“An excellent guide to Spanish fiction” – The Penguin Book of Spanish Short Stories [ed. Margaret Jull Costa]

IMG_30Aug2021at163523Margaret Jull Costa is the pre-eminent translator from Spanish of her generation, a position that gives her a refreshing and comprehensive perspective on contemporary Spanish literature. In The Penguin Book of Spanish Short Stories she draws on a lifetime of reading (and translating) with a fascinating choice of writers stories. This is not an anthology interested in creating a canon, it is the selection of a knowledgeable enthusiast and a professional’s choice.

This selection emphasises the diversity of Spain, its regions and languages. Alongside translations from Castilian Spanish, Costa also provides translations from Basque, Catalan and Galician. It provides an unparalleled breadth, and depth, of contemporary Spanish fiction. It is also a reminder of how partial our knowledge of the literature of other countries can be, so dependent on what publishers choose to translate. When the translator makes that choice, a much wider range of writers are chosen. Costa has selected 56 writers, the oldest was born in 1843 while the youngest was born in 1988. This variety is enhanced by the choice of stories, Costa has an admirable preference for short stories that are short and many stories are under ten pages (quite a few are under four pages), which allows her to squeeze in additional writers.

Several of the writers are already well-known, including Javier Marías and Manuel Rivas. Enrique Vila-Matas provides a story that involves fictional portraits of Sonia Orwell and Marguerite Duras, typically creating “memoirs (that) could be read as a novel… making no attempt to explain the world, far less embrace a whole life, but only a few episodes in a life.” Then there are the less familiar names. My favourite story is Miguel Delibes’ ‘On Such a Night’, an intensely moving story of loss, “each return to the past made me shudder and filled me with grief.” Plus an extract from an episodic novel by Julian Ayesta, which should encourage anyone to hunt out the novel, Helena, or The Sea in Summer.

This anthology revolves around the cataclysm of the Spanish Civil War. It is striking that the potted biography given for each individual writer often mentions which side they supported, or the role they played, in the Civil War. The stories, themselves, paint a timeline of the conflict. Pere Calders’ ‘Feat of Arms’ portray combatants from the two sides who meet and agree that “Seen from up here, I have the distinct impression that, even if we did manage to rejoin the battle, we’d probably just be in the way.” Then, the many stories that evoke the aftermath of the War, the joyless, cowed country ruled by Franco for decades, as Javier Cercas describes it: “we all live exasperatingly slowly … engaged in a fight to the death with our own shadow in an entirely empty stadium. And everything else is a bonus.” Many of the stories in the first half of this selection are reminiscent of James Joyce’s Dubliners, brief reveries of happiness before reality descends: in Pío Baroja’s ‘The Unknown’, “the night air restored her to reality, and all her dreams, memories, longings vanished.”

The second half of the anthology displays a country emerging into vivid life, before ending with promise for the future. One of the younger writers, Cristina Garcia, looks back at the century and what has changed: “They talked about freedom or worship and freedom of expression, about the oppression of women, about Lorca and the coming of a second republic.”

Any Cop?: Stories chosen for their quality, their variety and imaginative scope (everything from romance to horror is included) is a bonus. Some may lead you to further explore their authors (especially Miguel Delibes), but this anthology also works just as an excellent guide to Spanish fiction.

James Doyle

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