Medardo Fraile, an eminent Spanish writer of short stories, was born in Madrid in 1925. Following a period of work in the theatre, he turned to short-story writing and his first collection of stories was published in Spanish in 1954. In the 1960s, he left Spain for the UK eventually settling in Scotland to teach at the University of Strathclyde. Things Look Different in the Light consists of twenty-nine of his stories taken from a range of collections first published between 1954 and 2010. This book represents the first selection of Fraile’s stories to be translated into English and what a little gem it is.
Several of Fraile’s stories focus on the everyday: small occurrences that take on a level of significance; fleeting moments with the power to resonate and live long in the memory.
In Restless Eye, we follow a married couple over the course of one Saturday night. As they walk home from the cinema, the woman seems happy yet wistful, ‘filled by a pleasant sensation, by the playful, flickering flame of a vague desire, the savour of a different world, a world of carefree amusing people.’ As the couple approach their apartment, the woman hears the footsteps of a lone man following close behind. While her husband unlocks the door, she grasps the grille of the street door and looks out towards the pavement. It is as if she is transfixed by the sight of this stranger. He seems to represent a sense of freedom, excitement, perhaps even danger…something different to life with her husband:
The man following behind passed at precisely that moment. He was a dark, stocky young man, who, oblivious to her presence, glanced casually in through the door. She was standing motionless behind the grille, nonchalant, apparently distracted, a glint of boldness and fear in her restless eyes, following the man as he passed, following the wake left behind by his slow, deliberate swaying walk, by the sound of his sudden rasping cough. She felt the cold iron beneath her hand and saw the closed door. There was Saturday striding off down the street. She realized that her husband was holding the glass-panelled door open for her to pass… (pg 105)
Fraile manages to convey a range of moods through his stories. Several are sad or melancholy in tone. In other stories the mood shifts from one moment to the next; what starts as a happy occasion turns into an uncomfortable one. In Berta’s Presence, the opening story in this collection, a young man, Jacobo, is visiting friends as they celebrate their baby’s first birthday. The baby likes Jacobo, and she gurgles away as he produces a box of sweets from his pocket. But the situation changes when a young woman named Berta joins the gathering. Berta is imaginative and assured – she knows how to talk to children. Her mere presence appears to disturb Jacobo’s equilibrium; he worries that his efforts to amuse the baby will seem stilted and pointless by comparison.
In the title story from the collection, a painter is working underground on a sign for a metro station. Despite a lack of help from his surly boss, the man takes pride in his work, and he leaves the tunnel believing he has done a good job. His emergence into the sunlight signals a change in mood – his anger and frustration with the foreman are replaced by a more cheerful aura. But there’s a twist in this tale; things really do look different in the light, but to say any more would only spoil this simple yet memorable story.
Given the title of this collection, it is perhaps not surprising that a number of these stories feature light, or more specifically, the ability of light to enliven or to enhance a particular mood. In Child’s Play, one of my favourites in the collection, two elderly sisters combat the darkening of their world by dialling up the light in their sitting room. As the sisters grow old, their desire for light increases; they need a little more each day to erase the years, to recapture the shine in their hair and the sparkle in their eyes. They continue to add more pendants and bulbs to their crystal chandelier. As the installation grows, the furniture has to be reduced in size to make room for the fittings. The chandelier seems to have assumed a life of its own:
So vast and intricate was the crystal chandelier that its arms touched the four walls of the room and nearly reached the floor, stopping only half a metre away. In the evening, it was a veritable forest of glinting crystals, a bag of light, a labyrinth, a hanging city. It had to be secured to the ceiling by five chains when it reached its prime, its peak, when Flora and Martita were old, too old, and sat beneath the chandelier like two transparent raisins filled with light. (pgs. 51-52)
Full Stop (another favourite) is one of the most poignant stories in the collection. This tale features a teacher who sets his class a dictation exercise based on a passage from one of his own letters. One student is asked to note the text on the classroom blackboard while the others must write the passage in their exercise books. Once the exercise is complete, the pupils seem eager to clear the board – they are in a rush to move on to the next thing. As he watches his words disappear from the blackboard, the teacher becomes aware of the transient, impermanent nature of life itself. It’s almost as if his own life has been erased:
He was left alone, putting on his gloves. He thought: “They didn’t even erase me slowly.” He was looking at the black rectangular board, like a precise, deep, dark hole. The now silent blackboard. He had been written on that board and now he had been erased. And with such rancour, such haste! His heart, he sensed, was clouding over. “How many others like me,” he thought, “lie behind that board, forgotten, lost, erased for ever, just like that?” (pg. 137)
Fraile grew up in Madrid and lived through the siege of the city during the Spanish Civil War. This experience appears to have seeped into An Episode from National History, one of the most powerful stories in the collection. Set in Madrid, it features a young boy of twelve and his school friend, Plácido. One day in 1938, Plácido and his mother call at the boy’s apartment in search of refuge. The boy is out at the time, and his stepmother and aunt turn Plácido and his mother away. It’s a poignant story tinged with sadness and regret; I wondered if it was semi-autobiographical or inspired by someone known to Fraile at the time.
It’s not all heartache and sorrow though; some of these stories are playful or humorous in tone. This passage from What’s Going On in That Head of Yours?, for instance, offers a glimpse of Fraile’s talent for wry humour. (The narrator is describing his time at University):
It was a curious world full of very pompous people, whom one gradually got used to. The girls weren’t like that. They were ordinary and pretty and often burst into tears. Generally speaking, the girls led a life of leisure in the afternoons, quite different from ours. We gave ourselves over to scepticism, getting chilled to the bone and talking. Many of us spent the afternoons recovering from colds. Everyone hated the textbooks. (pg. 28)
Things Look Different in the Light is an excellent collection, one of the best I’ve read for a while. Fraile’s stories are subtle, nuanced and beautifully observed. I love how they highlight situations or moods that turn on the tiniest of moments. Fraile’s focus is in the minutiae of everyday life, but these are no ordinary stories – they sparkle, refracting the light like the crystal chandelier in Child’s Play.
Things Look Different in the Light (tr. by Margaret Jull Costa) comes with an excellent foreword by Ali Smith.
Published by Pushkin Press. Source: personal copy. Book 13/20 in my #TBR20.