‘Another sort of beauty altogether’ [book review]

A review of A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco, translated from the Spanish by Jennifer Croft

Strange things happen in small towns. This seems to be the premise of Federico Falco’s A Perfect Cemetery, a collection of substantial short stories that gleam in Jennifer Croft’s English translation. At the tipping point between realism and its reverse, these strange tales are shot through with threads of absurdity, sharp observations and a dark sense of humour. As much as they probe the darker sides of the human experience – loneliness, heartache, jealousy, obsession – they are also a reminder not to take it too seriously. Ordinary lives, Falco suggests, can be filled with the fantastical, if only we are willing to let it in.

Cover image A Perfect Cemetery

On the face of things, the stories in A Perfect Cemetery play out in a fairly straight setting: small-town Argentina, largely modelled on the author’s birthplace of rural Córdoba. These backdrops contrast sharply with the characters who walk before them, ostensibly conducting ordinary lives but to whom unusual things are happening. In ‘Silvi and Her Dark Night’, for example, a teenage girl who has just begun to question her parents’ devout Catholicism falls head over heels in love with a young Mormon missionary. Her wild infatuation is grounded in items all the more extraordinary for being prosaic – bottles of Sprite, an Axe deodorant – but we see it beginning to shape her as a person, even as her mother battles against it. Falco sensitively captures the hopeless magnificence of unrequited passion, making us feel deeply for Silvi even as we might laugh at the manner of her falling in love.

Where Silvi’s hot-headedness contrasts with her mother’s strict piety and the increasingly outrageous laments of the priest asked to help her, yet more sharply opposing characters come into play in ‘Woodland Life’ and ‘A Perfect Cemetery’. In the former, an ageing father searches desperately for a man to whom to marry off his adult daughter, Mabel; evicted from their home by a logging company, he believes his only recourse is to find a son-in-law to provide for him. Mabel bears the humility of the search with stoicism, the same tight-lipped resignation with which she meets her eventual husband’s nightly attentions. This buttoned-up quality is at odds with her father’s shameless flaunting of her availability – trying to make her look pretty, he braids flowers into her hair – and his eventual escape from the nursing home his son-in-law has indeed paid for. The man who believed his salvation would be found within the social convention of marriage chooses to end his days in the shadow of the pine trees among which he lived, imbuing the story with a sense of wildness that makes it seem quite different on second reading.

Another story that definitely bears multiple readings is ‘A Perfect Cemetery’, which rightly gives the collection its name. In this warped tale about faith, love, ambition and fear of death, celebrated cemetery architect Víctor Bagiardelli is invited by the mayor of a small town to design and construct a graveyard. The mayor is fed up of the townspeople driving to a rival municipality to bury their dead, but pride is not his only motive – his 104-year-old father has been on his way out for twenty years, and the mayor’s fervent wish for his death is to be somehow compensated by his building him a grand final resting place. The old man’s firm refusal to die is a twinkle in the eye of this story, in which the characters are automatically mistrustful of one another and worldly success is measured by where your burial plot is located. Despite finding it hard to actively like any of the characters, Falco draws them in such a way that I couldn’t help but feel flashes of sympathy for their thwarted hopes or twisted dreams. An air of faint resignation hangs over the story, counterbalanced by the same thread of dark humour that runs through the rest of the collection.

There is no doubt that Falco is incredibly gifted when it comes to observing people, yet some of the most striking passages in A Perfect Cemetery are those detailing the natural world – and, more particularly, the way people live with and move through it. Certain motifs crop up again and again: trees, hillsides, flowers (sometimes wild, but mainly cultivated in greenhouses and gardens), and the line of the horizon. This last has a special symbolism as a marker of ‘the infinite, where your eyes get lost and everything seems to end – but doesn’t’, a symbolism displayed perhaps most clearly in ‘A Perfect Cemetery’. As Víctor walks across the ground that will become his masterwork, ‘the horizon was a clean line that got away up ahead of him at every step, a line desired, impossible to reach’. As the boundary of any landscape, the horizon is with us all day long, yet though it could be said to hold in the world, Falco manages to twist it to signify instead his characters’ outsider status. Though they all are clearly of the places they live in, they seem in a strange way to be floating separate to them, tethered just above the events of their own lives.

Nowhere is this feeling stronger than in the collection’s opening story, ‘The Hares’, a surrealist fable about a man living in a forest some distance from a town. The self-styled ‘King of the Hares’ occasionally eats his subjects, but his admittance of a woman to his forest threatens to upend the relatively peaceful existence he seems to have carved out for himself. Something about the dark fairy-tale elements of this story snagged emotionally; the forest, the cave and the king proved hauntingly vivid.

Right from this introductory story, in dialogue and descriptive prose, Jennifer Croft’s translation is marked by a definite voice, one that seems both probing and faintly philosophical, as though it wants to nudge readers towards a realisation hovering on the edge of our consciousness. There is to these stories ‘another sort of beauty altogether’, not of the classic kind but one that is all the more arresting. In Croft’s rendering, Falco’s prose is taut and limpid, every word in its right place. His settings and characters become both timeless and specific, filled with a hazy, dreamlike quality that put me very much in mind of the eerie clarity preceding a storm that is so beautifully captured in Selva Almada’s The Wind That Lays Waste, another Charco Press title translated by Chris Andrews.

Sparingly written yet conveying a wealth of feeling and insights into how we cope as humans, A Perfect Cemetery is a remarkable feat of storytelling. Federico Falco is rightly celebrated across the Spanish-speaking world, and Charco Press has once again done us a great service in bringing his work into English. In Jennifer Croft’s sensitive translation, these stories are profoundly amusing, subtle and illuminating.

A Perfect Cemetery by Federico Falco, translated by Jennifer Croft, is published by Charco Press in digital and paperback on 6 April 2021. Many thanks to the publisher for so kindly providing a review copy.

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