Los terneros. Rodrigo Blanco Calderón. Madrid: Páginas de Espuma. 2018. 118 pages.
Two years after the appearance of his first novel, The Night (winner of the Rive Gauche à Paris Prize for foreign books in 2016), Rodrigo Blanco Calderón returns to the short story in a fourth anthology entitled Los terneros [The calves] (finalist for the Ribera del Duero prize). Seven tales make up this new compilation of short stories from the Venezuelan writer.
A careful edition from Páginas de Espuma shows on its cover a photograph of civilians with their hands up at the police checkpoints that followed the terrible attacks in Paris on the night of November 13, 2015. This image is a clue as to what we will find in Blanco Calderón’s stories: protagonists who become coincidental witnesses of stories in which they did not plan to play a part. These characters are dragged through accidental situations they confront with passivity; they seem small before circumstances they cannot decode, circumstances that they suffer sometimes with resignation, and other times with profound fear. With no grip on the domestic or the professional sphere, they are wandering, or perhaps lost, whether within their own country or elsewhere.
His characters seem to be drawn within the parameters set by Zygmunt Bauman in Liquid Modernity (2002), in which he describes nomadic, unanchored, individuals with no sense of nationality who provide evidence of the disintegration of the fabric of society. Just as Bauman describes the meeting of strangers as “a happening with no past and no future: a story most certainly ‘not to be continued’, a one-off chance, to be consummated in full while it lasts and on the spot” (95). Just the same, in Los terneros the “liquid” subjects have lost the future to the preeminence of the momentaneous, they wander lost in their cities and, above all, lost in themselves.
The stories suggest tragic actors who have climbed onto the wrong stage or play a role they did not desire. In this sense, they take on a sacrifice in spite of themselves. Los terneros tells of the ignored and unperceived sacrifice of insufficient heroes. A man who has the impression of always being left behind moves through the nooks and crannies of Mexico City, accompanied by a blind man. The new driver of a taxi service has been rehabilitated in spite of himself, and he stays awake through endless turns in order to pay for a special school for his autistic son while hoping to find a mysterious motorcyclist. A writer, after an almost unattended presentation of his book in rainy Biarritz, shares a sad night with a young man who is stuck watching over the agony of his father, a former pilot. A linguistics student, saddened by the paucity of emotions and interactions in Paris, attempts to uncover a conspiracy theory that would elucidate France’s destiny. A humanities professor, in spite of having postponed reading Don Quixote for many years, extrapolates the book into his reality in order to make the context of academia, and of a country devastated by a revolutionary government, more tolerable. The son of a tailor, who works for important politicians and admires the transition to democracy, unstitches his professional desires before his father’s. In “Los terneros,” the titular story, a professor who has published a chronicle about the torture to which his nephew was subjected as a prisoner of the Guardia del Pueblo discovers through a painter how the upper classes have been an accomplice of the power they induce professors and students to confront:
I went to the meeting not because, as some of my colleagues suggested, I believed I had to do something, but because I didn’t know what else to do. Nor did I know what an Art School was supposed to do to stand up to a dictatorship. Should we, in fact, stand up to it?
This wide range of characters is the doorway to disturbing stories that are threaded together by their small and taciturn everydayness. A standout story is “Los locos de París” [The madmen of Paris], in which the author skillfully succeeds in intertwining the mourning of a city broken by the attacks and the grief of an inadequate immigrant. The isolation, imperturbability, and silence that surround him stand in contrast to the brilliance of the language:
I walked into the church and was captivated by the deep beauty, like that of a suspended well, of its interior. Without quite knowing why, I experienced a profound feeling of guilt. It was as if the gothic concavity of the naves had turned in on itself, piercing my chest.
In La velocidad de las cosas [The speed of things] (1998), writing on the characteristics of literary genres, Rodrigo Fresán takes a phrase from Philip Kindred Dick, “a short story may deal with a murder; a novel deals with the murderer,” and reformulates it as “a short story may deal with an experiment; a novel deals with the laboratory.” Both images propose the preponderance of the event, ignited and breathed by the plot. In the case of Los terneros, based on a rigorous use of language, the common element of sacrifice is the happening that detonates, or rather, like an implosion, throws into disarray the lives of characters in a world numb to their desires.
Carmen Victoria Vivas-Lacour
Université de Cergy-Pontoise
Translated by Arthur Dixon