Fish Soup

Fish Soup, the Columbian writer Margarita Garcia Robayo’s first appearance in English, is a pungent blend of two novellas and a collection of short stories beautifully translated by Charlotte Coombe. As the title suggests, ‘beauty’ may not be the first word readers reach for when her work is discussed; instead her stories are more likely to attract adjectives such as ‘honest’ (the characters are poor) and ‘raw’ (the characters have sex). Hers is a poetry of exhaustion and desire, in which characters cling to each other but do not love.

The first novella, ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’, is full of tired, desperate hope, its narrator dreaming only of escape:

“At first you hope everything you’re waiting for will arrive one day on a boat; then you realise nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead.”

Even her sex life is predicated on escape. Her attraction to local fisherman Gustavo stems not only from her first encounter with him as a young girl (“he stroked me down there”) but the possibility that he might be Italian and his stories of travel:

“That’s why I left. First to Peru then to Ecuador and so on up, until I reached the Caribbean, where you turn left to carry on north.”

Making love to her first boyfriend, Tony, she imagines “he was Gustavo and we were in Venice.” As they have sex on the beach she stares at the sky, eventually she becomes an air hostess in her dream of escape:

“Tony had a lot of ideas about air hostesses, but I had just one: air hostesses could leave.”

Air hostesses also come back, however, “doomed to come and go, come and go, and that was the same as never leaving.” Her attempts to scam US residency, sleeping with the Captain in the hope of becoming pregnant, are fruitless (he’s sterile). The story is suffused with sad reminders of her failure, from her picture of a possible life with Tony (“we’ll always be here, waiting for a hurricane to come”) to a letter from a long lost friend: “She presumed I had probably moved.”

Robayo’s characters are always tired and often sick, yet they rarely give up without a fight. Ines, in ‘Like a Pariah’, dying of cancer, telling her son she’s “perfectly alright,” neglecting her regime of vitamins and exercises in favour of alcohol and parties. Titi in ‘Worse Things’, his obesity “progressive and, by that point, uncontrollable,” escapes his room and lies gazing up at the clouds. The violent dreams of Aldo Villafora in ‘Fish Soup’, show him raging against the dying of the light. Often sex is used as an anchor to life, complex and uncertain, rarely loving.

Ines finds herself drunk and molested:

“Leonardo plunged his fingers in and out as if he were unclogging a drain: he jerked himself off with his other hand.”

In Villafora’s dreams his wife is “violently penetrated” by a sailor, “lost in an expression of pleasure that Villafora had never seen her make.” In ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ the narrator returns again and again to the man who abused her as a child. Robayo seems determined to challenge our views of sex, its use and abuse. ‘Something We Never Were’ sets out directly to explore the limits and limitations of a relationship:

“When Salvador asked Eileen to be his girlfriend, she said no. She was having none of that boyfriend and girlfriend crap; what she was interested in was questioning certain paradigms.”

The second novella, ‘Sexual Education’, explores its topic through the eyes of adolescents, contrasting the education they receive in their Catholic girls’ school with their experience outside. The story focuses not on their relationships with boys, but on how these affect relationships among themselves. It’s also the funniest story in the book: for their teacher’s outlining of the dangers of desire (“In girls, just like in other fauna, moisture attracts all sorts of nasties”); for its unerotic descriptions of sex (“…she pushed Mauricio’s head down and he went under her skirt and held her thighs open with his hands. I could hear what sounded like a dog licking something.”); and for the girl who believes the Virgin talks to her (and tells her anal sex is allowed).

Fish Soup is invigorating, animating, and possibly emetic. It reeks of despair but leaves an after-taste of hope, as fresh and as old as the sea. Charco Press continues to deliver the writers we need.

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10 Responses to “Fish Soup”

  1. BookerTalk Says:

    Well that’s an unusual title!

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, it’s the title of one of the short stories. I suspect it was chosen because it was memorable (for being unusual), and gives something of the ‘flavour’ of the collection.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    It’s a testament to the quality of your reviews that I always enjoy reading them, even when the book in question is not for me! “Hers is a poetry of exhaustion and desire, in which characters cling to each other but do not love.” What a wonderful description.

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings Says:

    As Jacqui says, your reviews are always so beautifully written, Grant. I confess I’m intrigued by this one, despite the apparent bleakness.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’m not sure if it’s entirely bleak as, despite some of the circumstances of the characters lives, they tend to keep hoping, or at least fighting.

  4. Max Cairnduff Says:

    It sounds very good, and despite the bleakness actually pretty funny. Charco are definitely an interesting publisher.

    • 1streading Says:

      Yes, there’s a dark humour running through a lot of the stories. This is the fourth Charco Press title I’ve read and I haven’t been disappointed yet.

  5. Bellezza Says:

    I began this novel, and haven’t progressed very far, but I like it very much! What a fresh voice, in my opinion.

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