In a story titled “The Sea”, a couple vacationing on the Mediterranean make their way to the seashore each day where the husband joins the line of humans on the beach who sit staring at the water, mesmerized. The experience fills him with a sense of unease.
“The waves were never the same, although they may have repeated themselves in similar cycles. The meaning of the wave never went beyond being a rather comforting mystical murmur. But the sea seemed to express itself in ways superior to the wave, in whole unintelligible paragraphs and speeches, as rich in modes and forms as it was in depths and fishes. On the other hand, I understood nothing of what it said.”
Like the vast sea with its hypnotic surface and hidden secrets, reality is a shimmering quantity in the hands of Spanish author Medardo Fraile. A master of the short story, he is able to distill an experience or sketch out an entire life span within a handful of pages. In this collection, Things Look Different in the Light, he breathes life into a wide variety of unforgettable characters – young or old, ordinary or eccentric. We meet weary professors, crafty spinsters, uncommunicative middle-aged couples, meek bachelors and curious children who don’t quite understand the world of adults. We even encounter inanimate objects that take on lives of their own rich with meaning and emotion, bound to and yet separate from the human with which they are associated.
Consider “A Shirt”, the simple fable of sailor who, after a single love affair, returns alone to his hometown to take up the life of a fisherman. Each day he dons the same tartan shirt until one fateful day when shirt is left behind on the line:
“At around four o’clock in the morning, with no wind to speak of, the shirt began to move. It flapped wildly about, anxious and empty, as if wanting to break free of the pegs gripping its shoulders. The flailing sleeves rose and fell, filled by the invisible lament of some terrible tragedy. They occasionally joined wrists or else stretched wide, arms spread.”
Or share the frustration of the lingerie salesman in “The Lemon Drop” who had imagined a literary career for himself and can’t quite come to terms with the place where life has left him. He wonders what happened to the scabby-kneed boy who used to go bird’s nesting and smoke on the sly:
“Now I never smoke. I used to own a pellet gun. I have big hands, like cowboys in the Wild West. And by ‘I’, I mean this person who is me. This weary fellow who walks home bent beneath the weight of his briefcase, which, one day, grabbed hold of his hand like a dog and feels equally weary.”
From the opening story about a tongue-tied man at a baby’s birthday party, set on edge by a woman he cannot bear to face, to the chillingly beautiful “Last Shout” in which a child recalls a beloved grandmother’s final months; you know you are in the presence of a gifted storyteller. He manages to adjust the focus to bring to light the details that are essential to the tale he wishes to tell. No more, no less. Simply perfect.
Born in Madrid in 1925, Fraile started his career in experimental theatre, a background that may well account for the spare, magical quality of many of his short stories. He left Spain in the 1950‘s, and although he would ultimately settle in Scotland, his work was not made available to English speaking readers until the release of this wonderful collection from Pushkin Press, translated by the renowned Margret Jull Costa, with a warm and enthusiastic introduction by Ali Smith. A fellow blogger, Jacqui at JacquiWine’s Journal first drew my attention to this book so I knew it was one that I wanted to read (sooner rather than alter, that is) when it was longlisted for this year’s Best Translated Book Award. Things Look Different In the Light has progressed to the shortlist.
Medardo Fraile died in 2013.