Granta issue 113 is the first time the magazine has put together a selection in a language other than English. This generation of young novelists writing in Spanish were all born in or after 1975, the year that marked the end of the dictatorship in Spain. Repressive regimes in South American countries would hold out for another decade, but unlike their predecessors, for these writers, censorship, blacklists, exile and persecution are historical facts, not memories. They have other preoccupations, including a texture of daily life that can include transfiguration. We thank Granta for permission to publish the following extracts from the work of two of the twenty-two authors in this refreshing volume - Alberto Olmos and Patricio Pron.
After 112 issues in English, Granta is publishing in Spanish for the first time.
Eva and Diegoby Alberto Olmos
It all started over a shop. The thought, I mean; the ideas. I explained my ideas to Diego at breakfast. I spend my days managing ideas at the newspaper and if I’ve an excess of anything, it’s ideas.
I told Diego that life’s capped. That’s what I said, it’s capped, and I put my hands over my cup of coffee in the shape of a small roof. It was Sunday, the paper was on the table and we’d both switched our mobiles on. Diego was wearing a T-shirt that said: A Great Day for Dads.
‘Tell me all about it, Eva,’ Diego said.
In fact, he didn’t say that. Not exactly.
‘Tell me all about it, Evita.’
That’s exactly what he said.
I found the ideas that brought me to this point in our own street. That’s what I told Diego. I suddenly got the sense that our street was just one mutation after another. There was an electrical goods shop in front of the entrance to our block, an old-style electrical goods shop. Toasters, microwave ovens, hairdryers; I bought one of everything there. But one day the business shut, and from then on I kept speculating about the kind of shop that would replace it. The temporarily empty, street-level window allowed me to glimpse an almost amniotic interior. Every day I could see a commercial structure gestating: a table, a counter, a few boxes, variously sized, mysteriously shaped packages. People moved around inside with what might be faces belonging to dentists, plumbers, lawyers, estate agents, florists . . .
Finally, a signboard emerged victorious with the words ‘Shoe Shop’.
So it was to be shoes. But you had to be quick, because the shoe shop went bankrupt after three months.
The process of total destruction and the next entrepreneurial pregnancy was repeatedly rehearsed by the front of the store. An ice-cream shop. I groaned. They can’t set up anything I don’t find tempting.
Six months later, a travel agency.
Four months later, a children’s clothes shop.
‘Don’t you think that’s a sign?’ said Diego.
‘I reckon so.’ The worrying clothes shop for children from 0 to 12 years old lasted one month and twenty-two days, but to me the message it preached seemed eternal.
I didn’t understand what was wrong with that space. Why none of the options worked in those two hundred square metres, as if passers-by and market opportunity couldn’t see eye to eye.
I expect the solution would have been to open another electrical goods shop . . .
I lost interest. And that was because an entire building came to dwarf the failure of a few small traders.
It was a building four blocks from our place that I really wished I could remember. But I can’t, because one day the building suddenly vanished.
I would walk past it on a Sunday when I went to buy the newspaper. The Sunday I noticed it was missing (how cute to say several tons of real estate went ‘missing’), it was raining. I was wearing a coat with a hood and walked the whole way looking down at the ground and dodging puddles. On the way back, however, I looked up, even though it was still raining just as hard. I wasn’t worried about sinking my shoes into the puddles as long as I could avoid seeing my face reflected.
I sank my shoes into a huge puddle and kept them there for ten minutes. I was terrified out of my mind standing opposite an empty plot.
A single thought went round my head the whole time I stood there with my high heels in water: what the hell used to be there? I’d walked down that street at least once a week for the last five years. I’d looked in the shop windows. I’d drunk coffee in several of the bars along the way. I’d made eyes at the gorgeous man who had usually just bought his left-wing paper as I was about to buy my right-wing paper. I knew that a red-headed girl lived in the blue house. I knew that there was a park with swings and two slides. I took care not to stain my skirt when they painted the benches green. I’d noticed several new rubbish bins. I’d noticed that two public telephone boxes had been removed. I’d occasionally got a whiff of a strange burning smell.
But that day, as I gazed into the huge, misshapen void, as ugly as a missing molar, I couldn’t remember how many floors the vanished block had had, the colour of its facade, the shops at street level (if there were any), if people looked over the balconies, if they hung clothes out to dry; if Spaniards or South Americans or ghosts without a homeland lived there; if I’d ever leaned against its walls to adjust my high heels; if Diego had ever mentioned that building in a conversation about someone or something; or at the very least if that building got wet, for Christ’s sake, when it rained.
I asked him, as soon as I was back. Diego, did you see they’ve demolished that building? What used to be there? Can you remember? Diego couldn’t remember. Why is it you can’t? Why is it I can’t?
Life’s got a cap.
And I thought, will this building, the new one, the one they’ll erect far too quickly after the plot’s been covered in rubbish and dog turds and drug addicts’ syringes and all kinds of shit, will it be the one that won’t be demolished one day, that will survive, that, in the end, will no longer watch me walk past to buy the newspaper or sit on a green bench that’s been repainted nine times? Will it be the building that can’t even remember that I looked it straight in the eye hundreds of times and was dumped there, dressed anyhow, with or without handbag, but alive?
I am such a plot.
I really don’t understand what you’re talking about, love. I’m sorry.’ ‘I’ll try to explain myself.’
‘I’m all ears.’
I told Diego about an experiment we’d just reviewed in the newspaper. It involved putting one person in a room by himself. It’s comfortable enough but has no facilities or means with which to communicate with the outside world. There is no window that looks out on life. There’s no television to bring in some kind of life. There’s nothing, apart from time.
The individuals subjected to the experiment hit levels of psychosis that can only be compared to levels inspired by the spectacle of real horror. When asked about the causes of their stress, grief or (in some cases) anxiety attacks, they all drew the same conclusion: nothing had provoked their anxiety attacks, their grief or their stress. Nothing.
Nothingness was how I read it and I told Diego so. Nothingness is real horror.
I did yoga once; I did aerobics. I did German and a course in another language I don’t remember now (not just the words in that language but which language it was). I spent whole evenings watching videos on the Net. Whole evenings searching for pornography. Whole evenings with an old friend, talking about things I can’t for the life of me recall now. I routinely went to exhibitions, until I got fed up. To the theatre, until I got fed up. To modern dance, until I got fed up. I did cordon bleu by correspondence. I did things; I do things.
‘We do things, Diego.’ But when I immerse myself in a new activity there always comes a moment when I wonder: whatever did I do before I started doing this? And I can never remember. And Diego can’t either. Yes.
Do we do things?
The building disappeared, and I couldn’t remember it. Now there was an empty plot, a plot that, very shortly, would be capped by another building in the same way that my aerobics classes on Saturdays were immediately capped by my German classes; I didn’t remember the building in the same way I can’t remember all those hours of aerobics, hours of German or hours of ridiculous languages: only a name that describes their absence.
Because an empty plot, sometimes, demands its own space.
You know what I always do in the cinema, Diego?’
‘You whisper: this film is revolting. That’s what you always do in the cinema, Evita.’
‘Yes, but I also do something else, a kind of prayer.’
‘You pray the film’s going to be a good one?’
‘No, I tell the film, “Get me out of here,” Diego. I tell the film that.’
And if it’s a good film, it does get me out of there. Like a good novel, an evening at the theatre or the 8,500 songs I now have on my iPod.
Like a shop. Particularly a shopping spree.
In fact, is there anything one can do in this world that doesn’t involve spending?
And that’s what I said to Diego: ‘Isn’t there anything one can do in this shitty world that doesn’t involve spending?’
‘Quiet, please. We’re talking.’
‘God’s Gonna Cut You Down’ by Johnny Cash was playing. I remember that because an enormous batch of CDs had just arrived in the editorial room; the release of which the record companies were hoping we would publicize. As usual, the editor-in-chief and I took advantage of our position in the pecking order to ransack that ton of free music before anyone else got near it. I just appropriated a couple of CDs (including the Johnny Cash); Rafael Presa took more than fifty CDs home with him.
Both Rafael Presa and I earned more than anyone else in our section. In fact, I earned more than anyone. We didn’t need to ‘steal’ the CDs and books; or the DVDs and concert tickets that arrived in the Culture section every day. But we did.
The fact that I took less advantage than Rafael Presa of my position wasn’t because I was more honest or generous than he was (generous in the sense that everything we stole or enjoyed could be enjoyed, if they were so lucky, by people – editors, interns – who really couldn’t allow themselves the weekly luxury of buying CDs or going to concerts or plays): it was down to the fact that I like spending money. I like buying things.
Particularly buying expensive things.
Because cheap things like bread, milk, paper and fruit are useful, the pleasure they give comes from the fact that you use them. The best part of bread is in the eating; the best part of a pencil is doodling in the margins of a newspaper. Besides, there is something moving in the constant company these more humble products provide. We could even say our daily bread is very tender, like a husband.
Nonetheless, expensive things are completely useless and never give more pleasure than when you are buying them. They are passions that perish. Like lovers.
‘I’m going to buy an iPod.’
‘What on earth is that?’
An iPod is an MP3 music player created by Apple in 2001 that has revolutionized the way we understand music. I, personally, no longer understand music.
I had a salary that allowed me to buy approximately fifteen iPods a month. My salary was then fifteen iPods a month, fifteen potential iPods a month, fifteen monthly temptations to buy an iPod.
Consequently, I was one of those people who just had to buy an iPod. I simply have to buy whatever they’ve just invented to be bought. I involve spending.
I bought the iPod out of boredom. But out of fear as well. Spending is about the fear of dying. Everything I’ve ever bought is a bet I place that I’ll keep on living. If I were going to commit suicide I wouldn’t buy anything; if I’d set the end of my life for 1 August I wouldn’t buy an iPod on 31 July. We buy because we want to be here for a lot longer, because what we acquire needs us alive. Things make claims on us. The meaning of life is simply that everything we buy is meaningless if we are dead.
Spending implies a future.
The day I bought my iPod, forty-five people died in a terrorist attack. When an important piece of news breaks, part of my section collaborates with the ‘affected’ section (National or International Affairs, usually); additionally, the Culture pages are reduced in number and, as the one in charge, I’m left with almost nothing to do. I’m bored and look out of the window.
The bombs exploded at 8.56 a.m. in a Madrid shopping centre. They were hidden in the changing cubicles on the women’s clothes floor. Thirty-two victims were women; twelve were children. Only one man died. Several dozen more were injured, in a similar ratio in terms of sex and age to those who had died.
Responsibility for the attack pointed to Arab terrorist groups. I saw one photo and refused to look at any more. A dummy clad in human flesh. The bomb had completely wrecked one individual’s body and her skin, bones and organs had splattered all over the front half of a dummy.
Journalism is essentially pessimism. I left the office before lunchtime.
To go spending.
I like buying new technology because it takes me quite a long time to realize it is pointless. I read the instructions, hit the keys, connect a cable here and another there, and feel as if I’m confronting a huge mystery I have to solve. And I enjoy it. Then there is no mystery, only a useless gadget I jettison in any old drawer.
I bought my iPod because the sales assistant was very handsome. The shopping centre was strangely devoid of people (or not so strangely: forty-five dead, after all). I’d decided to use the morning to pay Diego a visit, so I opted for the ground floor rather than the sixth. I take less time to buy a microcomputer or PDA than to buy a pair of shoes and the result is the same.
The sales assistant was very handsome.
I spotted him within five minutes. He was reading a magazine on the counter of his Apple stand. I have thousands and thousands of CDs at home and the last thing I’d have thought of would be to purchase a gadget that would force me to get rid of them all.
I assumed his drive to sell had been deactivated by the lack of customers. The least he could do was offer me a fucking iPod.
I walked past the young man again, much more slowly and nearer this time. He ignored me.
I finally went over to him. ‘Hello,’ I said. The young man took off his headset (I’d not noticed it) and smiled.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said.
His mouth was very sweet.
‘How can I be of help, madam?’
‘I’d like one of those.’
I pointed to the most expensive iPod on display. Indeed, I pointed at the price tag, not at the gadget itself.
The sales assistant headed over to the display cabinet. I gave him a good look up and down while he unlocked one of the glass doors.
He turned round and stared at me.
‘What colour would you like, madam?’
A few words on the life cycle of frogs
Sections X and XI
by Patricio Pron
While I was living in the apartment my friend had lent me, the living Argentine writer’s footsteps echoed over my head night after night, and I, who couldn’t sleep – not so much because of the noise of the footsteps themselves, which was negligible, but rather because of the conviction that I would be wasting my time doing anything but writing – I started to use these nights to write, running an absurd race against the living Argentine writer, about which he knew absolutely nothing, filling pages and pages with words that would some day be my answer to what the living Argentine writer had written, taking what he had written as a point of departure and then a few words on the life cycle of frogs going somewhere else, which was how he and others had written before and how I should have written, too, and others would after me. Sometimes I fell asleep, but as soon as I heard the footsteps, I went back to writing right where I left off, as if pushed by a command both superior to and preceding myself, who had acquired a sort of literary instruction destined only for me, apparently, a kind of literature class given only for my benefit and that could be summarized in just one word, repeated to the point of nausea: work, work, work. I worked. Little of what I wrote mattered; I myself have forgotten it. I knew that what I was writing wouldn’t be accepted even in the underground magazines – those that represented the saddest, most underground spectrum of the underground itself – where I’d published before, benefiting, I suppose, from the condescension with which certain prodigal souls praised the works of youth and imprudence – but I kept writing, and at some point, I had five or six stories, one of which was relatively good. No one died in it – a total novelty for me, of course – and it seemed no one came out scalded by some violent and terrible situation. Really, the story was like a dream, one of those placid dreams you have when you fall asleep under the sun and from which it is so unpleasant to wake up. The writers from the provinces are usually rescued from their dream of becoming writers, a terrible dream, difficult to abandon, when their parents die in the provinces and leave them an apartment or a small factory or, in the worst case, a widow and a few mouths to feed, and the writer from the provinces must return to his province, where invariably he ends up establishing a literary workshop; there, he preaches the goodness of the capital and convinces his students that there, in the capital, something really happens, and sooner rather than later, the students end up leaving for the capital, and so the whole cycle repeats itself, like the life cycle of frogs. I already knew that my parents wouldn’t die for some time, and however things went, I wasn’t going to abandon the dream of literature, I was going to keep dreaming, and this dream was personal and non-transferable and couldn’t be shared without the risk of being completely misunderstood, but I also knew that I’d accepted this misunderstanding and decided to resist it no longer and was willing to be dragged along by it, as if by a bad wind, wherever it wanted to carry me.
One day, the story that was a little less bad was accepted by an important magazine. Not by one of those magazines that projected themselves just above the underground, but an important magazine, one of those magazines where you supposedly only published if you knew one of the editors and had fucked them. Well, I didn’t know any of the editors, and as such, I hadn’t fucked anyone, but there I was, in that magazine, publishing one of the stories I’d written while listening to the living Argentine writer’s footsteps come and go all night from an imaginary shelf full of books to an imaginary desk, and these footsteps were a commandment and a lesson that only a mastery of technique, developed through incessant practice, made one a good interpreter of himself and others; that is, a writer.
A few days later, when enough time had passed to be some while, and my story had been published in the magazine where you could publish only if you knew one of the editors and had fucked them, and when I’d written other stories and had published two and been selected for an anthology of young writers, one of those anthologies whose table of contents one rereads ten years after its publication and feels fear and sadness, I found myself once more with the living Argentine writer, and I worked up the courage to interrupt a conversation about the woman who hadn’t come to clean the stairs for two weeks, and I told him that I listened to him every night. I don’t remember how I said it exactly, but I remember the words ‘nights’ and ‘apartment’ and ‘write’ and ‘I know’ and ‘writer’, and I remember his bewildered, worried face, and now I actually do remember that he answered his son had a fever, and he’d spent his nights dozing on the couch and getting up a few times a night to take the boy’s temperature or simply curl up at his side and think that everything would pass quickly. He also told me that during those days he hadn’t been able to write anything, and for the first time in his life, this hadn’t mattered to him at all. I lowered my head and asked him how the boy was now, and he said fine and showed me a truck he’d just bought him. The truck was red and had a hose, and it came with a few firefighters who seemed ready to cross the flames of hell to save a boy from sickness and death. I stood there, not knowing what to say, and the living Argentine writer even had to give me a light push so that I ’d leave the elevator for my apartment. A few weeks later, I left the country, and a little while later the living Argentine writer did, too. He kept writing, and so did I; and at the source of all of that was an involuntary education and a mystery and a commandment that I ’d learned from him without his knowledge and that I ’d never tell him, no matter how many times I ran into him again. Once, though, I asked him if he’d had a secret teacher, too, someone to imitate at least through a total surrender to literature and its contradictory demands, and the living Argentine writer handed me a copy of a book by a dead Argentine writer and smiled and I, at least this once, I thought things always happened this way, that the writers we love often serve us through their comfort and example without their ever knowing it, and in this sense, they’re as imaginary as the characters or lands they imagine and people.
Thanks go to Granta's Saskia Vogel