On these hot days it can be hard to find the energy for Proust or "Infinite Jest" when just getting through the newspaper is a challenge. Here are some short tales for summer attention spans.
Five hundred years of Latin American short fiction in fewer than 500 pages: Now that's efficient. The Oxford Book of Latin American Short Stories, edited by Roberto Gonzalez Echevarria (Oxford, $19.95), begins not long after Columbus's intrusion into the so-called New World. The first section, "The Colonial Period," draws heavily on the histories composed by friars and officials. Native voices are sparser (understandably), though there is an excerpt from the Popul Vuh, which records "the creation myths of the Quiche Maya, one of the groups that commanded the Guatemalan Highlands when the Spanish arrived."
One of the most intriguing pieces in this section -- "The Story of Pedro Sarrano," a Robinson Crusoe-like tale about a Spanish castaway stripped of every vestige of civilization, down to his clothes -- is by Garcilaso de la Vega, el Inca (1539-1616). The illegitimate son of a Spanish aristocrat and a high-born Inca woman, Garcilaso spent a lifetime exploring this "double and conflicting lineage," and is "considered the first Latin American writer because of his anxieties about the complications of his genealogy."
The second section of the anthology, "New Nations," covers the fertile, turbulent period in which new countries broke away from the old Spanish empire. Leading off this part is "The Slaughter House," by Argentinian Esteban Echeverria (1805-1851, and no relation to the editor, it seems -- note the slightly different spellings). In this brutal political allegory, set in Buenos Aires, a community goes on a killing rampage that begins with cattle and ends with a human sacrifice. It is, the editor notes, "one of the most important stories in Latin American history" -- and one of the most disturbingly visceral.
The anthology ends with a hearty helping of 20th-century writers, including Rosario Ferre, Carlos Fuentes, Jose Donoso, Juan Rulfo, Cristina Peri Rosso (it's distressing to note that she's one of the few women here) and the de rigueur Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It also features some names -- Peru's Julio Ramon Ribeyro, for instance -- not as well known in this country.
Given the great material Echevarria has picked, it's a crying shame that his introductions that have all the charm of a graduate-course prospectus. They're weighed down with references to obscure scholarship, and larded with academese about "ideological tools" and literature "as a self-conscious activity." (Echevarria is Sterling Professor of Hispanic and Comparative Literature at Yale University, which may explain the problem.) Those without much background in the subject (this reader, for instance) may find that they're getting too much and too little information at once. A brief but solid overview would have been more useful.
For recent Latin fiction that hits even closer to home, see another new anthology, Dream With No Name: Contemporary Fiction From Cuba, edited by Esteban Rios Rivera and Juana Ponce de Leon (Seven Stories, $16.95). It samples both the pre- and post-revolutionary periods.
If "The Slaughter House" sounds too bloody-minded for this time of year, how about some light but literary 17th-century gossip? John Aubrey (1626-1697) was the Walter Winchell or Liz Smith of his day, an unabashed pursuer of tantalizing tidbits about the rich and famous. "An English country gentleman of lively intellectual interests but rather infirm character" is how Edmund Wilson describes him in his foreword to Aubrey's Brief Lives, edited by Oliver Lawson Dick (Godine, $20.95). He "loved to compile gossip about famous men and to note their peculiarities, and in pursuit of this information he often went to considerable trouble. It was said of him by one of his friends that he expected to hear of Aubrey's breaking his neck someday as a result of dashing downstairs to get a story from a departing guest."
Poor Aubrey wasn't, however, orderly about record-keeping. "He would try to get things down on paper the morning after a convivial evening -- `Sot that I am!' is the apologetic cry that is reiterated in his writings -- when the people he was visiting were still in bed and he himself was suffering from a hangover." It took a sober-minded 20th-century compiler in the person of Oliver Lawson Dick to make some sense out of Aubrey's lists and jottings; this book, first published in 1949 (Wilson's introduction dates to 1957), is the result, with 134 entries on notables from Ben Jonson to Erasmus. (Aubrey didn't have to know his subjects personally to report what wagging tongues had to say about them.) Dick preserves Aubrey's 17th-century spelling and punctuation, by the way, as you'll see in the following excerpts.
Here's what the (un)reliable source learned about William Shakespeare: "He was a handsome, well-shap't man: very good company, and of a very readie and pleasant smoothe Witt. . . His father was a butcher, and I have been told heretofore by some of the neighbours, that when [Shakespeare] was a boy he exercised his father's Trade, but when he kill'd a Calfe he would do it in a high style, and make a Speech . . . He was wont to say that he never blotted out a line in his life. Sayd Ben Johnson [sic], I wish he had blotted-out a thousand."
None of these sketches runs more than three or four pages; most are shorter. A saucy two-page entry on Venetia Digby, an aristocratic lovely who mended her roaming ways after marriage, contains a morbid but funny detail from the lady's autopsy: "Some suspected that she was poysoned. When her head was opened there was found but little braine, which her husband imputed to her drinking of viper-wine; but spitefull women would say 'twas a viper husband who was jealous of her that she would steale a leape." Aubrey concludes: "How these curiosities would be quite forgott, did not such idle fellows as I am putt them downe."
Though fascinated by heterosexual relations (a little too fascinated -- see the entry on Sir Walter Raleigh and his outdoor encounter with a maid of honor), Aubrey might have appreciated the creative sexual energy at work in The Vintage Book of International Lesbian Fiction, edited by Naomi Holoch and Joan Nestle (Vintage, $15). Writers from 27 countries contributed short pieces or novel excerpts to the project, including Violette Leduc (France), Achy Obejas (Cuba), Gila Svirsky (Israel), Anchee Min (China), Makeda Silvera (Jamaica), Nicole Brossard (Canada), Cynthia Price (South Africa) and Suzana Tratnik (Slovenia). Marguerite Yourcenar (Belgium) makes an appearance with "Sappho or Suicide," her 1975 preface to Fires, a "re-imagined tale of Sappho": "I have just seen, reflected in the mirrors of a theater box, a woman called Sappho. She is pale as snow, as death, or as the clear face of a woman who has leprosy."
"My World of the Unknown" by Alifa Rifaat (Egypt) draws on an ancient symbol linked slitheringly to female passion: the snake. In this story, the wife of a provincial official moves into an old house with a large veranda and an aura of languid sensuality: "A breeze, limpid and cool, blew, playing with the tips of the crops and making the delicate leaves move in continuous dancing waves." One day she sees a beautiful red-and-yellow snake curling along the branch of a tree; no ordinary reptile, it's a female djinn who sets about seducing the mortal woman. This gently erotic tale juxtaposes the otherworldly romance, all passion and spirit, with a marriage reduced to conversations about patching cracks in the walls of the house. And yet it's the mundane that ultimately triumphs, through no virtue of its own.
Another anthology that may be of interest, if you can get past the annoying use of the word "brilliant" in the subtitle, is Hers3: Brilliant New Fiction by Lesbian Writers, edited by Terry Wolverton with Robert Drake (Faber and Faber, $15). This collection focuses mostly on the work of North Americans and a few Europeans, though it does stretch as far abroad as Australia, with a contribution from Melbourne-based Natasha Cho. There's a companion volume dedicated to gay writing, His3: Brilliant New Fiction by Gay Writers, also edited by Drake and Wolverton (Faber and Faber, $15). Stay cool and happy reading.
Jennifer Howard's e-mail address is email@example.com.