Flash fiction, sudden fiction, short short fiction—the high school students I've taught prefer the term “nanofiction” for this genre because of the connection with their iPods. This compressed form has flowered in Latin America possibly more than in any other region of the world, from Julio Cortázar's mini-mystery “Continuity of Parks” to the underrated Augusto Monterroso's one-sentence “Finished Symphony.” Now a newly translated collection of flash fiction from Argentine writer Ana María Shua reveals to the English-speaking world that she is a major figure in this contemporary mode of writing.
Shua's book Quick Fix is actually a collection of her best microfiction from four volumes she has written in this genre. Expertly selected, introduced, and translated by Rhonda Dahl Buchanan, these stories draw on fairy tales, sexual fantasies, and dreams. What is most charming about Shua's short shorts is that she presents situations that are completely fantastical, absurd, or paradoxical in a perfectly deadpan tone. Here is the entire text of a story called “For Lack of Proof”:
“Enormous leaps, sixty or ninety feet high, in which I soar above the tree tops, and yet that's all they are, leaps: the devastating proof that I can't fly.”
In just one sentence, the mood swings from elation to deflation, but with a gentle, self-mocking humor that is one of Shua's best qualities as a writer. Her work reminds me of the paintings of René Magritte, where absurdity is presented as a fact of life, but a hilarious one.
The four collections that the translator distilled to compile this book all have different themes. Dream Catcher, Shua's first collection of sudden fiction, centers around sleeping and waking, though those are by no means the only topics. But Shua uses sleeping and dreaming as ways of teasing out the paradoxes of the human condition. One very remarkable quality that emerges in this section of the book is Shua's ability to step away from the earth, like an astronaut walking in space: “There exists in the world a man who is God, although he doesn't realize it.… His desires, his fantasies, his most abstract intentions are carried out in a seemingly random manner that is subject to mysterious, albeit natural laws. For example, his gastric secretions provoke rivers of lava somewhere on the planet and his bad moods unleash wars.” As comical as this passage sounds, it is not that different from the idea of a god or a messiah walking on earth, an idea that many have faith in. There are certainly satirical edges to Shua's Fabergé eggs of fantasy.
The second section of the book, “Geisha House,” focuses on sexual fantasy and obsession. With surprising humor, Shua shows the Möbius striptease that sometimes results from following desires to their logical, absurd conclusion: “Many prefer to be bound, and naturally, the kind of bondage varies depending on the resources of the aroused victim: from silk ties to blood ties.” This section also contains variations on fairy tales and Jewish folklore about the golem, and these are some of the funniest and most pointed of the sudden fictions.
The third section, “Botany of Chaos,” contains little meditations, one paragraph long, Shua's favorite length for her short short fictions. They are more general than some of the others, but no less resonant.
The last section, “Ghost Season,” contains somewhat more elaborate fictions, some of which are laugh-out-loud funny, and other of which seem slightly off the mark. And that is one of the rewards and pitfalls of this genre—like a joke, the punch line of a nanofiction either works or it doesn't. When it doesn't, the whole exercise seems a bit flat, but when it hits home, it just sparkles. In the hands of a lesser translator, this collection could have lacked the pizzazz of the Spanish, but in the English version of Rhonda Dahl Buchanan, the translator preserves the wry humor that is Shua's ace.
The book has both the Spanish and the English, for which I bow down to the publisher of White Pine Press, Dennis Maloney, who has included this volume in his excellent Secret Weavers Series of Latin American women writers. There are a few times when the Spanish ends up facing the wrong English text, which is mysterious, and many times the Spanish is presented above the English instead of on a facing page, which also seems odd to me. But, better to have the original text than not, even if it's sometimes placed unexpectedly.
The book is profusely illustrated with line drawings by the artist Luci Mistratov. The decision to include many drawings is wise, particularly since these pieces take some thinking, and breaking up the text with illustrations allows the reader time to contemplate each short short before moving on to the next. Like the writing, though, these illustrations are sometimes incredible, and sometimes miss the mark.
All in all, Quick Fix establishes Ana María Shua as a major figure for English-language readers to follow in Latin American literature. The book makes me hope that many more of Shua's fifty volumes of novels, short stories, poetry, theater, children's fiction, humor, and folklore will soon appear in translation.
Zack Rogow is the author, editor, or translator of seventeen books and plays, including six collections of poetry, three anthologies, four volumes of translation, and a children's book. His most recent book is The Number Before Infinity, a book of poems published by Scarlet Tanager Books in 2008. He teaches in the MFA in Writing Program at the California College of the Arts and in the low-residency MFA in Writing at the University of Alaska, Anchorage. His translations of George Sand, Colette, and André Breton have won numerous awards, including the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Club Translation Award and the Northern California Book Award in Translation.