Friday, October 17, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: Spanish by Pédro Antonio de Alarcón, et al.

A preoccupation with the supernatural
Pedro Antonio de Alarcón
Most English-language readers have little if any knowledge of the literature of Spain. If asked to name three works of Spanish (not Latin American) literature, the typical American would be hard pressed to come up with anything beyond Don Quixote and El Cid. Back in 1898, the publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons tried to rectify this big black hole in our cultural consciousness by including a volume of Spanish short fiction in their Stories by Foreign Authors series. This collection features five works of the late 19th century by four Spanish authors. Though, given the widespread ignorance of Spanish fiction, any knowledge on the subject is welcome, overall the pieces chosen don’t paint a particularly flattering picture of their nation’s literary scene.

The first three stories in the book all touch upon the horror genre, albeit in an antiquated, highly romanticized way. Though they may have been aiming for the eerie chills and deep emotional drama of Edgar Allen Poe’s tales, they all come across as quite tame. The mere mention of a ghost might have been enough to tingle the spine of 19th-century readers, but today’s audience actually requires that their spirits do something scary beyond just making an appearance. A preoccupation with the supernatural is evident in all these stories. Even the less gothic entries make mention of curses or divine intervention. In the early to mid-1800s, the Christian Spaniards fought a series of wars against the Muslim Moors, first driving them out of Spain and then fighting them in North Africa. The Moors figure into a few of the stories, and reference is often made to their engaging in the unholy arts of pagan black magic. It doesn’t appear that the authors really believe such rumors, but rather they merely document such prejudices as a historically accurate representation of the mindset of the times.

The best entry in the book by far is “Moors and Christians” by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón. While dismantling the ruins of an old tower on his property, the Alcalde of a formerly Moorish town finds a piece of parchment he suspects will lead him to a hidden treasure. Unfortunately it’s in Arabic, so he needs to get it translated. In order to carry that out, the manuscript changes hands several times, and each step of the way one more person is let in on the lucrative secret. This is a great story. It’s really funny and keeps the reader guessing. It’s regrettably hampered by some awkward and confusing passages, most likely the fault of the translator rather than the author. Unfortunately, that’s a defect that’s common to all the tales in this volume.

The final story, “Bread Cast Upon the Waters,” was written by Fernán Caballero, actually the pen name of a Spanish marquesa. In a mountain village, a humble family of good samaritans adopts the son of a starving couple and raise him as their own son. Eventually this boy and his brother go off to war and fight the Moors at the 1860 Battle of Tetuán. At first the story of this family is very engaging, but the piece soon turns into an ultranationalistic, ultra-Christian propaganda piece. That said, if you don’t mind that sort of thing, it’s rather well-written, but it’s an odd choice for a literary collection like this.

I’ve read several of the ten volumes in the Stories by Foreign Authors series, and this is my least favorite so far. The shortcomings of this book should not be perceived as a reflection on the merits of Spanish literature, but rather as the result of poor editorial choices. Those hoping for an education in Spanish letters may want to look elsewhere.

Stories in this collection
The Tall Woman by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón 
The White Butterfly by José Selgas 
Maese Pérez, the Organist by Gustavo Adolfo Becquer 
Moors and Christians by Pedro Antonio de Alarcón 
Bread Cast Upon the Waters by Fernán Caballero 

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