viernes, 25 de enero de 2008

The cat is under the table

Vía Buenos Aires Herald

A so-so book
In fraganti.
Anthologist, Diego Grillo Trubba.
Sudamericana. 303 pages.

Pablo Avelluto is the editorial boss at Sudamericana, the publishing house. Like most publishers, he rarely appears in the media. But a few months ago he wrote a piece in a leading national daily and took the chance to throw a punch at book reviewers and literary supplements, saying that he enjoys reading movie reviews far more than book reviews because the former offer straight-on assessments such as "this film is good or bad". This allows potential moviegoers to know exactly what the reviewer thought and felt about the film in question. Books reviewers, on the other hand, are far more elliptic, hiding their opinions behind walls of twisted talk, wrote Avelluto. At first sight, the statement seems to make sense. One could, for example, take In fraganti, the anthology of fictionalized stories based on real-life criminal cases, and define it clearly and briefly. I could say that In fraganti, published by Sudamericana as part of its series of anthologies by "The best writers of the new [Argentine] generation", is a so-so book, end the review right here and move on to the next book in the pile. But would that be fair to the book, to everybody who worked on it and to the review readers? Because the thing is that In fraganti is a so-so book, but has many nuances and lots of people find it highly enjoyable. Why then not take some time to weigh and consider the different aspects of the book, its highs-and-lows? A unique aspect of this series of anthologies called Reservoir Books – in which In fraganti is the second, following the sex-themed En celo and with two more, one about life in the 90s and another on football, due later this year – is that the person in charge of making the anthology, of picking the writers, handing out topics to them and editing their stories, is always the same, Diego Grillo Trubba. All anthologists are, in a way, literary gatekeepers. They have the power to decide who and what gets in and who or what stays out. The work of anthologists is rarely studied, but in cases like Grillo Trubba's it should be scrutinised just as much as the work of the writers, for it is he who shapes the entire series. All anthologies, no matter how eclectic, have a certain aesthetic specific to them, an aesthetic that differentiates them from all other anthologies, and that aesthetic is created by the anthologist when he selects subjects, writers and stories. This is even more so in Grillo Trubba's case because he is not only telling the writers what to write about but also decides who is worthy of being considered a "new Argentine writer."

In fraganti contains 21 stories, all of them based on real-life crimes cases which, in their time, were mostly all high-profile cases of the type that make national headlines for days, and even weeks or months, on end. As with En celo, Grillo Trubba made a list of topics (types of sexual relationships then, criminal cases now), selected the writers and handed out the cases (a few authors suggested their own ones, like Federico Falco with "Los días que duró el incendio"). Maybe it is too early to gauge Grillo Trubba's work as "the gatekeeper" of new Argentine literature. Yet some trends can be spotted. Once again, the presence of writers who lived their formative years outside Buenos Aires and still produce from outside the capital is near to none. Also, the two books are strangely "a-geographical". These two aspects may not be linked but become more apparent when stories are centered outside BA and several are in this collection. In fact, what becomes immediately noticeable is that, as in En celo, most of the stories are written in such as way that with only a few touches – the name of a neighbourhood or street here, a colloquialism there – they could be re-adapted to befit any country other than Argentina. With this I do not seek to imply that all stories should be heavy on local content, only that it catches the eye how almost all the writers avoid being "local".

This becomes even more remarkable when stories unfold in places like Mar del Plata, Viedma or Jujuy. If readers were not specifically told that they occur in those places they would have no way of knowing. One of the few stories written by somebody who lives and works outside Buenos Aires is Falco's – the last and longest in the book, – which takes place in Córdoba. Because this story is the most experimental of all, it serves to underline a second trend: the absence of experimentation from the book, something that also happened in En celo. Literary experimentation can be extremely boring to read – in fact it is most of the times – and not all authors have the will to attempt it, let alone the talent. Falco experiments by writing a story – based on the case of a well known serial rapist in Córdoba – as if it were a stage musical. He does not write a typical script (although at times it may look like one) nor does he narrate from the view of the spectator. Instead, he mixes forms and deserves kudos because, by experimenting, he is far more daring than any of the other 20 contributors to In fraganti and he achieves an interesting and readable result.The shortage of experimentation, which many would call conservatism, is surprising because experimentation is usually expected among the young. Why is it then so rare in In fraganti, just as it was in En celo? Are all these young writers happy with the state of things? Or does Grillo Trubba disallow it? The last option does not seem to be the case, otherwise he would not have accepted Falco's story.

Another common denominator is that none of the stories offers an analogy. They all tell the story as it is and do not imply anything. Most of them also offer perfect closure, shunning any kind of open-endedness as if the authors strained themselves to round up their stories even though openness is good sometimes (a great exception is Ana Cecchi's "La puerta de bronce", based on the murder of María Soledad Morales, which ends at what could just as easily have been the beginning for another writer). Is this because they are asked to do so or do they personally push themselves in this direction? Like geographical location and literary experimentation, stories can do without analogies and open-endedness, but in an anthology like In fraganti it is far more interesting to find a mixture of everything.Another trend can be spotted in the combination of imagination and research. Imagination gives writers the possibility to write about subjects they are not personally experienced in. Many great books have been written by people who had never experienced what their characters live or know. However, most great writers tend to undertake extensive research before taking on subjects they are ignorant about. This – and I may be going out on a limb here – does not seem to be the case with In fraganti. Yes, the authors informed themselves extensively about the specific case they each worked on, mostly through media clippings, but none seems to have spoken to psychologists, criminals, police officers or forensic doctors – the kind of people who could have offered them the back-up information needed to write a story even though it may not be included directly in it.

Cecchi's aforementioned story offers another example of a trend in the collection. The kind of narration used for the stories is roughly divided into two groups: those told from within the crime itself – by a victim, criminal, etc – and which tend to encompass the entire crime, or those where the crime is barely addressed, where it is nearly a side-note to another story, as is Cecchi's case (Juan Terranova imaginative "Fuego chino" and Leonardo Oyola's "Matador" are other examples). Cecchi's story is also exceptional because it is about the build-up of the crime, something other authors avoid. In fact, few take on the aftermath either, mostly preferring to go face-on with the events themselves. The advantage of belonging to the same camp as Cecchi, Oyola, and Terranova is that using a character who is not a central piece in the crime leaves far more space for imagination as fictional facts are far less restrictive than real ones. It hardly seems by chance that Terranova, Oyola and Cecchi's stories are among the best in the book, as is Pablo Ali's "La apariencia del delito". Some of the other stories may not be great, but are deeply unsettling without being gruesome, like Pablo Plotkin's "Mamá Rosa", or are downright unique, as Hernán Vanoli's "Los príncipes". A few of the authors included in this book are set to publish their own books with Sudamericana in upcoming months. The Reservoir series is, in a way, serving as a grazing-ground for new talent, according to one editor at the publisher. Stories like those mentioned above prove her right.

Rodrigo Orihuela