Points of Departure: New Stories from Mexico Edited by Monica Lavin; Gustavo V. Segade, translator

Matt Cibula

'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.

Points of Departure

Publisher: City Lights Books
Subtitle: New Stories from Mexico
Author: translator
Price: $15.95 (US)
Display Artist: Monica Lavin; Gustavo V. Segade, translator
Length: 159
US publication date: 2001-06
"True ease in writing comes from art, not
As those move easiest who have learn'd to
51; Alexander Pope

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.





Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" Wryly Looks at Lost Love (premiere + interview)

Singer-songwriter Alexander Wren's "The Earth Is Flat" is a less a flat-earther's anthem and more a wry examination of heartache.


Big Little Lions' "Distant Air" Is a Powerful Folk-Anthem (premiere)

Folk-pop's Big Little Lions create a powerful anthem with "Distant Air", a song full of sophisticated pop hooks, smart dynamics, and killer choruses.


The Flat Five Invite You to "Look at the Birdy" (premiere)

Chicago's the Flat Five deliver an exciting new single that exemplifies what some have called "twisted sunshine vocal pop".


Brian Bromberg Pays Tribute to Hendrix With "Jimi" (premiere + interview)

Bass giant Brian Bromberg revisits his 2012 tribute to Jimi Hendrix 50 years after his passing, and reflects on the impact Hendrix's music has had on generations.

Jedd Beaudoin

Shirley Collins' ​'Heart's Ease'​ Affirms Her Musical Prowess

Shirley Collins' Heart's Ease makes it apparent these songs do not belong to her as they are ownerless. Collins is the conveyor of their power while ensuring the music maintains cultural importance.


Ignorance, Fear, and Democracy in America

Anti-intellectualism in America is, sadly, older than the nation itself. A new collection of Richard Hofstadter's work from Library of America traces the history of ideas and cultural currents in American society and politics.

By the Book

Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto (excerpt)

Just as big tech leads world in data for profit, the US government can produce data for the public good, sans the bureaucracy. This excerpt of Julia Lane's Democratizing Our Data: A Manifesto will whet your appetite for disruptive change in data management, which is critical for democracy's survival.

Julia Lane

Mobley Laments the Evil of "James Crow" in the US

Austin's Mobley makes upbeat-sounding, soulful pop-rock songs with a political conscience, as on his latest single, "James Crow".


Jordan Tice's "Bad Little Idea" Is a Satirical Spin on Dire Romance (premiere)

Hawktail's Jordan Tice impresses with his solo work on "Bad Little Idea", a folk rambler that blends bluesy undertones with satiric wit.


Composer Ilan Eshkeri Discusses His Soundtrack for the 'Ghost of Tsushima' Game

Having composed for blockbuster films and ballet, Ilan Eshkeri discusses how powerful emotional narratives and the opportunity for creative freedom drew him to triple-A video game Ghost of Tsushima.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Love and Cinema: The Ruinous Lives in Żuławski's L'important c'est d'aimer

Żuławski's world of hapless also-rans in L'important C'est D'aimer is surveyed with a clear and compassionate eye. He has never done anything in his anarchic world by the halves.


On Bruce Springsteen's Music in Film and TV

Bruce Springsteen's music in film and television captured author Caroline Madden's imagination. She discuses her book, Springsteen as Soundtrack, and other things Springsteen in this interview.


Alt-pop's merci, mercy Warns We May "Fall Apart"

Australian alt-pop singer-songwriter, merci, mercy shares a video for her catchy, sophisticated anthem, "Fall Apart".


Tears in Rain: 'Blade Runner' and Philip K. Dick's Legacy in Film

Blade Runner, and the work of Philip K. Dick, continues to find its way into our cinemas and minds. How did the visions of a paranoid loner become the most relevant science fiction of our time?


London Indie-Poppers the Motive Impress on "You" (premiere)

Southwest London's the Motive concoct catchy, indie-pop earworms with breezy melodies, jangly guitars, and hooky riffs, as on their latest single "You".


Vigdis Hjorth's 'Long Live the Post Horn!' Breathes Life into Bureaucratic Anxiety

Vigdis Hjorth's Long Live the Post Horn! is a study in existential torpor that, happily, does not induce the same condition in the reader.


Konqistador and HanHan Team for Darkwave Hip-Hop on "Visaya"

Detroit-based electronic/industrial outfit, Konqistador team with Toronto hip-hopper HanHan for "Visaya", a song that blends darkwave and rap into an incendiary combination.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.