[Photo: Mucuchíes, Mérida by Enrique Vila-Matas]
Mujeres recién bañadas (Caracas: Mondadori, 2009), the second book of short stories by Carlos Ávila (Caracas, 1980), begins and concludes with people who leave Caracas (temporarily) and travel to Mérida, finding themselves transformed in some way by the mountainous landscape, its stories and legends, and by semi-mysterious (drugged? dreamed?) occurrences in the Andes.
Some of the characters in these ten short stories are readers, and the protagonist of the stories is a young man, sometimes identified as Carlos. So, there is a sense of autobiography here but in a stylized manner. And this self-referential aspect doesn’t intrude because Ávila enthralls us with how his characters pass through such vivid landscapes and distorted situations, sometimes as though they were invisible, or merely reading.
In the final story of the book, “Desde el monte” [From the Hills], two college students board a bus in Caracas that takes them to the city of Mérida, in the Venezuelan Andes, during a vacation from classes. The narrator delineates an offhand allegiance that reflects on the book we’re about to finish. There is the attention to realist accuracy (the reference to Enrique Vila-Matas visiting Caracas in 2001 to receive the Premio Rómulo Gallegos), an awareness of literature as an inheritance as well as detective work, and Ávila’s skilled architecture of signs and textures (for instance, the layering of stories being told about others telling stories, as if ad infinitum, the edges between telling stories, reading and traveling dissolve) that resonate throughout the book.
“A little more than two years ago I heard Enrique Vila-Matas say that one of his favorite writers was Kafka, and that likewise Kafka’s favorite writers are also his own favorite writers. A foreign reflection, that one, which makes me think the same thing could be happening to me with Vila-Matas himself: if I hear about the name of some writer I don’t know, or that I know very little about, and that Vila-Matas admires him, I immediately become his follower as well.” (114-115)
A few days later, having abandoned his annoying acquaintance from school, the narrator runs into some friends in Mérida who take him up into the rural Páramo region of valleys above the city. They take a bus and then hike to a small cabin with no running water, where they eat some of the region’s powerful mushrooms and where the narrator is able to finally lose some of the edge of sadness and tension he’s brought with him from Caracas.
But these stories never seem to fully resolve themselves, the protagonist of “Desde el monte” is only changed slightly, or his change is subdued. We notice this, for instance, when he hears about a man who may or may not have once lived in the cabin where they stay for the night, in a story a man who now rents the cabin from his friend tells him. He continues to read the world around him as a series of tales that feed into each other:
“Malaquías discovers the mushrooms from the time he’s a boy. When he spends days without coming down the mountain it’s because he has swallowed and he remains dazzled in the back of the house. He can spend hours there breathing with the trees: feeling how his chest opens up into four parts each time he takes in air, and how it closes into four more each time he lets it out. He enjoys watching the sky. He tells me the moon enters him through his forehead and, like a glass hit by light, he manages to see a whole bunch of colors that come out of his head. According to him, he can sometimes distinguish the color of what’s on his mind.” (125)
The title of the book [Freshly Showered Women] is evoked as a series of beautiful images at unexpected and undramatic moments in several stories, during encounters with lovers that we never end up knowing too well. In “Desde el monte,” Ávila identifies this beautiful vision of a moment that ends too soon with an energy glimpsed in the mountains:
“Mérida just beyond the roads. Surrounded by green, by brown and mountain. Way up, where the red-cheeked Chinese live: the sons of muleskinners and frailejón flowers, the grandsons of the Comala fire. Up there on the peak where parsimony and restraint grow. Far from the city noise. In that place, on the very crest of the world’s cathedral, rests Mérida: humid and still, fresh, like recently rained on trees, like a woman just stepping out of the shower, with her hair and crotch wet: smelling of God; of plants.” (129-130)
One of the stories from Mujeres recién bañadas can be read (in Spanish) at ReLectura: “Vaquero dice:” Ávila’s first book is the short story collection Desde el caleidoscopio de Dios (Caracas: Editorial Equinoccio, 2007). Both books are wonderfully written, sharp and funny, in memory of reading.