Battles in the Desert & Other Stories is a short story collection, and one of the many Latin American books that I’ve had to read for university this year. This one is slightly different in that there’s no magical realism in sight. Is this a good or a bad thing? I would say a little bit of column A and a little bit of column B.
So, let’s start with the good. The lack of magical realism gives this a grittier, more realistic edge which can be sorely lacking in novels with magical realism (anyone who has seen the film version of Like Water For Chocolate will know exactly what I mean). Instead, the stories in this collection include more references to everyday life and the culture of Mexico.
The problem with the lack of magical realism is probably the reason why magical realism is so often used: magical realism is memorable. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s work may not be my cup of tea, but I certainly remember the girl who was whisked up to heaven along with her aunt’s washing in One Hundred Years of Solitude; the film of Like Water For Chocolate may be very silly with its’ unusually flammable/combustible surroundings, but you don’t forget it. So if you’re going to write something that deliberately avoids a narrative technique as eye-catching as this one, the everyday occurrences have got to be written in an engaging and sympathetic way. In this case, that was something Pacheco did not achieve. Don’t get me wrong, the stories aren’t badly written, I just can’t really remember them. Considering that this is only the day after I finished reading this and it isn’t a long book, that’s really rather damning in my eyes. I think another problem that makes these stories generally unmemorable is that they all seem to be very similar to one another: they are all narrated from the points of view of pubescent or young adolescent boys, many of them concern love or at least the immature view of love that the narrators have of it and there seems to be a running criticism of Mexican politics and the gap between rich and poor throughout. The last point is a particularly annoying one for me, as I can see so much potential in it: personally, I would have loved to read stories about Mexican or Latin American politics in their literature, but these stories just seem to have tacked on the political message in the background so that it doesn’t actually interfere with the plots; either make a really strong point about the politics of the day or cut out the political stuff entirely, don’t just let it linger awkwardly in the background.
To be honest, this is one of those reviews where I can’t really say much about it simply because it didn’t leave enough of an impression. Not bad writing, but not particularly memorable either. 2.5/5
Next review: Delirium by Laura Restrepo.