Guillermo Martinez short story, Vast Hell, appears in the current (April 27th) issue of the New Yorker. It takes place in a small town by the name of Puente Viejo; which means “small bridge’ in Spanish.
The first person narrator, clerking in a grocery store, is having a day so slow that he can hear the “buzzing of the flies”. I think the whole town can hear those flies. He is thinking about a scruffy young man, a stranger, who had pitched a tent at the edge of town. He hit town in the spring…as if unkempt young men were seasonal.
The grocer refers the kid to the newer of two barbers in town, Cervino’s rather than the more remotely located Old Melchor’s. We hear a lot about the rivalry between these two hair-shredders. It’s sort of like a clash of the titans only they’re barbers. Cervino has a hairdressing diploma and uses vegetable extracts. Melchor counters with porno magazines and a T.V. tuned to soccer matches.
But Cervino, shy to the point of virtual non-existence, has his secret weapon wife, “The French Woman”. I guess that just means she’s exotic…we don’t know if she’s actually French…doesn’t matter. She has the habit of appearing in her husband’s shop with limits on the clothing she’s wearing. She checks herself out in the mirror. She looks in your eyes. Do you want to look back?
Here’s where you decide if this story’s for you or not. Have you ever had the experience of looking at someone who was so beautiful…or better…so hypnotic in their effect…that at first you wanted to be around them and then you just wanted to run away because you couldn’t take it any more?
Wow…the male ego…what a piece of work. At first the French Woman makes Cervino’s popular. You never know when she might turn up and put on a show. But she ends up driving customers away. It’s those eyes…like she’s looking down on you…making you feel you’d never be up to the job.
Our now better groomed young man and the French Woman both disappear at the same time. Crevino says his wife’s gone to the city to look after her sick father. The young man’s tent lies abandoned at the edge of town.
Readers think what they like. But what makes a story is what the characters think. And there’s a nut job of an old harridan, Espinosa’s widow, who’s busying herself digging up the dunes near her house, looking for the bodies.
GM asks a lot of our imagination. He asks you to feel your way into this town’s psychology: feel their boredom, their confusion, their oblivion…and their resulting illusions. Are they your illusions also? Ask yourself that question.
Vast Hell is translated from the Spanish by Alberto Manquel.