‘The Stolen Party’ by Liliana Heker, translated by Alberto Manguel

As I compile this list, I realize how much I gravitate towards stories of childhood and class. ‘The Stolen Party’ is a story about Rosaura, the daughter of a rich family’s maid who is invited to a birthday party for the family’s daughter. Rosaura, who goes to work with her mom and does homework with the family’s daughter, wants to attend because she believes she is friends with the rich girl and wants to celebrate. The mother is skeptical, even discourages her from going, calling it a rich people’s party. Rosaura is insistent that she is a friend and not a servant, both to her mother and eventually, another child at the party. I will spare you a full synopsis of the story, but I will say that this story depletes me in a powerful way. It is short, six pages or so, but it is cinematic in its movement through the birthday party, the expansive sensory details and childlike wonder at the events – events that might be mundane told from an adult’s point of view. This is a story not just of class, but of class straddling – the way oppressive structures are imposed even in the quietest of moments, the happiest of birthdays, and onto the youngest and gentlest of hearts.

Published in The Stolen Party and Other Stories, Passport Books, 1994

‘The Stolen Party’ by Liliana Heker, translated by Alberto Manguel

The opening story in Heker’s selected stories Please Talk to Me, is indicative of the sharpness of her fiction; of its careful balancing of expectation with subversion. There is a laceration in the way she approaches fiction, and ‘The Stolen Party’ cuts like a switchblade. We know that the party nine-year-old Rosaura is to attend will end badly for her. We know how precarious her happiness is. But the suspense – the tension between innocence and experience – keeps building until its conclusion, which is as expected, yet somehow much worse than we could have foreseen.

First published in Spanish as  ‘La fiesta ajena’, in Las peras del mal, Editorial de Belgrano, 1982. Collected in English in Please Talk to Me, Yale University Press, 2015

‘Strategies Against Sleeping’ by Liliana Heker, translated by Alberto Manguel and Miranda France

Another Latin American – from Argentina this time – and not even one who has lived in Spain, but Heker’s short story ‘Strategies Against Sleeping’ was inspired by a long car journey the author took from Segovia to Madrid, and since it was the first short story of hers I ever translated, it has a special place in my heart. The story starts with the narrator setting off on her journey and looking forward to nodding off on the back seat, but the driver – who is himself fighting an urge to sleep – keeps asking her to talk to him (“Please, Talk to Me” provides the title for this collection). The woman makes some half-hearted attempts at conversation but, as is often the case with Heker’s work, what seems like a fairly straightforward situation gradually reveals itself to be charged with unexpected menace, taking an extraordinary turn at the end. The Argentine writer and intellectual Alberto Manguel asked me to translate Heker’s stories with him for this collection and I was grateful to be introduced to a woman is unusual and engaging, both on the page and in person. Her writing, recalling both Saki and Roald Dahl, can be devilishly difficult to translate, though. Once when I asked her what she had meant by a particular phrase she said “I don’t really know, put whatever you think.

First published as ‘Maniobras contra el sueño’, in La crueldad de la vida, Alfaguara, 2001, translation in Please Talk to Me, Yale University Press, 2015