If Pushkin Press were to organise parties rather than published books, they would be very interesting parties indeed. It’s true that there would be few headline grabbing celebrities; rather a succession of fascinating individuals that you had never heard of but could not be more pleased to have met. Their latest introduction (and sometimes it feels almost as personal as that) is to a certain Medardo Fraile, a Spanish short story writer previously unavailable in English. (And if Pushkin Press’ introduction isn’t enough to convince to, Ali Smith is on hand to vouch for him). To further embarrass me in my ignorance, Fraile spent most of his life in Scotland, teaching at the University of Strathclyde and living here until his death in 2013. (You can read more about his life here.)
One advantage of Fraile’s non-appearance in English before now is that it allows translator Margaret Jull Costa to choose a selection of stories from his first volume (1954) to his last (2010), and even include one unpublished story. Fraile’s stories are miniatures, rarely reaching ten pages. They tend to focus on ordinary, often undramatic events. Some, like the title story, are set over a few hours: in it a sign painter descends to a new Metro station to paint the platform signs. The story tells of his relationship with an ill-tempered foreman and culminates in his decision on discovering he made a mistake on the sign when he returns to the surface. The title is a gentle play on words referring both to his emergence into the sunlight and his attitude to his job after his encounter with the ferocious overseer.
Other stories take place over a number of years. ‘The Cashier’ contains half a lifetime of a typical Fraile character, working both shifts at a bar to make a living, given a momentary chance at happiness when she falls for an older man. The seriousness of the romance is shown when she reduces
“…her working day to just one shift so they could meet somewhere else at a decent hour, because being able to talk freely as they did was really something special.”
In ‘The Armchair’ a luxury purchase in preparation for the possible visit of a wealthier relative causes family tension. In the end it is the armchair’s effect on the son and narrator that is most important:
“Siting on it was like passing through the doors of hopes and treasures, seeing princesses, living in a palace, oblivious to the smell of sardines or fried peppers.”
Similarly symbolic is the chandelier installed by the sisters in ‘Child’s Play’ to lighten their old age:
“They needed light so that their hair would shine and their eyes sparkle as they had when they were twenty, so that they could knit jerseys and sell them to sailors or give them away to children, could read the headlines in the newspapers, scrutinize photographs of the Holy Father in magazines and still be able to pick out the bees and the ducks on cross-stitch patterns.”
While clearly identifying the physical necessity of the light, Frail also insists on its poetic necessity. In an unusually surreal turn, when the sisters die their bodies give of a faint glow.
Two of my favourite stories involve teachers. In ‘Senor Otaola, Natural Sciences’ the titular teacher – predictable, pedantic (“knowing him, one could understand why the heavenly spheres not bump into each other”) – suddenly decides to leap down twelve stairs – perhaps in an attempt to defy those very natural sciences. In the other, ‘Full Stop’, Spanish teacher, Don Eloy, having forgotten his dictation text, simply reads the class one of his own composition. It is in his unexpected feelings of devastation when his words are immediately wiped from the blackboard Fraile suggests what all writers feel:
“He stood for a long while, staring at the blackboard, anxiously searching for a fragment of just one of his words or even half a word, anything, the tail of a letter, the dot on an “i”, searching for himself, fearfully searching that black rectangle.”
Luckily, thanks to Pushkin Press, Fraile’s own words have not been similarly obliterated.