WHILE THE WOMEN ARE SLEEPING by Javier Marias

Book Quote:

“Someone who has not been born or, even more so, someone who has not even been engendered of conceived is the one thing that belongs to death entirely. The person who has not been conceived dies most. […] He or she is the only one who will have neither homeland nor grave.”

Book Review:

Review by Vesna McMaster  (JUN 13, 2011)

This collection of short stories is intriguing and memorable, firstly for its peculiar themes and obsessions, secondly (contrary to what one might expect) because the earlier pieces seem far “better” than the later.

Let’s qualify “better.” The title story “While the Women Are Sleeping” is by far the longest and most self-indulgent of all the pieces, as well as being a relatively “late” piece. Pages of almost-monologue punctuated only by random, unnecessary actions do not constitute a well-crafted short story, in my view. The observations and tension do keep one reading, but in a sitting-back-with-eyebrows-slightly-raised sort of way. Arguably, the feat of retaining reader attention through the obstacle of such a construct is more impressive than if the story were crafted in a manner more conducive to the short story format. However, the bottom line is that it rambles. It’s introspective and ultimately inconclusive.

The short story is an unforgiving mistress. It has certain criteria, one of which is to swallow the reader instantly into its own specific setting and situation. This is the aim of all stories, of whatever length, but the demands made of a short story within a collection like this are far greater than those made of a novel with 300 pages to wallow in. All the stories in this collection do meet this criterion. Each one is vivid and memorable – sometimes unpleasantly so, as in the title story (it leaves one with a kind of “icky” feeling, which is undoubtedly entirely intentional).

The short story demands something else, though. It has to have thrust. If the tale drifts along in a nightmarish river of introspection, possibilities and hypotheticals, before leaving one stranded on a muddy shore with nothing more than a queasy stomach and uncertainty as to what just happened, it can never aspire to being more than mediocre. It is in this respect that the earlier stories outclass the later. They may be gawkier, but their undisguised obsessions have an energy that loses its way in the more convoluted sentences and oblique references in the later works. Though, having said “later” the latest piece in the collection is from 1998, so they are all relatively early works. There’s a certain breathless audacity needed to be able to write of a main character: “Derek Lilburn was a man of little imagination, ordinary tastes, and an irrelevant past” and still expect your reader to stay with you.

The other intriguing aspect of the collection (from an English reader’s point of view) is the seemingly near-stereotypically Spanish preoccupation with death and mortality. Eight of the ten stories deal directly with death, from a bewildering multitude of viewpoints. Add to this that the majority of the pieces are in the first person and you will get the (correct) impression that overall the collection is a head-on confrontation with issues surrounding mortality.

These issues are of a curiously philosophical nature. Mortality as connected with identity is a recurring theme, and the book is crawling with doppelgangers, mirrors, transfigurations and shadows. The self is lost, stolen, misplaced, and unknown in myriad variations. Generation and ancestry is a theme closely linked here, as ancestors and progenitors occur as echoes of the younger generations, haunting and forever directing them, even if unwittingly.

Yet these echoes, though fateful and often baleful, somehow seem to be taken as part of a natural process. Many of the outcomes in the stories are pretty dismal, but there’s a certain satisfaction of a destined, if not a just, end met: as if the Weird sisters were writing a report on the day’s activities.

This brings me back to the title story. One of the central characters is an entirely self-absorbed 23-year-old female. She has abandoned her parents and is currently seemingly content to be the idolatrous object of worship of an older man. She lies on the beach, staring into a hand-mirror, examining her perfect skin for any tiny blemishes. She says not a single word throughout the story. Such progenitor-less self-absorption is seen as a full-stop in the continuum of the general struggle of existence, and as such, more to be pitied than idolised. Perhaps this is the core paradox between Marías’ writing and his philosophy: a short story must be complete of itself, like the Midgard Serpent. His personal philosophy (as it appears in this collection) indicates that this would be the worst of all possible fates, so how could he reconcile the demands of the form to the thrust of the content? With difficulty, it seems.

I enjoyed this book, and will be carrying its images around with me for a long while, I suspect. I would recommend it to anyone interested in short stories. (Translated by Margaret Jull Costa)

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-5-0from 1 readers
PUBLISHER: New Directions (November 29, 2010)
REVIEWER: Vesna McMaster
AVAILABLE AS A KINDLE BOOK? YES! Start Reading Now!
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EXTRAS: Excerpt
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June 13, 2011 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags:  · Posted in: Short Stories, Spain, Translated, World Lit, y Award Winning Author

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