The Big Read has selected an impressive list of books for its literary programs and reading events. Many of the authors are familiar and expected: Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dashiell Hammett, Ray Bradbury, Willa Cather, Rudolfo Anaya, Zora Neale Hurston, Edgar Allen Poe. Novels prevail, with some poetry and a couple of plays thrown in the mix. The unexpected but welcome selection has to be Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories. And wouldn't you know it - the fiction in this anthology is superb.
The editor's Introduction proposes that "perhaps literature is the best lens through which to observe Mexico's soul. And of all genres, perhaps the short story is the vehicle best suited for rendering snapshot scenes, actual places, words that have been shared by generations or forgotten by time, and above all, flesh-and-blood portraits of Mexicans that are perfectly credible -- even when they're no more than inventions of ink on paper -- whose biographies are eternal, precisely because they've been read." I agree. The editor has done a marvelous job of selecting stories that offer “snapshot scenes”of Mexico’s soul. This slim volume indeed portrays a land and people authentically, with passion, agony, insight, and smooth prose that blisters the heart.
One reason I enjoyed this collection is that the short story is my preferred format for reading. A well-written or well-told story has the ability to capture a truth, a reality, an essence that, when finally revealed, is powerful and beautiful, accomplished with a rationing of words and no waste of skill. The author has to “start late and finish early.” He or she has to have the ability to cut back and trim, to get to the core of the tale without excess or fat. The reader has to trust the writer and participate; fill in the gaps, make the assumptions and complete the thoughts that are essential to the narrative but not necessarily found on the page. And both must believe in the essential humanity of the characters so that when the final sentence is reached, writer and reader can sit back and say, with appreciation, “that’s the way it is and that’s all there is.” Each of the 20 stories in Sun, Stone, and Shadows satisfies in all these ways, and more.
I’m not as familiar with Mexican fiction, especially short stories, as I should be. I’ve read Carlos Fuentes, Octavio Paz, and Paco Taibo. I periodically re-read Pedro Páramo by Juan Rulfo. Other than that, my education is lacking any real understanding of the history and evolution of Mexican fiction. Sun, Stone, and Shadows provides a broad sampling of some of Mexico’s greatest writers, thus improving my knowledge immensely and painlessly. The writers selected for this anthology include well-known masters such as Fuentes, Paz, and Rulfo, as well as revered or lesser-known names including Alfonso Reyes, Martín Luis Guzmán, Rosario Castellanos, Juan José Arreola, and Sergo Pitol. The framework for selection limited the stories to works of authors born in Mexico from 1887 to 1939. They are, as noted by the editor, a sample of the best Mexican literature published during the first half of the twentieth century.
The book is divided into five sections: The Fantastic Unreal; Scenes from Mexican Reality; The Tangible Past; The Unexpected in Everyday, Urban Life; and Intimate Imagination. In these sections the reader meets every class and variety of Mexican, a “kaleidoscope” of “flavors and colors” as Hernández writes. The effect can be overwhelming.
For example, Carlos Fuentes is represented by Chac-Mool, a sinister fable based on a journal of a doomed, middle-class man who dares to “collect” a life-size statue of the god of rain and thunder. This trip into the fantastic plays out against the ongoing clashes between Mexico’s pre-Hispanic past and its struggle for modernization. Needless to say, the story does not end well for the office bureaucrat.
One of my favorite pieces is The Mist by Juan de la Cabada. The storyteller says that ever since he became rich he hasn’t been any good at telling stories. And then he launches into a story that holds the reader in a firm, relentless grip. On a foggy and rainy night, and against his better judgment, the man helps out “four miserable Indians, the kind you recognize immediately as being prototypical construction workers: half industrialized, half men of the fields.” He provides a ride, but soon regrets his benevolence. The oldest Indian mumbles almost incoherently, questioning how deep the rain will seep into the ground, trying the rich man’s patience. The author might have taken the story in a predictable direction, but, instead, in six short pages he manages to reveal a profound tragedy that is personal to his characters, of course, but also one that stamps the reader’s mind with “the mist, the mystery, the darkness of the road.”
A bit further into the book we meet The Medicine Man, lord of the Caribe Indians of Puná, created by Francisco Rojas González. The narrator is some type of observer, an anthropologist perhaps, who describes a visit with the Kai-Lan, chief of the Puná, and the chief’s three wives. In straightforward detail we read how a flood almost destroys the village, and how the chief is forced to create one new clay god after another in his attempts to ward off the rushing river. On the surface, a simple, parochial story; and yet – universal themes of jealousy, pride, luck versus opportunity, and humanity’s conflicting relationship with the natural world shine through González’s story.
These 20 stories present soldiers, poets, lovers, dying old men, and coming-of-age young women. There are existential puzzles, revenge plots, and bloody slices of history. The triumphs, failures, and contradictions of the Revolution are presented in stories such as The Carnival of the Bullets by Martín Luis Guzmán, and Permission Granted by Edmundo Valadés (another favorite if for no other reason than that justice finally is served, albeit belatedly and ironically.) Humor, often black, is found in The Dinner by Alfonso Reyes, Cooking Lesson by Rosario Castellanos (a mighty protest against the old Mexican machista, as noted by the editor), Tachas by Efrén Hernández, What Became of Pampa Hash? by Jorge Ibargüengoitia, and even in the ultimately bleak, The Shunammite by Inés Arredondo. Bittersweet nostalgia has its place in The Square by Juan García Ponce and August Afternoon by José Emilio Pacheco.
As you no doubt can tell, this book was a revelation to me. I recommend it highly and suggest you pick up a copy soon; at $10 it’s more than a bargain.
And so, all that got me to thinking about other categories of “great short stories.” For example, how about 20 Great Chicano Short Stories? Totally subjective and bound to produce fistfights, bloody noses, and impaired egos, what stories written by Chicanas or Chicanos in the past 50 (?) years would you put on such a list? H-m-m-m …