25 of 196 Countries
Project 196 is my attempt to read and post on a short story by an author from each of the 196 countries of the world. So far I have posted on stories from 24 countries. I am discovering a lot of new to me writers, including some I for sure want to read more of, and learning more about the short story as a factor in differing literary cultures. I am currently in South America and have read a really interesting short story by an author from Venezuela . The obvious thing to say about any strange South American short story is to see it in the tradition of Magic Realism and "A Gentleman on the Train" by Antonia Palacios is a totally strange story. By the time it ended, I read it twice, I found myself wondering whether the narrator was out of touch with reality or if it was me.
The story is set on a train. A youngish woman is looking out the window, I am guessing she is in Venezuela, and looking at the countryside. There is a gentleman sitting across from her. Of course as a single woman she is a bit interested in him. At first the things she sees out the window are just your standard rural scenes, then she starts to see a surrealistic landscape of a sort reminiscent of Picasso's Goya. She closes her eyes and watches "her own internal parade, that of the people who live with her on earth. Soldiers, captains, colonels, high-ranking officers, prostitutes and nannies, priests, beggars, presidents and vice-presidents, men in bare feet and shining boots, the hungry and the sated, men with gorged stomachs and high society women."
The descriptions of the scenes out the window, the real ones and the others are a great pleasure to read. At first I thought the story was about the differences between the real landscape and the Magically Real but the story takes us into another stranger deeper twist. The man begins to talk to her about what a horrible world they live in, referring to events in the newspaper he is reading. He suggests maybe they can have a drink together. She ignores him as he drones on and the ride gets stranger and stranger. Birds fly through the air and she can see their invisible chains. She also thinks about a man she loves, Jocquin. The man then asks her if she is going to Quietzco. He tells her how wonderful and beautiful a place it is. She soon really wants to see it, the man tells her the air smells of roses and honeysuckle. The air is lighter, everything is smooth and restful. Now Delia is under the spell of the man. She longs to hear more of Queitzco. She imagines Jocquin will be there waiting for her. "The train has left behind all living things, cities, fields, people, animals. It has also left time in its wake and is slowly progressing into the shadows."
Delia drifts off into sleep and when she awakens she is no longer on the train. She asks the man she rode with if they are in Quietzco. The man tells her he has never seen her before and does not know what she is talking about. She tells him what do you mean we just got off the train,he says there is no train and she must be crazy. She begins to scream and no one answers.
The last paragraph is very beautiful. I am hard pressed to put a "meaning" on this story. I know I really liked reading it. I know very few people will read this wonderful story and that is sad.
I read this story in Short Stories by Latin American Women: The Magic and the Real, a decent anthology with one big flaw common to short story anthologies. It does not give the original state and place of publication which I find very annoying.
Antonia Palacios (1904 to 2001) was born and died in Caracas, Venezuela. She was a very prolific and prize winning novelists, poet, essay and short story writer. She is considered among the very best of novelists from Venezuela. As far as I can find, none of her work is available online.