A Perfect Cemetery

There is so much to admire about Charco Press, who have opened up a new world of Latin American literature to an English-speaking audience over the last few years, that perhaps not enough is made of the fact that they, beyond the risk of publishing previously unheard-of authors, have more than once done so with a commercially precarious collection of short stories. This has brought us Margarita Garcia Robayo’s Fish Soup, Rodrigo Fuentes’ Trout, Belly Up, and now, Federico Falco’s A Perfect Cemetery, translated by International Booker Prize winner, Jennifer Croft. The collection grabs the reader’s attention from the opening sentence of the first story, ‘The Hares’:

“The king of the hares finished his coffee, put out the furs and set his cup down on a rock that was still hot.”

The juxtaposition of the strange, dream-like ‘king of the hares’ with the ordinary everyday act of drinking coffee is a feature of Falco’s writing throughout. The story begins like some ancient tale, with an altar of bleached bones and the hares circled around the king, “ears pricked, the slits in their noses probing the air.” When the king ventures into town he is spotted and chased, only escaping via the river. But a visit from a young woman, Cristina, suggests a more a more contemporary backstory from the moment she calls him Oscar. Falco provides enough detail to convince – for example, the names which feature in Cristina and Oscar’s conversation – without ever explaining, leaving the story suspended between the fantasy world of its opening and the ordinary world of its end.

The fantastic and the ordinary also battle it out in the title story as architect Victor Bagiardelli is hired to design a cemetery for the town of Colonel Isabeta. He is immediately determined to create the perfect cemetery:

“In his mind’s eye he could already see the new cemetery. The site could not have been better – he would never encounter its equal.”

Bargiardelli sees himself as an artist – “as though commanding an orchestra he began to conduct the movement of the bulldozers” – and refuses to compromise his vision despite the mayor’s concerns over the budget. Bargiardelli worries about the entrance gate, which the blacksmith will not show him until it is finished, and finding an oak tree big enough for his centre-piece, whereas in the mayor’s opinion “it is insane to pay that much for a plant.” Single-minded as he is, Bargiardelli must navigate the living as well as the dead: the mayor’s 104-year-old father whose deteriorating relationship with his son colours his view of the architect; and the mayor’s secretary, Mis Mahoney, whose advances he ignores to focus on his project. Whereas ‘The Hares’ feels as if a novel may lie behind it, ‘The Perfect Cemetery’ in lesser hands would have been stretched to novel length.

The same is true of ‘Forest Life’ which begins with a father trying to persuade the local undertaker to marry his daughter, Mabel:

“She knows how to sew, and she can make a good dinner, and she can clean…”

When this is unsuccessful, he tries again in a restaurant – “I’m giving her away” – but to no avail. What seems cruel proves to be a sign of their close relationship: their house is about to be taken from them as the forest around it is cut down and her father can see no other way to safeguard their future. Eventually she marries a Japanese man, Sakoiti, who pays for her father to go into a retirement home. He is polite and kind, even when it comes to sex:

“Are you comfortable? Are you relaxed? You can concentrate on how it feels, I’m going to give you pleasure…”

However, her father seems unable to leave their old life behind, and Mabel struggles to embrace her new one. A culture clash of a different kind takes place in ‘Silvi and her Dark Night’ when the teenage Silvi, whose mother administers the last rites to those in need, loses her faith. At the same time, she falls for one of a pair of young Mormon men going from house to house:

“She couldn’t take her eyes off Steve’s hands, Steve’s fingernails, Steve’s knees bent beneath the fabric of his trousers, his firm muscles, the taut grey seam.”

Her mother fears the Mormon’s have ’brain-washed’ her but in fact they are made uneasy by Silvi’s repeated attempts to convince Steve she loves him. What is in some ways a simple coming-of-age story becomes a spiritual battle ground, not least because Silvi’s growth will be spiritual if not religious.

As with the other stories in A Perfect Cemetery, ‘Silvi and her Dark Night’ demonstrates Falco’s skill with unusual relationships. All the stories contain characters who are devoted to another, whether that devotion is reciprocated or not. This, Falco seems to suggest, is where the complexity and wonder of the world lies. This is another excellent collection from Charco, and one can only hope that more of Falco’s work will follow.

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7 Responses to “A Perfect Cemetery”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    While I don’t think this is necessarily for me, it’s great to see Charco investing in short story collections like this. You’re right to say they’re commercially precocious as they can be hard to sell (unless the author is a ‘Murakami’ with a large, devoted following). I wish more readers were open to reading them, but in general the demand for novels is higher!

    • 1streading Says:

      I think I’m a but guilty of preferring novels myself! I don’t know about you, but I certainly find collections of short stories much more difficult to write about.

  2. David Hebblethwaite Says:

    I think this is one of my favourite Charco books that I’ve read. It’s a real statement to publish a collection with only five stories, but they work so well as a unit. I like that you’ve highlighted the relationships – it wasn’t something I’d thought about before, but it is a key theme.

  3. Cathy746books Says:

    I’ve just read Dead Girls produced by Charco and was very impressed. I’ll definitely be on the look out for more of their output.

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