“The Big Read” is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts and offers grants to support community reading programs designed around a single book. With over 1,250 programs being funded to date and more than $17 million handed out in grants there have been more than 4.2 million Americans attending a program. The events last approximately one month, include a kick-off event and other major events devoted specifically to the book, for example author readings and panel discussions.
With a listing of thirty four titles recommended by The Big Read, the majority being well known American texts, it is refreshing to see a translated text on the listing, as well as an acknowledgement that the understanding of their southern neighbours culture is a step forward. Books by writers such as Mark Twain, John Steinbeck, Harper Lee, Ernest Hemmingway, Jack London, Emily Dickinson, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett and Edgar Allan Poe feature on their listing, so to have Octavio Paz, Carlos Fuentes, Juan Rulfo and Rosaio Castellanos alongside the giants of American literature is hopefully an opening that broadens the readership of Mexican fiction. The “marketing description” of the collection;
Mexico and the United States share a long border and a common history. Although our two nations remain separate and independent, they are also deeply interrelated not only through economic ties, political cooperation, and cultural exchange but also by flesh and blood through the many millions of Mexican-Americans who personally embody the intermingling of our two great and complex countries.
There is perhaps no better way for two nations to learn about one another than through sharing their stories. Sun, Stone, and Shadows presents a superb selection of the finest Mexican short stories of the twentieth century. No one can read this arresting volume without experiencing the wonder and surprise of discovery.
As the cover suggests this collection is made up of twenty short stories, which have been chosen using the following criteria; Born in Mexico and before 1939 and published in the first half of the twentieth century. As per most translated fiction it is, yet again, disappointing that the female representation is low, with only three stories of the twenty being written by women, this collection even falls below the 30% average for women in translation!!! On the positive side, however, is the fact that promotion of translated fiction is happening via such a large program. Of course this may result in a homogeneous collection, something that has all the “name” players, and stories chosen to meet a teaching curriculum not representative of a national literature canon. Although bottom line is awareness of a nation’s literature, written in a different language, has to be a step in the right direction.
The collection opens with Nobel Laureate, poet and iconic figure Octavio Paz and an example of one of his examples of prose poetry. A story where our narrator falls in love with a wave and takes it home to live with him. In his Nobel lecture Octavio Paz said, “We pursue modernity in her incessant metamorphoses yet we never manage to trap her. She always escapes: each encounter ends in flight. We embrace her and she disappears immediately: it was just a little air.” For a full translation of his Nobel lecture go here (it is worth the read).
Interestingly this quote has been used in “teacher’s notes” for this collection of short stories, as a hint as to how to interpret the story. Another connection, also worth reading, this one being a brief read, would be Paz’s Nobel acceptance speech – Yet we can be certain of one thing: life on our planet is endangered. Our unthinking cult of progress together with the very advances in our struggle to exploit nature have turned into a suicidal race. Just as we are beginning to unravel the secrets of the galaxies and the atomic particle, as we explore the enigmas of molecular biology and the origins of life, we have wounded the very heart of nature. This is why the most immediate and most urgent question is the survival of the environment, regardless of whatever forms of social and political organization nations may choose. The defence of nature is the defence of mankind. (The full speech can be found here)
Personally highlighting the surrealist link, man’s abuse of nature, is attempting to quantify the beauty and passion in Paz’s words. There is the potential for a different interpretation, a parallel theme. The “teacher notes” also refers to the original publication of this story in a collection called “Águila o sol” (Eagle or Sun), a collection of prose poems dealing with the creative process. Is the wave simply Paz’s muse? Elusive, tempestuous, demanding? And is the title of this collection a veiled reference to Octavio Paz’s 584 line poem “Sun Stone”, representing the five hundred and eighty-four day cycle of the plant Venus?
Apologies for the long ramblings for a single story, but I think the depth of this whole collection can be explained by simply looking at the opening story. For each inclusion in the book you can spend hours on researching the writer, where did was the story originally published, given these are stories published decades ago there are also published reviews, interpretations and in a number of cases reflection from the writer themselves. All of this extra curricula reading could take place for every single story.
A couple of other stories that I’d like to comment on; Inés Arredondo’s “The Shunammite” (translated by Alberto Manguel) is narrated by a woman and tells the tale of an uncle on his deathbed wanting to marry our narrator (his niece) so she can inherit his estate. Coming after the section “The Tangible Past”, where the brutality, slaughter, self-administered justice, corrupt political systems are the norm this stood out as a sparkling gem of another kind of male brutality, domestic violence, manipulation, sexual abuse, “ownership” all captured in twelve pages. It is a pity there aren’t more examples of female writing here. Personally I have found a copy of Inés Arredondo’s “Underground River and Other Stories” (translated by Cynthia Steele) published twenty years ago by The University of Nebraska Press, to continue reading her works.
Another story written by a female writer is Rosario Castellanos’ “Cooking Lesson”, a brilliant portrayal of the role of women in Mexico, through the lens of a recently married woman who is cooking a meal for her new husband (literally or metaphorically is not important):
I’ll ruminate my resentment in silence. All the responsibilities and duties of a servant are assigned to me for everything. I’m supposed to keep the house impeccable, the clothes ready, mealtimes exact. But I’m not paid any salary; I don’t get one day a week off; I can’t change masters. On the other hand, I’m supposed to contribute to the support of the household and I’m expected to efficiently carry out a job where the boss is demanding, my colleagues conspire, and my subordinates hate me. In my free time I transform myself into a society matron who gives luncheons and dinners for her husband’s friends, attends meetings, subscribes to the opera season, watches her weight, renews her wardrobe, cares for her skin, keeps herself attractive, keeps up on all the gossip, stays up late and gets up early, runs the monthly risk of maternity, has no suspicions about the evening executive meetings, the business trips and the arrival of unexpected clients; who suffers from olfactory hallucinations when she catches a whiff of French perfume (different to the one she uses) on her husband’s shirts and handkerchiefs and on lonely nights refuses to think why or what so much fuss is all about and fixes herself a stiff drink and reads a detective story with the fragile mood of a convalescent.
I have more works from Rosario Castellanos on backorder so I am hoping to feature more of her brutal honesty reviewed here over the coming months.
Juan De La Cabada, in “The Mist” manages to bring the issue of discrimination, treatment of local Indians and privilege to the fore in a short noir story where the narrator, on a dark misty rainy night, picks up four Indians, who have waived him down, in his car. “The Mist” not only being the incessant mist like rain…
With stories by Carlos Fuentes (a Chac-Mool sculpture that comes to life), Salvador Elizondo (a surreal tale on existence), Octavio Paz, Francisco Rojas González (icons being made to stop a storm), Juan Rulfo (a past finally catching up), Rosario Castellanos, Alfonso Reyes (a mysterious dinner), Juan José Arreola, José Emilio Pacheco, Jorge Ibarüengoitia, José Revueltas (hunting), Elena Garro, Martín Luis Guzmán (brutal revolutionary story), Edmundo Valadés (a corrupt local official), Sergio Pitol, Juan García Ponce, Juan de la Cabada, Efrén Hernández and Francisco Tario, this collection covers some heavy hitters of Mexican literature in the 1900’s. A decent grounding to understand some of the works the new faces of Mexican writing would have been reading in their youth.
I really enjoyed reading this collection, a flash back to the past, a collection of writing from decades ago and a useful reminder of the “roots” of some of the more recent Mexican writing successes. Reading this collection has resulted in me not only searching out more short works by a few writers (especially the underrepresented female writers), it has also added to my future reading pile as I sourced a number of other short stories from the region (not just Mexican writers) that were read many many years ago and were gathering dust on my shelves. I may “review” a few of these in the coming weeks, I may simply re-read and enjoy. Time will tell.
For those interested in the “Teacher’s Notes” for this collection, they are available here.