Colección: Revista Interamericana de Bibliografía (RIB)
Versiones: Fractured Fairytales and Other Subversions
In Versiones, the second section of the collection, Shua revises familiar tales originating from the medieval bestiary, classic myths and literary works, childrens fairy tales and Jewish folklore.2 According to Enrique Anderson-Imbert, the roots of the short short story may be traced to the most ancient tales of the oral tradition: myths, fables and parables of the classic Greek, Roman, and Oriental civilizations (La entrevista de Puro Cuento 3-4). A natural affinity exists between the short short story and the timeless tales which attempt to explain the nature of the world and its inhabitants with an economy of expression, internal rhythm and repetition destined to delight the ear of the listener. It is no coincidence that myths and fables serve as primary source material for contemporary writers of short short stories. In his review of Casa de geishas, Rodolfo Fogwill reveals the key to the most successful collections of short shorts:
una de las reglas secretas del género es la proscripción de todo guiño a la contemporaneidad de los lectores: las piezas parecen más eficaces cuanto mejor simulan haber sido creadas desde la eternidad del sueño y de sus realizaciones universales: la religión, el mito y los acervos literarios que funcionan como mitos. (10)Throughout the twenty nine texts of the Versiones section, Shua toys with such well-known characters as Cinderella, Snow White, the princess and Frog Prince, the Virgin and the unicorn, the hero and the dragon and the long-lost Ulysses, inverting, subverting, and ultimately transforming their tales into fresh new versions which offer multiple readings of the original canonic texts. By using familiar material, the author is able to minimize or eliminate traditional elements of story telling, such as plot, character development and dialogue, thus leaving it up to the reader to reconstruct the meaning of the new text by filling in the gaps with the missing pieces of the original. As Charles Baxter, a North American writer of the genre observes in Sudden Fiction, the extension of the short short story leaves room for only the barest of narrative essentials:
In the abruptly short-short story, familiar material takes the place of detail. Oh yes, the reader says: ... Weve seen that before. We know where we are. Dont give us details; we dont need them. What we need is surprise, a quick turning of the wrist toward texture, or wisdom, something suddenly broken or quickly repaired. Yes, we know these people. Now just tell us what they do. (229)In many cases, the narrator uses parody as a tool to recast the age-old tales, resulting in a palimpsest with an unexpected ironic twist that invariably elicits laughter. Although parody has received a negative rap from those who perceive it as cannibalistic and parasitic, critics such as Linda Hutcheon and Patricia Waugh, who have studied the role of parody in postmodern fiction, have shown that parodic texts are both creative and critical, and have the power to breathe new life into worn out tales (Theory 115; Metafiction 64-65). According to Elzbieta Sklodowska, contemporary Spanish American women writers often turn to parody as a narrative strategy because of its subversive potential, in particular, its effectiveness in recasting the feminine image presented in traditional patriarcal discourse (144).
Fairy tales have been used as a framing device in the works of a number of contemporary Spanish American authors, particularly women writers who use parody as a narrative strategy to liberate the feminine figure from such traditional stereotypes as the helpless damsel in distress. Hutcheon notes that intertextual parody uses the canonical classics as a way of appropriating and reformulating dominant cultures (Poetics 130). For example, Rosario Ferré offers critical revisions of the tale of Sleeping Beauty in La bella durmiente, using parody as an effective tool to present a failed version of the feminine bildungsroman. Other writers who have explored the aesthetic posibilities of childrens tales are Marosa di Giorgio, María Luisa Bombal, and Luisa Valenzuela.3 By layering one text over another to produce new versions of classic tales, Shua follows in the footsteps of such masters of the short short story as Borges, Bioy Casares, Arreola, and particularly, Marco Denevi and his Falsificaciones. As with the texts of the first section of Casa de geishas, Shua uses irony and humor in her Versiones to exploit the erotic content of familiar tales, and to question the validity of the original framing device. The author proposes subversive alternatives and, at times, perverse distortions of the original texts. The second section of the collection opens with five versions of the tale of the Lady and the Unicorn. Anyone familiar with this tale from the medieval bestiary knows that the outstanding feature of the mythical creature is its phallic horn, while the prize possession of the lovely maiden is her virginity. In Doncella y unicornio I, Shua plays with the concept of metamorphosis, resulting in the following version of the story:
Hay quienes suponen agotado el tema del unicornio y la doncella por extinción de ambas especies. Sin embargo el diario de hoy publica la fotografía de un caballo con un manchón sanguinolento sobre la frente. El animal asegura haber sido, hasta pocas horas de la toma, una auténtica doncella. (61)Virginity and transformation, two common elements of myths, legends and fairy tales receive ironic treatment in Sapo y princesa I a tale which draws on the readers knowledge of the story of the princess and the frog:
Si una princesa besa a un sapo y el sapo no se tranforma en príncipe, no nos apresuremos a descartar al sapo. Los príncipes encantados son raros, pero tampoco abundan las auténticas princesas. (87)With auténticas princesas Shua alludes to the possibility that not all princesses subscribe to the royal prerequisite of maidenly virtue. In Sapo y princesa III, the phenomenon of transformation suffers its own metamorphoses as the princess kisses the frog who becomes a prince, then kisses the prince who endures a series of unlikely changes before converting into an object of narcissistic delight: se vuelve espejo y es inútil y hasta peligroso que la princesa siga insistiendo en besar su propia imagen pero lo hace, de todos modos, complacida (89).
In his study The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettelheim examines typical characters of childrens fairy tales, and observes that such figures as the damsel in distress, the knight in shining armour and the menacing dragon are not ambivalent, but rather polarized examples of good versus evil, and the beautiful versus the ugly (9). Shua blurs the line between such extremes, often inverting the roles we have come to expect of such figures. When Shua was once asked to comment on the representation of female characters by women writers as opposed to the image presented by their male counterparts, her response was: Nuestras princesas, decididamente, cagan (Las plumas de las mujeres 5). Just as princesses are removed from their pedastals, heroes are often vilified in Shuas versiones. A case in point is El héroe a tiempo, which recounts the familiar tale of a kingdom held ransom by a monster who demands virgins as a tribute. As is to be expected, a hero arrives to save the town and its maidens from the monsters voracious appetite; however, the story ends with an ironic twist. After slaying the three-headed serpent, the hero exacts his own tribute:
Un monstruo desalmado exige al reino el tributo de sus doncellas, a las que devora. Su apetito de mujeres es cada vez mayor. Ahora se las come sin siquiera constatar su doncellez. Se le imponen al pueblo más sacrificios. El héroe llega a tiempo, corta las tres cabezas de la serpiente y salva a las víctimas. Después, con periódica puntualidad, exige su premio. Se aguarda con esperanza el pronto arribo de otro héroe. (86)According to Bettelheim, fairy tales are presented in a straight-forward manner which places little or no demands on the listener or reader: Far from making demands, the fairy tale reassures, gives hope for the future, and holds out the promise of a happy ending (26). In Los enanos son mineros, Shuas version, or rather inversion of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the wicked stepmother grows old and bored, and from time to time visits her stepdaughter and the prince in their home in the forest. The magic mirror informs Blancanieves, now a middle-aged woman, that she is no longer the fairest of them all: (El espejo es malvado pero no miente) (80). Meanwhile, the dwarfs have gone their separate ways, and send postcards from foreign countries, while the prince remembers his first wife and wonders: cómo habría sido su vida si no se hubiera separado de Cenicienta (80). In her fractured fairy tales, Shua contradicts the basic components of the familiar romance plot, such as the happy ending, using a narrative strategy that Rachel DuPlessis refers to as writing beyond the ending. Although DuPlessis focuses on the novels of twentieth-century women writers, her observations may be applied to Shuas short short stories: Writing beyond the ending means the transgressive invention of narrative strategies, strategies that express critical dissent from dominant narrative (5).
Although Shua is not the only author to destroy the illusion of the perfect fairytale ending, she is perhaps the first to do so with such incisive humor and swiftness, in less than fifty words in most cases. Shuas brevísimos accomplish in a very short space what requires hundreds of pages in novels. For example, in Cenicienta I, Cinderella loses her glass slipper on the staircase as she rushes out of the palace at midnight. This Cinderella is as familiar with her own story as the reader, and therefore spends a restless night awaiting the arrival of the royal entourage in the morning. Nevertheless, there will be no happy ending to this tale because the prince never appears on Cinderellas doorstep, opting instead to keep the shoe for his private collection, as the final words of the text inform us: (Príncipe fetichista, espera vana) (74).
Shua plays with the notion of metafiction in other versions of the Cinderella story as well. Patricia Waugh defines metafiction as writing which consistently displays its conventionality, which explicity and overtly lays bare its condition of artifice, and which thereby explores the problematic relationship between life and literature (4). All of these traits are reflected in Cenicienta III. Dissatisfied with the roles they play in the classic tale, the wicked stepsisters take drastic measures to rewrite the story, destroying the happy ending for Cenicienta, and ultimately, changing the course of their lives and that of the prince:
Advertidas por sus lecturas, las hermanastras de Cenicienta logran modificar, mediante costosas intervenciones, el tamaño de sus pies, mucho antes de asistir al famoso baile. Habiendo tres mujeres a las que calza perfectamente el zapatito de cristal, el príncipe opta por desposar a la que ofrece más dote. La nueva princesa contrata escribas que consignan la historia de acuerdo con su dictado. (76)In these and other versions of fairy tales, the characters trespass the limits of fiction itself by asserting themselves within the story, and changing the conventional plot to create a different literary reality for themselves.
In Máquina del tiempo, Shua employs irony and parodic intertextuality as vehicles for exploring the relationship between authorship and text:
A través de este instrumento rudimentario descubierto casi por azar, es posible entrever ciertas escenas del futuro, como quien espía por una cerradura. La simplicidad del equipo y ciertos indicios históricos nos permiten suponer que no hemos sido los primeros en hacer este hallazgo. Así podría haber conocidos Cervantes, antes de componer su Quijote, la obra completa de nuestro contemporáneo Pierre Menard. (78)In her discussion of postmodern fiction, Hutcheon refers to the paradoxical nature of parody and intertextuality, observing that these devices enable the author to pay homage to the past and question it at the same time, thus opening the text to multiple interpretations (Poetics 126-127). In Máquina del tiempo, Shua pays tribute to two masters of the art of parody, Borges and Cervantes, when she concludes: Así podría haber conocido Cervantes, antes de componer su Quijote, la obra completa de nuestro contemporáneo Pierre Menard (78). The closing words of the text raise doubts about the true authorship of Don Quijote de la Mancha by suggesting that perhaps a journey to the future in a time machine enabled Cervantes to compose his masterpiece.