Take Six: Six Spanish Women Writers edited by Simon Deefholts & Kathryn Phillips-Miles is a welcome collection of twenty-seven short stories by six influential Spanish women writers, written over the past one hundred and twenty years. The translations are fluent and easily readable, the editing ‘light-touch’ and unobtrusive.
One surprising feature of the stories is the constancy of the themes they address. The stories concentrate on marginalized, frustrated women, their lives stunted by male prejudice and violence. While the formats change, the key issues remain.
Many of the earlier stories inevitably concentrate with an Austen-esque intensity on the hunt for the right man: nearly always, the protagonist fails in her quest. Patricia Erlés’s epigraph, ‘To frustrated love affairs, without which there would be no stories,’ could be applied to most of the texts in this volume. The quest is near-constant, but the focus changes over time.
In Strafulated Eggs, an unsettling social critique, Emilia Pardo Bazán describes the repeated bouts of domestic violence suffered by Martina, a carter’s wife. Bazán advocated tirelessly to extend educational opportunities to Spanish women.
Nineteen-minute English-language video analysing Emilia Pardo Bazán’s life:
For Carmen de Burgos, (1867-1932), writing in the early twentieth century, in Those Who Didn’t Live, a woman’s love for a man is a unique moment. ‘She was giving herself to him, trembling with passion, in that unique, unrepeatable moment in the life of every woman, the essential moment that exists only once and only for one man.’ (p. 85). By 1952, a character in Carmen Laforet’s The Photograph is more cynical. ‘A boyfriend who’s rich and stupid, they’re the best ones, trust me.’ (p. 132) The successful female executive of The Woman in Green (1990), by Cristina Fernández Cubas, faces major problems: ‘City life is inhumane, cruel, pitiless’ (p. 166).
History shapes many of the stories. Those from the mid-twentieth century, the years of Franco’s dictatorship (1939-75), are marked by the hunger and social misery of the period. Going Back by Carmen Laforet tells of ‘the misery and squalor of the endless suburbs’ of Madrid, (p. 126) where mothers make Christmas sweets for their children out of mashed sweet potatoes and food dye.
Overall continuity dominates. It is interesting to compare two stories from the beginning and end of the collection: A Good Set of Teeth, published around 1900 by Emilia Pardo Bazán and Of Apples and Arses by Patricia Erlés (published in 2008). In a sense, they share the same the plot: a woman changes her appearance in order to look more appealing to men.
In Pardo’s story, Agueda feels sensitive about her crooked teeth, so has them all removed and replaced with false teeth in order to appeal to Fausto. The ploy fails: Fausto pronounces the story’s last line: ‘You can’t get too excited about a girl when you know she’s got false teeth!’ (p. 24)
In Erlés’s story the power dynamic is somewhat different: the narrator is a rejected male lover, who is mortified by the ease with which ‘Apple-Arse’ had rejected him, ‘with a simple click of a mouse’ (p. 238) He recounts his obsession: ‘Her arse became the centre of gravity of our relationship; everything revolved around it.’ (p. 235) The rejected lover finds her in a bar, gets her drunk, persuades her to come home with him, and then finds she’s had liposuction, and her bottom is a mass of surgical bruises. The operation was a present from her new boyfriend. They don’t have sex, and Apple-Arse leave the next morning without saying anything.
Cristina Fernández Cubas defies the stereotypes of the fantastic and horror genres. She plays with perceptions and her discovery of new meanings are invariably linked to childhood. The beautiful and the terrifying are part of the same reality.
Perhaps the one criticism that can be made of this welcome collection is the excessively light-touch editing. Each of the six writers is introduced with a single paragraph, and the original Spanish title and date of publication of the stories is often omitted. It’s not even stated which stories Simon Deefholts and Kathryn Phillips-Miles are responsible for translating into English. Apart from this point, it’s a useful and interesting collection.
Reviewed for BookBlast by Sharif Gemie.
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