Book Reviews

Book Review of Sun, Stone and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories

By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca

Scholar in Residence and Chair of the Department of Chicana/Chicano and Hemispheric Studies, Western New Mexico University

 In many ways, Sun, Stone, and Shadows fulfills the promise of its editor—to present a Pleiades of the best short story writers of Mexico in the first half of the 20th century. Sun, Stone, and Shadows falls short of the editor’s promise to portray the diversity of Mexico—but that is another story. Nevertheless, Sun, Stone, and Shadows is an impressive collection de valores literarios mejicanos (of Mexico’s finest literary talents).

Sun, Stone, and Shadows is truncated, however, by the paucity of Mexican women writers—of the 20 writers in the anthology, only 3 women are included in the collection: Elena Garro, Inés Arredondo, and Rosario Catellanos. I had the good fortune as Associate Publisher of La Luz Magazine in Denver of publishing one of Rosario Castellanos’ last works in 1974, the year she died in Tel Aviv as Mexico’s ambassador to Israel.

However, this paucity of women in Sun, Stone, and Shadows does not lessen the significance of the volume; it just points to the patronymic nature of Mexico. Americans might regard that paucity as “machismo,” which would be a judgmental misnomer—but that too is another story. The above is not a shortcoming that diminishes the significance of Sun, Stone, and Shadows for the line-up of authors is stellar.

Sun, Stone, and Shadows was chosen by The Big Read program of the National Endowment for the Arts as one of its literary selections for 2009-2010; and a number of libraries across the country chose Sun, Stone, and Shadows as their selection for Big Read programs, including the Miller Library at Western New Mexico University where I teach.

Jorge Hernandez’ “Introduction” to Sun, Stone, and Shadows is crucial to the collection, establishing as it does the frame for the stories and strengthening the proposition that a work of literary are reflects not only a creative process but is a social act as well. Formalist critics have long contended that a work of literature reveals itself to the reader without the need for information about the social forces that inhere in or have influenced the work. Hernandez points to the Mexican Civil War of 1913-1921 (which he calls the “Mexican Revolution”) as the most palpable force in the literary zeitgeist of Mexico in the 20th century.

Mexico is indeed a land of contrast and contradiction, caught in a maelstrom of the pagan and the profane, the prosaic and the prolixic as the stories in Sun, Stone, and Shadows unfold the national optics of the country, for it is only in the 20th century that Mexico discovered and turned to the glories of its indigenous past while forging a patriaof future aspirations, melding the past and the future into an insoluble timeline.

The wail and lament of “pobre de Mejico: tan lejos de dios y tan cerca a los estados unidos” (poor Mexico: so far from God and so close to the United States) is no longer a mantra for the impoverishment of Mexico. By looking to its past, Mexico’s future becomes clear. Mexicans are not only products of Spanish rapaciousness but of an indigenous woman who, as the poet, Raul Salinas, put it, was “beautiful.”
Mexicans have become aware that they are “Montezuma’s Children” as well as “Coronados’ Children”. Indeed, the first half of the 20th century defines the stories in Sun, Stone, and Shadows. They are stories that export the full range of human emotions persistent in what Hernandez calls Mexico’s “bipolar legacy.”
Though a bit pat, the thematic arrangement of Sun, Stone, and Shadows works well for the stories. Sun, Stone, and Shadows does affirm “the multicultural richness of Mexican literature,” as Hernandez explains despite the absence of more indigenous writers.

Sun, Stone, and Shadows is “a kaleidoscope of short stories easy enough for any reader from any social background to read” though they are stories of “a reality that doesn’t deny pain, despair, disgrace, deceit, bloodshed or desolation.” These are stories “against the grain, stories made visible by Antonio Sarakhan, Mexico’s ambassador to the United States and Dana Gioia, Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts as a joint venture in international literacy.

The Big Read is, as Gioia explains,

the largest literature program in the history of the U.S. government. Created by the National Endowment for the Arts, in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services and in cooperation with Arts Midwest, the Big Read is designed to revitalize the role of reading in American culture and promote the transformative power of literature. Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories has the distinction of being the first book published expressly for The Big Read. Its stories, selected with U.S. readers in mind, represent a remarkable array of Mexico’s rich and vibrant literary history. Sun, Stone, and Shadows is a catalyst for cultural understanding and conversation between the people of Mexico and the United States.

Sun, Stone, and Shadows is indeed “a catalyst for cultural understanding and conversation between the people of Mexico and the United States,” but it is also a mole (an indigenous Mexican chocolate sauce) full of enigma and sabor to satisfy the literary palate of any reader.

Perhaps a bit of elucidation here about the short story is appropriate. Thomas M. Leitch contends that “everyone knows what stories are–fortunately; for it is excessively difficult to say just what they are” [emphasis mine]. Brander M. Matthews, the best known philos­opher of the short story as a genre, articulated some of the key features in what constitutes a short story. But Edgar Allan Poe’s definition of the short story has become the more popular. According to Poe two things were essential to the genre: (1) that it shall be short and (2) that it shall possess coherence suffi­cient to hold the reader’s or listener’s unflagging interest from beginning to end. Immediately the length of a story becomes problematic, such that the genre has been subdi­vided into (1) the short-short story, (2) the short story, and (3) the long short story–sometimes: the long story, of novelette length.

Story may be as old as humankind–from the earliest times of language which enabled one human being to transmit some piece of information to another human being. Story is the tale, the telling and the teller. It is also audience, ready for the story, able to understand the story, and able to appreciate it at once as informa­tion and as invention. In antiquity, story tellers wielded considerable power, not just because of their ability to tell stories dramatically but because a repertoire of stories was a reflection of learning and of more than passing knowledge and facility with language. He who knew language was thought to have some special relationship with the gods. In Africa, the Griot, the storyteller, is a revered person.

In the main, the short story is actuated by the dicta of Aristotle’s theory of drama: unity of action, place and time. But much has changed in short fiction as it has in long fiction. No longer just the mode by which to tell a short tale to raise neither a moral point nor the format through which history was kept alive at the tribal fires or clan gatherings, the short story has acquired literary dimensions that have transcended its historical functions.

Writers of the short story do not engage in the genre because it is short and less difficult to write than the longer form, say, the novel. Indeed, not. The short story is a craft of its own. Many practitioners of the longer form find the tight form of the short story restrictive, complaining that characterization is difficult within the bounds of the form. But Raymond Chandler qvels with the short story.

It is true that much is lost in translation. Originally in Spanish, the stories of Sun, Stone, and Shadows exude a different flavor in English. Nuances of language—untranslatable—are obscured by the relentless syntax of other languages. There is something in the pores of those who are part of a language community that helps them intract meaning from their language not otherwise possible by non-native speakers reading translations. It is the magic of sign and symbol.

Languages are symbolic terrains difficult enough to navigate even by their adepts, made more difficult for the non-initiated seeking to extract meaning from translation. In a sentence, words are like stones in a wall, impenetrable, smooth, rough, shiny, hard, edgy, roughed out or slicked by the elements. Like some words, the heart of a stone is lithic, forever mute, forever potent in its use.

Perhaps it’s the rhythm, pace or tone of translation that leaves the reader of translation unfulfilled, inorgiastic. And, yet, without translation more is lost than what is lost in translation. The stories in Sun, Stone, and Shadows offer the reader of English a surprising rendering of the original. The translations are well done.