Illustration by Claire Hungerford
The three spanish-language writers in this folio share a thrilling unpredictability. From one book to the next, their work has remained magnificently unclassifiable, mixing up fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry.
Their lives, too, resist easy categorization. Nona Fernández and Alejandro Zambra are both Chilean, although Fernández has called herself “an uncomfortable Chilean,” and Zambra resides in Mexico City. Cristina Rivera Garza grew up in Mexico but has lived for long stretches in the United States and currently directs the creative writing program at the University of Houston.
I have long admired these writers for their daring experimentation with narrative uncertainty. Their stories acknowledge their own authorial fallibility, inviting readers into the creative act of imagining other versions, with alluring narrative holes of their own.
Zambra’s “Penultimate Activities” is the most explicitly metafictional. The opening paragraphs contain instructions for a writing assignment that becomes increasingly existential, raising questions about literature, God, and the psychic toll of putting anything to paper.
One of my favorite novels by Fernández, Chilean Electric, a book not yet available in English, is excerpted and translated here as “The Illumination of Santiago.” Its first line signals that we are reading recollections of someone else’s memories. The narrator reconstructs her grandmother’s descriptions of the night when electric streetlights first illuminated Santiago, Chile’s capital. She describes her grandmother’s wonder, observing other people outside in the dark for the first time, but also how the streetlights mark the moment that Santiago “started cheating with time.” The narrator continually admits that her version of what occurred that night may not be reliable, that someone else might remember it differently.
In Garza’s story, when the narrator arrives at his estranged mother’s house, he also becomes estranged from specificity. His emotional distance from his mother has stripped him of words to describe his own life with any particulars. He describes himself through negation, arriving from an unidentified “somewhere else.” Where they are now is up for question, too. His mother tells him she feels at odds with the very air they breathe.
The question of narrative certainty vs. uncertainty has had a strong presence in Spanish-language literature for centuries. The Old Spanish term certanedad derives from the Latin certanitatem for “full assurance of mind.” It’s deeply embedded in Don Quijote, considered to be the first modern novel in Spanish. The influence of Don Quijote—with its myriad metafictional layers and Cervantes’ delight in drawing attention to Quijote’s uncertainty of mind—is notable in this trio of writers who are influencing the trajectory of Spanish-language literature today.
Translation adds another layer of uncertainty to the stories in this folio. The very air of a narrative changes with translation. The reader breathes in the words of another mind living “somewhere else.” Megan McDowell and Sarah Booker both translate with remarkable vividness and precision. I remain ambivalent about a few words in my translation of Fernández’s story—the verb, for example, I chose for the lengthening of a shadow along a city wall. All translations, however, are provisional, which is what makes them fascinating. There’s always the prospect of some other person recreating the same words anew, at another point in time. These three stories certainly merit further interpretations that recreate, as the translations do here, the dynamic ambiguities that make a work of literature come alive.