Raúl Gatica (ed.), Zapatos en las piedras: Seis narradoras(es) latinos en Canadá / Shoes on the Rocks: Six Latin American Storytellers in Canada (Oaxaca: 1450, 2013)
Reading a bilingual book can make for an odd experience. There is something both excessive and strangely tantalizing about it, depending in part on your own linguistic expertise. If, after all, you can read both languages, the doubled text can seem surplus to requirements, leaving you with a slight conundrum: which version to read? But if you are able to read only one of the two, some frustration or doubt may ensue: does the translation match the “original”? Are you really reading the same text as others are? By trying to be inclusive, to appeal to as many potential readers as possible, bilingualism also necessarily introduces divisions and questions about the limits of inclusiveness, the price to be paid for any such gesture.
It is appropriate, then, that such issues arise in a book by migrant writers: in this instance, Latin Americans in Canada. For migration and exile also always give rise to queries about limits and boundaries, dilemmas and choices, translation and inclusion. There is something unsettling about an acknowledgement that borders are not fixed, and that the same object, the same text, can look very different depending on where we are coming from. And though it is true that none of the stories in this thought-provoking collection are directly about the “Latino-Canadian experience” (whatever that may be), it is interesting that they are often concerned with the paradoxes of excess and insufficiency, too much and too little, and with the problem of (mis)matches.
For instance, the collection’s opening story, an excellent little parable by Dafne Blanco, traces the disconcerting effects of what is at first a very slight disturbance: somehow, people’s “socks were disappearing, that is, only one from each pair” (25). Everyone, then, is forced to go about with unmatched footwear. Reactions vary: the Justice of the Peace avoids the topic; others “walk around unabashed as in a ridiculous parade” (26); the narrator forces his children to wear boots; a black market in matching socks provides the rich with a “symbol of social status” (27); the pharmacist creates an illusion of symmetry with paint and adhesive tape; and the beggars on the church steps wear “plastic bags of matching hues covering their lower extremities” (29). Ultimately, the mystery is perhaps resolved in the person of Doña Jacinta, the local coffee vendor who is seen wandering off with “an enormous sack, seemingly full of little rags, which never leaves her sight.” Doña Jacinta is also known for serving watered-down coffee that gives the story its title: “Agua de Calcetín”; “Sock Extract.” Is a diluted drink too much (water) or too little (coffee)? It is both at the same time. But rather than complaining, the narrator praises the variety and unpredictability that results: it “tastes a little different every day, it is always so flavourful; what is your secret?” (29).
Other stories contain other tales of mismatch: unrequited or excessive love or desire, for instance, in Mónica Paz’s “La catadora” (“The Taster”) or Raúl Gatica’s “Al revés” (“Upside Down”). Heinz Avendaño’s “Donde hay cenizas, fuego queda” (“Where There is Ash, Fire Remains”) features a lover who literally ingests his beloved, as though to thereby eliminate the drastic distance that has come between them. Two tales revolve around surprises thrown up by gender ambiguity or transsexuality: in Avendaño’s “Alejandra e Ignacio” (“Alejandro and Ignacio”), a dinner date brings a twist to the friendship between old schoolmates; in Rosas Rojas’s “Mujeres” (“Women”), a couple fight when a secret is revealed. Indeed, consistently these stories of disparity and difference (too much or too little, or both) revolve around secrets of some kind. The collection is permeated with a vague sense of uncertainty and unsettlement, with an ever-present feeling of potential transformation or dislocation. What becomes important is how people react to and live with such uncertainty, how they become open to difference or try to pretend it doesn’t exist.
There is nothing wrong with a little uncertainty. Indeed, many of the contributions to this collection encourage the notion that any event can and should have a multiplicity of perspectives and interpretations. One of my favourite stories is also perhaps the darkest: Dafne Blanco’s “Juicio sumario” (“Summary Trial”) revolves around two deaths. A mother has died, and her demise brings her now grown-up children together–but also sets them apart–as they are prompted to think back to their father’s death from suicide, some eighteen years previously. He had killed himself in peculiarly unnecessary (“corny” ) and spectacular fashion: hanging in his bathrobe from the chandelier in the library. He had left a note, “peeking out of his pocket,” not fully contained by his clothing, but by contrast this was too little: it said “Yes, I did it,” without explaining what “it” may have been (77). Each child therefore imagines his or her own take on the mystery, the source of their father’s guilt, none of which quite matches. And though ultimately we seem to be given the “right” answer, this is not to say that the others are wrong, because each is an insight to some aspect of the patriarch’s character. Their excessiveness is somehow appropriate, though even so they are all somehow insufficient, for we can never know exactly what someone else feels or thinks. The best we can manage is one attempt after another to interpret and understand, in as many languages as we can.
In sum, this is a fine and well-written (and well-translated) collection of stories. It is varied and inclusive enough to satisfy different moods or allow diverse approaches to similar themes and preoccupations. But it is short enough to leave us wanting more.