Santiago Roncagliolo came to the attention of an English speaking (or should that be reading?) audience when his novel Red April won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2011, a translation from Edith Grossman that had originally been published in 2009. Now we finally have a little more of his work in English (to add to his frequent contributions to Granta) thanks to the appearance of a collection of stories, Hi, this is Conchita, from the same translator and new imprint Two Lines Press. (The first of what looks to be an impressive catalogue, with books from Marie Ndiaye and Jonathan Littell to follow).
Though published with an ‘& other stories’ tag, ‘Hi, this is Conchita’ takes up the majority of the collection – a 130 page novella followed by 40 pages of three shorter stories. It uses the conceit of a series of phones calls, presented dialogue only as if in transcript. These follow four main strands: a man phoning a sex line (the Conchita of the title); a complaint to a customer service about over-billing; a man hiring a professional killer to rid himself of an unwanted mistress; and another man leaving increasingly desperate messages on the answerphone of an ex-girlfriend. All strands involve miscommunication in what is a light-hearted and amusing read, despite its theme of loneliness. Conchita’s caller believes they have a connection and soon rejects her clichéd sex-talk for marriage:
“I’ve never found anybody who understands me like you do…Never.”
The jilted lover threatens suicide only to phone back later:
“The fact is I never really planned to do it. It was just a test, understand?”
The would-be assassin and frustrated complainant find themselves in even more farcical situations, and, yes, you will not be surprised to learn that the calls eventually connect.
It’s easy to see why a bigger publisher didn’t want this as a follow-up to Red April, a much darker book, though the other three stories are all haunted by death in one way or an another (and ‘Hi, this is Conchita’ isn’t without casualties either). In ‘Despoiler’ a woman approaches her fortieth birthday with dread: her work colleagues want her to dress up and join them in the local carnival. In the dream-like story that follows, this leads to an encounter with a werewolf, and by the end we feel her youth is certainly over. In ‘Butterflies Fastened by Pins’ the narrator reflects on the way all his friends end up dead. The final, shortest story, ‘The Passenger Beside You’, is about the experience of being dead itself, but even here there’s a certain matter-of-factness to it all:
“The rest of being dead is routine. You know what I mean, right? It’s boring, because now nobody who’s alive listens to you.”
Roncagliolo’s latest novel, Oscar y las mujeres, also seems to be in comic vein (and originally published electronically in episodes, though rather more quickly than Margaret Atwood’s Positron). It’s to be hoped that UK publishers will not be put off simply because he is a writer who is capable of more than one thing.