Charco Press books have been the highlights of my reading so far this year. I had already loved and written about The German Room by Carla Maliandi.
And now it is Fish Soup by the Colombian author Margarita Garcia Robayo, another equally wonderful offering, from the same publisher.
Fish Soup comprises two novellas ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’, and ‘Sexual Education’ as well a collection of seven tales titled ‘Worse Things’.
The opening lines of ‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ hit you right in the gut.
Living by the sea is both good and bad for exactly the same reason: the world ends at the horizon. That is, the world never ends. And you always expect too much. At first, you hope everything you’re waiting for will arrive one day on a boat; then you realize nothing’s going to arrive and you’ll have to go looking for it instead. I hated my city because it was both really beautiful and really ugly, and I was somewhere in the middle. The middle was the worst place to be: hardly anyone made it out of the middle.
Our narrator is a woman, tired and self-aware, obsessed with escaping both her life and her country (Colombia).
She is emotionally detached from her family with not much respect for them. Her dad “was a pretty useless man. He spent his days trying to resolve trivial matters that he thought were of the utmost importance in order for the world to keep on turning.” Her mother “every day was involved in some family bust up.”
Stories of travel offer our narrator glimpses of hope, of running away and not coming back. There’s Gustavo, the local fisherman living in a shack by the sea, who enthralls her with his stories of travel. She keeps coming back to him even though “he stroked her down there with two fingers” when she was a young girl.
Even when she does fall in love with a man called Tony, there’s that cynical feeling that it’s not going to last.
Tony would cling to my back like a limpet, his arm around my waist, and whisper in my ear: one day we’ll get out of here. Me: we’ll always be here, waiting for a hurricane to come.
Escaping, leaving, getting out of the rut are feelings that permeate the consciousness of our narrator with the result that they form the focal point around which her relationships and even her profession is based.
She manages to find a job as an air hostess with an airline, even though Tony doesn’t like it. The route she is assigned to is Miami and even if it involves frequent visits to the same city, for her it is still a start.
Tony had a lot of ideas about air hostesses, but I had just one: air hostesses could leave.
An affair with the captain of the plane, not surprisingly, ends up nowhere like all her relationships. And there are moments of regret, of whether chances have passed her by and she failed to grab them or latch onto.
‘Waiting for a Hurricane’ is a beautiful novella. Despite the all-pervading cynicism, wariness and the tiredness, there is something lyrical and poetic about Robayo’s writing that makes it intense and absorbing. It is a novella about the frailty of relationships, of missed chances and regret, of why travel may not always be the answer to everything.
The second novella that also packs quite a punch is ‘Sexual Education’. As the title suggests, this is a topic that is explored through the eyes of adolescents in a school which strictly preaches the doctrine of abstinence. However, what is taught at school is hardly what goes on outside its confines.
Here’s how it opens…
“In girls, just like in other fauna, moisture attracts all sorts of nasties.”
The characters that people this novella are part of the narrator’s inner circle of friends. There’s Dalia ‘a bad apple’ who doesn’t care about going to university, preferring to travel instead.
Others – me included – thought that backpacks and dreads and Latin American travels were an invention of poor people who liked to think they were bohemians. Dalia was not poor, but she smoked weed and that was enough to make her feel bohemian.
Then there’s Karina, a real devotee of Mary…
She had convinced everyone that the Virgin talked to her in her sleep and gave her instructions about how to behave at moments of moral conflict.
‘Sexual Education’ is essentially a novella that explores the existence of opposing forces side by side – sex and confronting desires as against celibacy and self-denial.
Between these two novellas, ‘Worse Things’ (a collection of seven short stories) is sandwiched. These stories examine frayed relationships, death and illness.
In ‘Like a Pariah’, Ines who is dying of cancer, refuses to have people fussing around her and insists to her son “I’m perfectly alright.”
In ‘Worse Things’, Titi, who suffers from a debilitating condition causing obesity, prefers staying in his room, engrossed in games.
In ‘Better than Me’, Orestes is trying to connect with his distant daughter Becky, sometime after his other daughter Rosa has committed suicide.
In ‘Fish Soup’, one of the stories, from which the overall title of the book has been taken, an old man is beset by the smell of overpowering fish soup. This is a strange tale in which the man’s dreams and reality merge making it disorienting to distinguish one from the other.
Overall, Fish Soup is a very strong collection, stimulating and refreshing despite the tiredness of the characters. Most are struggling to keep head above water and fight even if they perceive their circumstances to be bleak and meaningless.
The blurb at the back of my edition states:
Throughout the collection, Garcia Robayo’s signature style blends cynicism and beauty with a rich vein of dark humour. The prose is at once blunt and poetic as she delves into the lives of her characters, who simultaneously evoke sympathy and revulsion, challenging the reader’s loyalties throughout the remarkable universe that is Fish Soup.