Red Tales (Araña Editorial, 2012, translated by Rosie Marteau with the author and Anne McLean), a collection of eight explosive short stories by the Spanish-English writer Susana Medina, takes the reader through a whirling range of styles, textures, voices, centuries and geographical places. Her writing enters physical spaces and human consciousnesses revelling in the places between experience and understanding.
One of the shortest stories in this collection, ‘The Darkened Rooms’, begins with the sentence
‘CANCELLED DUE TO LACK OF DIRECT EXPERIENCE’.
Its seemingly rambling and yet ever-so-sharp sentences paint a tragic picture of that prelapsarian time before AIDS, when men had sex ‘happily condom-less’. Our female narrator muses, Orlando-like, on what it would be like to live in a man’s body, reminding us of the fluidity and randomness of gender and its attendant experiences. Medina pretends to withhold the story from her readers and in doing so gives us more than a story. She offers up emotions, ideas and propositions with a wit and playfulness that can be seen throughout her work.
The opening story, ‘The Ironic Grey Hair’ (its title alone made me want to pick up this collection), is the tale of Lula, an academic, whose thwarted late-night attempt to get into a London fetish club while carrying an air pistol echoes the danger and exhilaration of sex itself. Will she get in, will she not? Eventually Lula ends up on the pavement, her pistol confiscated by a bouncer, nursing one friend’s injured head while her other accomplice has sex with a tranny in the back seat of a car. It is hilariously funny and surreal and yet seems to contain within its latex boundaries so much about life that is true: in our inexorable journey towards death we are confronted with the mundane truth about life, here embodied in a grey pubic hair that features in Lula’s reckless dreams. It is in essence a story about the way that life itself feels real because of its inherent fleetingness. The last lines of the story, physically disappearing from the page as they get smaller and smaller, read like an echo:
‘tomorrow’s another day. Or the day after that. Or the next day. Or the next day. Or the next. Or the next. Or the next. Or the next. Or the next…’
Lula is young enough to feel she still has time, and old enough to see the preciousness of life. She hovers between knowing about nothingness and knowing that she will eventually become part of it.
This existential nothingness is embodied in Medina’s final story, ‘The Space of the Tangible Hallucination’, in which Ella, the object of the narrator’s love, tries to erase her existence by burning her possessions and painting every surface of her house in ‘hyperbrilliant white paint’. In doing so, Ella also erases the narrator’s existence from her life. In one beautifully described scene,
‘Ella holds a tear now transformed into saliva that slides down her throat as if she were crying on the inside’.
Our skin tries to keep out what might harm or even kill us, but in these stories boundaries, be they walls or membranes, often fail. Medina’s stories are meditations on the fluidity of life.
The character in ‘The Stranger’s Maid’ fantasises about wearing
‘a full body condom when she goes out so she doesn’t catch anything because you can also catch invisible diseases’.
The porous quality of physical borders is also reflected in the mental states of Medina’s characters. Elle, the ‘dykette’ in ‘The Space of the Tangible Hallucination’, morphs into a knight whose one desire is to save the object of his/her desire. ‘I am, above all, a true gentleman,’ she proclaims.
But Medina’s power to transform characters from one state to another is not absolute. The mother of the central character from ‘The Stranger’s Maid’ states,
‘If men could have abortions, the clinics would be full. Since men can’t have abortions, they invented society and culture.’
There are limits, after all, to our ability to transcend our biology. Elle experiences another type of transformation when the object of her love begins to disgust her:
‘I suddenly detest her determination … I detest the way she combs her long red hair with her head leant to one side, her blue-tinged skin, her grey eyes, the way she holds her tea cup. I detest her sudden lows that obliterate everything and how she applies hyperbrilliant white paint to the wooden floor. I detest her skill and everything I loved about her before, I now detest.’
Love and hate, male and female, tears and saliva: everything crosses boundaries despite our best attempts to shore up distinct demarcations between states.
‘The Farewell Letter’ is probably the most poetic story in the collection. It is an epistolary meditation on love and loss and the ability to be transformed by passion. The unnamed narrator has been shattered into myriad selves like colours from a prism by a love she both desperately wants and yet simultaneously rejects. Sex and filth and death converge here when the narrator describes a one-night stand in a hotel in Mexico with a man she meets on the motorway:
‘And I think of the hundreds and hundreds of bodies that have passed through this room, the hundreds and hundreds of bodies that have passed through my own body, realising now that I’m a hotel, a hotel room complete with a bathroom where they’ve all deposited their shit, their implausible embraces, their rehearsed words, repeating my name in a bed where they’ve all left their fluids, their pubic hairs and their mange … I’m going to start charging from now on, sick of all these bodies, so many bodies dying all over me as if I were a graveyard.’
This woman must come to accept her fragmented self rather than reconcile its parts, and we last see her wandering ‘peacefully about the abysses of the tangible.’ This is pure Medina, this acceptance that life’s problems cannot be fixed but instead must be turned into intense lived or chronicled experience.
What Medina’s stories do is to examine the mess of life, its filth, its passion, its fleeting moments of beauty and pain and love and loss. She places everything before us, like the lover in her story ‘Where Butterflies Flutter Creating Chemical Turbulence’, who tells the man whose body she craves:
‘our juices on the palate, in the throat, between the gums, a kiss is a world: your sweat: I want to eat you, fuck you and leave you prostrate for days: sore, exhausted, deprived of movement: I want to bite you until it hurts. And I want to see you bleeding.’
The cannibalistic elements here are the logical end of a desire that takes one beyond lust towards consuming the other so it becomes one’s self. I am reminded of The Taste of a Man, Slavenca Drakulic’s dark tale of a man-eating woman.
These formally inventive tales add up to an unflinching and visceral collection of stories which fragment and coalesce in surprising ways: Borges as written by Poppy Z Brite and Virginia Woolf. Susana Medina’s stories have an alchemical quality, throwing together disparate elements to create tender and terrifying reminders of what it is to be human: the danger and thrill of our appetites and the limits of our reason.