Granta issue 113, “The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists,” feels like something Roberto Bolaño might have dreamed up. Not that we didn’t have collections of Spanish-language fiction before Bolaño. But he wrote about them so well—about the heartache and betrayal and vindication that transpire behind the scenes of even the most obscure literary journal—it almost seems like he invented them. Which is appropriate, since a number of stories in Granta 113 are influenced by Bolaño.
A fellow Chilean, Carlos Labbé squeezes some of Bolaño’s favorite themes—sudden disappearance, political repression, the layering of identities—into just five page in “The Girls Resembled Each Other in the Unfathomable.” In Patricio Pron’s “A Few Words on the Life Cycle of Frogs,” the protagonist is inspired to become a writer after listening to the footsteps of the literary giant—a Bolaño figure—who paces the floorboards of the apartment above. None of the writers here—all born after 1975—seem interested in García Marquez’s lyrical magic, or Borges’s meditations on the mind and the infinite.
So what are the best young writers in Spain and Latin America interested in? Judging by this collection, the same stuff we estadounidenses read about. Family. Disease. Memory. Youth. The less exciting stories in the issue are often domestic in scope, conventional in style. It doesn’t matter if a writer is from a dinky, mysterious village in darkest Peru—a story about a routine divorce is still boring. But the writers who attempt something fresh in terms of voice or structure—like Pablo Gutiérrez’s rambling confession of a washed-up European basketball star, or Andrés Felipe Solano’s bifurcated tale of schoolyard taunts gone wrong—frequently deliver that ineffable Spanish flavor that we seek in a collection like this. Proving, perhaps, that literature in translation is more exciting for its technical style than its cultural heritage.
Of the 22 stories here, 17 are by men (whoops!) and 14 are by authors from Spain or Argentina. Clearly not a representative sample of the Spanish-speaking world, and who knows what kind of politics limited Mexico, for example, to just one selection? Still, Granta 113 feels (at least to this estatounidense) like an antidote to the New Yorker’s asinine 20 Under 40 list, which might as well have been drafted in a corporate boardroom. The local politics of any “best young writers” list is bound to be frustrating. But the imported stuff can be pure fun.