Monday, April 27, 2009

New Islands Discovered!

[posted by Chris Clarke]

Thought I'd pass along a new discovery (new to me, at least) for those that enjoy Latin American fiction with a touch of magical realism, along the lines of Borges, Casares, Ocampo and other faves. A copy of Maria Luisa Bombal's "New Islands and Other Stories" (Cornell University Press, 1988) wandered across the counter and caught my eye. A big fan of the short fiction of Argentine Silvina Ocampo, I had vague hopes that this might be similar in feel; the 'Preface by Jorge Luis Borges' notice led me in that direction. While quite different thematically, Bombal did not disappoint. In fact, it was a pleasure to read and, as with Ocampo, I am now in the frustrating position of finding that there is little if any more available in English translation.

Bombal, born in 1910 in Chile, studied in London and Paris, and, returned to Chile, married Elogio Sanchez. The marriage wasn't ideal; in fact, Maria shot him (apparently) and fled to Argentina (he survived...), where she met Borges, Neruda and others. She lived in the US for about thirty years with a later husband, and also returned to Chile later in life.

Bombal is known in her brief output for narrative experimentation and complex poetic imagery. The lightly surrealistic feel of her stories is well suited to the inner worlds of the female characters she inhabits. Occasionally, unusual or ambiguous details are mentioned in passing without explanation; they hover in the back of the mind while reading, but never resurface. This soft touch of magical realism is a pleasure, reminding a bit of some of Marquez' work, or again Ocampo's, yet it remains contained within the private, proto-feminist, nature-connected worlds she creates. I was particularly taken with the title story, in which the characterization and interaction takes place over the backdrop of unexplained islands emerging from the depths of a nearby lake.

According to the Latin American Fiction in Translation bibliography that we often refer to, compiled by Joao Barretto in 2004, there are three titles available in English by Bombal, "House of Mist", "New Islands", and "The Shrouded Woman", although it seems to me that these three collections overlap, each containing some of the same two novellas and short stories. The copy of "New Islands" I have doesn't contain 'The Shrouded Woman", but has the story "The Final Mist" as well as four others. Whether these other volumes contain different versions of the same stories, of which I have seen mention, or simply a few stories not available in this volume, there is unfortunately little of her small output available at this time.

As for availability, I haven't seen too many of these floating around used, but it seems that there are three editions currently in print that we could try to order for anyone interested in trying some out: "New Islands" is available in an edition from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, who have also done an edition of "House of Mist", while the University of Texas Press published an edition of "House of Mist - The Shrouded Woman" as a part of their Texas Pan American series.