Saturday, June 14, 2014

Medardo Fraile: Things Look Different in the Light

Things Look Different in the Light is the first selection of work by the late Spanish writer Medardo Fraile to be translated into English, permitting Anglophone readers access to these unusually delightful, lucid, short, intimate stories, contemporary yet as resonant as old folktales. Though the book is but 220 pages long, it contains nearly 30 stories, some as brief as three pages. Despite their brevity, Fraile’s stories contain worlds, and are marked by a distinctive, singular style, a lightness of touch, and a sense of wonder at the marvelous strangeness of what’s around us. Fraile finds his subject matter in the quotidian, in the micro rather than macro (or so it might seem, anyway), in the delicate, nuanced interactions between people, whether intimates or strangers. Even the titles of his stories suggest this closeness to the everyday: “The Shirt,” “The Chair,” “The Car,” “The Lemon Drop,” “Restless Eyes,” “What’s Going On in That Head of Yours?” One feels in his stories the magnitude of the minutest event, how it can alter perceptions, directions, even whole lives.

One could describe Fraile’s stories as quirky, but their subject matter rests squarely within reality – or, on the occasions when they knock at reality’s borders, within the real, idiosyncratic musings of his characters. Had Gogol chosen to forego his absurdist elements and allow the day-to-day to work its own magic, he might have written stories like these. A telling passage in “The Last Shout,” a grandmother speaking with her grandson, seems to underscore this faith in the sufficiency of reality:

The thing is that miracles happen so often, they seem normal to us, the morning comes then the night, the sun and the moon rise and set, the earth gives us harvest after harvest, and we say, ‘I’ll do that tomorrow’ and tomorrow we’re still alive to do it. My dear, you’re right: reality is a miracle.

Without trumpeting any deliberately meta-fictional intention, Fraile nonetheless manages to make many of his stories about the fragility of language and texts, of all kinds of communications. In “Full Stop,” a teacher, having forgotten his dictation assignment, decides to have his students take dictation from a personal letter the teacher is trying to write. He then pauses at the end of the class when they want to erase from the blackboard those

words that only a moment before had been unknown to them and even distant and worthy of respect…They want to erase them, to erase me, to discard the tender, unctuous, white splendour of those words, to reduce them to dust, to cast them to the winds like so many dead cells hampering their growth...

In “That Novel,” a worker changing jobs bemoans leaving behind a friendship with a co-worker who, regardless of the topic, always mentions the single novel he once read, one that contained “everything important, or unimportant – in richer, livelier, more memorable form.” The departing co-worker finally decides to ask his friend the question he’s always wanted to ask, the title of the novel, only to be told that his friend can’t remember. In “The Bookstall,” a character is mysteriously drawn to the physical decay of books in a poor bookseller’s rain-soaked stall, and lives “in hope that one day a novel would simply crumble to dust in his hands.”

Fraile’s range is surprisingly broad, from stories of marital relations that called to mind James Thurber to fleeting encounters between strangers that underscore one’s fundamental solitude. There’s even a kind of oriental fable, and an exquisite evocation, in “The Sea,” of the phenomenological experience of being by the ocean. “An Episode from National History” brings a sudden intrusion of the “macro” world, with its piercing evocation of the Spanish Civil War, when “the offended parties on both left and right decided to improve Spain by destroying it.” One of my favorites in the collection is the first story, “Berta’s Presence” (“presence” is an operative concept in many of these tales), in which a young man, Jacobo, makes the obligatory visit to see his friends’ baby on the occasion of her first birthday and is brought up short by the child’s demands on life. He can see that Lupita, with her whole life before her, expects him to say exactly the right thing, and he remains silent while inwardly seeking the perfectly crafted words that will meet the child’s rigid expectations:

Lupita was momentarily ignored and she remembered that, before Berta had arrived, someone else had been about to speak to her. And she turned her head, looking at everyone there, one by one, until she found him: Jacobo. Eyes wide, gaze fixed on him, she urged him to say his sentence.

It’s a story that offers tremendous deference and respect to children – and to the importance of communication.

One emerges from Fraile’s small stories with an amplified awareness of the impact of one’s smallest actions, of the myriad ways a word or gesture, a glance, an accidental sighting of something or someone, can transform a moment, often without our knowing exactly what the consequences may be. These are deceptively simple, slyly penetrating stories, full of charm, full of traps. You too may find yourself changed.

Things Look Different in the Light, by Medardo Fraile, is translated by Margaret Jull Costa and published by Pushkin Press, 2014.