Maybe around the spot in Granta's newest issue where the reader reaches Pola Oloixarac's merciless story about an exhausted, perhaps bankrupt counterculture in Argentina ("Conditions for the Revolution"), a dark seed planted back in the stories preceding it has taken root. It would seem, according to a new generation of Spanish-language novelists, we are living in an age where Big Ideas are dead, and this is far from a good thing, considering the Big Empty that's filled the vacuum.
Ostensibly a showcase of the finest young talent in the Spanish-speaking world—a selection of 22 writers born no earlier than 1975—Granta's The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists tries to do for these authors what the London-based quarterly has famously done in the past for their U.K. and U.S. cohort. But this issue is much more than a literary beauty pageant. In the bleakest of these stories, we're offered a glimpse at something approaching a post-human world, and in the most optimistic of this new fiction, we're presented with a world in which personal relationships are all you can put your faith in—advisedly, of course.
"When asked," write the issue's editors, Aurelio Major and Valerie Miles, in their foreword, the majority of these authors "expressed skepticism, with varying degrees of reticence, nervousness or irony about the idea of an author having an active role in public life." That may well be because, looking over their shoulders at, say, the historical rubble constituting Franco's Spain and Argentina's junta rule (interestingly, 14 of the writers selected here come from just those two countries), what they see doesn't recommend an embrace of political certitudes or even an attempt to understand life as a social epic.
These stories are resolutely middle-class, the scope much more modest and familiar than one might have guessed. Nothing here suggests a mammoth novel like Carlos Fuentes' "Terra Nostra" in the offing. Most of the characters are of a type: university professors, newspaper columnists, military officers, even Mormon missionaries. The writing life, or at least one of culture, is part of the mix. Yet there's a fierceness in this writing, not to mention a refreshing frankness about all sorts of sex, missing from equally successful counterparts in the U.S.—that is, authors who write about the middle and upper class and who've been published multiple times and bestowed with prestigious prizes (though many of these novelists are also poets, musicians, and filmmakers, too—not to mention well-traveled and cosmpolitan).
In one way or the other, these authors seem to be wrestling with an understanding of the post-Big Idea world that is perhaps best distilled in Urguayan author Andres Ressia Colino's piece, "Scenes From a Comfortable Life." Jimmy Tanaka, a working-class young man who happens to be Japanese, gets an education from his girlfriend's rich, Germanic father, who supplies him with this piece of sour wisdom:
"This system is a fucking circle of doom. Produce more and more cheaply, and make the consumer swallow faster and faster. […] None of the food or the clothes or the music or the books or the drugs that you kids consume are real. It seems like food, like clothes, like music, but it's all just something like those things, made to be devoured immediately. It's a perfect system. A magnificent, gigantic, super-efficient piece of machinery that produces nothing, totally and absolutely nothing."
Out of this nothing comes visceral horrors such as a J.G. Ballardesque tale of a porn star's utter (and surgically assisted) dehumanization (Andres Barba's "The Coming Flood") and more hushed ones, such as Javier Montes' "The Hotel Life." In both stories by these authors from Spain, sex is wrung of joy or even sweet mystery. As an ubiquitous commodity in a consumer society, sex is more of a fount of anxiety and debasement. Out of this nothing, though, there's an attempt to create meaning, goodness, even civilization. Andres Neuman's story of a widowed professor deciding to forgive his enemies ("After Helena") is disarmingly generous, yet avoids the twee with an ambiguous ending that could be read as sinister. Antonio Ortuno's "Small Mouth, Thin Lips" is a small marvel. The Mexican writer takes the inherently political scenario of an imprisoned writer forced to do the bidding of an oppressive warder and turns it inside out. It becomes a beautiful metaphor for the undeniable, seductive power of writing, of how culture can find "friends" in the most rancid of times or places. In a similar way, Samanta Schweblin's wonderfully strange story "Olingiris" uncovers hope for two young women, alone in the big city and on the verge of becoming empty.
A testament to its translators, too—among them, Daniel Alarcon, Natsha Wimmer, Edith Grossman, Katherine Silver, and Margaret Jull Costa—Granta's The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists opens the door to significant writers deserving of a much wider audience—one that may all to readily identify with their reckoning of our globalized world.
Oscar Villalon is a San Francisco writer and critic. His work has appeared in VQR, The Believer, Black Clock, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR.org, and other publications. Follow him on Twitter at @ovillalon