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Latin American literature in translation: Stories that take you to unexpected places

Meghan Collins Sullivan

In high school, I had the exceptional fortune of taking a Spanish-language literature class with a teacher who had both a tremendous breadth of knowledge and highly challenging literary taste. He trusted his students to tackle, at times, baffling material — and taught us a new way of reading, one I'd compare to getting in a lazy river at a water park. If a book seems too strange to decode, stop decoding: Just let it carry you along.

Three books by Latin American writers new in translation — Yesterday, Family Album and New and Selected Stories — reward this approach, though in very different ways.

Juan Emar, a cult-favorite Chilean writer from the early 20th century who was loathed by critics and readers alike in his lifetime, sends the characters of his novel Yesterday racing from one surreal surprise to the next. He makes comedy of readers' efforts to guess what might be coming, or to figure out what any of it means. Cristina Rivera Garza, a Mexican writer and MacArthur genius grant winner, writes stories that help her "share the unintelligible," as she puts it in the introduction to her New and Selected Stories, which spans over 30 years of her career. And the Ecuadorian writer and publisher Gabriela Alemán, whose Family Album is by far the most traditionally written of these three books, plays with tropes ranging from the Robinson Crusoe story to the classic betrayed-wife setup to wrestle with the impossible-to-decode oddness of human life, which old stories can only hide for so long.

Yesterday, by Juan Emar, trans. Megan McDowell

In his charming introduction to Juan Emar's still-more-charming novel Yesterday, the Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra describes falling in love with Emar's signature mix of surrealism — a radical stylistic choice in the pre-World War II period when Emar was most prolific — and "indescribable sense of humor... a perfectly recognizable humor, though, as with all truly good humorists, we often don't know whether his narrators are speaking seriously or in jest." Yesterday — in the original, and in Megan McDowell's witty, formal translation — is one of the sweetest, funniest novels around. It's a portrait of a happy marriage; a bizarre daylong picaresque; and a story that resists all logical comprehension, yet still has a clear message to impart.

Yesterday's narrator adores his wife. Even in the middle of describing moments of great drama, he can't help himself from exclaiming, "Oh, my dear, beloved wife, why must I love you so tenderly?" His feelings for her ground the novel, which is a race from one adventure to the next. First, he and his wife attend the execution of a man whose only crime was to "freely tell anyone who would listen that the pleasures of love exist in the mind." This scene, with its clear social critique, fools the reader into thinking Yesterday will make sense — until its characters start singing with a chorus of monkeys in the next scene.

Before the day is out, the narrator will have watched an ostrich eat a lion, imagined himself as a fuzzball in a stranger's pocket, and become terrified of a legged gelatinous object that probably isn't — but could be! — concealed behind his parents' sofa. He tries valiantly to extract a "revelation" from these events, but it is apparent to everyone but him (and, perhaps, his dear, beloved wife, though I suspect she's in on Emar's scheme) that none is forthcoming. Yesterday teaches its readers to relax into the hilarious incomprehensibility of its world — and our own.

New and Selected Stories, by Cristina Rivera Garza, trans. Sarah Booker, Lisa Dillman, Francisca González Arias, Alex Ross, and the author

Cristina Rivera Garza has made a wide-ranging artistic practice — and artistic career — out of writing her way into the incomprehensible. Much of her work revolves around gender-based violence and the violence of Mexico's so-called drug war, which, in her essay collection Grieving, she refers to as "the war against the Mexican people, the war against women. The war against the rest of us." Her fiction could easily be blisteringly angry, and sometimes is; in one of the earliest stories in her New and Selected, she refers to female desire as "worse than heroin, though no one tells you." In a later story, "Pascal's Last Summer," she shows the reader the enraging tragedy of a young man getting recruited into misogyny.

But more often, her work, which reads like a hybrid of reportage and Juan Rulfo's haunted fiction, wriggles into the cracks between emotions. Her most recent stories, especially, are full of the spooky, drifting sensation that sets in at some stage of processing loss: not quite fury, not quite sorrow, but the sense of a new and possibly permanent void.

Sarah Booker, Rivera Garza's longtime translator, handles the majority of the stories here, and does so beautifully. Rivera Garza, in her introduction, asks readers to "do as I do and walk into [the mystery of her stories], experience the rarified air, look into their vanishing horizon." Booker excels at doing that in the translation process. As it turns out, so does Rivera Garza. Not many writers, regardless of fluency in their target language, are ruthless enough to self-translate. Rivera Garza is. Her self-translations, "Revenge" and "My Voice in Sin Narrates," are among the collection's standouts — though, frankly, once you get used to the New and Selected Stories' eerie strangeness, it's hard to pick a favorite, or convince yourself to set the book down.

Family Album, by Gabriela Alemán, trans. Dick Cluster and Mary Ellen Fieweger

Gabriela Alemán writes in deceptively simple prose, using deceptively simple structures. Her novel Poso Wells, the first of her works to be translated into English, used the form of a thriller to spit-roast the long legacy of colonialism in Ecuador. In the stories in Family Album, she diversifies her tactics, borrowing from old-school adventure novels, noir, and, in "School Trip," the newer but no less codified genre of muted Brooklyn tragedy. No matter the style, though, her stories all circle twin themes: the "senselessness" of human behavior and — much like Juan Emar — the impossibility of guessing what comes next.

Alemán takes special pleasure in turning familiar tales and tropes into "Chinese boxes, Russian dolls, stories within stories," as one of her narrators puts it. In Family Album, she digs beneath the surface of old adventure stories about buried treasure and missionary trips to the Amazon. She also goes more modern, as in "Honeymoon," in which a young Argentine woman spends a night with Lorena Bobbitt's ex-husband, swinging from pity to revulsion as he tells her more and more about himself. (Lorena Bobbitt, it's worth noting, was born and raised in Ecuador.)

In "Marriage," the book's highlight, a woman travels to the southwestern city of Machala to learn the truth about her dead husband's double life — but instead of finding resolution, as the plot seems to demand, winds up watching a mob pry open another man's coffin. She leaves Machala determined to "assume a temporary blindness and go on living," but in the story's final moment, her phone starts ringing, suggesting to the reader — as Alemán does, in one way or another, at the end of so many stories — that even if she's done with her husband's secrets, they might not be done with her.

Lily Meyer is a writer and translator living in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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