He had studied the ten crimes of the tour in detail so that he could narrate them well, with humor and suspense, and he’d never gotten scared—they didn’t affect him at all. That’s why, when he saw the apparition, he felt more surprise than terror. It was definitely him, no doubt about it. He was unmistakable: The large, damp eyes that looked full of tenderness but were really dark wells of idiocy. The drab sweater and his low stature, his puny shoulders, and in his hands the thin rope he’d used to demonstrate to the police, emotionless all the while, how he had tied up and strangled his victims. And then there were his enormous ears, pointed and affable. His name was Cayetano Santos Godino, but his nickname was El Petiso Orejudo: the Big-Eared Runt. He was the most famous criminal on the tour, maybe the most famous in Argentine police record. A murderer of children and small animals. A murderer who didn’t know how to read or add, who couldn’t tell you the days of the week, and who kept a box full of dead birds under his bed.
I have no hesitation in recommending the author’s collection Things We Lost in the Fire as one of the most remarkable books of short stories I have ever read. It is a must-read for any writer looking for a gimlet-eyed attention to prose, fastidious structure, and a poetic imagination nevertheless deeply informed by a world where politics is the stuff of life and death. The specificity of culture renders these tales in bold, gestural strokes. Every one is a gem and every page is to be savoured like fine dining. To say that this is ‘magical realism’ is almost an insult, and certainly reductive. It’s more like Aickman. No. It’s better than Aickman. ‘An Invocation of the Big-Eared Runt’ is not only one of the best titles I have ever come across, but one of the best stories. It involves a murder tour of Buenos Aires, but to tell you more would, again, be an insult.
First published in Spanish in Spain as Las coas que perdimos en el fuego, Editorial Anagrama, 2016, and in English in Things We Lost in the Fire, Portobello Books 2017. It can be read here