This week (or month) in short fiction (and poetry), it’s National Translation Month! Each September, the National Translation Month (NTM) initiative, started in 2013, celebrates literary works in translation and promotes cross-cultural readership with offerings of exciting new translations on its website. The selections are released throughout the month and so far include poetry from the ancient Latin to contemporary Hausa, fiction from China and Mexico, and even a visit inside an Italian art studio. One featured work is from Mexican poet and novelist Daniel Saldaña París, whose novel Among Strange Victims, translated by Christina MacSweeney (the same translator who brought us Valeria Luiselli), came out from Coffee House Press this summer. París’s short story “Piñata,” also translated from the Spanish by MacSweeney, is a tale of one summer in Madrid, of love and sex, of one powerful woman and her terrifying piñata.
Several other philosophy students were discussing some topical political issue in the sweltering sun and Alicia, who hadn’t taken part in the conversation and was sitting slightly apart from the group, didn’t hesitate to tell them, in complete seriousness, that they were a bunch of fairies and that making a revolution needed a level of virility that they lacked. I, who had never wanted to make a revolution, much less flaunt my virility before others, thought that I had to fuck her.
The unnamed narrator of “Piñata” is a timid guy who unexpectedly gets wrapped up in a relationship with the wild, intelligent, assertive Alicia, a woman who studies feminist philosophy and enjoys multiple lovers, since “monogamy [is] an impracticable imposition.” The narrator tries to take on his own extra lovers, but it seems “an inordinate effort,” and he passively accepts his one-sided fidelity to Alicia while never quite giving up hope that she may choose to settle down with him. MacSweeney’s translation of París’s succinct prose crosses elegance with a dry wit, and the effect is a story that exudes a graceful seriousness at the same time as it is also very funny. Take, for example, this sentence:
The intensity of our love – excuse the hyperbole – was marked by the swings between the extremes of her character and my almost total passivity in the face of this buffeting.
As the summer moves on, the narrator decides to throw a birthday party for Alicia, in a move to meet more of her friends and perhaps somehow make clear his claim on her by displaying how magnificent a couple they are. The party somehow acquires a Western theme, with gun slingers and saloon girls and two piñatas—one made by the narrator, who as he is originally from Mexico has experience in the craft of piñata-making, and one by Alicia, who has no practice in the art but is not intimidated in the slightest. She uses the opportunity to create something that is more political statement than party game, a performance art piece that might be wonderful or might be horrifyingly terrible, in the way that performance pieces so often are.
My design was the traditional star, but Alicia, being more imaginative, proposed making a pregnant woman. I told her that attacking a pregnant woman with sticks wasn’t a particularly nice idea, that it had connotations of gender- related violence and could shock many people. Alicia trotted out theoretical arguments based on who knows what feminist text to justify her piñata; it would be very cathartic for women, she parried, to destroy that allegory of the social expectations of their function – or something like that, and I thought that the argument was fairly pointless and that it was, in the end, her piñata and she could make it any way she wanted.
The results of the Western-themed birthday party and the problematic piñata are—not surprisingly—awful, but not for the reasons you’d expect. After you read “Piñata,” explore NTM’s other amazing works in translation in its archives, check back in for more in the final week of this month, and don’t stop reading international literature once September ends; keep it going all year long.