Short Story Advent Calendar, Days 2 & 3: Enrique Vila-Matas and Anthony Doerr

The second and third entries in the 2019 Short Story Advent Calendar are perfect examples of the range editor Michael Hingston displays in determining the mix of style and subject matter.

The Day 2 story is “Torre del Mirador,” by the great Spanish author Enrique Vila-Matas and translated by Margaret Jull Costa, arguably the best translator of Spanish and Latin American writers working today. Vila-Matas’s story is a strange, vaguely surreal tale about a man who receives a bizarre phone call from a stranger in the middle of the night. The caller informs the man that he is suffering from debilitating loneliness since his wife left him, and that he selected the man’s name at random from the phone book.

Anonymity is a feature of Vila-Matas’s narrative: the caller is an ophthalmologist who passes himself off as a plastic surgeon and claims to have had extensive facial reconstruction. Over the course of their conversation, he tells the man that his only possessions amount to a pair of binoculars and an oversized mirror.

The metaphor of seeing is obvious, as is the implication when the caller informs the man he has smashed his mirror. “I no longer exist,” he says. “All that’s left are various fragments of glass that reflect me in a broken, uncertain fashion.”

Indeed, the only two characters who are actually named in the story are Lola and Leo, who are selling the eponymous house after the doctor, who appears to be Lola’s husband, vanishes. The narrator and his cousin, who goes by the nickname Cool, track the mysterious ophthalmologist to the location and are told that he may have fled to Timbuktu. Leo suggests that the ophthalmologist may be the author of a pseudonymous newspaper column and Lola informs the narrator that if he wants to buy the villa, he should be aware that it comes complete with her husband’s ghost.

Clearly, “Torre del Mirador” is not a work of naturalism: it contains numerous fantastical elements and an aspect that could best be described as uncanny. The symbolism of shifting identities is manifest in the caller’s surgery to change his face, supposedly to make himself less ugly and therefore more appealing to his wife. There is also a metafictional element to Vila-Matas’s text in the moment the narrator expresses doubts that all stories need to have endings. The conclusion to this story is – unsurprisingly – contingent, strange, and anti-realist.

There is a dreamlike quality to “Torre del Mirador” – appropriate for the narrator, who claims to be an “interpreter of dreams,” and contrasting with cousin Cool, who is described as lacking imagination. The patterns of imagery, including multiple variations on eyes and seeing, along with the uncertain nature of identity lend the story a weirdness that is simultaneously intriguing and original.

By contrast, Anthony Doerr’s “Save-A-Lot” is a work of mimetic realism addressing loneliness – a theme it shares with “Torre del Mirador” – and various kinds of pain, all in the context of the ongoing opioid crisis in the U.S.

The title refers to the name of a discount store in Bangor, Maine, where the story is set. It is also the name given to a baby raccoon that is rescued by Hanako after the animal’s mother is killed on the road in front of the eponymous retailer. Hanako is the daughter of a single mother named Bunny, who works as a nurse at a local geriatric facility. When Bunny injures herself at work, she is prescribed morphine for the pain, which results in an addiction to opioids, increasingly risky behaviour during successive attempts to score drugs, the loss of her job, and the potential loss of her daughter.

Bunny and Hanako’s stories are counterpointed by that of Alfred, an older man who is Bunny’s landlord. Alfred’s wife has died in a car accident and he finds renewed meaning in taking care of little Hanako and her newly adopted pet.

Doerr’s story is less ambitious on a technical level than Vila-Matas’s and does contain some sloppy writing: “In the light of the dome light she can find no money in her purse, no pills, no fentanyl. The streets are silent. Few lights burn.” The repetition of “light” three times over the course of as many sentences is lazy and jarring. And there are moments in which the story descends into undeniable sentimentality: after Alfred and Bunny track the missing Hanako down to a house that doubles as an animal rehabilitation centre, the owner of the house informs them, “You wouldn’t believe … how many creatures out there need saving.”

However, Doerr displays a boldness in taking on the drug crisis directly, something that few writers have attempted in the past few years (one thinks of Nico Walker’s novel, Cherry, and Don Winslow’s border trilogy among a handful of other examples). The approach to addiction in the story contains a great deal of empathy and understanding regarding the way the downward spiral of drug use operates: “First you take the drugs to feel better. After a while, you take the drugs so you don’t feel worse.”

Moreover, a bit of heavy-handed emotional manipulation notwithstanding, the story focuses on the benefits of human kindness in a cruel and often dangerous world. What could be more appropriate at the holidays than that?

Short Story Advent Calendar, Days 2 & 3: Enrique Vila-Matas and Anthony Doerr