A review of Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes, translated from the Spanish by Ellen Jones
There’s something very diamond-in-the-rough about Trout, Belly Up, another quiet gem from the inimitable Charco Press. A series of interconnected short stories by young Guatemalan author Rodrigo Fuentes, it delves with extraordinary grace and poetic precision into the lives of ordinary men and women in rural Guatemala, providing an altogether startling take on what it means to be human.
Digging surprisingly deep for its ninety-seven pages, Trout, Belly Up is full of striking imagery and memorable characters that stayed with me long after I closed the book. The collection is woven together by the common thread of Don Henrik, a landowner of Scandinavian origin who seems – on the surface at least – to be a fair employer and good husband ridden with bad luck. Although always present in one capacity or another, Henrik only really comes into his own in the final story and, in particular, the final page, which contains one of the most arresting closing scenes I have come across recently.
Around him, the stories are populated by characters deeply embroiled in their own private traumas, with broken marriages, addiction, violence and bereavement washing up on almost every page. As the narrator in the opening story says, with more than a touch of characteristic bitterness, ‘it’s not all happy families on the trout farm’. Many times I finished a story with an aching sense of sadness, an emotion made all the sharper for the fact that it was conveyed in such sparing prose. Ellen Jones has done a masterful job here, capturing the delicate nuances of Fuentes’s Spanish and rendering it into an English that often sounds resigned, even reserved, but conceals a wealth of all-too-human anguish.
Fuentes, who is at the forefront of contemporary Guatemalan literature – a body of work I know next to nothing about – has often been compared to Hemingway, and I can see where the similarities lie. There’s a leanness to his writing, a controlled style of narrative, an almost defensive precision that offers both immediacy and detachment. Although there is at times a distinctly philosophical bent to things, this is not a book that seeks outwardly to muse on the meaning of life – instead, far more tellingly, much is hidden beneath the surface of events. Violence is there, always, bursting forth from seemingly calm surroundings as though a character in its own right, and many of the stories are heavy with an all-consuming sense of loss. Beneath their hard, often embittered shells, I got the impression that many of Fuentes’s characters were hurting.
Also in the vein of Hemingway, Trout, Belly Up does offer a very masculine view of the world that some readers may find troubling – the women in these stories are almost non-existent, mostly used by the men who loom larger on the pages. Even when they do come into their own, for example in ‘Ubaldo’s Island’, they rarely appear as true individuals, instead, as a group, becoming an external force that men partly fear and are partly willing to tolerate: ‘the women were doing all the talking.’ There are, however, occasional exceptions: Pía, the daughter in ‘Whisky’, and Analí and Ermiña, the mistress and wife of the title story, who may be used by the narrator but do in the end prove far stronger than assumed. And perhaps, in cutting us off from these characters’ inner lives, Fuentes only deepens the sense that there is far more to these stories than might initially meet the eyes.
Although his stories are deeply human by nature, animals play an important role in Fuentes’s collection, from the silver-bellied fish of the title to Whisky, the missing dog. Most troubling of these non-human characters is Perla, the cow who could easily be read as a woman and takes centre stage in one of the most shocking yet mesmerising stories. This one in particular I found to be like something out of a dream – a collection of images told with quiet force and an anger that seethes only fractionally beneath the surface.
There is much to be explored in Trout, Belly Up, a collection that would easily bear a second reading. More complex than their length might imply, there are many layers in these stories that can be gradually shed to expose some uncomfortable truths about both the society they seek to portray and human nature in general. By stripping away almost all emotion, Fuentes creates a powerful atmosphere of love, loss and yearning – for peace, for prosperity, for particular people – and asks, I think, a fundamental question about how we choose to narrate our lives both to one another and ourselves.
Trout, Belly Up is published by Charco Press (2019). My thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing me with a review copy.