“People talk about the sea being monotonous, as they do about anything they don’t observe closely enough,” says the narrator of Medardo Fraile’s story “The Sea.” Reading the stories collected in Fraile’s Things Look Different in the Light, the Spanish author’s first book translated into English, one would have a hard time accusing Fraile of careless observation. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa, these twenty-nine stories prove Fraile to be an obsessive and precise writer who, like Anton Chekhov or Jane Bowles, is fascinated by the silent despair underlying everyday life. He confronts this subject by exploring the nature of storytelling. What purpose, he asks, do the stories we tell ourselves serve? Do they offer hope? Do they lead us into despair? And how do they imbue a relatively meaningless world with meaning that is at once ephemeral and revelatory?
In “The Sea,” a married couple spends two weeks at the beach. The story, delivered by the husband, is driven by meditation rather than action. Midway through the story, the narrator stands on the beach watching the water and waiting, along with many others, “for a grandiose phrase or an acceptable cliché [that will inspire us] to spring to our feet and applaud.” None comes. Despite this, he feels a profound connection to the water, and insists that the sea is an idea from God. He tries to articulate its symbolic meaning. His intentions seem at once foolish and pure, indicative of a desire for meaning that cannot be achieved unless that desire is stilled: “I could sense a secret that was as clear as the water itself, a secret it would never reveal, however long I lived, and which perhaps my mind couldn’t even penetrate.” Like many of Fraile’s stories, “The Sea” moves toward a liminal space where the revelations characters seek are both granted and withheld.
In the title story, a nervous young man, hired to paint metro station signs, basks in a brief feeling of pride after completing his job, unaware that he has accidentally painted the wrong station name on the wall. After discovering his error, the painter grows increasingly tense but decides that the mistake won’t make any difference. “What the hell,” he says, and walks into a bar. Here, Fraile uses the structure of a joke not to undermine the story but to challenge the fabricated climaxes pervasive in literature. Our concerns rarely outlive our impulse to suppress those concerns, and in its conclusion, “Things Look Different in the Light” passes beyond the limits of literature to enter the hedonist whims of everyday life.
Fraile uses this joke-like structure to explore the tenuousness of narrative. Stories make promises they cannot keep, promises of love and elation, and using these structures Fraile reminds us that all stories are liable to come undone any moment. Rosita, the protagonist of “The Cashier,” is a young cashier who makes plans to run off with the silver-tongued Don Andres. But when a cold front carries off “that very proper husk of a man, full of impure hopes and terrible memories,” Rosita turns into “the grieving widow of a plan, exalt[ing] their story and fill[ing] the memory of their friendship with sudden, gentle floods of tears, with melancholy and respect.” She and Don Andres had created a future together, a story that, like many fevered intentions, was destined to die before it was realized.
But Fraile understands that the fragility of narrative is part of its allure. In “The Bookstall,” the young intellectual Guillermo returns every day to a street vendor, where he squeezes and presses his nose to old novels, “breathing in the earth and the air, the rain and the sun” contained in their pages. After finding a dead toad in one novel, Guillermo longs for a day in which a novel “would simply crumble to dust in his hands.” But not every character is comforted by literary desuetude. The story “Full Stop” shows how the inexorable decay of stories and their tellers can produce distressing realizations. Don Eloy Millán, a primary school grammar teacher and former writer, dictates to his class a personal letter he “had spent several days over.” After the class completes the assignment, a student offers to erase the letter from the board, and Don Eloy bristles at his own fleeting existence:
He felt crushed, invaded. “Lord,” he thought, “was there no respite! Why that insatiable need for change and agitation, why the rush? They were always wanting to move on to the next thing, and those now old words on the board stood in their way, words that only a moment before had been unknown to them and even distant and worthy of respect, with their possible lurking orthographical traps. They want to erase them, to erase me, to discard the tender, unctuous, white splendor of those words, to reduce them to dust, to cast them to the winds like so many dead cells hampering their growth.
Don Eloy, seeking recognition for his writing, ends up “buried beneath a cold heap of verbs.” The emotions inspiring art, once codified into writing, are vulnerable to the whims of adolescent taste and distraction. Stories necessarily build upon and replace their predecessors. To tell a story, Fraile suggests, is to enter into a state of inevitable deterioration.
But don’t expect Fraile to say as much in his work. These stories are masterfully muted, their insights impactful but delayed. They resist explanation and action, choosing, instead, to focus on the increasingly overlooked aspects of life: the dimness of aging, the burden of inexplicable gestures, the scything sound of footsteps crossing the sidewalk. Fraile’s stories, tightly controlled and peopled with scrupulously-rendered characters, offer a fine deviation from the giddy desperation of much contemporary literature. English readers are lucky to finally have the opportunity to read Fraile’s crystalline work.
Alex McElroy's writing appears or is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review, The Offing, Chattahoochee Review, Southwest Review, Indiana Review, Gulf Coast, DIAGRAM, Tin House, Passages North, Music & Literature, and elsewhere. He is currently the international editor for Hayden's Ferry Review.
Things Look Different in the Light
By Medardo Fraile, translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Pushkin Press, March 14, 2014
$18.00, paperback; ISBN: 9781908968180