Rodrigo Fuentes’ Trout, Belly Up is an extraordinary collection of tales that weave together to create a dark picture of contemporary rural Guatemala. The stories coalesce around Don Henrik, a kind but unlucky landowner of Scandinavian descent, whose abortive agricultural projects include trout, cardamom and melon farming. We hear from family members and employees how his attempts are thwarted by accident, strike action, inherited debt, even violent crime and extortion. Henrik and his brother Mati, who struggles with alcoholism and drug addiction, strive to do their best for other people while trying to keep their own heads above water.

‘Out of the Blue, Perla’ is my favourite story in the collection and I think it epitomises many of the volume’s strengths. What might sound in summary like a gimmicky premise for a tale – a cow who wants to be a dog – turns out to be a unique, sophisticated lens through which to examine an important period of rural upheaval in Guatemala. The country is the world’s fourth largest exporter of sugarcane, but the industry has a history of serious violations of workers’ rights, including the violent repression of union leaders and sexual violence against female workers.

In the extract published here we learn that Perla is beloved both of her owners and the local sugarcane cutters, and that she ends up siding with the workers in their ongoing dispute with the mill owners. Later she comes face to face with a group of hired gunmen who have murdered some key union leaders and who are continuing to intimidate those participating in the strike. As Thomas Blake puts it in his insightful and generous review of the book:

The cow, Perla, takes on more human (and even divine) characteristics as the story progresses – she ‘dances’ on two legs, her gaze is knowing and coquettish, she shines ‘like a saint at Easter.’ As Perla grows more civilised and anthropomorphised, the criminals become increasingly bestial, finally committing an act of such transgressive barbarity that they effectively swap places with Perla in a kind of double-edged moral transmutation.

In this story, Fuentes has the lightest of touches, balancing moments of whimsy and humour against a dark historical reality before delivering a devastating finale. For me, despite being a cow, Perla is one of the most enchanting, memorable characters in the collection – certainly the most compelling female character in a fictional world populated mainly by men and often stained with macho aggression. Her violation will oblige readers to recall the collection’s title story, ‘Trout, Belly Up’, which includes a disturbing sex scene that teeters on the edge of violence. In both these stories Fuentes uses animals ­– dogs, cows, fish – to explore the toxic relationships humans maintain with one another and with the natural world.

‘Out of the Blue, Perla’ also presented some of the most interesting translation challenges. In the original story, titled ‘De repente, Perla’, the dog is called Derrepente – a contraction and altered spelling of the phrase in the title. The most obvious translation of the title would be ‘Suddenly, Perla’, but for a number of reasons ‘Suddenly’ doesn’t quite work in English as a name for the dog. Being a single word rather than a phrase, there’s no obvious way of estranging it – by altering the spelling, for instance – to make sure it isn’t read as an adverb. A sentence beginning ‘Suddenly would throw himself down next to her…’ is confusing because we think ‘Suddenly’ describes the unexpectedness of the throwing down, and so we are stumped when the subject of the sentence then appears to be missing.

The hardest aspect of Fuentes’s style to translate was his use of colloquial language. Translating idioms and slang is notoriously difficult, and the voices in Trout, Belly Up proved to be one of its greatest challenges.”

So I played around with alternative versions. I worked with ‘Out of Nowhere, Perla’ for a while, calling the dog ‘Outtanowhere’. This gave me sentences like ‘Outtanowhere would throw himself down next to her…’, which works much better because it makes it clear that ‘Outtanowhere’ doesn’t have an adverbial function. But as I was reading the story aloud to a group of fellow translators, it started to sound laboured and lumbering. In the end it was a more resourceful friend who pointed out that I could title the story ‘Out of the Blue, Perla’, and simply call the dog ‘Blue’. This is a bit of a departure from the original, to be sure, but ‘Blue’ is a plausible dog’s name, and besides, it creates an interesting parallel with the title story, ‘Trout, Belly Up’, in which the protagonist has a dog called ‘Baloo’. All the stories in the collection are loosely, distantly linked, and this almost-doubling of the animal’s name is an extra way of making readers pay attention to the possible connections between this story and others.

Elsewhere in the volume, I think the hardest aspect of Fuentes’s style to translate was his use of colloquial language. Translating idioms and slang is notoriously difficult, and the voices in Trout, Belly Up proved to be one of its greatest challenges. The first story in the collection begins, like many of the others, in the middle of a conversation: “That family stuff’s complicated, I told Don Henrik.” The narrative voice here and elsewhere is relaxed and familiar in its response to a question we haven’t heard. This is common throughout the volume; ‘Dive’ and ‘Ubaldo’s Island’ in particular have narrative voices that bounce anecdotes off silent confidantes, so the tone is always casual and sometimes intimate, too. I needed to find a conversational rhythm and an informal vocabulary that would sound natural in English. One way of achieving the former was to omit a lot of pronouns at the beginnings of sentences, and to rely on comma splices – where independent clauses aren’t connected properly with conjunctions like ‘and’ – which writing in English doesn’t usually tolerate much. For example, the character called Ubaldo describes some precautions he takes after being intimidated:

Didn’t let my wife and kids sleep at my place any more either, sent them away because I didn’t want them around with all this going on.

These strategies help to approximate spoken dialogue, and make sure the register of the prose doesn’t become too formal, even if I’m forced to make vocabulary choices that are less slangy than they are in the Spanish.

‘Ubaldo’s Island’ is some ways the most hopeful but in other ways the most frightening story in the collection. Ubaldo is a long-term, loyal employee of Henrik, and in this story he tells Andrés, Henrik’s stepson, about their most recent travails. Henrik’s father committed suicide, leaving behind a failing cardamom farm and a string of debts. A group of angry gunmen begin to harrass Henrik and Ubaldo, determined to recoup the money they are owed. Ubaldo describes how a community comes together to defend themselves from the gunmen – but at a frightening cost. Although it’s not clear exactly when the story is set, it is here that we get the clearest view of the violence that has plagued Guatemala for many decades. An estimated 200,000 Guatemalans were killed during the thirty-five-year-long civil war, and since its end in 1993 the extent to which the US-backed military government was involved in acts of genocide has begun to be revealed. ‘Ubaldo’s Island’ suggests the extent to which violence has been normalised in communities such as the one depicted:

The locals buried him right there, dug a hole somewhere in the mangroves and chucked the body in. God only knows how many bodies there are in those mangroves.

The stories in Trout, Belly Up all deal in some way with conflict – over women, over land, over working conditions, over one’s own body. It is telling that the collection ends with an act of violence, but that readers remain unsure against whom it is perpetrated, and what the precise motivations for it might be. Fuentes is master of a cliffhanger, building his stories, and the collection as a whole, to a powerful climax that leaves us anxious to learn what he will publish next.

 

Rodrigo Fuentes (born 1984) is one of the most prominent names among the new generation of Guatemalan writers. He won the Carátula Central American Short Story Prize in 2014 as well as the Juegos Florales of Quetzaltenango Short Story Prize (2008). He is the co-founder and editor of the magazine Suelta and of the digital publishing house and literary journal TraviesaTrout, Belly Up was shortlisted for the 2018 Premio Hispanoamericano de Cuento Gabriel García Márquez, the most prestigious prize awarded to short-story writers in Latin America. It has been published in Guatemala, Bolivia, Chile and Colombia, as well as in France. Rodrigo currently lectures at the College of the Holy Cross in the United States, and lives between Providence and Guatemala. Trout, Belly Up, his first book to appear in English, is published in paperback by Charco Press, translated by Ellen Jones.
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Ellen Jones is a researcher and translator based in London. She has a PhD from Queen Mary University of London and writes about multilingualism and translation in contemporary Latin American literature. Her reviews have appeared in publications including the Times Literary Supplement and The Los Angeles Review of Books, and her translations in publications including the Guardian and Latin American Literature Today. She has been Criticism Editor at Asymptote since 2014.
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Read an extract from ‘Out of the Blue, Perla’

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