The Year of Reading Dangerously – Quim Monzo

Guadalajara is a selection of short stories by the Catalan writer Quim Monzo, thankfully (despite the retention of the (wonderful sounding) original title) translated into English by Peter Bush, who seems to be on a one man mission to allow those of us more linguistically challenged to be able to appreciate this entertaining and original writer. This was not my first exposure to Monzo’s wit and craft, having read his novel The Enormity of the Tragedy a few years ago, possibly (and rather sadly) intrigued by its premise, that of a man with an unending erection. While the stories in Guadalajara are not quite so age restricted, they are similarly playful, often taking a striking idea and running with it in quite the same way.

The book is divided into five sections, two of which consist of single stories, the first section being one of these. This opening story, ‘Family Life’, is a typical mix of the mundane and the unusual. The first two pages describe an ordinary family gathering; only on the third page is it suggested that anything is untoward when the young boy, Armand, from whose point of view the story is being told sees a sight he “had often seen in these family get-togethers:”

“A boy would appear with a bandaged left hand. The bandage was always wrapped around his ring finger. Armand knew there was no longer a finger under the bandage, and that the bandage would eventually fall away, revealing a tiny, perfectly healed stump.”

Armand rebels against this family tradition with unexpected consequences. The other single story section (‘Centripetal Force’) is much more fantastic, though it too begins in a very ordinary way with a man attempting to leave his apartment. In this case, however, Monzo immediately hits us with the twist:

“The man has unsuccessfully been trying to leave his apartment since daybreak; whenever he opens the door the same thing happens: he can’t see the landing, only the hallway he is trying to leave at that exact moment.”

Monzo then plays with this idea across a number of characters and situations: ironically (and no doubt intentionally) the story that is about inwardness is the most sprawling in structure, moving from the original protagonist to two firemen, to a woman who is burying her husband.

Of the other stories, my favourite group is those which are built on the foundations of other stories. That one (‘Gregor’) is about a beetle who finds himself transformed into a fat boy sold me on the book immediately. The others tell of the Greeks inside the Trojan horse, William Tells’ son attempting to imitate his father, and a new version of the Robin Hood legend. All four are very funny.

The final section, however, probably contains the best stories. ‘Strategies’ collects three separate tales, like variations on a theme, all three presenting similar dilemmas: should the first candidate deliberately fail an exam? Should the second vote for or against himself in an election? Should the actor stop performing in a play he now despises? ‘The Lives of the Prophets’ is about a father and son who can see the future. In the father’s case his problem is that he cannot remember what he sees; in the son’s case he is again faced with a dilemma:

“He feels guilty that he said nothing. He watches them pulling corpses out of the rubble a thousand kilometres away and he thinks he made a big mistake not telling any of the powers that be…He only calms down when he realises that if he had, nobody would have believed him and all those people would have died anyway.”

Later he makes use of powers, but this decision cause problem too, particularly when his powers begin to fade. ‘During the War’ begins with the wonderful sentence:

“War broke out mid-morning.”

It is, however, about a war that doesn’t seem to be taking place: it is a state of mind rather than a series of actions. It is a good example of the way in which Monzo tackles serious themes with a deceptive lightness of touch.

Danger rating: only if you find laughing and thinking at the same time stressful, as these thought-provoking, amusing stories will have you doing both.

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3 Responses to “Guadalajara”

  1. Books of the Year 2011 « 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Guadalajara by Quim Monzo – I’d previously enjoyed The Enormity of the Tragedy, but this collection of short stories was even better. And published by the wonderful Open Letter. […]

  2. qpdlbqp Says:

    if you liked these stories, I’ve translated a couple from “El Perque de Tot Plegat” on my blog, along with other Catalan stuff:

    • 1streading Says:

      Just had a look – I loved them both. Thanks for drawing my attention to them (and for translating them!) I think Open letter has a second book of Monzo’s stories coming out later this year – he’s a writer that I really enjoy.

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