Quim Monzó‘s “Guadalajara”

Reviewed by Mythili G. Rao

Image of Quim Monzó‘s “Guadalajara”

Three pages into Quim Monzó’s new short story collection, the opening tale’s seven-year-old protagonist makes a startling discovery: everyone over the age of nine in his family of carpenters is missing the ring finger of his left hand, and it’s not by accident. Welcome to “Family Life,” which fits within the morbid boundaries of Guadalajara—a realm where fables are subverted, where rote tasks lead to existential confrontations, where absurdity masks philosophical heft, and where grim uncertainty and playful possibility coexist.  Armand is terrified, and perhaps the reader should be too: in Monzó’s hands, the possibilities are limitless—and entirely unpredictable.

Most of the stories in Guadalajara are grouped into broad sets by theme, but “Family Life” stands alone in opening the collection, and its sly inquiry into the enigmas of family mythology sets the tone for Guadalajara, serving as a reminder that from childhood, we are all readers, set on deciphering a world perpetually determined to startle and confound us. The motifs in “Family Life”also offer a launching point for the first set of stories. Riffing on the power and mutability of mythology, the four stories that follow it boldly reconfigure four famous tales (the Iliad, The Metamorphosis, and the legends of William Tell and Robin Hood). Monzó moves these works’ familiar characters in entirely new—and freshly problematic—directions.  In the deadpan of Peter Bush’s translation from the Catalan, the result is cheeky, smart, and subversive.  These are lively, troublemaking stories, vivid in their reinvention, and brazen in their reappropriation. “Outside the Gates of Troy” finds Ulysses’s men biding their time inside their wooden horse, first peevishly (“Ulysses threatens to strangle anyone who won’t shut up”), but then with a despair that gives way to cannibalism as they wait for days for their decoy to be pulled into the city.  “Helvetian Freedoms” imagines William Tell’s adult son Walter grappling with his father’s legacy while his own son mocks the family legend.  The next story, “Gregor” elegantly reverses Kafka’s storyline: “When the beetle emerged from his larval state one morning, he found he had been transformed into a fat boy.”  The final story of this set, “A Hunger and Thirst for Justice” pushes the logic of Robin Hood’s desire to rob from the rich to feed the poor till it collapses on itself.   These stories are, in effect, brisk thought-experiments.  They peer into the crevices of tales most readers know well, and from the shadows, immediately conjure the unexpected.

Monzó’s deep interest in the pliability—and subjectivity—of narrative becomes all the more apparent in the next set of stories.  These four simple tales more directly square with the power of storytelling.  “A Day Like Any Other” follows a compulsive liar whose conviction in his own fibs only grows as his tales spin larger, while  “Life is So Short” plays with the familiar cliché of trapping a man and woman together on a broken elevator:

. . . in between floors, in the few minutes they’ve been stuck there, each has time to reflect, if only fleetingly, on the so-called urban myths that exist about their situation (two people trapped in an elevator that has come to a halt between two floors) that parallel equally bright ideas about what a man and a woman do on a deserted island, absolutely alone and isolated from the world, though heaven knows for how long.

If that all sounds like an elaborate writing exercise, it’s because the very short stories in this section have the intensity and focus of a kind of quickly solved literary problem-set. This isn’t to say these stories are formulaic, but there is a distinctly analytical bent to their imaginative reach.  “The Power of Words” contrasts triangulating characters—the incessant talker, the silent one, and the eccentric who talks quietly to himself—in the same restaurant as they consider one another.  Finally, “Literature” follows an author who inadvertently calculates his own death through the plot of one of his novels.  It is a deftly constructed, economical, and suspenseful story—a story that (like so many of Monzó’s) leaves the reader hanging at the last sentence.  All signs point to a certain end for the hapless writer, but then again, do they? By this point in Guadalajara, the reader has realized that endings are rarely what they seem in Monzó’s world. 

Equally inscrutable are the predictions and prophesies lurking within his stories—they are powerful, but not to be trusted.  To his own surprise, Armand of “Family Life,” for example, survives to adulthood with all his fingers intact. If Guadalajara has an overarching view of fate, it is the complex one presented in “Lives of the Prophets,” one of the last four of the collections.  Again and again, that story’s character foresees calamities—plane crashes, wars, earthquakes, and epidemics.  Some of these catastrophes can be postponed, or lessened, but most carry on in their full destructive force, and the association with disaster makes him a controversial media sensation: “People look at him maliciously, as if he were in some way guilty . . . The prophet tells them time and again that they are confusing prophesying an event with causing it.” Only when he foresees that he will have no more visions—and will end his career as a failure—does he try to write his own fatalistic prophecy.  

There is one other stand-alone story in this collection in addition to “Family”: the appropriately named “Centripetal Force.” It begins with its main character experiencing a surreal pull back into his apartment every time he tries to leave his entryway.  In a widening spiral of confusion, he tries to contrive new ways to slip outside.  As he does so, more people—including an entire team of firefighters—are drawn into the illogical vortex that seems to center around his apartment.  “Centripetal Force” is one of Guadalajara’s longest stories, and Monzó twists the escalating chaos with control; if there is one thing that unites the fourteen stories of Guadalajara, it is the equilibrium each finds despite mounting disorder.  Even when characters like the diligent student, campaigning candidate, and stage actor overcome with ennui in the story “Strategies” rebel against their world, they do so quietly and deliberately. 

Fittingly, Monzó is a master of the open-ended conclusion; his characters are often left hovering either on the brink of breakthrough, or of a perfect replay of their previous errors.  “Books,” the final story of Guadalajara, relates the travails of a passionate reader whose fear of disappointment prevents him from ever reading a book through its last page; Monzó frames this commitment to inconclusiveness as a kind of literary philosophy.

Will the writer keep us entranced to the last page? Won’t there ever be a time, from here to the fifth, eighteenth, or one-hundred-and-sixty-seventh page when his spell will be broken.  But a narrative is never as good as the possibilities that fan out at the beginning.  Anyway, it’s not about the reader foreseeing every possible development and improving on the ones offered by the author.  No way . . . . It is that moment of indecision, when the chips are down, that attracts him.

Fortunately, the perception of the reader of “Books”—with his reservations about the declining open-endedness of the books he reads—is only partly applicable when it comes to Monzó’s fiction. Guadalajara’s narratives do in fact match the depth of possibility offered in their beginnings.  But building the story up to “that moment of indecision” is Monzó’s signature move in Guadalarja, and in this fine collection of literary stunt work, Monzó’s careful plotting ensures that the reader never gets close to “foreseeing every possible development.”  Of course the reader of “Books” is never convinced:  “When the forking paths fanning out at the start of a story begin to fade and the book is beginning to bore him, he puts it down and places it on the corresponding shelf, according to the alphabetical order of the writer’s surname.” But the reader of Guadalajara will hard-pressed to turn away from these short, captivating stories even a line before their end.