The collection, recently released in a fluid English-language translation by Nick Caistor and Lorenza García, at times reads like an assemblage of “Twilight Zone” episodes made even more vivid on the printed page. An elderly, solitary woman convinces herself that a random encyclopedia salesman is her dead son and a mystery woman who regularly calls is her daughter. A bored husband conjures his wife engaged in a scandalous love affair when he stumbles upon a letter stuffed into a copy of “Anna Karenina.”
The book shares a title with its most bizarre and macabre, though somehow touching, short story. The opening line of the story is a perfect example of Palma’s ability to lull the reader with what seems like a ho-hum line that suddenly makes your head snap once you get to the end of it: “On my birthday, Marcelo gave me his gallbladder.”
“Love without bile,” the object of Marcelo’s affection reasons. “All right, got it.”
Such a gift doesn’t seem like a prelude to a love story. But Palma manages to weave that unusual present into a larger meditation on the complexities of human affection and the strange elusiveness we can sometimes encounter, even in the arms of the ones we love.
“It could have been paradise,” Marcelo’s lover muses, “but for the fact that I was unable to forget that I was embracing a man who was constantly fleeing, a man determined to dismantle himself.”
Palma may be best known to American readers for his 2011 bestseller, the first of a trilogy of novels, “The Map of Time,” which has now been translated into 30 languages. What elevates Palma’s storytelling is that he plumbs the most mundane aspects of everyday life and the most invisible of human beings, the sort of people we pass on the street without noticing, and uses them as launchpads for phantasmagoric flights of the imagination.
In the collection’s finest piece, “Roses Against the Wind,” a desultory office worker named Alberto suddenly sees himself in “the tiny figure of a gray-suited man carrying a leather briefcase” standing along the tracks of the elaborate model railway that his grandfather has been building for half a century in a crumbling, once-grand apartment.
The track runs through an “impossible world” where the Palace of Versailles sits next to the pyramids of Machu Picchu and the Eiffel Tower casts a shadow over the Taj Mahal.
Alberto visits his grandfather almost daily, usually finding him “sleeping with his eyes gently closed and a complicit smile on his lips, as if he knew a secret that was forbidden to the rest of us.” Alberto is puzzled by his grandfather’s apparent contentment until he realizes that the old man is transporting himself into the railway, “every last detail of his creation engraved in his mind.” His grandfather is enjoying a thrilling, though imaginary, life of globe-trotting adventure while Alberto’s own life couldn’t be any more dull.
“My days had been uneventful, tranquil, and monotonous,” he laments. “Mornings in the office like an insipid overture that led into lazy evenings of crosswords and coffees.”
Inevitably, Alberto is drawn into the imaginary world created by his grandfather. But, like many of the stories in the collection, the ultimate reveal is less important than the discoveries made along the way. In Alberto’s case, it’s the process of understanding the strange gift that has been bestowed upon him by his grandfather.
Another cog in the corporate wheel occupies the central role in the short story entitled, “Snow Globe.” Also named Alberto, he is an encyclopedia salesman who lives in a fugue-like state, fretting that he will “fritter away the future” while lost in feelings of apathy.
He yearns for change but goes to bed each night “terrified at the prospect that this world was immutable.”
This Alberto yearns for human contact. He wants to connect deeply with another person, and he finds little of that in the company of his lover Cristina, his emotionally distant father and his workplace colleagues. Burdened by malaise, he finds himself gazing one night into the idealized universe of a snow globe that contains a quaint little village.
By chance he stumbles into an elderly woman who mistakes him for her dead son. The affection she shows him satisfies his deep need for connection, and his presence sates her need to erase her greatest loss. He plays along, marveling that she has “constructed a world where everything is exactly as it was.”
Inside the old woman’s apartment, we see a kind man in the act of perpetrating an expansive kindness, albeit one built on a foundation of untruths.
They found comfort in “a world of lies, a world within a world where they could be happy,” Palma writes.
Once outside, Alberto gazes up at the sky. It’s snowing. It was as if someone had shaken a snow globe — and he was inside it.
THE HEART AND OTHER VISCERA