Guatemala’s thirty-six year civil war ended in 1996. Since then, under the eyes of UN representatives, millions of documents have been recovered detailing countless acts of genocide perpetrated by the US-backed military government. The same government, with the aid of soldiers trained by the CIA, still holds power today. The current head of state, ultra-conservative former actor Jimmy Morales, swept to power in 2016 with the campaign slogan ‘neither corrupt, nor a thief’, though subsequent scandals have rendered this claim somewhat fanciful. Illegal acquisition of land by palm oil and sugarcane companies is still a major problem, indigenous populations are often the first to suffer and rural poverty is high. As a result migration to the United States remains substantial, though much of it is undocumented.
It is a similar story throughout much of Latin America, and it goes some way towards explaining why the continent’s literature in the last few decades – from Roberto Bolaño to Valeria Luiselli to Julián Fuks – has often been concerned with displacement, disappearance, deracination. In Trout, Belly Up, Guatemalan author Rodrigo Fuentes offers a different view: the view of those who choose to remain. In doing so, he provides insights into why displacement might occur, why humans feel the need to move in their thousands to countries whose promises were exposed long ago as over-optimistic or fraudulent. But that is not his primary concern. These are stories about various types of hardship and conflict, where hardship is unending and conflict is self-perpetuating. His protagonists stick around to meet their difficulties head-on; they create tiny worlds around themselves where bizarre details become normal, where flirtatious cows walk on their hind legs and, frenzied fish turn to cannibalism.
These are tough stories. Where they differ from those of, say, Hemingway, is that the toughness is born out of necessity. The possibility of death lurks at every turn, be it death by violence, poverty or self destructive behaviour, and Fuentes’ protagonists are by turns heroic, stoic and sometimes complicit. Real people in tough situations. In that respect they perhaps owe something to Juan Rulfo’s short fiction. The occasional moments of hallucinatory clarity that ostensibly hark back to the magic realist tradition are better understood as acute, hyper-distilled observations of otherwise quotidian events – in other words, the seemingly random barrage of crises that taken together bestow individuality on a human life.
This mesh of strange beauty, boredom and violence is best exemplified in the story ‘Out Of The Blue, Perla’, in which the aforementioned pet cow becomes a sugarcane farmer’s ally in a vain resistance against an illegal land grab. The cow, Perla, takes on more human (and even divine) characteristics as the story progresses – she ‘dances’ on two legs, her gaze is knowing and coquettish, she shines ‘like a saint at Easter.’ As Perla grows more civilised and anthropomorphised, the criminals become increasingly bestial, finally committing an act of such transgressive barbarity that they effectively swap places with Perla in a kind of double-edged moral transmutation.
Another story, ‘Whisky’, concerns a recovering alcoholic, his young daughter, and the pet dog that brings them closer together. When the dog goes missing we watch through our fingers as the narrator’s life quickly begins to unravel. It is a simple premise but it is handled so assuredly by Fuentes that we remain gripped and moved up to and beyond its last sentence. It ends with an ironic, downbeat subversion of the classic Hollywood cliffhanger. The narrator slides down a sewage-filled ravine to rescue the trapped dog as his daughter waits at the top. The final sentence leaves no doubt that there is more at stake than the safety of the dog: ‘He held a hand out in front of him and waited, his heart in his mouth, terrified and full of hope for their reunion.’
With its suburban setting and self-contained narrative, ‘Whisky’ is ostensibly the odd one out. But the simultaneous terror and hope it conjures up provides an undercurrent that runs through the entire book. Whisky’s central character is the charismatic but self-destructive Mati, who also takes the starring role in ‘Dive’. A drug-fuelled diving expedition ends in near-tragedy and Mati ends the story on a plane to Miami, on the verge of death due to acute decompression sickness. For many writers a scene like this would form the centrepiece of the story, but once again Fuentes leaves us to imagine the outcome, or rather to contemplate the constant presence of horror that exists alongside the possibility of redemption.
The comparisons with Hemingway are partly down to this fine balance between redemption and existential oblivion, and partly down to the consistency and clarity of Fuentes’ artistic vision. He holds up a mirror to a masculine world – at times toxically masculine – but one in which individual women (lovers, daughters) hold immense, almost supernatural power. Sometimes they are analogues of the Virgin Mary, at others they hint at pre-Columbian deities. Mystery, fertility and carnality are scrambled together in the female characters, reflecting a world that is at once Catholic, pagan and secular. To the male gaze this mixture is confusing and intriguing. Fuentes writes about this confusion with subtle sensitivity. The protagonist in the title story is embroiled in an extramarital affair, and as the fish in his trout farm begin to die he lays the blame, if only for an instant, at the feet of his lover. He calls her a witch. She places her hands on her belly in a way that seems significant, loaded with meaning, but which he cannot understand. But ultimately he realises that he is at fault – for the death of the trout, for the wreck of his marriage – and his one wish is ‘for everything to go back to how it was before’.
Many of the stories are linked, and the device that links them is the character of Don Henrik. At times he his close – some of the stories are narrated by his step-son – and at others he is a distant, ultimately benign presence, like a moon pulling the narrative tides back and forth. Don Henrik is full of contradictions. More than any other character he appears at one with the Guatemalan landscape, a kind of patriarch and guardian, but in reality he is an interloper, a well-travelled Norwegian whose gifts to his new country include Scandinavian fish-farming techniques, smørbrød and plastic trolls.
Henrik is, among other things, a master of the art of waiting. The stories are little moments of digression and difference that occur around long periods of waiting. ‘My mother would be at home, awaiting Henrik’s return, and we’d be in a bar, awaiting God knows what,’ observes the young narrator in ‘Henrik’, the collection’s final, crushing story. These are people grown accustomed to enduring periods of time in which nothing seems to happen. They even find some satisfaction in it. That is understandable when the alternative is violent conflict. But even nothing can be frightening, and is always full of infinite possibilities. Fuentes has a rare gift for presenting those possibilities in way that is intensely revealing without being analytical.
Fuentes is rightly lauded in the Spanish-speaking literary world. He was a finalist in last year’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez Prize and has been an award-winning short story writer for more than a decade. This is his first collection in English, and huge credit must be given to Edinburgh-based Charco Press, whose mission to publish the best in new Latin American fiction has already introduced to us the talents of Luis Sagasti, Ariana Harwicz and Daniel Mella, among others. They have yet to publish a book that isn’t worth reading. Credit must also go to translator Ellen Jones – the sparse and unsentimental prose, with its occasional forays into passionate earthiness, seems to reflect perfectly the difficult political and geographical landscape from which these hugely impressive stories have grown.