Michael Dirda

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By Michael Dirda
Sunday, January 7, 2007

CASABLANCA AND OTHER STORIES

By Edgar Brau

Translated from the Spanish by Andrea G. Labinger,

Joanne M. Yates and Donald A. Yates

Michigan State Univ. 124 pp. $24.95

To translate derives from the Latin word for "to carry across," suggesting, at least to the poetically minded, images of travelers fording rivers or caravaning through deserts, their packs stuffed with all the sweets and silks of distant lands. From such intrepid men and women, we will hear tales of magical places like Macondo and Solaris, of a prince named Genji and a hero named Rostam. They will make us dream new dreams.

If all this sounds somewhat flowery or exaggerated, think back to 1962. In that year, Donald A. Yates -- one of the translators of Edgar Brau's Casablanca-- helped bring out a collection of stories by a largely unheard-of Argentine writer. That book was called Labyrinths, and its author was Jorge Luis Borges. Because of Yates's efforts (and those of Borges's subsequent translators), American readers discovered works of literature they can no longer do without, while critics found that they needed to redraw all their old survey maps of the territory of fiction.

For an Argentine writer, the influence of Borges must be hard to resist, and many of the pages in Casablanca call to mind the epistemological vertigo, that mix of the real and fantastic, so characteristic of the older master. Brau's stories, though, don't feel like imitations so much as further explorations of the same geography of the imagination. Most of them are quite haunting.

In the title story, the unnamed protagonist, caught in a storm on a lonely road, takes a hitherto unnoticed turn and soon draws up at a group of Moorish-looking buildings. A battered tin sign out front says "Casablanca." After parking, the driver seeks shelter in a shadowy room, glimpsing chairs and tables piled helter-skelter in the corners, just as a piano begins to play "As Time Goes By." "By the wall opposite the piano, a man in dark glasses (his face seemed familiar at first glance), a white jacket and black bow tie dozed, his chin resting on his chest." Somehow, the narrator has wandered into Rick's Café Americain from the film "Casablanca." Before he leaves, Sam the piano player will relate a strange tale about reality and illusion, about the pressures of history and the power and limits of art.

Each of Brau's stories can be crudely summarized as being controlled by a gimmick. In "The Prisoner," he takes the peculiar intimacy between torturer and victim to its logical end. In "The Calendar," a lonely man, forced into early retirement by a weak heart, visits the same bar night after night, mesmerized by the picture of a blond nude kneeling on a pillow. One night, he returns to his rented room to find the young girl on his bed, in the same pose as the photograph. In "Barcena's Dog," based on a historical incident, an army colonel compels an enemy prisoner to go about on all fours, to bark, to eat raw meat, to actually become a dog. "The Siesta" is a beautifully controlled conte cruel (it first appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine), while "The Journey" offers a dreamlike, somewhat Kafkaesque parable, in which an entire village is summoned by a bell to climb onto a mysterious train, "where every seat is the best seat."

Two of the longer stories actually present characters who recall Borges. In "The Buddha's Eyes," the narrator engages in a conversation about literature and fantasy with a blind man. "Between his legs rested a white cane and his eyes were concealed by large dark glasses. He looked to be around seventy years old. He was neatly dressed and his general appearance suggested a meticulous concern for grooming." Surprisingly, the blind man claims that "literature discredits the fantastic" and then describes, with some hesitation, how he lost his sight. It all began, he tells us, when he first glimpsed a small but exquisitely carved statue of Buddha in an old antique shop. For some reason, though, the Buddha's eyes had never been painted on. Before the end of the story, the narrator will describe a series of fantastic events, culminating in an erotic ritual involving a repulsive sorcerer, a beautiful blind girl and this same figure of the Buddha.

In "The Poem," the presence of Borges is even stronger. We learn that the Maestro, as he is called, reveres Anglo-Saxon writers, enjoys literary hoaxes and illusions and lives with an older, protective woman who might well be his mother. The narrator, searching for a gift to offer his hero, chances upon a somewhat burnt copy of Marlowe's "Dr. Faustus," which at first delights the Maestro. But gradually the book grows sinister, starts to invade the Maestro's dreams, even to prevent him from writing -- while also hinting at the existence of one supreme poem, encompassing all others. Has he been chosen to discover that poem? And at what cost?

Edgar Brau was born in 1958 and moved from the provinces to Buenos Aires when he was 10. According to Yates's introduction, he read voraciously as a boy but also played soccer and rugby and nearly pursued a career as a boxer. At the age of 18, he was drawn to the theater, soon acting and directing plays by Moliere, Chekhov and Shakespeare. In 1986, he won first prize in a short-story competition and decided to devote himself to literature, opening a small bookshop on the side. In 1992, his first collection was published, followed since by more than a dozen other books of poetry and short fiction. Casablanca and Other Stories is the first selection of his work to be published in English, but one hopes that others will follow soon. The atmosphere in Brau's fiction ranges appealingly from the mysterious to the claustrophobic, from the horrific to the lyrical and transcendent.

And even to the comically grotesque. In "The Blessing," the president of an unnamed country has taken to firing his revolver into the sky at dusk, as a way of working off the day's tensions. One night, a stray bullet accidentally wounds a little girl, who is rushed to the hospital, given first-class treatment and returned home in a chauffeured limousine, with a car full of gifts and the promise of a scholarship to the university. "When the automobile left later on, the neighbors departed from the modest house in silence; the grownups among them appeared deep in thought." Guess what happens next. ยท

Michael Dirda's e-mail address is mdirda@gmail.com.


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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