Reading through “Celeste Goes Dancing,” a collection of Argentine short stories, I came across a story called “Javier Waconda’s Sisters,” by Fernando Sanchez Sorondo. What a masterful tale. It seems very little of the writer’s work is translated into English, which means I really do need to learn to read Spanish with a little proficiency, if for no other reason than to read more of Sanchez Sorondo. While many of the stories in the collection are outstanding, this one stands out to me for three reasons:
1.) The author’s pacing. Sanchez Sorondo uses uncertainty in the story to create tension, yet brings instances and characters into view at an almost leisurely pace. Because the reader wants the uncertainty resolved (which of the title character’s sisters has died, something he must speculate about until he can travel to his parents’ home), we eagerly plow forward. The story continually slows that progress, building tension without killing it. I think this pacing issue is a very underappreciated aspect of fiction, and often those very bad stories we read are bad particularly because of pacing. The cheap boilerplate novels of third rate scribblers feel so third rate because we go from character introduction to explosions, secret ops bases, and kung fu masters in the space of a paragraph. Uncomfortably fast pacing is usually a result of stories constituted mainly of plot, not of character or much contemplation. On the other end of the pacing spectrum, we have the navel-gazing, lethargic, bloated and self-important novels of recently graduated MFAs who have overdosed on David Foster Wallace and now try to mimic him, often with dreadful – yet amusing – results. DFW had something to say, and that something took a bit of time (much like Javier Marías in that way, if not in style), whereas these books don’t. (I fear this will be a perfect description of my writing)
2.) The prose. Gorgeous stuff. Many writers can turn a phrase or two, but every paragraph? The story is only a few pages long, yet my marginalia was nearly as long. Some things I wrote, not very literary but honest, were: “Holy shit, this is good,” and “Where the hell has this writer been all my life,” and “I need to not read this in a public place. Weeping from beauty is still frowned upon,” and “who cares about shedding manly tears. This is amazing.” I wrote some quasi-intelligent commentary too, but that’s all pretty dry and technical.
3.) The story beneath the story. Hemingway famously described his iceberg theory as one of omission, where superfluous details are left out and only the immediate actions and settings are there, leaving the reader to construct the rest of the iceberg that makes up the “whole story.” While “Javier Waconda’s Sisters” is nowhere near as sparse as a Hemingway tale, there is a great deal of the iceberg still left below the waves. One interesting aspect of this submerged portion of the tale is the disintigration of the country of Argentina, which we see falling into ruins, dying in unknown portions, as the title character travels through the land by bus. Another aspect is the relationship Waconda has with his sisters, which is hinted at in recounted memories, conjuring speculations ranging from the grotesque to the sublime.
A wonderful story. Now, to work on learning Spanish.