Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes

Charco Press, January 2019, 97 pp

Charco Press, January 2019, 97 pp

Trout are delicate creatures and can’t handle temperatures over thirteen degrees. That’s why Don Henrik bought his land right at the top of the mountain, because he wanted ice cold spring water.

Against the backdrop of agricultural Guatemala, Rodrigo Fuentes presents seven interconnected scenes of danger in this fine although short collection of stories. Trout, Belly Up, a title piquing curiosity in itself, starts by depicting Henrik’s troubles of setting up a trout hatchery on the top of a mountain – which ostensibly has its equivalent in real Northwestern Guatemala – and the image of trout dying (belly up) is carried through the other stories that more or less involve death. The trout’s lack of oxygen is repeated in “Dive” where Henrik and Mati go diving with a fatal outcome, to name one example. In what I would consider the best story in the collection, “Out of the Blue, Perla,” set amidst a revolt triggered by the laying off of farmworkers, a cow named Perla stands up against a bunch of gunmen with such self-assurance that it simultaneously baffled, amused, and worried me:

A few feet away she stopped. A couple of the gunmen came over and looked at her. Perla lowed at the sky and started to circle them familiarly, the cheeky thing. One of the men said something, his words harsh, but the rest were quiet, as curious as I was. Because Perla was giving them a look that was entirely human. And it wasn’t the sort of look just anybody could give: it was the look a woman gives when she knows she’s being looked at by a man. One of those women who snatches your gaze and slaps it right back at you. That’s the look Perla was giving them.

I am yet unsure what exactly Trout, Belly Up is, but at least on one level it probes the barrier between the human and the animal and especially so in the context of poor Guatemalan countryside. I must have missed details as my knowledge of the country is limited to a few negligible Google searches while reading, and therefore, in my shameful ignorance, I offer what Henrik himself says in the concluding story, perhaps applicable to Fuentes himself:

He spoke of vague, sometimes dark characters, contacts in the countryside, individuals who came and went from his story with no clear purpose, and he also spoke of La Corregidora, seized by the bank and taken over by the farmhands.

Charco Press has become known for their clear and effortlessly read translations, and the same is true here: Ellen Jones’ translation into English reads so smoothly that, combined with the overall short length, Trout, Belly Up is the sort of a book one can devour in one sitting while being entertained by Fuentes’ curious stories but also moved by the country’s troubled state of affairs.

Mothlight by Adam Scovell

Influx Press, February 2019

Influx Press, February 2019

Thomas, the narrator of Adam Scovell’s quiet new novel Mothlight, is deeply affected by two things: moths, which he studies as a researcher, and the life of Phyllis Ewans, a family acquaintance who, likewise, is a researcher in Lepidoptera. Over the years, Thomas has formed a close relationship with her: “My visits were no longer those of a curious friend desiring the secrets of her past life, but those of a caring relative.” Phyllis is a taciturn, solitary woman whose past life remains a mystery even for Thomas. To fill the gaps, he sets out to learn about her history via photographs, which are abundantly presented on the pages of the novel. (There are some thirty photographs included).

Like with any preoccupation, there is the danger of overdoing it, and the hunt for more information begins to have an effect on Thomas’ psychological wellbeing. There are hues of a looming mental illness when, for instance, he starts to hear the wingbeats of moths in unlikely places, like here during the funeral of Phyllis’ sister:

The thought of such a skein of moths took a great hold over my senses at the funeral, and I remember imagining that same flock constantly and chaotically flying close behind my shoulders. This would be the first of many such occasions when what can only be described as an attack took hold of my senses and rendered me useless. The priest conducting the service spoke slowly and hypnotically as the coffin was lowered into the arid grave. My grandmother cried and I could hear her sobbing behind the fluttering, a cacophony gradually drowning out all the priest’s words, lost in the endless wingbeat of a thousand moths.

What I’m most impressed about in this novel is Scovell’s language. His sentences tend to be long, associative, attempting verbally to catch sensations as precisely as possible. To me, there is something very non-British about it, and as much as I detest making comparisons to one particular author, I’m reminded of Marcel Proust. This is not only because of the winding sentences but also because there is something refreshingly non-masculine about Thomas, who in “moments of synchronicity” begins to associate himself with the woman, believing they are one and same person. He remarks of his body: “My hands had never been especially masculine, my whole body in fact never really seeming either male or female apart from in the most basic of ways.” An inevitable comparison to W. G. Sebald could also be made in regard to the photos included.

But, in the end, we get to know relatively little about Thomas and his life, so engrossed he is with making sense of Phyllis. It is rare of me to wish that a novel was longer, but in this case I could easily have devoured another 150 pages or so. This is, however, more of a compliment than criticism, and a sign of an author who can write very captivatingly. Mothlight is a great example of a very focused and non-tangential novel. Moths, memory, and identity all blur together here beautifully, and I was happy to learn that this won’t be the last time we hear from Scovell, who already has a new title lined up for next year via Influx Press. 

The act of remembering, so I thought, is the parasite of our hopes. It is parasitic. It lives and thrives upon us, whilst we live with the delusion that we define it, when it really defines us. It hatches, it devours and it destroys us from the inside out, until it is done and moves on to annihilate another life. I decided there and then that I was not going to let this parasite devour me, considering further that this was not even the parasite of my own memory, but doubly parasitic because it was the plague of someone else’s memory.

Shitstorm by Fernando Sdrigotti

Open Pen, November 2018, 86 pp

Open Pen, November 2018, 86 pp

In this short but ferocious novelette written by London-based Fernando Sdrigotti, a wealthy American dentist is on a hunting trip in Zimbabwe and shoots down a lion, not forgetting to take a couple of selfies with the carcass as a trophy. He doesn’t get caught and leaves Africa:

It looks as if no culprit will ever be found and the news won’t make it out of Zimbabwe, as is usually the case. But a journalist from National Geographic, coincidentally in the area for an orientalist documentary, picks up the scoop and the killing achieves international status quite quickly. Danny Gervais, Maria Farrow and Shane Osbourne find out about the murder of their exotic pet and tweet about it and their outrage and their sadness and their pain and their their their their. … And like this another shitstorm is born.

The poaching of Cyril the lion, clearly a variation of Cecil the lion, causes a media scandal, and from this premise Sdrigotti ventures into an overall exploration of the forms that mainstream media hysteria can take, or, has indeed already taken. (All the proper names in the book are modified names of real-life figures who have been subjects of such scandals, including the POTUS.) Shitstorm is bookended by the story of the poacher, while the main chunk in the middle could be considered an extended, sarcastic essay on the titular phenomenon, a fast-paced and oftentimes funny analysis written in feverish present tense.

On one hand, reading Shitstorm is masochistic: we all know the pain of reading through the comment section of our favorite newspaper while facepalming at every other comment, and we are also very well aware of the ever-lurking presence of nuclear weapons and terrorism – all of which the novelette deals with – and we might not want to go there when reading fiction. Our days are filled with this reportage already. On the other hand, it’s hard to put down Sdrigotti’s slim volume once you begin reading it, and it does offer interesting commentary on the said subjects. What I enjoyed the most here was how Sdrigotti aims for an objective view (which is impossible to achieve, of course), not blatantly taking sides but bashing the left and the right in an equal and humorous manner. This does lead into a rather pessimistic whole in the end, as quite nothing presents a good solution to the problems pervading our dark world, but surely Sdrigotti is not trying to achieve world peace here anyway. Instead, Shitstorm demonstrates in clear, sharp language some of the fundamental issues of life lived in our current era saturated with social media.