by Magela Baudoin
translated by Wendy Burk and M.J. Fièvre
Schaffner Press, 140 pages
reviewed by Katharine Coldiron
Thank goodness Magela Baudoin’s first book to be translated in English, Sleeping Dragons, is so short. The fifteen stories in this collection (adding up to only 140 pages) are so precise, bursting with such potency, that to increase the collection to 200 or 250 pages would just about kill the average reader. Nearly all the stories are perfectly formed, energetic little spheres—like new tennis balls, popping with their own elasticity the moment they drop out of the canister—and only so many of these spheres can hit a reader between the eyes before she must stop, dazed. The overall impression is of a writer with years of craftsmanship already behind her, ready to don the halo of South American literary fame.
Baudoin is Bolivian, but she is clearly influenced not just by the humor and confidence of the usual South American figures (Borges, García Márquez), but also by the sharpness of American minimalists like Raymond Carver and Lydia Davis. These stories are expertly honed, whittled to beauty and often terror. In “Moebia,” for instance, a journalist falls in love and moves into a prison—the story offers no real-world logic for this development—only to suffer heartbreak and stillbirth. In “Vertical Dream,” a highly interior story about dreams and windows, Baudoin asserts:
Forget the present, forget the now. People carried around an obsession with the future—a fear. It disturbed them—like a nightmare unfolding—the idea that they, or their successors, might descend into vulgarity, or worse, poverty. For poverty was the quintessence of horror.
The point of view varies from story to story; the author shifts easily from first person to second person to third. “The Girl,” one of the longest stories in the collection, dissects a couple’s disapproval as their friend’s wife descends either into madness or a neurological disease. Baudoin chooses to tell the story from a distant, omnipotent third person perspective, shifting rapidly from one set of motivations to the next. Head-hopping stories often feel loose and undisciplined, but this one is tight as a drum. The girl of the title is the one person whose head Baudoin never peeks into—except that the end of the story physically opens it up.
Some of the stories in this collection seem to be the result of a conceptual constraint or a gimmick, such as “A Wristwatch, a Soccer Ball, a Cup of Coffee,” a dialogue-heavy piece that integrates these three objects into a conversation between a boy and his grandfather. Or “Wuthering,” which merely summarizes the tale of the Brontë siblings, in conversation. The oddest and least successful of these examples is “Mengele in Love,” which, given the book’s origin in South America, should be self-explanatory. But it’s one of the only stories in the book that feels incomplete. The narration is so internal, so unexplained, that the story feels like a series of unwoven threads, left hanging awkwardly. Perhaps the story would be less acceptable (particularly now) if it were charming, rather than its chosen mood of haphazard unease, but as written it’s just confusing.
None of that confusion is likely due to the translators, Wendy Burk and M.J. Fièvre. Their work is exemplary, transmitting Baudoin’s clear and plain language almost savagely across the page. In “The Red Ribbon,” for instance, a paragraph that’s been making flowery excuses for an underage prostitute’s position suddenly, and powerfully, withers: “when that indigenous reality collides with city life, freedom becomes a yoke dragging women into the world’s oldest meat grinder. Poverty grinds it all up: at an unimaginably young age, Indian girls surrender their bodies to urban fantasies for next to nothing.”
The overall impression is of a writer with years of craftsmanship already behind her, ready to don the halo of South American literary fame.
The two most moving stories are “Something for Dinner,” the opener, which feels like a Coen Brothers scenario crossed with the childhood of Julián Herbert, and “Opening Night,” which contains a species of quiet heartbreak too small and unglamorous for the likes of O. Henry. In it, a young man who works at a dry cleaner and loves opera almost to an obsessive degree comes within inches of seeing his favorite, Carmen, under the perfect set of circumstances. We root for him to get what he wants. But he does not. And his loss is so terrible that the story can grant solace neither to him nor to us. “He walked in smaller and smaller circles, finally arriving at the table in the back, as dizzy and bewildered as a child.” It’s the kind of disappointment that can’t be helped, in life or in fiction, and that wracks the reader, even if she has only invested a handful of pages into this fictional scenario.
The Spanish title of this book is taken from one of its several six-page stories, “The Composition of Salt” (originally La Composición de la Sal). The English title is taken from a different six-page story, but it represents the collection perhaps more properly than the original. Dragons sleep inside the walls of these stories, between the characters, inside their minds and their families, under their beds. These dragons come in many forms, but they are inescapable, and dangerous. Thankfully, Magdela Baudoin’s scalpel of a pen can perforate that danger and leave us free to roam about in their territory. What a relief.