Translated from Spanish by Janet Hendrickson
(Rochester, NY: Open Letter, 2012)
Recently I found myself in a first-class seat on a flight to Philadelphia. Normally when I travel, I am seated somewhere deep in the bowels of the plane, so as I always do when I’m in an unfamiliar place, I catalogued my surroundings, the little details the airline had decided upon as signifiers of a first-class experience. There was the bathroom up front that was reserved solely for our use, as the flight attendant informed the other passengers over the PA system. There was the cloth napkin she used to cover my tray table during the meal service—for that matter, the mere fact that there was a meal, and that it was actually edible, was itself a differentiator. But what stood out to me most was when the two flight attendants, a man and a woman, drew themselves behind a little curtain. Being nosy almost by constitution, I shifted in my seat and craned my neck to peer through the gap in the curtain. And that’s when I made my discovery: They were eating.
I spent much of the rest of the plane ride, in my extra wide, pleather seat, thinking about what it meant that the airline executives thought they needed to hide their employees’ basic human needs from me. The curtain was there to protect me from seeing that they were just like me.
It was on that flight that I began reading The Future Is Not Ours: New Latin American Fiction, an anthology of stories by twenty-three writers born between 1970 and 1980. First published as an electronic anthology by a Colombian magazine in 2007, then as a print anthology by an Argentine publishing house in 2009, these stories are frequently grim, even disturbing meditations on what it means to be human in an absurd and dehumanizing world. The editor is Diego Trelles Paz, born in 1977 in Peru, who has published the short story collection Hudson el redentor and the novel El círculo de los escritores asesinos and is a professor of Latin American literature and cinema at Binghamton University, State University of New York. In his introduction, Paz refers to the cynical disillusionment writers of his generation are known for, and many of the cultural moments he references are touchstones of my own adolescence and young adulthood, having been born in 1975: the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Tiananmen Square massacre, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the attack on the Twin Towers, the torture at Guantanamo. But as an American I’ve been relatively sheltered from these upheavals, with the exception of 9/11, experiencing them only as images on television or words in the newspaper. The writers in this anthology, Paz notes, were largely educated under the framework of military dictatorships, and many of their countries were ravaged by poverty, drug trafficking, and political repression during their formative years. Paz is interested in the way his contemporaries “face the act of writing” and describes the anthology as, among other things, “a response to a series of misconceptions associated with a demagogic idea, a slogan, proclaimed and repeated to the point of exhaustion, that the future belongs to the young.” Above all, there’s a strong current of violence throughout the anthology, but the effect isn’t like being a spectator to Hollywood violence, which is performed for your titillation. Rather, the violence in these stories is almost mundane, and what’s revealed is often both horrible and yet as ordinary and ultimately human as the two flight attendants behind the curtain, having their lunch.
Pintor, the narrator of Daniel Alarcón’s piercing story, “Lima, Peru, July 28, 1979,” has been killing dogs and stringing them up on lampposts during the earliest days of the Shining Path movement. He struggles to explain why, alternating between genuine pain and bemused cynicism: “You should know that I felt nothing for the dog other than steely blue-black hatred. I was cold and angry. Hurt by too many German philosophers in translation. Wounded by watching my father go blind beneath great swaths of leather, bending and manipulating each until, like magic, a belt, or a saddle, or a soccer ball appeared. Frustrated by an absurd evening spent killing and painting for the revolution.” Elias, the protagonist of Argentinian writer Oliverio Coelho’s “Sun-Woo,” has a similar befuddlement about his own behavior and motivations. During a visit to Seoul, he has a sexual encounter with a young woman named Sun-Woo, a stranger he meets in a restaurant. She seems like a fantasy he has conjured, until he realizes she has locked him in her apartment as her prisoner, with no way to escape. She disappears for days and returns on a schedule obvious only to her, leaving Elias naked on her floor, contemplating the particulars of his life: “How long had it been since he had bathed? How long since he had opened a book? How long since he had cried? He had never cried for a woman in his life.” The sex Elias has with Sun-Woo is violent; she injures him, possibly breaking his hip. Yet she has made him feel something, so it’s painful for Elias the final time she leaves: “When he understood that this time Sun-Woo hadn’t locked the door, he knelt down to cry.”
In several stories, the writers go even further than detachment; the self is obliterated altogether. In “34,” a story by Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra, the students at a prestigious school are referred to only by the number the teacher assigns them, which corresponds to their placement in alphabetical order. There are chilling echoes of Pinochet’s reign, of course, in which state-sanctioned institutions can make people disappear altogether. The story’s title character finds himself held back in school, a fact which changes his entire identity, yet he accepts it with resignation: “I appreciate your concern for me, but 34 no longer exists, he said. Now I’m 29, and I should get used to my new reality.” Identity is fraught in these stories; the self can be swallowed up, or it can expand to consume others. “Family Tree” by Andrea Jeftanovic tells of a father whose young daughter works relentlessly to seduce him after her mother abandons them. The girl is described as his aggressive pursuer, almost as though he is a victim, yet she is the one who disappears when they eventually begin a sexual relationship and he sees only himself, reflected: “On top of her, looking into those gray eyes, which were my gray eyes. I was kissing myself. I was caressing my own marked bones, I ran against my own aquiline nose, I traced my narrow forehead.”
As reflected in the anthology’s title, there is little hope or redemption in these stories, no glimmer of a better future. Their power lies instead in an unswerving insistence on telling the full truth of being human: the darkness and ugliness that resides within us, the daily incongruities that we ignore in order to make sense of our lives, and, above all, the desire for self-determination. One of the stories that stayed with me long after I finished reading the book was “Any Old Story” by Guatemalan writer Ronald Flores. His protagonist gets no more than the pronoun she, and the very title of the story both draws attention to its unremarkable nature while also reminding me how disturbing it is that pain can ever seem unremarkable. In many ways, it’s an old story: a young girl heads to the city, looking for something better: “She left town to improve herself, to become somebody[…] She knew that if she stayed any longer, her fate would be next to the fire, making tortillas, bearing children until her body dried up, keeping vigil through her husband’s drunken nights, and enduring his beatings.” She ends up working in a sweatshop, then raped by the foremen, then pregnant and fired in disgrace despite having done nothing wrong. In the story’s final two sentences—her only spoken lines—she gets a say in her future, and what she finally imagines is her own erasure. She tells her cousin, “‘If they ask for me, tell them that you haven’t seen me; the city swallowed me up. Make up any old story.’”