BRIEF AND INTENSE: Short Reads to Keep You Literate in 2017
So, you’ve made a resolution to read more books in 2017—an admirable resolution as so many are—but how the devil to do it? You can’t expect to have more time and there’s a new series you’re supposed to binge watch each weekend, just so you can keep hip and current.
My solution: read shorter books. For instance, I’ve read three books in the last four days. I’m going to tell you about them.
Each of these books are more akin to novels than to short stories, regardless of their length; they have that kind of narrative rhythm; they’re intense, exciting, and a little challenging. In addition, each is from a different part of the world so, not only am I using my reading time wisely, I’m also exploring another culture. It’s a kind of literary multitasking.
Canek Sanchez Guevara’s 33 Revolutions, translated by Howard Curtis (Europa Editions, $14.00, 94 pages) tells the story of a black Cuban man in a modern Cuba who gradually begins to see beyond the slogans of his parent’s era and the glories of the Revolution. He spends his days on the streets, photographing the spontaneous rebellious eruptions that occur there, then going down to the shore as a new number set off in rafts every day for a faraway coast.
This is not the story of the fiery awakening of a revolutionary; there is no political epiphany here, simply the slow wearing away of artifice that eventually leaves our hero searching for something to believe in. A spinning record serves as an ongoing metaphor, with the needle occasionally jumping tracks, sometimes forward and sometimes back, yet always locked within the same groove. In short chapters and evocative prose, Guevara (grandson of Che Guevara) constructs a fragile society clinging to old ideas because there is nothing else to hold on to.
Raduan Nassar’s A Cup of Rage, translated by Stefan Tobler (New Directions, $10.95, 64 pages) is set in the Brazil of the 1960’s and concerns itself simply with the evening and next day of a man and his lover. Here we are locked inside the mind of our nameless protagonist as he arrives home to find her awaiting him, teases her, makes love with her, then finds ways to humiliate her in order, he imagines, to make her leaving more bearable.
In short, taut chapters which focus the play of the senses with balances of power between the two, Nassar charts the impossibility of separating sexuality, intimacy, and rage in the male psyche. This is a furious chamber piece in which no actual blood is ever drawn, yet wounds are opened and re-opened. Nassar’s style is dark, internal, and relentless, relying on a flowing awareness of his character’s internal struggles broken by the occasional devastatingly sensual observation.
If I tell you that Laszlo Krasznahorkai’s The Last Wolf, translated by George Szirtes (New Directions, $15.95, 96 pages), is written as a single, unending sentence, you might think it’s just some kind of gimmick, but Krasznahorkai has other things in mind and it’s not impressing you with his cleverness. He’s best known for his longer novels, Satantango and Animalinside, which are richly compelling works, by their own right.
Yet, if you wanted to take all the themes, the existential dread, the hopelessness, the compulsion, the occasional limp sparks of humanity that comprise his books and compress them—the way geological plates shift and conspire with heat to produce diamonds from coal—you’d have The Last Wolf.
A man is hired, through a case of mistaken identity, to write the story of the last wolf of Extremadura, a barren and blasted swath of Spain. He’s put up at a hotel and taken out daily onto the cold countryside as he follows leads, searching for the last person to see the last wolf. At some point, it becomes impossible for him to admit that he’s an imposter; all he can do is proceed with the job as if it is really his own.
All Krasznahorkai’s grim humor is here: our narrator is telling his story, after the fact, to a bartender who couldn’t care less, a captive audience because it’s early afternoon and there are no other patrons. Yet, our narrator presses on with his story, as he pressed on with the earlier task, grumbling all the time about how it’s cold and he’d rather be home in bed. Strangely, over the course of this one sentence which soldiers on over ninety-six pages moving back and forth in time, the reader begins to get the sense of something else. It’s something the narrator doesn’t know, the bartender doesn’t know, and Krasznahorkai asserts, the author doesn’t know either. And what that is, of course, you’ll have to find out for yourself.
Steve Mitchell’s short story collection, The Naming of Ghosts, is published by Press 53. He has a deep belief in the primacy of doubt and an abiding conviction that great wisdom informs very bad movies. He’s co-owner of Scuppernong Books in Greensboro, NC