“History Repeats and Stories Become Complete”: Fabulations, minimalist short stories by José de Piérola, reviewed by Mark Crimmins

José de Pierola’s Fabulations is an impressive and deeply stimulating collection, one that explores a diapason of forms and modes as it slyly reinterprets the implications of its title. Fabulism, late in the second decade of the twenty-first century, is one of the favored modes of a new generation of writers who have moved on from earlier modes associated with magic realism, boldly exploring new methods of storytelling and narrative construction. This collection is, above all, highly original and eclectic. Its variety of narrative exercises is impressive and always provocative, and the writing itself is meticulous and economical, each sentence and story marked by a beautiful precision that authoritatively establishes the author’s mastery of English prose.

A favored technique—one used in two of the stories—employs interlaced historical narratives, respectively two- and four-hundred years apart, to skillfully intertwine events widely historically dispersed, highlighting quite different variations on the theme of historical irony. “Four Hundred Years” suggests the idea that obscure historical recesses hold the key to our inability to establish the authenticity of works of art. “Two Hundred Years” reminds us that history repeats: two centuries apart, in the same restaurant, two very different assassins find their mark and, before the execution, ask their victims a question that ends up being rhetorical. These two tales establish history as a theme, a subject for narrative reflection, but others in the collection also amount to meditations on history. In the Protagorean “The Measure of All Things,” history is mythic and originary but of course ultimately very human. “First War” adumbrates a more Orwellian—though not politicized—notion of history as “a boot stamping on a human face forever”: one prehistoric tribe blithely annihilates the last remaining member of a rival tribe. Both of these stories employ a fascinating and innovative form of enumeration, dividing the narratives into quasi-scriptural short, numbered verses, suggesting parodically Biblical writing. The device is effective, even incantatory, its verse-like increments evoking mnemonic aids to oral recitation, the oracular establishment of legends.

Enumeration also manifests in other micronarratives in the collection, each time in a new and striking way. Four of the narratives are divided into more traditional numbered sections. “Would I still Be Me?” delineates five stages of a girl’s life spaced at seven-year intervals or multiples of them. In the first, the girl’s father tells her in a coffee shop when she is seven that all the molecules in her body are replaced every seven years. She wonders if she would still, then, be the same person after this total molecular transformation. Here, the mystery of the continuity of personality is a kind of answer: forty-two years later, the older woman returns to the same coffee shop with her now aged father. In between, she has become, by seven-year turns, different things: a schoolgirl hearing about the ship of Theseus, every beam and board of which was replaced over a period of seven years (representing, perhaps, the historical enigma of the persistence of form in a mutable world); a twenty-one-year-old journalist struck by the irony of Stalin building two identical palaces close together to thwart assassins (sounding a Borgesian note of duality and doubling); and a twenty-eight-year-old likewise intrigued by the story of the piecemeal refurbishment of the Tiananmen gate in Beijing, a replica eventually replacing the original. With the recursive move of bringing the girl back to the point where the theme was first established for her, José de Pierola again sounds a thematic bell: history is repetition, is return, a cyclic and mysteriously recursive phenomenon the story itself mimics. In “High Table,” three chunks of text take us through the desire of a protagonist to reach an institution’s privileged ‘high table’ and thus to engage in the vanity of social self-congratulation, which he does, even though the high table he sought is now a fallen version of the one to which he first aspired. “So it Goes,” evoking as it must the mantra of Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, explores, in five numbered sections, the mysterious theme of historical coincidence: a girl’s iPod stops a stray bullet from killing her, The Collected Poems of Robert Frost saves an imprisoned poet from being stabbed to death, and a man’s Bible serves the function of a bulletproof vest. In the story’s later sections, these events are turned into a poem by one victim and theorized into a doctoral dissertation on doubled-voicedness by another. The story’s historical anomalies are ingeniously interwoven and thematized. The fourth non-scripturally enumerated story, “Behind this Plot,” with nine numbered sections, recounts what appear to be a series of purely historical anecdotes, alternating between the history of chess and the history of artificial intelligence, both histories rising, double-helix fashion, to the climax of Kasparov’s historic matches with IBM’s Deep Thought computer. The title and the tales-within-the-tale suggest the story behind the story: behind the rise of intelligent machines is always the rise of their very human makers. In the author’s implied judgment, the competition between man and machine always favors the human operators and inventors over their mechanical and binary creations.

These eight stories establish, however, only one of the book’s modes of narration, all of them suggesting the idea that to construct a story arbitrarily is to divide, to select, to arrange. That history is an orderly sequential process, established by dates and delineated by logical sequences, is also heavily ironized into a reflection of history as arbitrary, chaotic, a movement containing strange recursive features which are themselves imposed on the chaos of experience: history has meaning as we impose form and order upon it. It is what we make of it and are determined to make of it, and yet it ultimately transcends our ability, with language or number, to rightly divide it into sections or, with logical division, to render it comprehensible by imposing upon it a satisfying pattern.

Other stories in the collection explore the idea of fable in the more traditional Aesopian sense as little tales with clearly discernable ‘morals’ or teachings. In “The Man of Means,” a plutocrat in a penthouse, Siddhartha-like, becomes troubled by the sufferings of children and strives to alleviate them. His efforts only result in the afflicted children then being able to grow into toothless, derelict adults, suggesting the vanity of our attempts to change the world. In “The Ghost in the Clock,” a faulty alarm clock favored by the Pope ironically sounds his death knell after the pontiff passes away: the first bell to toll for the dead Pope is an arbitrarily ironic one—ask not for whom it tolls! In “Duel,” a suicidal man struggles with himself and his preconception that the sky will shatter when he pulls the trigger on his life, as he sinks unpoetically into the dust from his self-inflicted wound. In “Illuminations,” a man who develops a hallucinatory visual disorder that results in him seeing strange coronas of light is not enlightened by his changing world but keeps the advance of his debilitating disorder a furtive secret, even as others remark the change in him. The last story, “The Man Who Knew About Trees,” is the fable of a man who understands trees and whose wisdom on the subject is widely sought. His disciples, he discovers after a seven-year absence, have, however, taken his teachings in an unintentionally destructive direction, destroying trees in an attempt to make them perfect.

Three other stories witness the author exploring different narrative modes. In “Blue Smoke,” the narrator of a dystopian future more like Zamyatin’s than Huxley’s (though perhaps most resembling Bradbury’s, with its focus on books and their destruction or preservation) writes his resignation letter from a reductive committee that will decide which tiny number of books should be preserved for future generations. “Fallbrook” is a story that deals lyrically with grief and its recurrence, how traumatic losses in our past remain with us and haunt us, even as we continue with our lives. “Yearning” depicts the trauma of love lost in a different way, representing how we struggle to come to terms with lovers who no longer want to share their lives with us, one of several tales that transpire in historically specific Peruvian cityscapes.

Overall, this is a highly stimulating collection of stories and microfictions. Though the author mentions Borges briefly and alludes to Roland Barthes, for this reviewer the maestro of whose work this collection is most redolent is Calvino: a great and playful imagination conceptualizes the tales, but the executions, word by word, reveal a craftsmanship of jewelled precision. A final attractive feature is the material object of the book itself, with its handsome cover, beautiful illustrations, and pleasing typeface. Others will have to criticize Fabulations and its author: this reviewer only admires, and highly recommends.

Fabulations, by José de Piérola. KERNPUNKT Press, October 2018. 121 pages. $14.99, paper.

Mark Crimmins has published stories in Confrontation, Prick of the Spindle, Eclectica, Cha, Cortland Review, and Tampa Review. He teaches in the Department of Humanities at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shenzhen.

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