Book review: Happy Families
THERE are not many happy families in Fuentes’ latest short story collection, but the author clearly does not intend us to accept the conceit at face value. Taking Tolstoy’s familiar opening lines to Anna Karenina (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”) as his starting point, Fuentes analyses the effects of personal choice or individual events on other family members, laying bare the rancour that sours the closest relationships and mirroring the political and social complexities of the “slim waist of the continent” that is Mexico.
Fuentes punctuates each of the 16 stories with “coros” written in free rap-like verse, when families or groups assemble to narrate descriptions of gratuitous violence and the social inequalities that pervade Mexican society, its historic uprisings and massacres, its slums and street gangs, the nouveau riche neighbourhoods, narcos and child rape.
The tone and vocabulary are all the more shocking because the switch is so abrupt. The ‘Chorus Of The Murdered Family’ describes the ferocious massacre of El Mozote in 1981, the ‘Chorus Of The Children Of Good Families’ describes a narco gang attack; and so it goes on until the last chorus, ‘Choruscoda Conrad’, which simply repeats “the violence, the violence”. It is a tribute to the skill of a translator of Grossman’s calibre that she succeeds in alternating between the urban rap of the choruses and the slower narrative pace of the stories.
Many of the stories focus on ageing: there are ageing couples, ageing mothers, a pair of ageing brothers, even an ageing house. However, the relationships seem one-sided, focusing on political or social comment, rather than on character.
In ‘Mater Dolorosa’, Fuentes returns to the epistolary style that characterised his earlier work in a series of short notes between a mother and the man who murdered her daughter because he felt rejected on account of his indigenous origins.
Now 80, Fuentes shows no sign of slowing down: the telling detail, the stream-of-consciousness writing are still present; but these stories are imbued with a feeling of nostalgia, like an album of sepia photos or the melancholy tune of an old-fashioned bolero. Bloomsbury’s cover choice of a “happy families” pack of skeleton cards is the perfect foil for this collection.