherwood Forest is the site for “A Hunger and Thirst for Justice,” in which Robin Hood is so effective in robbing from the rich and giving to the poor that their roles are reversed. “Helvetian Freedoms” takes place in Switzerland, where William Tell’s son Walter tries to replicate his father’s famous feat by shooting an arrow at an apple on his own son’s head eighty paces away. Since this is a Monzó story, it ends with Walter drawing his crossbow, on the brink of testing whether he can hit the apple instead of his son.
Monzó slyly appropriates as the epigraph to his volume a banal statement from Madame Bovary (1856): “They began slowly, then picked up speed.” However, Guadalajara opens at full throttle. Its most memorable story is the first one, “Family Life,” which captures the perspective of a young child anxious about his obligations to family tradition. Seven-year-old Armand is puzzled and perturbed by the discovery that as soon as each member of his extended clan reaches the age of nine his ring finger is severed. There is no explanation for this practice of digital mutilation, but it has distinguished Armand’s family for as many generations as anyone can remember. “Family Life” is one of the few Monzó stories in which characters are given names, and, though the names—Armand, Elisard, Gisela, Guitart—suggest Iberian residence, the parable’s resonances are universal. Parallels to religious circumcision immediately come to mind, but ritual scarification, tribal tattooing, and foot binding are other grotesque, irrational procedures whose principal function is social cohesion. When Armand’s kinfolk cease dismembering their nine-year-old children, family ties dissolve. The custom of lopping off a finger had set the family apart in a community of shared sacrifice. Monzó’s wry account invites his reader to ponder the absurd ways by which the human species chooses to factionalize itself. Fictionalizing folly, Monzó creates tenacious tales that, like the familiar, kitschy mariachi tune “Guadalajara,” continue to reverberate in the jukebox of the mind.
Steven G. Kellman is a professor at the University of Texas at San Antonio, the author of Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth and The Translingual Imagination, and a recipient of the National Book Critics Circle’s Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing.