October 1, 2014
The return to the short story
For the Herald
Claudio Zeiger publishes a remarkable, mostly first-person collection of short fiction
Can the short story be making a comeback, albeit in new form? For years, decades, the well-known, comforting, three-stage, start-development-end, piece that became a feature in weekend magazines and filled dedicated publications through the first half of the twentieth century was a mainstay reading feature for many. In the 1960s, the short story began to slip out of public fancy: the large commercial best-sellers and the television sit-coms displaced the old fiction.
The names of Erskine Caldwell (1903-1987), Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) or William Trevor, still going strong at 85, and so many more, come to mind as story giants of a different literary age.
Claudio Zeiger, Los inmortales (174 pages. Emecé)
Here at home the stories by Julio Cortázar (1914-1984) and Tomás Eloy Martínez (1934-2010), who has a posthumous collection of stories to be published these days, Tinieblas para mirar/Mists to See, printed by Alfaguara, are very much in demand. And then there is the perennial Abelardo Castillo, now close to 80, whose complete brief fiction was issued not long ago. Recent additions might be Fernando Iturrieta, whose nine stories on Buenos Aires in a state of “magic realism” were recently published under the collected title of El tiempo cruje/Time Creaks (Ditus), and prize-winning Claudia Piñeiro has just compiled a volume of stories by 14 women, Las dueñas de la pelota / Women Have the Ball (El Ateneo), all about football, obviously.
Last year, Juan Ignacio Boido, formerly a cultural journalist now a publisher, launched his first volume of short fiction, The Last Youth/ El último joven, which appeared as a major breakthrough in the return to and originality of the short story.
Now, newspaper colleague Claudio Zeiger has followed up in a remarkable and original mostly first-person collection of short fiction, Los inmortales / The Immortals (Emecé), whose title refers to the restaurant on Lavalle street (previously a café on Avenida Corrientes whose patrons were the best of the city’s lowlife poets and tango lyrics writers, perhaps with more legend than life). The opening item is an account of a gentle walk along Av. Corrientes one evening which the author’s father suggests they do together as a farewell to the street which at one time concentrated the cultural life of Buenos Aires. It is a parting with the street and the memory for the elder, but he is still able and thriving at 83.
The achievement in this start to the book is that the story conveys a facility to look at and listen to his father, as in the old man’s dismissal of parts of the street as “non-existent” because he did not like the stretch beyond the Obelisk towards Government House, or the rating of the bars that became generational hang-outs along with tetchy comments about times gone. The intimate atmosphere is carefully constructed, not an easy matter. Claudio Zeiger achieves a character sketch of his father and their relationship. It is a fact of life and literature that women writers usually prove better at pouring out all the gory — as well as loving — detail of their relationships with their mothers and/or daughters. Men writing are usually less competent in the management and delivery of feelings towards their fathers. One of the best pieces in this class in modern English, is John Mortimer’s play, A Voyage Round my Father (1984), which was made into a great film.
Another excellent piece is the sixth in this collection of 10, called The Bars and the Old Men. (It is evening, the day’s custom has parted, the young have gone to their meetings and gigs.) “The old men came to the bars. They seized tables as if a force unleashed on the city, with the surprising strength of youth reaching out for its beginnings.” Graphic and precise, like a story should be.
The series sustains a good level. Two stories are linked. The first of the two has a boy of about 10 meeting an orphan on a winter vacation in Córdoba. They become friends, the slightly older orphan turns into a protector of sorts, but they part after a week never to meet again. Years later, the narrator thinks he sees the orphan grown up sleeping rough outside the San Martín Theatre, on Avenida Corrientes. He walks by, avoiding, but guilty returns to check, and the sleeping body is gone. Two pages of brief questions about the man’s life list the matters that should have been asked of past and present. But there are no answers.
It’s great. Let’s hope the short story is making a comeback.