Advertisement
YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

STYLE & CULTURE | BOOK REVIEW

A spellbinding world of contradictions

Antipodes: Stories; Ignacio Padilla; Translated from the Spanish by Alastair Reid; Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 134 pp., $18

June 21, 2004|Bernadette Murphy | Special to The Times

The characters and predicaments detailed in Mexican writer Ignacio Padilla's concise and intense short-story collection "Antipodes" remind us that things are not always what they seem. Or, if they are what they seem, it's only natural that they contradict each other: That which is good gives rise to that which is evil; those who traverse the globe are most genuinely concerned with the happenings back home; and only in "the last and the worst of all possible worlds" are we best able to live up to our real destinies. Populated by Dutch and British colonialists across the globe -- along the Zambezi, amid the sands of the Gobi desert, ascending Mt. Everest, in the humid jungles of Java, through the streets of Darjeeling -- Padilla's stories plumb the depths of myth and history to show us a world gone awry across time, places and cultures.

The 12 stories are told with irony and zest and are filled with fantastic scenarios: There's the British colonel so determined to make the Rhodesian Railways run on time, as infallibly as the trains on the London-York line, that he pledges to shoot himself in the smoking room of the Hotel Prince Albert should he fail. "The Antipodes and the Century" fleshes out the fable of a Scottish engineer, lost in the Gobi desert and received by the people there as a god, who directs the desert dwellers to build a replica of Edinburgh. "[T]hey were able to follow his instructions and carry out his wishes, in utter conviction that a blessed deity had chosen them to receive his designs from the Other Side." In "Chronicle of the Second Plague" we learn of the aftermath of an epidemic of bubonic plague in the Amazon in which a second plague strikes, contaminating people with invisible infections, "the first sign of which was perfect health."

"Darjeeling," one of the collection's strongest entries, concerns the explorer Kintup, who in his earlier life did more mapping of Asia than anyone else of that time. The tale's narrator is sent by his superior, Colonel Bailey, to visit this legendary surveyor and offer him financial compensation for the trials of his younger years, payment that Kintup, although destitute, refuses to take. Bailey is obsessed with Kintup and infects the narrator with his hero worship, who in turn dedicates the rest of his life to tracking down Kintup's rightful heirs to present them this money. Twenty years later, he completes the mission. "At last, I began to understand my old chief's firm belief that true heroism shows itself spontaneously somewhere in the space between courage and absurdity," he explains, on the brink of discovering that his life's work has been a fool's errand.

Courage and absurdity abound in Padilla's minimalist tales. One features a devout monk summoning the devil to do battle, only to find that the devil isn't paying much attention. "Months passed unnoticed, days and nights of fasting in which the ascetic began to fear that the devil might have in fact forgotten that state in which someone will summon him...." In "Time Regained," we learn of a wondrous infusion -- "the closest thing to the fountain of youth" -- that reduces a person's need for sleep with no ill effects. Only later does the elixir's inventor realize what he's unleashed: "[H]is infusion mercilessly prolonged insomnia and its accompanying agonies; it brought to those who drank it an enormous serpent of empty hours that nobody ever knew how to use." Duels, conversations and games of bridge would now go on for weeks at a time, and the inventor, who has long wished to have the time to make a sculpture of his wife, finds his dreams doomed. Now "there was plenty of time not only for his art, but also for his doubts and his forgetfulness, and for the alteration of forms, curves, and textures that never reached any point of conviction."

In this, the second of the young writer's acclaimed works to be translated into English (after the novel "Shadow Without a Name"), readers encounter a tone that may at first seem incongruous -- reminiscent of Conrad and other very British writers on one hand, but with a Latin American piquancy suggestive of Borges on the other. As with the numerous contradictions that Padilla fathoms in these stories, it works. All seeming antipodes -- whether in tone or within the plot details -- are right at home and perfectly natural in Padilla's realm, making for a rich, complex texture against which he weaves his spell.

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|