Posted by: Sally Ingraham | April 11, 2009

The Vintage Book of Latin American Stories

Vintage bookShort stories and Latin American authors are both new areas of exploration for me. I found this collection, edited by Carlos Fuentes and Julio Ortega, shelved near Lauren Van der Post’s books in my library and figured it would be a good extracurricular addition to the Orbis Terrarum Challenge. So far I’ve read 9 of the 39 stories, as well as the two introduction pieces by the editors.

Those pieces were very helpful to me as I approached the stories. I often don’t know how to take a short story. They seem so abrupt and abstract. Perhaps I just need to better understand the format. I like these bits from Fuentes’ intro:

‘The short story has to reveal its beauty, its meaning, its intensity, almost instantaneously.’

‘But whereas in Joyce or Proust the epiphany – the fugitive moment of authentic self-knowledge – appears suddenly and exceptionally, immursed, as it were, in a vast ocean of narration, in the short story the epiphany must coincide with the very time of the tale; it must be simultaneous, in other words, with the tale itself.’

I think I often read short stories, expecting them to be the ‘pigmy novel’ that Fuentes declairs they certainly are not. Instead of looking for the epiphany, seeking to untangle the meaning or point of the story from the rest of the book, I need to accept that the story in its entirety is the point.

That being said, of the stories I’ve read so far the ones I liked the best were Luvina by Juan Rulfo, Blow-up by Julio Cortazar, and The Third Bank of the River by Joao Guimaraes Rosa.

In Luvina, a man sits in a bar and tells his companion about a mountain and the village there that he once lived in. It sounds like an uncomfortable and unhappy place, and he hated it, but something about his voice sucked me into the sad details and propelled me to the end. With few words, an entire picture of a place was drawn and then written off as ‘a dying place where even the dogs have died off, so there’s not a creature to bark at the silence…

Blow-up was somewhat amusing to me. The narrator spent several pages trying to figure out who was telling the story – the person in the first, the second, or the third plural, you, me, him, or the blonde. Then the I established itself and related the tale of himself, a young photographer and translator who captured an image of a loose woman with a boy, blew the image up and hung it on his wall, and then was tormented (to death perhaps?) by the figures and situation spilling out of the frame into his room. Throughout, gently interupting the flow of the narrative, were observations about the clouds floating above him (his grave?) I liked the playfulness of the story, which was just as strange and serious as the others, but lighter in tone – a bit of fluffy cloud.

The Third Bank of the River was about a boy whose father one day sets off in a little boat with nothing but the clothes on his back, leaving his wife and children with no explanation. He spends the rest of his life paddling around in the boat, never going much farther up or down the river, staying nearby but never communicating with his family again. As the boy grows up, he leaves food and clothing for his father, and it disappears, but there is no other contact. The boy/man/old man is plagued by questions, and at the same time a strange feeling of understanding, the combination of which drives him to dispair. On some level I identify with the character of a man, ‘dutiful, orderly, straightforward’, who manages to escape from it all, leaving responsibility behind and just drifting, ‘down the river, lost in the river, inside the river…the river…’

I am setting this book aside for awhile, but I intend to return to it and continue exploring the bizarre and beautiful world of these stories.


  1. I’m more a nonfiction and novel guy myself, but I took a great course on the Latin American short story a few years ago which essentially opened my eyes to all the short fiction talent “down there” on the two continents. Have you read the Onetti story featured in this book yet? We used different short story collections, but it was one of my favorite pieces from the class.

  2. Yes, I read Onetti’s story. Very interesting concept. It was hard to chose just three stories to write about – and I only read a total of nine! I’ll be coming back to this book again soon. 🙂

  3. I’m apprehensive about reading short stories too, sometimes I feel like I haven’t really ‘got it’ at all!

  4. Clueless – Thanks for stopping by! I feel the same about short stories – they’re definitely challenging for me, but I’m starting to like that about them. 🙂

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