Fish Soup by Margarita García Robayo, Translated by Charlotte Coombe, Charco Press, 2018
Margarita García Robayo’s Fish Soup (lovingly translated from the Spanish by Charlotte Coombe) opens with a poem from Shel Silverstein: “I am writing these poems / From inside a lion, / And it’s rather dark in here. / So please excuse the handwriting / which may not be too clear.” Silverstein’s poetry was largely written for children, but its language and ideas appeal to readers long into adulthood. These lines fittingly define the voices in García Robayo’s story collection, while making clear the particular challenges of writing about a world while also being trapped inside it. This sense of a multi-layered voice, entrapment, dark atmosphere, and liminality largely defines the latest publication coming from the new and exciting Charco Press.
Unlike previous publications from Charco Press, Fish Soup is a collection of novellas and short stories that are united through shared imagery and tone and a focus on human relationships. It fits nicely within Charco’s catalogue for the ways that it continues to experiment with tone and atmosphere and to articulate a particular female experience of Latin America. Drawing largely on imagery from her home country of Colombia, García Robayo’s stories create a portrait of a space on the fringes of the world at an unidentified, though presumably contemporary, time. Two novellas—“Waiting for a Hurricane” and “Sexual Education”—sandwich a collection of short stories titled “Worse Things.” The initial piece is narrated from the perspective of a young woman living in a small town in coastal Colombia where all she wants is a way out. The subsequent short stories explore experiences of isolation and tenuous relationships from a distanced and cynical perspective: a woman moves to a small, rural town to recover from cancer treatment; a traveling Latin American man is trapped in a Madrid hotel due to an accident at the airport; a boy and his mother navigate his congenital obesity; an aging academic, who lost his first daughter to suicide, travels to Rome in the hopes of seeing his estranged second daughter; an elderly man teeters on the brink of sanity as he mourns the loss of his wife; a couple with wildly different interests and world views struggle to understand one another; and a woman returns to her childhood home after losing a baby to a miscarriage or abortion. Published for the first time in this collection, the final novella, and certainly the strongest piece in the collection, depicts the relationships between a group of young women at a conservative school in Colombia where students simultaneously receive US-inspired abstinence-only sexual education and begin to explore their own sexuality. The experiences of these young women certainly resonate with current conversations of gender and sexuality and the piece packs an extra punch from the dark humor that characterizes much of García Robayo’s writing.
There is a consistent ambiance in this collection that could be defined by the opening lines in “Waiting for a Hurricane”: “Living by the sea is both good and bad for exactly the same reason: the world ends at the horizon. That is, the world never ends. And you always expect too much” (1). The ocean, horizon, and sense of marginalized space persist throughout the narrative in terms of geography, emotion, and tone. The littoral setting of the stories creates a sense of melancholy; water is ever-present, casting an ominous feeling and limiting movement. That horizon, which so often functions as a symbol of hope but that here marks a limitation, provides a point of escape while also acting as a constant marker of confinement, as can be seen in the final lines of the first novella:
Until, one day, I stopped listening to him. It was easy, instead of hearing his voice assembling long, rambling sentences, I heard the sound of the waves and the wind: a cold, piercing howl that after a while, turned into a deafening hum. Then I focused on the horizon, which by that hour was empty. (59)
Indeed, these stories are filled with characters longingly staring out of windows and into open spaces as they pine for a means of escape.
While a story collection is at an advantage in being able to present a variety of people and situations, common to many of the voices in this collection is an ever-present sense of apathy. García Robayo’s narrators observe the things that happen to them from a cynical, disaffected position, giving the impression that they just do not care about these events. Or perhaps they care too much. The narrator in “Waiting for a Hurricane” perhaps best encapsulates this contradiction as she contemplates her sensations upon losing her connection with a man in Miami:
I was filled with pity. Firstly, for him, because he must have lost everything: his car, his unemployment benefit, his Ecuadorian wife, his VIP passes, his dignity. Then for me, because I’d lost my drives around Miami, the lobster and champagne, the sunsets in Mallory Square, the good life that Johnny had got me used to. And then for me, again for me, for the many times in my life, for every time I’d lost someone I didn’t even care about. (46)
These lines reflect a sense of loss and regret, but they are written in a way that allows the narrator to distance herself from actually experiencing the emotion. Integral to this voice is an ever-present boredom that further creates that distance. Stranded in a Madrid hotel in “You Are Here,” Pedro craves boredom or the emotion-free passage of time that smoking cigarettes allows: “He wanted to get out of there, to go back to the round place with the opening in the ceiling. He wanted to smoke a cigarette” (81). That recurring sense of open space, of a blank point of escape, persists throughout the book, always allowing for a separation from emotion, as articulated in the end of “Worse Things” when the obese and dying Titi is able to spend time in a park with the men in his life:
Lying there, he stopped listening to them. He watched the clouds slowly crawling by; he wondered if they were coming or going. And where to. Hours passed, days passed, clouds passed and Titi wished that one would stop and furiously empty itself onto him. Until he was swept away; until there was nothing left. (104)
While boredom allows for the negation of emotion, dreams and self-medication also emerge throughout the collection as avenues of escape. The narrator of “Waiting for a Hurricane” expresses this desire thus: “During those days in Los Angeles, I thought that perhaps the time had come to invent my own formula for escaping myself, for killing my self-awareness with a bottle of pills” (53). In “Sexual Education,” dreaming becomes a way to examine sexual desire and forbidden thoughts in a repressive context:
And she would start regaling us with her dreams. Because dreaming was a sin, but a minor one. It was not the same as having bad thoughts when you were awake. That’s why our dreams were the ideal location for sucking out the venom implanted in our heads by our school teachers. I dreamed too, but I could rarely remember what about. I only remembered the sensation that lingered in my body: a mixture of happiness and repulsion that was a real pain in the ass to deal with. (166)
Here, dreams become a sort of safe space. They allow one to actually feel something that either the individual or society forbids the waking mind to feel and that so many of the other narrators seek to avoid.
Given the fear and desire that all these characters struggle so much to engage with and negate, the question of sexuality is present throughout the entire collection, but most directly in the final novella. “Sexual Education” explores young female relationships framed by a strict Opus Dei institution and asks how conservative sex education shapes the experience of adolescent women. While much of the story follows the flux of the narrator’s relationships with her friends, it is structured around the various lessons they receive in school. The class on abortion and the narrator’s response to it—she sees the lesson as hypocritical—exemplifies the disconnect between policy and experience:
The films about abortion must have been the symbolic equivalent of the Hieronymus Bosch paintings we’d studied in Art, years earlier. The dead foetus and the rotten belly were, like Hell, invariably the consequence of sleeping with a boy. However, you couldn’t help thinking how little faith the catechists had in chastity. Their message was clear-cut: you must be chaste. But devoting the next lesson to abortion was like admitting they had failed.
What this revealed was that sex was a redeemable sin; which is why trying to persuade girls not to do it was stupid. (197)
García Robayo shows how the abstinence-only and anti-abortion policy do not align with the relationships the girls form. With sex ed and abortion at the center of recent debates in countries like Ireland, Argentina, and the United States, this feels ever more relevant and necessary.
This novella ends tragically when the girls learn that a classmate has been drugged and raped by seven boys from a neighboring school. The girl’s life is destroyed as she is expelled from school and alienated from the community, while the boys are sent abroad until enough time passes and they can happily continue their lives. The consequences are unfortunately familiar in light of the #MeToo movement and as incidents of sexual violence are minimized in the courts and perpetrators face little to no punishment, such as in the recent La Manada case in Spain. With stories like this one and others that highlight gender inequality and class disparity, García Robayo demands that her readers witness and question this reality.
While a challenging and bleak read, Charlotte Coombe’s translation manages at once to convey the beauty of the imagery as well as the contemporary significance—on both a local and global scale—of the social justice issues. The result is one of the most essential books of the year. As indicated by Shel Silverstein’s epigraph, this is a text written from within the belly of the beast.
Sarah Booker is a doctoral student at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill with a focus on contemporary Latin American narrative and translation studies. She is a literary translator working from Spanish to English and has translated works by Cristina Rivera Garza, Amparo Dávila, Margarita García Robayo, and Ricardo Piglia, among others. Her translation of Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest was published with Feminist Press in 2017. She is a blog editor for Asymptote and an assistant editor for The Mercurian.
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