Book Review

New Penguin Parallel Text Short Stories In Spanish ed. John R. King

reading some Spanish prose... right next to a translation...

In case you haven’t noticed, me and my dog are in Spain now, and one of the things I’m trying to do – while sorting myself a highigh-quality tefl qualification – is actually practice my Spanish.

My Spanish abilities haven’t accelerated in the way I’d hoped they would, though knowing I’d be spending 40 plus hours a week learning how to teach English probably should have given me a bit of a clue. So though, yes, I am having lots of small interactions in Spanish and, sometimes, some actual conversations, I’m not quite as immersed as I need to be for my grasp of the language to balloon. I’m reading in Spanish, but it’s hard for me, and I’m slow. So I abandoned the poetry collection I was trying to get into and instead pulled this book, New Penguin Parallel Text Short Stories In Spanish, out of the pile of to-be-read books that it has been in for probably longer than half a decade.

I bought this book ages and ages and ages ago, back when I was studying Spanish at Birkbeck, which I did for two academic years from the autumn of 2012.

As you will have noticed, if you’re reading this blog, I like to read. I enjoy learning about other people’s lives in a way that normalises my own experiences, or offers me an emotionally-charged escape from them. Reading is one of my favourite pastimes, so it made sense that becoming able to read for pleasure in a second language was something I was keen to do as soon as possible. However, I was nervous and anxious and didn’t really have the freedom to study, so though I bought this very soon after beginning to learn Spanish, it has remained unread for many years. Not now, though, now it has been read.

It’s a 1999 collection (edited by John R. King) of ten short stories, all of which contain the original Spanish on the even-numbered pages of the book, plus recent translations printed parallel on the right hand (odd-numbered) pages. Some of the writers in the selection are very well known – we’re talking Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Marquez, Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes, Javier Marías – while others I had heard of but knew nothing about (Antonio Muñoz Molina, Juan Benet, Julio Ramón Ribeyro), and two more were fresh names to me (Soledad Puértolas, Laura Freixas). All of them were active in the latter half of the twentieth century, and the English translations come from John R. King, Clive Griffin, Eric Southworth, Margaret Sayers Peden, Edith Grossman and Alfred Mac Adam. The introduction discusses how Penguin had released similar collections to this earlier in the century, and this book was meant to contain a more even spread of Latin American and “Peninsular” Spanish writers. The stories are arranged in order of “complexity of language”, which I felt far more than I had hoped to. Basically, the first six or seven stories I read in Spanish with only occasional glances to the English to confirm the odd unfamiliar word, but by the end – the pieces by Cortázar and Benet – I was lost. These writers played with voice and shifts in perspective that I wasn’t ready to handle, and the end of the book became dispiriting, which was a shame because it was quite thrilling how comfortable I felt reading – for example – Allende (who I’ve always LOVED in translation), Marías and Marquez. So, yes, though the language within the book got to the point where reading it shifted from a challenge to a chore, I very effectively managed to use my leisure time over the last few days to do something genuinely beneficial to myself. While reading over the last few days has been harder than usual, it has also been practising my Spanish, it has not only been improving my ability to read, but it has been exposing me, more and more, to grammatical structures that I will be able to better understand in conversation, going forwards.

Cubby chillin’ out in Gaudi’s Park Güell

In terms of the content, it was a mixed bag. I think the 7-3 male:female ratio was a bit of an anachronistic error, and I think there was a rather butch thread running through more than one of the pieces. The Gabriel García Marquez piece is [not untypically] about a sex worker, the opening story (Soledad Puêrtolas) normalises the sexual availability combined with sexual passivity of a professional woman, however Laura Freixas’ story is a very post-modern, Mantissa-esque piece of meta-fiction that my undergraduate self would have lapped up. The Molina is a piece that inelegantly waives between sleaze and morality tale as it describes an office drone lusting after a young woman he sees in his regular café (who then dies of a heroin overdose in the toilets), while Cortázar’s sinister, crime-capery piece confused me in translation almost as much as in Spanish. The Juan Benet piece was about an academic returning to teaching post-retirement, and the complexity of language (this was the final piece in the book) matched the intelligence and presumed language used by the academic characters, so this was probably the piece where my enjoyment levels varied most severely between original and translation.

The Allende was – as always – a gorgeous piece of writing, about a native tribe in the Amazon avoiding colonialists; the Fuentes was a middlebrow piece about a mean old lady befriending her Mexican maid; Ribeyro’s story was an engaging piece about a literary tea party where the guest of honour never arrives, while the Marías tells a sinister story about a haunting on a honeymoon. I think King’s choice of stories somewhat disappointingly plays towards stereotypes of Latin American writing, however there was a lot here I enjoyed, and not much that I didn’t enjoy that didn’t – at least – make me feel good about myself for kinda understanding.

Probably none of you will read this book, and for that reason I imagine this will be a perennially under-read blog post. But that’s fine, fuck it. I got very disappointing numbers on my recent Leonard Cohen post, so who says you weirdos like me writing about famous people? Buenas noches.


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