I’ve been in central and South American (not physically but with my reading choices) for about six weeks now and I am going to continue the theme for quite a bit longer, with a wonderful pile of originally written in Spanish titles, all by women writers, sitting awaiting my attention.
When I read the collection of Mexican short stories, “Sun, Stone, and Shadows” (edited by Jorge F. Hernández) I mentioned the Inés Arredondo short story “The Shunammite” (translated by Alberto Manguel) and given the impact her story had in eleven pages, I wanted to hunt down more of her work. Inés Arredondo (1928-1989) published only three line volumes of stories and at present the availability of her work in English is minimal. The University of Nebraska Press edition of “Underground River and Other Stories” that I managed to source was published in 1996.
The collection opens with an “Introduction” by the translator, Cynthia Steele, and if you don’t want to have the themes revealed, some of the plotlines revealed, I would suggest you skip this and revisit it after you have enjoyed the stories. Here Steele tells us;
Arredondo resisted being called a woman writer, since she believed that this label relegated women artists to a ghetto, to a second-class status with critics and readers. “I don’t want to be the best woman writer in Mexico,” she said in an interview, “I want to be one of the best Mexican writers.” At the same time, her short stories focus obsessively on female subjectivity (along with other marginal beings, adolescents of both genders and gay men) within the context of a perverse Gothic “family romance” set in provincial Sinaloa at the beginning of the twentieth century. The Revolution has not yet happened, or else it has passed through without disturbing centuries-old power relations.
The “Introduction” is followed by a “Foreword” by Elena Poniatowska;
She was troubled by the problems of purity, pride, mercy, and love. Her central themes are reflected in her characters’ solitude, in the importance that she confers on the couple, and in her dissection of the human souls; these are what make her works unique.
This collection opens with the same story that appears in “Sun, Stone, and Shadows”, “The Shunammite” (this translated by Cynthia Steele, although I must admit I thought I was re-reading the story I had already read a few months ago, so the versions must be very similar indeed). A check of the opening lines shows:
"The summer had been a fiery furnace. The last summer of my youth." (Alberto Manguel translation).
"The was a blistering summer. The last of my youth." (Cynthia Steele translation).
Having said that, on a second reading the themes are much more poignant, the lechery and the biting tale of patriarchal society and the role of single women in such is captured perfectly, no wonder Poniatowska says “The Shunammite” is one of the most celebrated short stories in Mexican literature. I think this is the second reading, not the different translation, however I did seem to enjoy the story more the second time around.
What keeps him going is lust…
The story “Marianna” tells the tale of a young girl in school who, during class, draws clumsily as though a pre-schooler. As she gets older she comes to school with make-up, and of course is punished, becomes sexually active and is the centre of all of the fellow school girl’s rumours. Becoming defiant to her family, her teachers and their superiors, this only leads to ruin. There are no happy endings for these fallen women in Arredondo’s stories.
The more stories we read the more we learn of humbled people, those who do not understand their dire situations, there are no tidy, neat endings, awkwardness prevails. In “The Sign” we have a person who is drawn to visit a church and is then asked by the Sexton if he can kiss his feet, or the two paragraph story “New Year’s Eve” where rawness, loneliness and compassion are profoundly portrayed, depth you can sometimes not find in works that run to 100’s of pages.
In Cynthia Steele’s “Introduction” she says “her opening are so memorable” and every single story sucks you in within a mere few sentences, a few examples:
I have led a solitary life for many years, a woman alone in this immense house, a cruel and exquisite life. That’s the story I want to tell: about the cruelty and exquisiteness of a rural life.
When I saw him brush her cheek with the whip, I knew what I had to do.
Great lovers don’t have children.
“Nocturnal Butterflies” is a story of procuring virgins for the master of the house to sleep with, “five hundred pesos in gold for your virginity. One night for two hours.” Or the story “The Mirrors” where we have a mother relaying the tale of her son’s exploits with sisters, one of whom is mentally impaired, she justifies her behaviour.
A collection full of predators, sexually and morally, these stories are a wonderful representation of Central American female writing. Dark, disturbing, but at the same time revelatory the sense of time, country, mores and the plight of the defenceless or innocent, in their pursuit of happiness is served up to you raw. As one of Arrendondo’s protagonists says;
I have a destiny, but it isn’t mine. I have to live my life according to other people’s destinies.
And to finish the collection we have “Shadow in the Shadows”; our protagonist opens up to us “When I turned fifteen Ermilo Parades was forty-seven.” A rich man Ermilo Parades tells us of the ppower of money “It can buy other people’s humiliation”. An outstanding story to conclude a wonderful collection.