Reading Contemporary Latin American Fiction – ‘cruzar el charco’

It seems appropriate to begin this post with a word, since this reading and writing adventure takes place word by word, across time and continents. Our word for today is charco which means puddle in Spanish and is also a colloquialism in some Latin American countries referring to the Atlantic Ocean.

And cruzar el charco means crossing the puddle, a way of referring to when someone is leaving the country, taking a trip somewhere far from home, across the ocean.

And this is what I have decided to do in 2019, to take a literary trip across the ocean to Latin America, and I’ll be doing that with the help of Charco Press, a small press based in Edinburgh, creating a bridge of cultural discovery for us to access the richness of that new world with a guide to contemporary literature authors that will likely be unfamiliar to us all.

We select authors whose work feeds the imagination, challenges perspective and sparks debate. Authors that are shining lights in the world of contemporary literature. Authors that have won awards and received critical acclaim. Bestselling authors. Yet authors you perhaps have never heard of. Because none of them have been published in English.

Until now.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

So this year I have taken a subscription with Charco Press, so I don’t choose the books, I will read whatever they publish in their catalogue in 2019.

This will mean it’s not necessarily going to be something I might ordinarily read, I’ll be reading across borders and outside my comfort zone. But what a journey. No vaccinations required, no need for language classes, although we may still learn a few words along the way.

I have already read the first book and my review will be coming shortly, however, below are summaries of the six books I’ll be reading from this part of the world this year, in case you’d like to join me. As I read them, I’ll link my reviews back to this summary post.

Do let me know if any of these titles interest you, or whether you’ve read any other books published by Charco Press that you have enjoyed.

Click on the title to visit the Charco bookstore.

Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes (Guatemala) (tr. Ellen Jones)

In this highly original collection of interconnected short stories, the Guatemalan countryside is ever-present, a place of timeless peace yet also riven by sudden violence. The stories provide glimpses into the life of Don Henrik, a good man struck time and again by misfortune, as he confronts the crude realities of farming life. Over the course of these episodes we meet merciless entrepreneurs, hitmen, drug dealers and fallen angels, all wanting their piece of the pie. Told with precision and a stark beauty, in a style that recalls Hemingway, Trout, Belly Up is a unique ensemble of beguiling, disturbing stories set in the heart of the rural landscape in a country where violence is never far from the surface.

Feebleminded by Ariana Harwicz (Argentina) (tr. Annie McDermott & Carolina Orloff)

In Feebleminded, Harwicz drags us to the border between fascination and discomfort as she explores aspects of desire, need and dependency through the dynamics between a mother and her daughter, searching through their respective lives to find meaning and define their own relationship.

Written in a wild stream of consciousness narration in the best tradition of Virginia Woolf and Nathalie Sarraute, and embedded in a trend of elusive violence so ingrained in contemporary Latin American fiction, Feebleminded follows the pair on a roller coaster of extreme emotions and examinations into the biographies of their own bodies where everything – from a childhood without answers to a desolate, loveless present – has been buried.

Told through brief but extremely powerful chapters, this short lyrical novel follows Die, My Love (my review here) as the second part in what Harwicz has termed an ‘involuntary trilogy’.  An incredibly insightful interrogation on the human condition, desire and the burden of deep-rooted family mandates.

The Wind That Lays Waste by Selva Almada (Argentina) (tr. Chris Andrews)

The Wind That Lays Waste begins in the great pause before a storm. Reverend Pearson is evangelizing across the Argentinian countryside with Leni, his teenage daughter, when their car breaks down. This act of God – or fate – leads them to the home of an aging mechanic called Gringo Brauer and his boy named Tapioca.

As a long day passes, curiosity and intrigue transform into an unexpected intimacy between four people: one man who believes deeply in God, morality, and his own righteousness, and another whose life experiences have only entrenched his moral relativism and mild apathy; a quietly earnest and idealistic mechanic’s assistant, and a restless, sceptical preacher’s daughter. As tensions between these characters ebb and flow, beliefs are questioned and allegiances are tested, until finally the growing storm breaks over the plains.

Selva Almada’s exquisitely crafted début, with its limpid and confident prose, is profound and poetic, a tactile experience of arid landscapes, heat, squat trees, broken cars, sweat-stained shirts, and ruined lives. The Wind That Lays Waste is a philosophical, beautiful, and powerfully distinctive novel that marks the arrival in English of an author whose talent and poise are undeniable.

Loop by Brenda Lozano (Mexico) (tr. Annie McDermott)

Loop is a love story narrated from the point of view of a woman who waits for her boyfriend Jonás to return from a trip to Spain. They met when she was recovering from an accident and he had just lost his mother. Soon after that, they were living together. She waits for him as a sort of contemporary Penelope who, instead of knitting only to then un-knit, she writes and erases her thoughts in a notebook: Proust, a dwarf, a swallow, a dreamy cat or David Bowie singing ‘Wild is the Wind’, make up some of the strands that are woven together in this tapestry of longing and waiting.

Written in a sometimes irreverent style, in short fragments that at points are more like haikus than conventional narrative prose, this is a truly original reflection on love, relationships, solitude and the aesthetics and purpose of writing.

An Orphan World by Giuseppe Caputo (Colombia) (tr. Sophie Hughes & Juana Adcock)

In a run-down neighbourhood, in an unnamed seaside city with barely any amenities, a father and son struggle to keep their heads above water. Rather than being discouraged by their difficulties and hardship, they are spurred to come up with increasingly outlandish plans for their survival. Even when a terrible, macabre event rocks the neighbourhood’s bar district and the locals start to flee, father and son decide to stay put. What matters is staying together. This is a bold poignant text that interplays a very tender father-son relationship while exposing homosexuality and homophobia with brutal honesty. With delicate lyricism and imagery, Caputo is extremely original and creative producing a tale that harmoniously balances violence, discrimination, love, sex and defiance, demonstrating that the he is a storyteller of great skill.

An Orphan World is about poverty, and the resourceful ways in which people manage to confront it. At the same time, it is a reflection about the body as a space of pleasure and violence. Perhaps above all else, An Orphan World is a brutally honest love letter between a father and son.

The Adventures of China Iron by Gabriela Cabezón Cámara (Argentina) (tr. Iona Macintyre & Fiona Mackintosh)

(* China. Pronounced ‘cheena’: designation for female, from the Quechua. Iron: The English word for Fierro, reference to the gaucho Martín Fierro, from José Hernández’s epic poem.)

This is a riotous romp taking the reader from the turbulent frontier culture of the pampas deep into indigenous territories. It charts the adventures of Mrs China Iron, Martín Fierro’s abandoned wife, in her travels across the pampas in a covered wagon with her new-found friend, soon to become lover, a Scottish woman named Liz. While Liz provides China with a sentimental education and schools her in the nefarious ways of the British Empire, their eyes are opened to the wonders of Argentina’s richly diverse flora and fauna, cultures and languages, as well as to its national struggles. After a clash with Colonel Hernández (the author who ‘stole’ Martín Fierro’s poems) and a drunken orgy with gauchos, they eventually find refuge and a peaceful future in a utopian indigenous community, the river- dwelling Iñchiñ people.

Seen from an ox-drawn wagon, the narrative moves through the Argentinian landscape, charting the flora and fauna of the Pampas, Gaucho culture, Argentinian nation-building and British colonial projects.

In a unique reformulation of history and literary tradition, Gabriela Cabezón Cámara, with humour and sophistication, re-writes Martín Fierro from a feminist, LGBT, postcolonial point of view. She creates a hilarious novel that is nevertheless incisive in its criticism of the way societies come into being, and the way they venerate mythical heroes.

***********

Some promising, diverse explorations across this puddle, I do hope you might join me at one of these destinations!

Further Reading: Exposing the UK to Contemporary Latin American Literature

16 thoughts on “Reading Contemporary Latin American Fiction – ‘cruzar el charco’

  1. I think that’s a great project Claire. It’s so easy to stay in your own particular comfort zone (I know I do in mine) and so having a publisher to guide you probably helps a lot. I don’t know that I’ve read a Charco book yet, but I obviously should….

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    • Yes, I do like to take this option every now and then, I had a Peirene Press subscription for about three years, which I loved, but I was interested in reading a little further South this year and I do also appreciate that many of these works in translation are novellas, so they really are like a sample of different authors and countries. I hope you find something that appeals and join the club!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Charco can be used colloquially to means crossing any body of water such as the river Grande/Bravo between Mexico and USA or the Strait of Florida from Cuba or to Gibraltar from Spain. Cheers!

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    • Thank You! I love that concept. Even in English it wasn’t until I began teaching French and asked my students of they had been ‘overseas’ (and they asked me what that mean) that I realised it had a literal meaning as I met people who had been out of France into other countries (by car), but had never left the continent. For me, coming from New Zealand, to leave the country we would say without thinking, ‘going overseas’ because we have no choice when we come from an island, but to traverse the ocean. Although we wouldn’t say that to cross the channel between the two islands, North and South. Thank you for your explanation.

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    • No I haven’t Linda, thanks for mentioning it, I see it is hailed as a masterpiece. But that nicely illustrates one of the points Charco Press makes, in that if we ask most people to mention a book they have read by a Latin American author, most of are quoting authors who published works 30 years ago. We are hard pressed to recall contemporary Latin American authors who are renowned this century!

      Charco Press is out to change that, and I’m very happy to be introduced to these new champions of Latin American literature.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. That’s a great journey you are planning, and one I’m keen to involve myself in, at least to an extent. Just one problem. I tend not to buy a lot of fiction, relying on our (so far) well-stocked library. But well-stocked is unlikely to extend this far. I’ll have to start nagging!

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    • They are mostly novellas by the way Margaret, so if one happened to find it’s way into your home, it would hardly be noticed. My personal approach is to keep donating fiction to book sales, so my shelves have a reasonable turnover, the books get a less dusty life and the authors hopefully a little better known. I love sending my books on travels too!

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  4. Sounds like a really great project for you, Claire, one that fits well with your interests in translated fiction and learning about other cultures. I keep hearing great things about Charco Press, particularly from Grant over at 1streading.

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  5. Well I can only admire your drive to push yourself out of your comfort zone as you call it!! It sounds interesting way of doing that so will look forward to following what you read and you never know… I might just get to one of these Charco books in your wake and on the back of your sense of adventure!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Exactly! Let me be the trailblazer and you can decide if any of these destinations are worthy of pursuit. The first has been highly commended by many men, though I was a little wary of its Heminingwayesque comparisons, not being a fan of the man or his subjects, but wait and see, review coming shortly.

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      • Strangely enough I had exactly that reservation as an not a fan of Hemingway the author ( and from what I’ve read I’m even less of a fan of the man himself!) But you trailblaize and I’ll happily follow on!

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  6. Pingback: Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes (Guatemala) tr. Ellen Jones – Word by Word

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