Colección: Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía (RIB)
Introduction: Good Things Come in Small Packages
With the publication of best-selling novels, anthologies of short stories for adults and children, humorous books, and collections short short stories, Ana María Shua has earned a place of prestige among the contemporary writers of Argentina. Born in Buenos Aires in 1951 as Ana María Schoua, the author changed the spelling of her last name to Shua in 1980 with the publication of her first novel Soy paciente. Although the novel won first prize in the 1980 Editorial Losadas International Novel Contest, this was not the authors first literary distinction. Like many of the writers of her generation, Shuas earliest works of narrative fiction were published during the tumultuous years of the military dictatorship; however, her literary career actually began much earlier, at the tender age of sixteen with the publication of an award-winning volume of poetry entitled El sol y yo (1967). The fact that Shua has published works in so many different literary genre, in addition to scripts for television and cinema, and journalistic articles, has frustrated those critics who have attempted to classify her narrative fiction. For example, as author of the novel Los amores de Laurita (1984), Shuas name appears with those of Tununa Mercado, Reina Roffé, Liliana Heer and other Argentine women writers who have experimented with erotic fiction. When Shua incorporated elements of fantastic literature and science fiction in certain stories of her collection Viajando se conoce gente (1988), the critics associated her works with those of Angélica Gorodischer. The publication of her latest novel to date, El libro de los recuerdos (1994), has placed her among those writers who have recorded their immigrant origins in their literary works, in particular, Jewish-Argentine authors, such as Alicia Steimberg who, like Shua, captures the trials and tribulations of a Jewish immigrant family in Buenos Aires in her novel Músicos y relojeros (1971).
Although Shua has published in diverse genre, certain traits remain constant throughout her work, especially the use of humor and irony to comment on the human condition, and more specifically, on the values, habits and daily life of the Argentine family and its society. In an interview with Silvia Fernández de Tujague, the author refers to these unifying factors when she states: hay una característica mía, el humor y la ironía, que se mantienen en todos mis libros. A pesar de que son muy diferentes entre sí, en cuanto a temas, estilos y géneros; esa especie de línea o de hilo conductor del humor aparece prácticamente en todos, excepto en la literatura infantil (El recuerdo es dudoso). In one of Shuas earliest critical reviews, made nearly thirty years ago, the anonymous reviewer of El sol y yo recognized two other elements that would become the trademarks of her future works, the capacity for synthesis and conciseness: Ana María Schoua [sic], en plena adolescencia, maneja ya un lenguaje depurado... con plena capacidad para obtener una transmutación de la realidad y una inclusión de la fantasía inteligente y rítmica (Rev. of El sol y yo).
Indeed, the comments made by the anonymous critic aptly describe La sueñera (1984) and Casa de geishas (1992), two anthologies of short shorts stories which explore the many facets of reality, fantasy and literature itself with an economy of expression and an internal rhythm more akin to poetry than prose. In an interview with Nora Domínguez, Shua acknowledges that her experience as a journalist and advertising copywriter enabled her to develop her innate capacity for synthesis and conciseness, two essential elements of micro or mini-fiction: Es más constitutiva en mí la brevedad, lo que brota espontáneamente.... Una exigencia muy grande en la publicidad es la síntesis y para mí la síntesis siempre fue algo natural (7).
The recipe for Shuas success in the art of miniature fiction consists of her ingenious blending of precise language, incisive humor and incredible imagination, resulting in a unique style and execution of the short short. Along with Luisa Valenzuela, Shua is one of the few Argentine women writers to master the cuento brevísimo, and thus join the ranks of such illustrious compatriots as Jorge Luis Borges, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Julio Cortázar, Marco Denevi and Enrique Anderson Imbert. An analysis of selected texts from Casa de geishas, the authors most recent collection of brevísimos relatos, will serve as a point of departure for this study which highlights Ana María Shuas contributions to one of literatures most elusive and rebellious subjects, the short short story.
Without going into great length (nothing more ludicrous than a long introduction about short short stories), it would be helpful to begin our analysis of Shuas texts with a few observations about the short short story, a genre, or subgenre, which has received even less critical attention than the short story itself.1 This is no easy task; after all, even those who are devotees of this literary form seemingly cannot agree on how to characterize, classify or name it. For example, in English these texts have been referred to as short shorts, sudden fiction, microfictions, and blasters, while in Spanish they are often called relatos brevísimos, mini-cuentos, cuentos rápidos, microrrelatos, and ficciónes relámpago. For their anthology Sudden Fiction, Robert Shapard and James Thomas asked a number of North American writers to characterize the short short story. Jonathan Penner refused to name it, stating that to name anything is to claim a kind of power over it (256). Stuart Dybek, alluding to the liminal nature of these strange texts which seem to fall between the cracks of literary genre, states: Their elusive quality is part of what makes them attractive. If you cant even name them, how can we be sure what theyre supposed to do? (241). Perhaps Charles Johnson offers the best explanation as to why these small wonders escape the confining labels of literary criticism: Only a fool would rigidly define the short-short because, above all else, it must be an innovative, attention-grabbing exploration of that perennial mystery that is the origin and end of expression itself: language (233). If anything, the diverse comments made by the authors suggest the basic characteristics of the genre: freedom of form, expression and function. The following remarks by the editors of Sudden Fiction capture, in part, the essence of the short short story, and aptly describe Ana María Shuas little rebels:
Their fundamental quality, our American writers say, is life. Highly compressed, highly charged, insidious, protean, sudden, alarming, tantalizing, these short-shorts confer form on small corners of chaos, can do in a page what a novel does in two hundred. If they can stop time and make it timeless, they are here for you, above all, as living voices. (xvi)The short short story presents a challenge to the author, for it requires exactness, control, virtuosity, and no small amount of courage. If the short story wins by a knockout after a series of blows, as Cortázar proposes in La casilla de Morelli (138), in mini-fiction the knockout must come in one decisive punch, as Irving Howe observes: Everything depends on intensity, one sweeping blow of perception. In the short short the writer gets no second chance (xi). Unlike a novel or a short story, there is no time to develop plot, characters or theme in the short short story; therefore, these brief texts present a particular challenge to the reader who must supply the context, decipher texual codes and, at times, suspend belief in reality.
The extension of the short short story has been the topic of much debate among those who cultivate and study the form. Some propose a standard of 1500 to 2500 words, while others believe that it may be as long as three to four pages (Howe x; Shapard xiv). Compared to most short shorts, Shuas cuentos brevísmos are scandalously brief, usually averaging less than one hundred words. In an essay on the short short story, Edmundo Valadés, the Mexican master of the form, mentions Shua as one of the Argentine practitioners of the genre, and offers a description of the successful short short story which characterizes her brevísimos perfectly: Las más de las veces, lo que opera en las minificciones certeras o afortunadas es un inesperado golpe final de ingenio, cristalizado en contadas líneas, en una fórmula compacta de humorismo, ironía, sátira o sorpresa, si no todo simultáneo (30).
At this point it is best to leave the theories and speculations to the critics, and allow the texts of Casa de geishas to speak for themselves. Indeed, they are perfectly capable of doing so for they are autonomous creatures, as transgressive, captivating and multi-faceted as the author herself. Shua alludes to their subversive nature in the preface of the collection:
En 1984 publiqué La sueñera, mi primer libro de cuentos brevísimos. Ese libro tuvo pocos lectores, pero muy calificados, y recibió de ellos halagos y alabanzas. El entusiasmo de esos lectores fue lo que me decidió a volver a intentar el género. No sin cierto temor a decepcionarlos (también en literatura lo que se gana en experiencia se pierde en espontaneidad), me decidí a escribir Casa de geishas, que doy a conocer con la siguiente salvedad:
Segundas partes nunca fueron buenas. Se abalanzaban cruelmente sobre las primeras, desgarrándolas en jirones, hasta obligarme a publicarlas también a ellas. (7, emphasis in the original)In their tenacious struggle to impose their will upon their creator, it would seem that the texts themselves are the instigators of a ruthless campaign of self-promotion.
In Casa de geishas, Shua entangles her readers in a web of complicity, entrapping them with diverse acts of seduction, as the author herself explains in her article, Un menú de cuentos brevísimos:
Hay libros que, una vez comenzados, no se pueden dejar de leer. Sólo en la última página están dispuestos a soltar a su gozosa víctima. Con Casa de geishas, he querido disponer una trampa más sutil. Ni siquiera los lectores más sensibles a su encanto querrían leer un libro de cuentos brevísimos todo de una vez. Pero en cambio, si la trampa funciona, sentirán deseos de volver a sus páginas muchas veces. En cuanto hayan sido atrapados en su red, les resultará difícil o acaso imposible volver a ser verdaderamente libres. (12)Fortunately for the unsuspecting victims, the repetoire of services offered in Shuas burdel is vast and can be combined in an infinite number of variations, enough to keep a client as a customer for a lifetime. Like a trip to the library, a visit to this Geisha House has something to please everyone.