This Week in Short Fiction
On Tuesday, London-based journal The White Review dropped its third annual translation issue, which features a truly global range of voices from Israel to Indonesia, South Africa to Russia. Among them is a fascinating new story by Bolivian writer Liliana Colanzi, translated by Frances Riddle. In “Meteorite,” Colanzi combines aliens and ghosts with diet pills and machismo to create a disturbing, yet funny story that hovers just this side of the unknown.
“Meteorite” opens on a macro scale, following a meteoroid that has circled the sun for fifteen million years before it is thrown off course towards Earth, which it then travels twenty-thousand years to reach before being mostly burnt up in the atmosphere. Colanzi then shifts the focus suddenly from macro to micro:
An igneous ball, one and a half metres wide, hit the ground outside San Borja; its spectacular descent from the sky was witnessed by a married couple who were arguing in their home at five thirty in the morning.
The abrupt change from a meteorite’s million-year journey to a domestic argument, from the celestial to the mundane, is humorous but also distressing in that particular way infinite space has of making one feel small and trivial. It’s an epic and elegant first paragraph, setting the story against a backdrop of eternity that constantly foils the self-importance of the human characters, the main one being an overweight rancher named Ruddy whose overblown machismo is undermined by weight-loss pills and a secret inferiority complex.
Ruddy is the kind of character you don’t initially like: all bluster and bravado as he sits on the couch in his underwear, thinking about how he’s better than his wife and his workers, a hardworking martyr among idiots. But his arrogance is belied by the occasional self-hating thought, “I’m a fat piece of shit,” “what a fag,” and moments such as when he accidentally breaks some dishes and is afraid his wife will wake up and chastise him for sneaking food. On top of that, Ruddy is taking some “miracle cure” diet pills, which are almost definitely a kind of amphetamine and loom over the story, a heart attack waiting to happen:
Thanks to the pills, a hundred pounds had melted away in seven months, effortlessly. He didn’t even have to give up beer or barbeque, nothing. A miracle of the Lord, Dayana had said, euphoric, and that night she had put on the red faux-leather boots he liked and they had fucked with frenzy . . . It was Dayana who had taken him to see the Argentine doctor when he passed through San Borja selling the miracle cure for obesity. She was also the one who started calling him Captain America, alarmed by his sudden zealousness. But his wife didn’t know about his nocturnal wanderings, about the nights that the evil energy was so strong he had to sweep the floor or throw himself on the ground to do push-ups until daylight, his heart beating like crazy.
It’s the diet pills that wake him the morning of the meteorite landing. He rises from bed and washes the dishes from last night, then lays on the couch and tries to sleep, alternately cursing his wife in his head, thinking self-aggrandizing thoughts, and worrying about the events of the coming day, when he’ll have to visit the mother of a boy who was kicked in the head by one of his cows. This was no normal boy, however. Before the incident with the cow, this boy claimed he could communicate with aliens. Ruddy remembers:
What’s your talent then? he asked, amused. Sometimes I talk to people from space, said the boy. He laughed . . . The kid was obviously touched in the head. And what do you talk about, if I may ask, he said mockingly. The boy paused before answering: They say they’re coming. The boy was as crazy as a goat. And how do you know that it’s not your imagination? he asked. Because I have the gift, the boy answered confidently. He smacked the boy on the head; the kid flinched and raised both hands. The next time I hear you talking about your gift I’m going to throw you to the pigs, he threatened.
The boy had been riling up the staff, talking about “a ball of fire [that] would come from the sky to take him away.” Ruddy thinks of him disparagingly, as a troublemaker, a bringer of bad luck, crazy. It’s the boy’s own fault he got kicked in the head by a cow, not his, he thinks. But this seems to be only more bluster, a way for Ruddy to deny the fear the boy stokes in him, a fear that emerges with full force when a particular spooky thing happens that morning, even before the meteorite streaks through the sky. Something that brings him to wake his wife in a panic, to consider leaving the ranch for good. Something that nudges open the door to the unexplained.
Of course, it could also be hallucinations caused by the diet pills and lack of sleep. But you’ll have to read it yourself to make your own judgment.
If “Meteorite” isn’t enough for you, don’t worry. Colanzi has two Spanish-language story collections already out, and for those of us limited to English, she has an English language story collection, The Wave, coming out sometime this year from Dalkey Archive Press, so we’ll get to read more of her soon.