a thousand morons by Quim Monzó (translated from the original Catalan by Peter Bush)

Thousand_Morons-frontPierre Charles L’Enfant and Andrew Ellicott carefully planned Washington DC – with its precise grid of streets, beautiful tree-lined avenues and stunning perspectives. Older cities like Boston or lower Manhattan developed more organically, the seemingly haphazard  pattern of their streets dictated by the habits of those who used them.

A good short story collection can grow like a city. Either organically – as when an author writes stories and publishes them together once he has enough for a book (like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, or Salinger are good examples). Or through careful planning from the get/go – think James Joyce, Jennifer Egan and William Faulkner.  Obviously the critical thing is that the stories, themselves, are good. But a planned collection adds a layer of complexity for the reader. The stories can be linked or not. They can be built around a group of shared characters, set in the same historical period or geographic region. The more ambitious the author the more abstract the themes held in common become.

And then there is Quim Monzó.  Whose short story collections appear so meticulously planned, but whose individual stories manage to still feel spontaneous and dashing.  His new collection, a thousand morons, is exactly what it claims to be. A collection of portraits – mostly sketches – of morons.  Men & women from all walks of life behaving idiotically.  But these absurdities, these quirks of behavior and situation, are completely familiar.   The “moron” in the title is all-encompassing. The situations are simultaneously tragic and very funny.  Monzó explores the absurdity of the human condition while avoiding the obvious literary contrivances that go with it.

A young man visits his father, Mr. Beneset, in a nursing home.  Their conversation is nothing special.  But as they speak the father is donning lipstick, stockings, a bra and a dress.  This quirk, the component that unbalances us, moves the story away from the mundane and towards the sublime.

In Love is Eternal another young man bumps into an old girlfriend.  They rekindle their half-hearted romance.  When he learns she is dying he decides to make her remaining days happy, only to have the situation backfire on him completely.

In Praise a simple comment by a best-selling author, a sentence of praise for a debut collection of short stories, creates a domino cascade of expectations and obligations that traps the protagonist in a farce.  Praise is a prime example of how Monzó writes comedy with an underlying somberness – the impression he gives is that though these situations are silly and ridiculous to the reader, they are serious matters for his characters.

He could say: “No, I’ve not read it.  The fact is that recently I’ve only been re-reading the classics.”  He knows that for years when asked in interviews about the current books he was reading, Terenci Moix would always respond that he was re-reading the classics, period.  In theory, it is a strategy one can only use if one really has read the classics.  Because the interviewer could then ask which classic you are re-reading and, if he knows it, he would catch you out.

But that is only in theory, because in practice the ruse can be used without running into problems.  Nowadays, the likelihood one will run into somebody who has read a particular classic is miniscule.  Nonetheless, just in case, he ponders over what else he could say.  He could say: “The fact is I read so many books that I never remember the plots.  I know I liked it.”  That is not a lame response. Even Montaigne was often unable to remember what he was reading…

a thousand morons is divided into two parts.  Part 1 contains seven short stories of approximately 10 pages in length.  In Part 2 the stories are more numerous but even shorter, about 3 pages or less.  They are more like sketches or flash fictions than traditional short stories.  Monzó has truncated the narrative arc, moving quickly from beginning to end with very little detail wasted between.  The stories in Part 2 are snappy.  Joke – punchline: the annunciation goes differently than expected, a mother watches as technology disconnects her family, we witness an inane pick-up at a cocktail party and a hostile restaurant takeover.  It’s all situational irony, carefully planned and brilliantly entertaining.

It is the second collection of Quim Monzó ‘s short stories, translated by Peter Bush, to be published by Open Letter.  The first, Guadalajara, was cerebral and written in a dense prose.  In it Monzó played complex games with his description of space, interpretation of other authors’ works and with words.  a thousand morons is very different.  He’s left the literary games behind and simply held up a mirror.  The reader will easily recognize his- or herself in these stories.  There is nothing technically breathtaking in the writing, per se, other than its economy (which, actually, is rather breathtaking). He deftly – s0metimes brutally) depicts the emotions and eccentricities which lead his characters into the situations he is describing.  According to Quim Monzó, human beings write their own farces and (in the spirit of Sartre) create their own hells.  We star in our very own comedies every day without the slightest awareness that we’re doing so.

Publisher:  Open Letter Books, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 1 934824 41 2

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All Fires The Fire and Other Stories by Julio Cortázar (Suzanne Jill Levine, translator)

My interest in Julio Cortázar was piqued when I discovered his novel Hopscotch.  At the front of it is a Table of Instructions.  The reader can choose to read one of two ways:  the first by progressing in the normal, linear fashion.  The second is to follow a key of numbers, corresponding to the chapter headings, which sends the reader jumping back and forth through the book.  Fascinating, right?  I’m looking forward to tackling it, but am holding off until I have a substantial chunk of time to spend flipping pages.

Meanwhile, there are his short stories.  And I highly recommend the short stories of Julio Cortázar. They remind me of Quim Monzó, who I have to believe is familiar with Cortázar’s writings but whose own work – while it contains similar games and puzzles – doesn’t have the same goals.  The stories in All Fires The Fire are warm and the characters are treated with real tenderness.  For Cortazar, at least here, it’s not solely about the construction of a narrative.

The Southern Thruway occurs in the center of an epic traffic jam on a highway outside of Paris.  The stranded drivers and passengers form communities and pool resources as the hours become weeks.  Life, death and love continue within a microcosm.  This is a strange story, requiring the reader to withhold disbelief (seriously, why didn’t they just start walking?).  It’s also my favorite, despite (or because of?)  the absurd premise on which it is based.

In Meeting Cortázar pays tribute to his Argentine history – building a beautiful (and convincing) story.  He recounts the 1956 landing of Granma in Cuba and the arduous trek of the revolutionaries through the swamps and to the Sierra Maestra Mountain ranges.  This was Fidel Castro’s return to Cuba with his brother Raul and friend Che Guevara – and the beginnings of the Guerrilla War against Batista.  The story is narrated by Che, himself, but Cortázar doesn’t reveal this until the end.  In fact, to obscure identities, Fidel is called “…Luis (whose name wasn’t Luis, but we had sworn not to remember our names until that day arrived)…”  It’s a brilliant piece of writing.  I actually started the story before reading Guevara’s wife’s memoir, and for reasons I can’t remember put the book down.  It wasn’t until afterwards, after reading the memoir and returning to All Fires The Fire, that I connected fact and fiction.  I’ve read criticism that states this story also functions as an allegory, representing Cortázar’s faith in the Cuban revolution (Understanding Julio Cortázar by Peter Standish) – but I don’t have the background to speak to any of that.  I can only say that it’s a beautiful story about one man’s idealism and a friendship based on shared convictions.

Nurse Cora is the story that seems most reminiscent of Hopscotch.  A straightforward plot about a teenage boy in the hospital, his crush on his pretty young nurse and his dependence on an overbearing mother (who refers to her 15-year old son as “the baby”) is transformed into an extraordinary prose experiment.  Cortázar uses a series of revolving first person narrators, one picking up  mid-sentence from the other without any noticeable attempt at separation.  Yet, somehow, the reader never loses track of who is speaking.

Then I went in to keep the baby company, he was reading his magazines and already knew they were going to operate on him the next day.  As if it were the end of the world, the poor thing looks at me so.  I’m not going to die, Mama, come on, will you.  They took Cacho’s appendix out in the hospital and in six days he was ready to play soccer again.  Go home and don’t worry, I’m fine, I have everything I need.  Yes, Mama, yes, ten minutes asking me if it hurts me here or hurts me there, a good thing she has to take care of my sister at home, she finally left and I could finish the serial I’d started last night.

The afternoon nurse’s name is Nurse Cora…

All Fires The Fire contains eight stories in all.  Every one a masterpiece in my opinion.  Nothing Julio Cortázar writes could ever be described as common or colloquial.  The situations he creates border on the bizarre, yet each contains a recognizable truth, a visible link to a reality the reader can understand.  All of this makes him incredibly exciting to read.  An author whose books I guarantee you will recommend to friends, family, colleagues, unsuspecting strangers you meet on the street.  I know, I know… I probably sound a little over-zealous.  Can I offer you some Cortázar flavored Kool-Aid?

Publisher:  Pantheon Books, New York (1988)
ISBN:  0 394 75358 5  (This edition is no longer listed in the Pantheon Books catalog.)

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