It was toward the end of September, when the drowsiness of autumn was beginning to make itself felt; the hours went by more slowly and time itself seemed to stagnate like the forlorn waters of the salt marshes around Tamoga.
“A traveling salesman,” said or thought absentmindedly all the bored men gathered in the station with nothing better to do as dusk fell and they saw first the enormous suitcase and then the short man, comically veering from side to side in his efforts to drag it along the platform. “A dung beetle,” someone in the group joked, trying to breathe new life into their flagging conversation. They stared at the stranger for a few moments longer, but nobody could be bothered to add another comment. They watched the train disappear into the endless rain, feeling a twinge of disappointment, a nostalgia for times past.
Prepare for a close read: this is a sentence-level story.
I suppose to be consistent I should rail against the inclusion of a novel excerpt as a short story; but notice, right in the title, the excerptness of the piece is clearly declared. Is it a novel, or a collection of linked stories? In the foreword (available online via Googlebooks, as is this first story if you’re careful) Ríos gives this characterization: “Although the nine chapters can stand on their own as short stories, I always thought of them as forming part of a choral novel about an imaginary town and space, with characters revealing the events of their lives and the lives of others in a way that was to a greater or lesser extent interrelated.” I’m completely smitten with the term “choral novel” which might work today for US marketing purposes, where short story collections have always been considered anathema. It is, it seems, what I would consider a “novel in stories.”
There’s a vaguely old-fashioned, mysterious air to the story, not surreal but not quite real, either. The atmosphere creates most of that, a description of a town already that hasn’t bothered to stop breathing yet.
From the window of his second-class compartment, Mortes would have gazed out at the rain-swept platform, the faded sig with the letters T and M almost completely worn away, so that it read A OGA. He would have been greeted by a jumble of clouds and roofs. Seeing this, he must have thought the town was gloomy enough for what he had in mind. It’s also likely that what persuaded him to get off the train at the last moment was weariness, boredom… not to mention that from the start he thought he could rely on our stupidity and collective curiosity, our lack of foresight…
Mortes – note the name – is the “stranger who comes to town,” one of the fundamental plots of all fiction. We see a little bit into him, and a little bit into the town through him as he spends his day and evening there. Early on, we see “he was only among us for a few hours,” and given the atmosphere, we have a good idea of how the story will end.
The narration captured my attention from the start. I was under the impression it was the “we” voice, first-person plural, since it switches pretty handily throughout from “he” to “we.” Yet, although the narrator seems to be quite familiar with the histories of everyone in the story, and quotes them liberally on the matter of Mortes’ visit, the narrator does not have access to inner thoughts; these are surmised or guessed. So this is not an omniscient “we.” And then… aha! There is a single “I” in the narrator’s voice, on the second page, putting the story in “storyteller voice”: the storyteller never overtly interacts with anyone else in the story and never introduces him/herself. This disappoints me somehow; I was so hoping for another first-person plural. As to the identity of the narrator, whether it is an actual person, or more of an ethereal presence, perhaps emerges more clearly elsewhere in the collection (which I have a great urge to read).
The story ostensibly follows Mortes, who has become something a legend in the town on the edge of extinction, where nothing out-of-the-ordinary ever happens. But it becomes more of a study of the townspeople Mortes encounters:
Despite the fact that he was only among us for a few hours, he is still remembered with great relish, especially because of how his story ended; many people swear not only to have seen him, but to have talked with him. He had the gift of metamorphosis, apparently, because each one of us remembers him differently – although it’s possible that all of our impressions were equally correct: happy, timid, forlorn, a joker, sneering, respectful, cynical, dull, likable: he is all those things in our accounts of him. In the end we are left with fascination, and the impossibility of telling his story, because in this case the words are more concrete than the facts, and a story is really only worth telling when words can’t exhaust its meaning. We are also free to imagine and attribute multiple, contradictory, and obscure objectives to that rather short, rather skinny, rather ungainly stranger who chose Tamoga as the stage for his performance. Now Mortes is nothing more than words and a vague image already beginning to fade in our memory…
As Mortes avails himself of the various services of the town – the bus, the hotel, the café, the club, the telephone office, the brothel – we learn about the residents. One-Armed Gomez, the bus conductor; Doña Milagro, abandoned wife, uncle’s heir, and innkeeper; Alcides, her godson; Prado, restauranteur; Barbosa, the barkeep; Señorita Serena, the telephone operator; Doña Maria, the lonely old woman who revels in her nightly anisette; and, finally, Cardona, the inspector, who investigates exactly what we’ve known he’d be inspecting from the first page.
The circumstances of Mortes’ visit to the town are as murky as the fog that envelops them all. He seems to have leapt from the train at the last second. His telephone conversation says one thing; the other party, when she arrives after it’s all over, says another. In some ways, this story is like a game of telephone, as history and tradition change each time the passes through another teller. I suspect the root purpose of the story, the first in the book, is not to tell us about Mortes, but to introduce the town. That it’s done with an intriguing mystery and character study is a bonus.
Being woefully ignorant of world literature (well, all literature, really, but especially that from outside the US), I’d never heard of Julian Ríos. From the Dzanc review I discovered that Ríos wrote Shadows in the 60s when Franco was in power, and put it aside as unpublishable due to the censorship of the time. He went on to make his name as a post-modernist with other novels, only returning to Tamoga recently. I’m glad he did.