Set during the sweaty Southern Cone summer months, you’ll never experience a “happy couples’ holiday” with your beloved partner in quite the same way again after reading this! I love the slow build-up of tension and dread in this story, the strangeness of its details (like the disappearing fire glimpsed from an airplane), the A.M. Homes-esque brutality of the narrator towards her irritating husband, and the totally out-of-left-field (yet completely perfect) ending. You can’t have a story about disappearances set in the Río Plata area not seem like a commentary on historical atrocities, but the sly way this piece develops and builds upon this theme, in a way you wouldn’t expect, is utterly singular. I suggest reading this with a caipirinha in hand, bugs crawling over your feet, and plenty of sickly-smelling sunscreen burning your eyes.
Here is a Latin American short story anthology – all hail all translators everywhere, especially those who made these stories available in English!
Why oh why has Werner Herzog not made a film about Horacio Quiroga yet? The themes of his stories demand it: madness, the jungle, nature, civilization, barbarity, snakebites, parasites growing fat on the blood of young brides, indifferent animals watching humans die, ranting and raving, in the brutal afternoon sun. And let’s not get started on Quiroga’s lifestory, which involves his father’s accidental death via shotgun, three marriages, accidentally killing his best friend, an obsession with girls decades years younger than him, a close friendship with poet and future fascist Leopoldo Lugones, his wife’s suicide (poison), and his own (poison again). You might say he puts the Poe in the Poe-esque. I think my favorite story of his is ‘Sunstroke’, narrated from the point of view of a pack of dogs.
In The Decapitated Chicken and Other Stories, University of Texas Press, 2013
Samanta Schweblin has been one of my favorite short story writers for years, so it’s been thrilling to see her gain so much international notoriety recently, with her Man Booker International Prize-nominated novel, Fever Dream. I highly encourage you to seek out her translated short fiction, available online in places like the New Yorker, Granta, and Words Without Borders. Her themes include children, adulthood, fertility, consumerism, and environmental illnesses. I had to go with ‘Birds in the Mouth’ as my favorite, due to its relentless exploration of a young’s girl’s appetite (is there anything scarier to society than a young girl who knows exactly what she wants, and unceasingly pursues it?), and its central question: “what it would feel like to swallow something warm and moving, to have something full of feathers and feet in your mouth.”
Available to read online here. First published in Pájaros en la boca y otros cuentos. Editorial Lumen, 2010
I love this story for its eerie and mesmerizing evocation of the “we” perspective. I can’t help but wonder how well this group of girls would fall into line under a military dictatorship. And I can’t decide if the ending is sexy or scary – a cathartic gathering of empowered witches, or the terrifying rise of groupthink. I also highly recommend the anthology it’s included in, as a wonderful introduction to contemporary short Latin American fiction.
Included in The Future is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction, Open Letter, 2012. Read a different translation by Meruane in collaboration with Ronald Christ online here
What a talent Colanzi is! Her collection Our Dead World was published last year and deserves more attention. The story I’ve chosen for this list, ‘Alfredito’, combines three of my primary obsessions: death, childhood, and UFO kidnappings.
In Our Dead World, Central Books, 2017. Available to read online in in a translation by Chris Meade here
If you’re a fan of Borges and Cortázar, reading Ocampo is a must. Clarice Lispector and Leonora Carrington buffs, bow down – Silvina is the queen! Her stories often involve creepy children being tortured or torturing. Dreamlike, nightmarish, hallucinatory, prose poems, just plain weird – all these adjectives are acceptable. My personal favorite from her recently translated collection is “Men Animal Vines,” another appropriately Herzogian piece. A man is the sole survivor of a plane crash and must survive in the jungle as vines threaten to consume everything in reach. And that final sentence! Talk about a twist that makes you look up from the page with a frown on your face and say, … what? But then you start to smile as you say: … Whoa!
in Thus Were Their Faces, NYRB Classics, 2016
“They call me Pepe the cop because that’s exactly what I am; it’s a job like any other, but few people are prepared to take it on.”
I love this story so much it hurts. Like Kafka’s ‘Josephine the Mouse Singer’ (a story that ‘Police Rat’ is deliberately linked to), ‘Police Rat’ was written near the end of Bolaño’s life, when Bolaño (like Kafka) was extremely sick. Themes in ‘Police Rat’ include the role of the artist in society, violence, and what point there is, if any, to anything. “I know how to move in the dark,” Pepe stubbornly insists at the end, a mantra for writing if there ever was one. Despite all signs to the contrary, Pepe keeps working till the very end, like Bolaño himself. I don’t know if that’s the best way to face death. But for Bolaño and Pepe, it seemed to be consolation enough.
In The Insufferable Gaucho, Picador, 2015
Angela Carter fans, look no further. The fairytale, fable-like language in this story has always been fascinating to me. And so is the way García Márquez depicts the shared reality among the villagers: their collective action, and their absolute unswerving faith in the fiction they’ve created together. I often teach this story in classrooms alongside Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Storyteller’. The transformation of the “dark and slinky bulge” in the opening, into the man in the closing paragraphs with a specific name and past, all invented – what does this say about the role that storytelling plays for us? Are the villagers delusional or wiser than any of us will ever know? Does it all come down to figuring out how to deal with death, when it’s staring you right in the face?
In Collected Stories, Penguin, 2014. Available to read online here
“I had been recognized by that dog and he was coming to get me.”
Oh, how I love César Aira and his infinite Philip K.Dick-esque capacity for imagination! “The Dog” is, believe it or not, one of his more straightforward, realistic pieces. To me, “The Dog” perfectly encapsulates the main characteristics of a perfectly executed short story: a single moment in time, obsession, unspoken secrets, and a decidedly unsettling ending. Is this a story about the past catching up with you? Is it about guilt? Fear of judgment? Or is it about a dog chasing a bus?
From The Musical Brain and Other Stories, New Directions, 2015. Available to read online here
There’s a lot of layers in this, from the Barthes homage of the title, to the wry humor, to a historical narrative, to down-to-earth reflections on how to write, and why. The story begins with the narrator struggling to tell the story of Ishi, the last living member of an extinct Native American tribe. Oh, the sadness of this story. The sadness of being the only person alive who can speak your language. The fact that the narrator is a Latin American living abroad, estranged from his home country, seems essential. What does it mean to communicate? What can fiction provide that facts don’t? I love the final paragraph in Riley’s translation, in terms of a manifesto for fiction writing:
“Sometimes writing is a job: obliquely tracing the path of certain ideas that seem indispensable to us, that we have to set down. But other times it’s a question of conceding what remains, accepting the museum and contemplating the balance while awaiting death, asking forgiveness of the sea for whatever was fucked up.”
From Hypothermia, Dalkey Archive Press, 2013. A different translation by Anna Kushner, published by Words Without Borders, is available to read online here
“I’ve been a biology professor at the Universidad de Valle de México for over ten years. I specialize in insects.”
This unassuming beginning leads to some truly unexpected developments, as the narrator reminisces about the time she spent living in her aunt and uncle’s house, following her parents’ divorce. A cockroach infestation, and the (decidedly shocking, potentially nauseating) way the family deals with it, is not something I am going to forget anytime soon. Is there a reverse Kafkaesque transformation of sorts in this story, in terms of what happens to the narrator? Go ahead and read it – I dare you!
From Natural Histories: Stories, Seven Stories Press, 2014. Available to read online as a preview in Google Books here
My God, is Mariana Enríquez incredible. Things We Lost in the Fire is one of the strongest collections I’ve ever read, and I think this is my favorite story among the twelve on this list. Shirley Jackson fans, you MUST read her! I find the way “The Intoxicated Years” moves through time incredibly moving, as it traces the rise and fall of a friendship between a group of teenage girls in post-dictatorship, late 80s/early 90s Argentina.
From Things We Lost in the Fire, Portobello Books, 2017. Available to read online in Granta here
It feels appropriate to end this list with a darkly hilarious story about – yup – the end of the world (metaphorically speaking…). The content of this story perfectly encapsulates the rest of my (admittedly very specific) obsessions: apocalyptic vacations, humans vs. animals, messed-up couples, potential death by spider venom. What more could you possibly want from a short story?
Included in Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction, Dalkey Archive Press, 2009. You can read it online in Spanish here