Fernando Sorrentino (1942-Buenos Aires) is a well known Argentine writer of short stories and children's books. He has six collections of short stories published in Argentina and his works have been translated into numerous languages. I must admit last week I had never heard of him. I am getting into reading short stories after a lifetime avoidance of them (I like to sort of escape into the world of the books I read and short stories up until recently just sort of left me hanging). Most of my reading of short stories is of works that are on line. There are 1000s of short stories on line that you can read for free. A lot of them are older stories in the public domain but there are some very good web pages that feature stories by known contemporary writers. One web page I discovered recently Short Stories at East of the Web has a lot of contemporary and classic short stories on line. One of the features I like on the web page is that every day they spotlight a new story. Yesterday it was "The Spirit of Emulation" by Fernando Sorrenttino. I decided to read it and I am glad I did.
To be an Argentine short story writer is to be in the shadow of Jorge Borges (1899 to 1986). You are either a disciple or in rebellion against him. This is just a fact of literary live life. Fernando Sorrentino seems firmly a follower, at least in this story. Borges wrote many stories in a seemingly realistic mode which ask us to accept an absurd premise or the acceptance of the bending of the rules of common sense or science. Many are broadly satirical of the faults and vanities of mankind.
"The Spirit of Emulation" is narrated in the first person by a man living in a modern high rise apartment in a comfortable part of Buenes Aires. The residents of the apartment complex are all into competing with each other and striving to at least emulate and hopefully surpass any material possessions others in the building have. The narrator is a perfectly normal person. His only quirk is that he has a pet spider. One day a neighbor drops by and sees the spider. Here is the result this one little incident begins to produce:
The next day he came by to show me the scorpion he had just bought. In the hallway, the maid of the people who live in 7-D overheard our dialogue on the life, habits and feeding of spiders, scorpions and ticks. That very afternoon her employers acquired a crab.
then, for a week, there was nothing new of note. Until one evening when I happened to be on the elevator with one of the neighbor women on the third floor: a languid, young blond with one of those vacant stares in her eyes. She was carrying a big, yellow purse, the zipper of which was partially broken: every little while, through one of the breaks, there would poke out the tiny head of a golden yellow lizard.
Soon one of his neighbors acquires an ant bear only to be outdone a few days later by a neighbor who takes delivery of an American brown bear. The man's wife then begins to be completely humiliated by the pets of her neighbors and tells the man he must do something soon or she will leave him because of this shame he has brought on her by his failure to provide her with her basic needs. He borrows all the money he can and buys a beautiful leopard. All is well with him for a while until he and his wife observe one of their neighbors walking a jaguar down the hall. The man deeply loves his wife and to keep her happy he sells everything he owns and buys a giant anaconda. For a few days he is the hero is the building. Then all conventions break down:
My anaconda boa broke every dike, it destroyed every sense of moderation, it brought down the most respected conventions. In all the apartments there now multiplied lions, tigers, gorillas, crocodiles ... Some even had black panthers, those panthers they don't even have in the municipal zoo. The whole building resounded with roaring, howling and chattering. We spent the nights awake; it was impossible to sleep. The intermingled odors of felines, quadrumanes, reptiles and ruminants turned the atmosphere unbreathable. Huge trucks brought tons of meat, fish and vegetables. Life in the building on Paraguay street became a little dangerous.The ending of the story is very well done and completely believable once we give ourselves over to the logic of magic realism. I will leave the ending as a surprise for anyone who takes a few minutes to read this story. Sorrentino did a very good job creating a believable narrator. You really felt like you were inside the apartment building as you were reading the story. It is a funny story that gently mocks the vanity of man without being mean spirited.