Fresh Stories

'Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction' intros readers to living writers from across the border

Having edited a few fiction anthologies myself, I know how difficult it is to "market" a story collection that doesn't offer at least a few "famous" names: You're introducing yet another collection of unknown writers into bookstores and the Internet.

Chances are, though, that a recognizable literary talent is already dead—hence the cliché of great writers toiling in obscurity until being discovered years later, when their efforts are finally lauded, taught in university classrooms and widely anthologized. This is the challenge that confronts a book like Álvaro Uribe's Best of Contemporary Mexican Fiction. It features 16 writers, all of them born after 1945 (which means they still walk the Earth), and all of their stories presented in a bilingual format—Spanish text on the left page, English translation on the right.

While I've never really understood the point of bilingual editions, except to improve language instruction and translation, Dalkey Archive has done an absolutely beautiful job of designing and presenting this book for the lay reader—or at least those of us who may be interested in what the new Mexican fiction looks, sounds, feels and tastes like, especially since many of these writers (journalists, academics, editors, translators and small publishers) are located not that far away and merit attention.

Uribe's anthology confirms that these writers deserve a vast readership. Guillermo Fadanelli's "Questioning Samantha" was the first story that really smacked me upside the head, in a pleasant way, as it relates a humorous slice of the life of protagonist Adolfo. Adolfo is a newspaperman still struggling to cope with the death of his wife and to raise his 11-year-old daughter, Samantha, who has been causing, well, big problems at her school. As Adolfo's day wears on, and he mentally retrieves the psychic pain his new boss has inflicted on him in the last week, the reader is immersed in the day-to-day challenges of a simple man who succeeds in standing up for his daughter when he can't even take care of his appearance. ("Yes, Dad, and you have to get a haircut," says Samantha.) Fadanelli does neo-realism better than most of his international peers.

If your taste runs more toward the fantasy-horror side of the literary spectrum, you will undoubtedly enjoy Ana Garcia Bergua's "The Preservers," about a widow named Marta. Marta adores her deceased husband Pablo so much, she has her embalmer buddy preserve Pablo and, instead of burying him, she props his dry, waxy corpse in front of the TV:

The first thing that Señora Marta did with Pablo was seat him in the sewing room and turn on the television. She felt such a peace after she did it that she ate well for the first time in many weeks, listening to the murmuring of the news and feeling again the presence of the man who had been with her for so many years. At first, she was a little afraid to turn off the television, close the door and go to bed, leaving Pablo seated, alone and upright in the shadows. But little by little, the routine made her lose her qualms.

Rather than veer in a predictably supernatural direction, Garcia Bergua infuses her tale with dark hilarity, as Marta's embalmer friend visits with his girlfriend, a woman who shows more than an, um, acceptable interest in Pablo. Jealousy ensues, with all the bitter recriminations of a relationship between the (living) sexes. Like a mutant hybrid of Jorge Luis Borges, Edgar Allan Poe and a sordid telenovela, "The Preservers" grabs the reader's imagination and never lets go.

Another first-rate story in Mexican Fiction is Jorge Hernández's "True Friendship," which is more (Herman) Melvillean in its anxieties about isolation. Here, a New York Jew named Samuel Weinstein continues to cultivate well into adulthood the fictional accomplice of Bill Burton, upon whom shortcomings and missed appointments are blamed. I won't give away the ending except to suggest that Sam gets a surprise visitor.

Each of the 16 stories is worthy of inclusion and eloquently translated into English (by 16 different translators). From time to time, I found myself comparing the Spanish text with the English version, looking for clues as to how each piece might have been approached in terms of word choice and syntax. Uribe, an editor associated with the National Autonomous University of Mexico, has honored contemporary Mexican literature and Mexico's top storytellers—unknown for now, but not for much longer.