A number of stories from central Mexico strike an entirely different tone. The brilliant intellectual gadfly Carlos Monsivais displays his gonzo wit and dancing insight in "Identity Hour." Juan Villoro's "One-Way Street" details the progress of a rich Mexico City kid who takes a walk on the wild side, becoming a temporary punk. In the exceptional "Huaquechula," a divorced photographer takes his two daughters for the weekend to see altars to the dead. It's hard to imagine a North American daddy doing this, but the children are delighted by the little sugar skulls with their names on them, offered like Hershey's Kisses or M&M's. Sleek, contemporary, skilled, this story by Pedro Angel Palou delivers a kind of Mexican equivalent of the work of Haruki Murakami.
In Ilan Stavans' bizarre "Twins," set in the state of Veracruz, two Lebanese Mexican brothers face off in an eating contest to the death. As memorable as any tale in the collection is Raymundo Hernandez-Gil's "Tarantula," a grotesque, fabulous cantina story to end all cantina stories: When a village witch dies, the fate that befalls her son almost beggars description. In Alberto Ruy Sanchez's "Vigil in Tehuantepec," visitors to an annual folkloric event in the sweltering, matriarchal town find themselves in the middle of a lynching. A passage from the novel "Tenebrae Service," by the forceful Rosario Castellanos, describes Maya life in the Chiapas town of San Juan Chamula with a ringing, passionate lyricism.
"In the land of need that is Mexico," Fuentes has written, "the impossible distance between desire and the thing desired has given both yearning and object an incandescent purity." Indeed, the most affecting of these narratives are about longing and isolation, uncertain identity and shape-shifting, of someone who wants something he or she can't get and must wait, maybe forever.
Writing life works differently in Mexico. Its literature sometimes labors under the weight of the Spanish tradition -- Cervantes and Catholicism (present in so many of these stories), its outsize history and diverse regional identities and its late arrival into the modern arena. The literary class is small; if you ride Mexican public transportation, you rarely see people with a book open. There is a literary cabal in Mexico City whose members scratch each other's backs (or lacerate them). Many among the younger educated generation are moving into Internet life without pausing to consider literature. Yet there is sizable support for writing in every corner of the republic -- prizes and grants, conferences and workshops, a steady stream of publications both Mexican and foreign.
This collection is perhaps less a "best of" than a "broadly representative of." A few notable absences are the wonderful Elena Poniatowska and some of the more adventurous younger writers, such as Guillermo Fadanelli. Still, we couldn't ask for much more. This is how Mexico looks, tastes and feels, and how its writers write about it. Numerous translators, including Mayo, have lent their voices to this task.
This is a book to throw in a suitcase or \o7mochila\f7 (backpack) on the way to Mexico or just settling into a favorite patio chair. It will open your eyes, fill you with pleasure and render our perennial \o7vecinos\f7 a little less \o7distante\f7. *