Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Variations on the Body

Variations on the Body / Maria Ospina
trans. from the Spanish by Heather Cleary
Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, c2021.
136 p.

These six loosely connected short stories, set in Bogota, were wonderful. They all revolve around women's lives, different kinds of women and varied aspects of life, and were all enthralling. Each one had its own charm and I couldn't put this book down. 

The first story, Policarpa, is a fascinating look at a former guerilla fighter who is rehabilitating into society with a job at a grocery store. Marcela is trying to fit back in but has a PTSD response to an elderly woman shopping in her line, and we hear about the elderly captive she guarded before escaping from her life in the mountains. She's also telling her story to an editor who keeps changing details to make the story more commercially appealing; Marcela will have to escape that as well. It was a fantastic opening to this collection, rooted in the country's history and with a very complex and strong main character.

The next story, Occasion, is also strong, and has a connection to the first; the lead character here is the long estranged sister of Marcela. In this one, Zenaida works as a maid in a house where her young charge Isabela tries to create some control of her life by eating dirt each afternoon. The subtle ways that Ospina shows the lack of agency in Zenaida's life as well as Isabela's are memorable and effective.

I also loved the title story, which comes last in the collection, and also inspired the cover design. A widowed older lady collects scissors of all kinds - her husband was a collector of all things so now she's decided to create a collection of her own. She lives alone but also ends up taking care of her granddaughter weekly. As she admits to her beautician, she actually doesn't like her granddaughter much, to her great disappointment. The big old house, the routine, it's all getting to her. So one day she simply walks out of the house, with a large pair of scissors in her purse, to start a new life.

The other three stories are just as intriguing, full of detail and complexity. There are strange workplaces, references to the lure of America, and workarounds that women make to smooth their existences.

There are also resonances in each story, to the other stories and to earlier literature - one story's connections to a 16th century poem are noted in the translator's preface. And the writing is so precise, fluid, and evocative. An atmosphere is created, of an unsettled country and the ways in which women manage their lives. There's not a false note here; you could turn to the beginning and read them all over again as soon as you finished and find more to admire. This was a great discovery, one that impressed and delighted me. Definitely recommended.

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