Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Tainted Earth

The Tainted EarthThe Tainted Earth by George Berguño
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

All short story collections (even my own) have high points and low points. The trick is to find collections where the high points are so good that they pull the other stories "up". If the low points were your average stories, the collection can still be outstanding. And this is the case here. Though some of the stories were, for me, average, there wasn't a stinker among them, and when Berguno shines, his light is bright, by which I mean it is gloomy and ethereal, light gray, if you will.

The title story, "The Tainted Earth," is reminiscent of the decadent writers Gautier or de Gourmont: very capably written, with little originality of plot, and a little twist at the end. I found that same decadent voice throughout the collection, to some degree or another, which is not a bad thing! The framing device for "The Tainted Earth" really is the story, which isn't usually my thing. But it flows so smoothly, one has to admire the writing behind it. I would normally give this sort of story three stars, but the prose is so well-constructed, that I'm giving it four stars.

Ah, Berguno, you trickster, you. Here, in "The Sick Mannes Salve," the author pulls the old bait and switch, though masterfully done. This story's tone is highly evocative of Poe and maybe a touch of M.R. James and a very tiny pinch of Dunsaney. Nicely done, though a touch predictable in hindsight. Four stars for you.

"The Ballad of El Pichon" is a tale of (dark) magic realism every bit as worthy as anything Marquez ever wrote. Surreal like a fever dream. I swear this was the reality I knew as a child when we traveled to Mexico for a day trip. Did I see that old man selling canaries? Or, worse yet, did he see me? Five stars!

"Fugue for Black Thursday," a vortex of respect, social chains, and revenge set in Nazi-occupied Poland, is centered around Bruno Schulz, author of The Street of Crocodiles (brilliantly interpreted in cinema by The Brother's Quay). This story had true pathos, with a plot that creates sympathetic creatures in the most evil of men. It is grim, loathsome, and altogether enjoyable, if you get what I mean - in much the same way that a Brother's Quay movie is, though quite a bit less surreal. This story, the second-strongest in the collection, easily gets five stars.

"Mouse and the Falconer" felt manipulative. This is forgivable, though my resistance to the authors overt attempts to play with my sympathies and fears ironically prevented me from feeling the depths of emotion I was "supposed" to feel. Still,the syntax and vocabulary are exquisite, but not adequate to earn any more than three stars.

"The Rune Stone at Odenslunda" fell flat for me, but was still not a bad story. Imagine if Dunsany and Ovid had written a horror story and set it in Norway. Three stars.

"The Good Samaritan of Prague" is a labyrinth meandering through dream and destiny, with a shadowy figure that may or may not exist as a sort of mystic minotaur. But monster and hero are conflated and indistinguishable from one another. A convoluted, gloomy story which is, at its heart, a brooding on homelessness, but I can't tell if it makes me sad or merely contemplative. Four stars.

"Three Drops of Death" could have been stripped straight out of the pre-Raphaelite short fiction collection, The Dream Weavers, except that Berguno gives the characters much more depth by showing their quirks and flipping reader expectations on their head. Five stars for this clever and endearing piece of dark humor.

The pièce de résistance here is to be found in the absolutely amazing novella "A Spell of Subtle Hunting". Another piece starring a Nazi as its protagonist, this story, written in the second person (a form that I usually hate with a flying passion), is an all-engulfing dreamscape with emotional depth that tugs at the heartstrings and immerses the reader in a hazy fugue state. Ernst Junger, the controversial writer, is the narrator. The war has come and gone, and Junger is old, very, very old, and about to die, so he seeks out a piece of his youth, from the time before he "began to die," when he was dismissed from the German army for his ties to the officers who attempted to assassinate Hitler (referred to as "Kniebolo" throughout) and had to relinquish his post in Paris, where he had become acquainted with such luminaries as Picasso and Jean Cocteau. "A Spell of Subtle Hunting" is a master-class in painting with an airy brush saturated with sadness, regret, and a hint of self-satisfied defiance. This piece is strong enough to cause the most avid reader to ask "why aren't there more novellas in the world"? We get enough of an insight into the character that we can see them from several angles, yet the form is short enough that we don't get mired in minutiae. This is especially important: The tone of the story, a touch grim and yet playful at the same time, is facilitated by the lack of fluff. As Calvino used to say, "I am a Saturn who dreams of being a Mercury". That same impulse is evident in spades in Berguno's longer (but not too long) masterpiece, "A Spell of Subtle Hunting".

This book would have been complete had it only contained this last novella and "Fugue for Black Thursday". Thankfully, it has these and much more to commend it. Add to this the exquisite production values I have come to expect from Egaeus Press (if you've never bought and held an Egaeus title, go NOW and do it!), and even the average stories become lifted up such that the The Tainted Earth is well-deserving of five stars.

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