There were two stories/excerpts that I particularly enjoyed - Lettuce Nights by Vanessa Barbara and The Count by Leandro Sarmatz. I wanted to read more of Lettuce Nights which describes the ménage of Ada and Otto in old age: "... and everything ended in a theatrical fight in which she screamed `Drop the knife!' while he squirted lavender water at her. A couple of lunatics, Otto concluded, thinking back on ping-pong afternoons with Ada - the dented balls, extreme paddle manoeuvres, Otto shouting that it didn't count because the ball had hit her finger..."
The Count, I believe, is the most adventurous being the story of a ham actor who played Dracula in a series of road-shows during and after WWII. Set in Germany, it concerns Flescher, whose main concern is to get back to his home city of Cernowitz, the city in Bucovina (The Ukraine) where he was born. In the chaos that was Europe after the war he played different roles, masquerading as a German in Germany and a Pole in Poland.
"In the distance he could now see the chimneys, the plumes of smoke reaching into the sky. He was anxious to reach the outskirts of the city. Who will have survived of his relatives and acquaintances to hear him intone a Kaddish in homage to those who departed?
That night in Cernowitz they were massacring anyone who spoke the German language."
One of the excerpts here is oddly calm, almost cold - Michel Laub sets out a numbered series of fragments from his life, mostly concerning the death of his dog, Champion.
Miguel Del Castillo's short story Violeta is set during the time of the military dictatorship in Uruguay. "Violeta was taken prisoner more than once because of her son's subversive activities, her head inside water barrels..." An elaborate code system is worked out so that those in prison can receive news of their relatives. The story also tells of Miguel Angel and his life as a revolutionary in Chile: "Soon he was on one of the death flights: they were all political prisoners on that plane, the launch chute opening, then all of them gyrating through the air, what went through his head at that moment..."
Provoking, discursive, sometimes looking back on South American history, but also sometimes intensely personal in tone and intimate in revelation, this is an eclectic collection of young Brazilian writers.
With a booming economy, the next World Cup and the next Olympics, we are going to hear a lot about Brazil in the next few years. Granta has taken the opportunity to highlight 20 young Brazilian writers. Sadly, Brazilian works seldom get translated into English so this is a rare and welcome insight to the creative youth of this vast and varied country. There isn't a single writer here whose work I wouldn't read more of if it were translated, although how much will get translated is probably still quite small, not least as the writing is good but not as notably different as say a Bolano. Repressive government often leads to creative writing and Brazil, while not perfect, has had a more stable democracy in recent years and for much of the lives of these writers. Partly that might reflect the large number of writers from the Southern city of Porto Alegre where outlooks are more similar to Western views.
There are few clear "themes" - although I was surprised at the focus on the past, mainly personal, with several looking at personal loss, childhood etc. It doesn't feel like a country looking to the future as much as you might expect.
The most memorable story for me was Tatiana Salem Levy's Rio love story; you can almost feel the humidity in the writing. This contrasts nicely with the more serious issue based piece by JP Cuenca that tells a very different Rio life and the social challenges the city faces. These two are relatively unusual in that they are specifically about Brazil as well as being by Brazilians, and perhaps more interesting for that.
Much Spanish language South American fiction that is translated tends to be slightly bizarre. This probably reflects titles selected for translation as much as the work itself. But for those looking for the Portuguese equivalent, there are some suitably strange tales on offer from Ricardo Lisias and Javier Arancibia Contreras for example. Vinicius Jatoba's Still Life is also a highly original and sad piece.
In a collection of short stories there are usually one or two that don't gel with the reader. For me, there were none of those here. I'd happily read any of these writers in translation but there isn't what I'd call a clear distinctive voice that might compel publishers to commission translations. I hope I'm wrong.
Granta's obsession with 'young [insert nationality] novelists' continues unabated.
Brazil is a fascinating country. I would like to learn more about the place. Granta 121 is a missed opportunity.
From the brief author biographies included with each piece in this edition of 'the magazine of new writing', it is clear that most of them also write non-fiction. So why the need to restrict yet another precious edition of Granta to young novelists? To add insult to injury, many of the pieces are extracts from forthcoming novels. Like I'm going to read one chapter of a novel! I skipped most of these.
In terms of the fiction, a number of the short stories included in this collection are pretty good, but there is more to 'new writing' than fiction. Granta seems to have forgotten this.
To add further insult to injury, I see from an advertisement included in the magazine that the theme of Granta 123 is to be 'Best of Young British Novelists 4'.
Granta used to be a fantastic, eclectic mix of fact and fiction. It isn't any more. I think it might be time to cancel my subscription.