The Penguin Book of Spanish Short Stories Edited

Margaret Jull Costa

Published by Penguin Random House UK 24 June 2021

416pp, hardback, £25.00

Reviewed by Alison Burns

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In her brief introduction to this book of riches, the supremely distinguished translator Margaret Jull Costa recommends that the reader treat it like a box of chocolates, or like a book of poems, both of whose contents are best savoured one or two at a time.  Having consumed the lot in the space of a few days, this reviewer does not feel any of the consequences of over-indulgence but rather a strong desire to read them all over again.  Here is the most wonderful treat: fifty-six stories, from the nineteenth century to the present day and including writers from all of Spain’s four languages, translated with panache and showcasing a huge range of imaginative talent.

The collection is arranged chronologically according to the author’s date of birth.  It starts with the tale of a man on a tram confusing fiction with fact and ends with a young mother confusing her baby with a vampire.  In between are stories about miracles, murder, innocence, nostalgia; about work, sex and selfishness.  The tones vary from the ominous to the comical, from the far-fetched to the utterly realistic.  War, especially the Spanish Civil War, is ever present, but there is also mystery and joy.

Depth of feeling seems to be a unifying thread also.  That and the bite of truth.  Truly anything can happen in life (above all in the life of the mind), and in these stories we are persuaded that it has.  For why should not a woman be enfolded by an angel, or a man be swallowed by an umbrella? Such things are scarcely odder than a child who runs away or an old man who feels sad.  We need these images, as we need the stories that contain them, if we are to see ourselves reflected and be consoled.

Jull Costa has done a great service to readers in English: ‘I wanted, where possible, to choose and translate stories that hadn’t previously been translated into English or which, in my entirely biased opinion, would benefit from a fresh translation.’  She read a great many wonderful stories, most of which were entirely new even to her, and from them has chosen a sublime selection.  Let us hope that Volume 2 may follow.

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