Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Review: Manuel Rivas. Vermeer's Milkmaid.

Translated from the Galician by Jonathan Dunne. Woodstock NY: Overlook Press, 2008. 

Michael Sedano

Manuel Rivas packs sixteen stories into the one hundred twenty pages of Vermeer's Milkmaid. Translated in Ireland into that nation's dialect, there's not a lot to say about Rivas' writing. The translation captures numerous puns and other instances of word play that must reflect what Rivas wrote in Galician.

The stories can be strange, very strange, or oddly surrealistic. There's not a lot of connective tissue in the stories; an incident here, a reminiscence there, and a lot of abrupt transitions into the "here and now" of a story. 

Rivas uses abrupt time shifts, diverse points of view, sometimes from inanimate objects, to narrate his tales. Always with a lot of trust that his reader will know where the story is at any particular moment or paragraph. Typically, a story appears a straightforward narrative but then it ends with a twist. Rivas specializes in twists.

"What do You Want With Me, Love?" opens the collection. A lovesick swain dreams of intimacy with a woman he admires only from a distance. He goes to the "hypermarket" where she works, making purchases that excuse his presence while allowing him a few moments conversation with the woman. In his eyes, she's so graceful she moves as if on roller skates. The character skates through the story of the narrator's inept bank robbery, in which the narrator is shot in the back attempting his escape. The narrator, in fact, is dead, and tells the story looking through the glass of his coffin.

The second story, "Butterfly's Tongue," is the least surreal of the collection. A schoolboy finds a caring mentor in his teacher. The pair collect butterflies and other insects. But it's 1936 and Spanish civil authorities clamp down with martial law on the boys town. On a Red hunt, the authorities round up their suspects, the mayor, unionists, a librarian. And the teacher. As the trucks drive off with the prisoners, the boy's mother, fearful that authorities will sense the relationship between the teacher, the boy, and the boy's father, encourages her husband and son to hurl epithets like the other townspeople, "Traitors! Criminals! Reds!" When the boy joins in, he chases after the trucks, searching for the teacher's face to be called traitor. When all the boy sees is dusty road, he stops and feebly shouts words he's learned to love from the teacher he loves, "Toad! Bowerbird! Iris!"

"A White Flower for Bats," the antepenultimate story, shows Rivas at his most trusting. Trustful of his readers. The narrative opens with a small boy named Dani scrubbing out his grandfather's wine vats. If there's a dirty spot in the barrel, Dani's nose will find it and clean it up. The point being that Dani grew up to be a cop, and his nose never steers him wrong. The cops are out to sea on a patrol mission when they interrupt a drug deal. It's a tiny boy left behind on a vessel filled with white powder--perhaps cocaine, and perhaps the white flower for bats. The cop, Dani, takes the boy's place to wait for the drug runners. But then he smells fire and escapes with his life to the imagined laughter of "Don," a major criminal whom Dani has never been able arrest. With good cause; the top cops are Don's protectors.

Dani is transferred to a neighborhood station. One evening, an old woman comes in with a complaint. The other cop on duty ignores her, laughing that Dani will have to handle the neighborhood crazy. A television character is out to kill her. She tells Dani he looks like a good person, which is how Dani feels about himself. He takes the woman home to comfort and reassure her. After she goes to bed, Dani stares at the photos on the walls and furniture. It's the old woman with Don. Don as a young man. Don with a fishing trophy. The bothersome old woman, nuisance to the local police, is Don's lonely mother. The story ends with Dani driving the mother to her son's home, where he tells the crook to look after his mother.

The twists and ironies that fill these pages bring lots of fun to a few short hours. There is not a dud in the collection. Yet for all this, I have a strange relationship with Rivas' world. For one thing, other than the 1936 story, time and place aren't well defined. The stories may have happened yesterday or several generations ago. I like to know where I am in time and space, but Rivas will provide little orientation.

Perhaps it's the original writing, or the translation, but reading this collection is a lot like watching a tableau unfold as opposed to sitting on the edge of your seat in a good play or movie. For some reason I kept seeing myself in the old Disneyland/General Electric "Carousel of Tomorrow," where audiences sit watching animatronic characters mouth the script and when the scene is over, the whole house rumbles and rotates to the next set of puppets with parallel messages. 

The metaphor is a bit unfair because Rivas gives his readers variety and curious events that we observe at a safe distance and emerge, either happy to have seen them, or shaking one's head that Rivas dropped a good surprise before you noticed it headed your way.

Late-Breaking News for Los Angeles Gente

Click on the image for a larger size and to read about the event at USC featuring four outstanding writers. Hector Tobar, Helen Viramontes, and Dana Johnson, moderated by Erin Aubry Kaplan.

Uau. The last Tuesday of the second month already. See you in March.


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