Friday, June 14, 2013

"Tales and Inventions of Felix Muriel" by Rafael Dieste

So I found this book at a Goodwill a few years ago. For whatever reason it caught my eye, and I've just gotten around to reading it. There is practically no information it anywhere online that I can find (in English, that is), so yay, I get to be first to the well.

Tales and Inventions of Felix Muriel is a series of thematically related short stories, some as short as a couple of pages and others as long as 40. Characters occasionally recur (for example, the main character of the story "The Blank Book" reappears in the subsequent story, "The Rock and The Bird"), but for the most part they can be read independently of one another.

Tales and Inventions of Felix Muriel was originally first published sometime in the 1940s. The edition of the book I have is unclear on the exact date of the book's original publication: the back flap copy indicates that it "was published in Spain in 1974, more than thirty years after the first edition came out in Argentina."

The book is itself an interesting thing to behold. The text of the stories is surrounded by a thin black border, and the table of contents is in the rear of the book as opposed to the front (which I presume to be a convention of Spanish publishing). The paper stock is an 80-gramme, white verge, with the cover cardstock a 220-gramme white conqueror bristol board. Meaning it's pretty nice to hold and look at, not to mention read. 

Dieste's writing (as interpreted by translator Sheila Ingrisano) is extraordinary. The language is clear and precise; Dieste can set a scene with one brushstroke of a sentence that seems so perfect as to be inevitable.

But for all he depicts, he implies multitudes more. The stories twist and curl through digressive philosophical asides, earthy comedy, and poignant ruminations on Dieste's pet themes: the slippery nature of memory and its inexorable relationship with self-identity. Here's a wonderful selection from "The Rock and The Bird," as the main character, Anselmo, a man in the mid-1700s wandering through the countryside on a journey of self-discovery, struggles to decide the best path while confronting the finality of death:
"If I were able to choose and if I had a good club on hand or if I had time to make one, I know very well which of all the risks or enemies that you have described I would prefer for this struggle in which I will find myself and that apparently is unavoidable; and that is the fabulous monster with fangs, horns, clawing everything at once, that you started out with. But if I go with a club and it's useless, its weight and my determination to wound a shadow can turn against me, especially since by carrying certain arms one deprives oneself of others, and to carry all possible arms, even if one could foresee all those necessary, would mean being crushed. So on this point I don't know what to do. And the other point at which I don't know what to do is the matter of the detour: if I should go right or left, if the way around is short or long and if I should climb up or descend."
The best part about Dieste's storytelling skills are his elegant, supremely perfect endings. They're not O. Henry twists; rather, the concluding lines are dramatic whipcracks that snap the proceedings into a perfect thematic framework.

Take the volume's fourth story, "The Stuffed Parrot": The narrator, a young boy, introduces the reader to a shop owner's stuffed parrot, the tale then travelling circuitously through a seemingly nonsensical tale of the parrot's path to the shop, only to resolve itself into unexpectedly poignant lesson in compassion from the narrator's father.

Did I mention Dieste can be awfully funny too? Here's a great bit from "Pliny's Garden", about a pet dog named Pliny who encounters a hedgehog (to disastrous results):
Pliny went up to get his pat and still tried to play at something else. Seeing the embroidered slipper, he took it up in his teeth. But he let go of the inoffensive prisoner right away, looked sideways at the impossible and, with an air of carelessness and other ambiguities, started to circle it again. As soon as he seemed to ignore it, he would concede it a bit of curiosity and, immediately, putting his nose to the ground as if solicited by a highly interesting trail, he moved away again, thus showing that anything else was worthier of his attention. Until he fancied running, barking noisily at everything and at the hedgehog as if it were just one more thing. Finally he lay down and, with his neck straight out and his paws stretched out like a sphinx, he sat unmoving in front of the other enigma. But suddenly he began to grumble, moving up a scale of annoyance and barks that sounded higher and higher, ending up in unleashed fury against the four cardinal points and even against Faustino himself, whom he suddenly seemed to ignore. Who are you? What are you trying to do? Out! Out!
The dog then spirals into depression, unable to reconcile himself with the intruder, leading to another of Dieste's sublimely perfect conclusions -- moving but unsentimental, ambiguous but with the right amount of finality.

Here's all that Wikipedia has to offer on the writer, Rafael Dieste:
Rafael Dieste (Rianxo, 1899–Santiago de Compostela, 1981) was a Galician poet, philosopher, short-story writer, and dramatist writing in the Spanish language. He began to write with the encouragement of another Galician poet, Manuel Antonio, wrote for the theatre and wrote widely on aesthetics. His stories have been compared to the other-world approach of the graphic art of M. C. Escher.
 His nephew was the Uruguayan structural architect Eladio Dieste, whose approach to architecture may have been in sympathy with his uncle's poetry.
Here's a bit more on Dieste, from the inner flap of Tales and Inventions:
RAFAEL DIESTE (La Coruna, 1899-1981) began his career writing in the language of his native Galicia, but ended it as a wholly bilingual author and a master of both Galician and Castilian languages. Dieste was a poet -- Rojo farol amante; a playwright -- Viaje, duelo y perdicion; and philosopher -- El ama y el espejo. Founder, in 1936, of the famous magazine Hora de Espana, he was forced to go into exile at the end of the Civil War. His thorough knowledge of both arts and sciences is deeply ingrained in his writing (he is author of an admirable scientific work, Testamento geometrico), but his understanding of the importance of an accessible style gives his work an apparent ease that partly disguises the perfect fusion of his penetrating mind with his mastery of language. 
Buy this bad boy at Amazon and enjoy.

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