Exegetes of Failed Magic
“True ease in writing comes from art, not
As those move easiest who have learn’d to
51; Alexander Pope
Points of Departure
Monica Lavin; Gustavo V. Segade, translator
New Stories from Mexico
(City Lights Books)
I’ve had this book for at least a couple of months now and am just working up the courage to review it now. Why am I worried? Because I don’t want to be just another know-nothing gringo lit critic, talking a bunch of mierda about a country too often shit on by know-nothing gringos. And Mexico has such a fascinating literary history: Sor Juana, Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo whose Pedro Paramo is one of the greatest novels ever written by a North American. The list goes on and on, even if we up here don’t really know a lot of the other names.
So I was really looking forward to this anthology, which promised me “New Stories from Mexico.” Editor Monica Lavín, herself one of the anthologized authors, tried the bold step of selecting the stories herself and then relying on Gustavo Segade, who recently retired from San Diego State University, as the only translator. This gives us a chance to get brand-new stuff, all of it tied together and very separate brave stuff!
But things start going downhill early, in Lavín’s introduction, when she says that she belongs to “the last romantic generation of the 20th century (a characterization I make bold to put before you), those of us who grew up between rock and roll and ingenuous dreams of utopia.” Okay, so she’s just a baby boomer then, as are most of the authors represented here. Don’t get me wrong: some of my best friends are boomers. But the fact remains that all but one of these “new” stories are written by authors who were at least 40 years old when the book was published. (The outlyer is Mauricio Montiel Figueroa, who was born in 1968.) So if you’re expecting anything really “new” in terms of style or subject matter, you’re out of luck.
And there’s something just a little wrong about Lavín’s introduction that bodes not well for the book it introduces. For instance: “The stories breathe a soft decadence, but also emanate a humor that ranges from the sarcastic to the acid-tongued.” Huh? When an translation is unfelicitously translated, that’s usually not a big deal, but when all the stories are translated by the same person, it becomes worrisome.
The translation does seem to be a fairly big part of why approximately half of the stories flop here. Every story features something that just isn’t said in American English. Consider this line from Eduardo Antonio Parra’s opening tale, “Real Life”: ” ‘Look for them on the street back over there,’ she smiled roguishly. ‘They went to fuck. Maybe you’ll catch them. You’ll get hornier pictures . . .’” Hornier pictures? Or this gem, from “Queen of Shadows” by Bernardo Ruiz: “Sometimes he didn’t come home, which was okay, because when he did, if he was very drunk, he’d get an irresistible letch for one of his daughters.” “Letch” is a word, I guess, but no one’s used it since 1987 and no one’s missed it since. Granted, I’m no expert, and I have no access to the original stories, but a translation is not supposed to stand out for its use of outdated phrases and ill-considered words.
But then there are the stories against which Segade is completely powerless. There was nothing he could have done with Juvenal Acosta’s “Ginsberg’s Tie,” which is supposed to be a scathing put-down of modern soulless San Franciscans who’ve sold out and are now businessmen. Every cliché is hauled out here for inspection: brie, “bran crackers,” BMWs as made-it-big tokens, male characters lusting after each other’s wives, it’s all here. Maybe this goes over big in Mexico, but it just all falls flat.
The theme of the soulless dilettantes also comes up in “Coyote” by Juan Villoro. Pedro and his gang of pseudo-Bohemians go out to the desert to pick some peyote and recreate their former killer highs, but Pedro gets lost in the desert, and suffers some kind of conversion thanks to heat and standing on some kind of stone monument. He has visions, he flees bullets, he staggers home with the bloody pelt of a coyote that he kills in less than a paragraph. (Nice work, dude.) Is this modern man getting in touch with his bestial nature? Is this the modern Mexican, dealing with the totemic savagery and beauty of his Aztec past? Or is it just a bad story?
But at least these two try to be stories. There are at least three pieces right in a row that function more like sketches or exercises or the kinds of outlines one writes for publishers to give them the idea that one can pull off a whole novel someday. This little trilogy kills any momentum the book had, and leaves one really unwilling to slog through the rest of the book before the halfway point is even reached.
However, anyone who stops here will miss the real gems of Points of Departure. “The Hostage” by Álvaro Uribe, is a nightmare scenario worthy of Poe and its translation is nimble and facile enough that it doesn’t get in the way. David Toscana’s “The Big Brush” is Bartleby the Scrivener set in a paint store in today’s Mexico City, and manages to charm and frustrate in equal measure. Josefina Estrada’s “June Gave Him the Voice” shouldn’t work at all, but it does, damn it all, it does, especially in the last line when you figure out what you’ve just read. Mauricio Montiel’s “Olga or the Darkest Mambo” is a bizarre and overheated and avant-gardish tale of a washed-up lounge singer/prostitute until its end, when its O.Henry twist makes you say, “¡Dios mio!” And I really enjoyed the set-up to Enrique Serna’s “Self-Love”: a drag queen who imitates the sex symbol Marina Olguín has to survive an attempted seduction by Marina Olguín herself! Too funny.
But more often than not the stories in this book are let-downs. I was really shattered at the end of Lavín’s story, “Why Come Back? (Playing With Fire),” because I thought the set-up deserved better than that. She was obviously going for “awful tough-minded truth about male/female relationships,” but she ends up with “easily ignored straw-man argument.” And I so wanted “Marina Dosal, Juice Vendor” by Francisco Hinojosa to close the book off right, but its rampant Garcia-Marquez-isms and wispy trail-off-in-the-middle-of-a-sentence translation got these interesting characters exactly nowhere.
So I’m still looking for the real new stories from Mexico, the ones that will shock and amaze and astound me, the raw real deal, the slaps in the face of most of the stories in this book. Maybe they’re out there, somewhere or maybe they’re just waiting to be put together. Whatever the case, this book doesn’t have many of them.