Incurables: Relatos de dolencia y males. Ed. Oswaldo Estrada. Chicago: Ars Communis Editorial, 2020. 228 pages.
Somewhere between homeopathy and catharsis, writing about maladies is not to everyone’s taste. Thanks to Oswaldo Estrada’s judgment and knowledge that quandary is amply solved. If some Latin American women authors sometimes transpose fashionable U.S victimology without nuances, an important and revealing quality of Incurables is its concentration on U.S.-based Latino authors who are not official minorities in their adopted country. Of the twenty gathered, only the anthologist was born here, but he grew up in Peru. The abundance of Peruvian and Mexican natives in this anthology is not a distortion of representativeness but enrichment; so much is known already about earlier immigrant groups—latinounidenses in Ambrosio Fornet’s words—to the East and West.
In that regard, the publisher Ars Communis is betting on bringing together Latin Americans settled in different parts of the U. S. Why center on “First Maladies (seven tales), “Chronic Illnesses (six tales) and “Incurables” (seven tales), the sections into which Estrada divides his anthology? Fiction by established authors like Guadalupe Nettel and Lina Meruane does not avoid the ubiquitous rhapsodic inconveniences that show that I-fiction is not unstoppable; just like in Gabriela Alemán’s Body Time (original title), Carlos Labbé’s Spiritual Choreographies (2019 translation by Will Vanderhyden), and other works about pain and the body are “autobiografictional,” sometimes transmitted with the feeling that their generation was created to think all they do and feel is important, and that their readers will take them at their word.
But note the differences regarding the body in Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Iliac Crest (2017 translation by Sarah Booker) or Juan Villoro’s El disparo de argón. If the referents for the incurable are going to be the irredeemable United States, then nothing is more powerful than “Aquí no es Miami,” in Fernanda Melchor’s collection of essayistic-tales of the same title, that like its other tales, as the “Author’s Note” states: tells “a tale with the largest possible number of details and the least noise.” One can empathize with the sentiments of more established authors because, different from recent generations that suffer pain, loss, tragedies and other vital complications, they have overcome or avoided teary teleology. On the other hand, they do not write for Europeans or Americans who, at this stage, might be shocked by how freaky we Latin Americans are; nor do they want blood, violence, and solitude to be the threads that define women, as occurs with the “tradition” that the anthologists of Vindictas: Cuentistas latinoamericanas (2020)—and other previous works mentioned by Estrada—want to revive.
There is no space to refer to each example, but Incurables is path-breaking because of the sensibility Elaine Scarry examined in The Body in Pain as power games, as horrible as they can be, positing that to be in great pain is to be certain, while hearing about someone else hurting implies some doubt. That seems to be an academic matter, and it is not inconsequential that most of the authors of Incurables have that background, as Estrada acknowledges in his sensible and authoritative introduction. Thus, in “Formas del beso que vendrá” by the Dominican Rey Andújar, the protagonist is teleported from an MLA convention (a throng that means nothing to an ordinary Latin American) to the Dominican Republic, where he gets sick by becoming one with Sussy Santana, instead of getting sick from that incurable agglomeration in which Spanish is a negligible language. A similar context is present in Argentine Mariana Graciano’s less convincing “El discurso del oftalmólogo,” especially if one accepts that the “gypsy scholar” condition is “curable” if one leaves New York City.
On the other hand, the point of view and lack of information provided by narrating without chronological order (a thread for some of the tales included) allows empathy with the protagonists, because not knowing the extent of a disease or concern and its violence allows for understanding of the conflicts. It is a matter of retaining what is basic to make a short story more than “interesting,” a benign but ineffective qualifier. Because of that control, not every story fits into its assigned rubric. Thus, under “Chronic Illnesses” and despite capturing the local speech of the demographic area represented, Bolivian Liliana Colanzi’s “Meteorito” loses its defining fantastic elements by denouncing “toxic masculinity” in a fashion imitated from the country in which these authors live. A similar muddle of registers is present in “Enero es el mes más largo,” by Venezuelan Keila Vall de la Ville, in which the pathos of the relationship between the protagonist and music becomes a fairly conventional sentimentality. More or less the same occurs with “La moto,” by Costa Rican Daniel Quirós.
By not being strict “campus tales,” Peruvian Ulises Gonzales’ “Por ahí viene el invierno” and Estrada’s “Los sueños de la razón” achieve greater subtlety. Both show how tales work with compression and intensity; and their structure helps the authors get to instances when everything is demolished or threads are tied. Wisely, Estrada opts for “Primeras dolencias” as the opening rubric, with contributions by Mabel Cuesta (Cuba), Claudia Salazar Jiménez (Peru), Melanie Márquez Adams (Ecuador) and Naida Saavedra (Venezuela), four of the nine women chosen; the other ten authors are men. That is important not because of gender equity but because in all the tales there is a general air of discontent, of isolation as a first illness, and that feeling and others the authors add do not have a social or political effect as determinants. Moreover, class is frequently an atmospheric detail, not an explaining principle.
In broad strokes, the characteristics mentioned, never so fixed so as to define all the authors, distance them from the experimental obsession for which others of their cohort have opted. That is in line with the parameters of transoceanic fiction, and an example would be “Dumb,” by Mexico’s José Ramón Ruisánchez and its fine musing about how a foreigner can never really be a part of the U.S. and its intellectual violence. But neither are the tales in Incurables realistic. The fact that the females characters grapple with various types of imprisonment does not make the women authors the only feminists in the sample. This is because the tales written by men, particularly “Dolor crónico” by Argentina’s Juan Vitulli, and to some degree “My very own página en blanco” by the Bolivian-Mexican Sebastián Antezana, clearly seek to reflect a raised consciousness regarding equality, not merely empathy.
Readers will search in vain for radical fables of empowerment or inspiring views of sisterhood and inclusion along gringo lines. These fictional beings are more real and complex, atavistically Latin American. In the final analysis, most of the authors show that they are close to greater achievements, because they have kept their “latinicity” in a prescriptive atmosphere that pays only lip service to diversity and multiculturalism, worse yet to bilingualism. Estrada and his authors are valiant (Bolaño’s only demand for authors), and one is grateful for their “fictionalization” of the personal struggles caused by living in the United States, sometimes due to decisions in which young authors had no voice.
Wilfrido H. Corral