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Symmetries, or in Spanish Simetrías, is a book of short stories by the Argentine novelist Luisa Valenzuela, published in 1993. The English translation by Margaret Jull Costa appeared under the High Risk Books imprint in 1998, and this is what I'm reviewing.

To judge anyone on their short stories is unfair, unless they're a Maupassant or Saki, for short stories seldom work as well as novels. This book is the only Valenzuela I've read, and indeed I first heard of her from reading jderrida's writeup on her, not long ago. I am not as much a fan as jderrida is; but this could be because the short story medium doesn't allow her to develop, or it could be because of the translation, which at times just rings dully with outdated idiom or attempts to render idiom with idiom ("I drank it in with my mother's milk, as they say" -- no, actually we don't).

These are the stories, and the sections they're grouped under:
Knife and mother
The invisible mender
The quiet café
Desire makes the waters rise
Three days
The charm against storms
The envoy
The master's laugh
If this is life, I'm Red Riding Hood
You can't stop progress
4 Princes 4
The density of words
The key

The first story, Tango, is about just that, the louche life of a dancer in a bar in Buenos Aires, and talks about the spirit and the romance of the tango and the milonga, of peeing and patrons and Saturday nights. My heart sank: would it all be like the less interesting Borges that the rest of us skip? Actually this local colour wasn't continued in the rest of the book. The rest is more... cosmopolitan, if I may be so rude to the Argentina that inspired Borges.

In Knife and mother (don't worry, I'm not going to discuss every single story) she goes all limp and postmodernist straight away: "There are three protagonists in this story: the daughter, the knife and the mother". There is an antagonist that interposes itself between the protagonists, or vice versa, and having discussed those preliminary details we will now pass onto other facts... Oh, stuff a sock in it! This author's discussion of their writing technique goes well in Tristram Shandy and Milan Kundera, but this is just painful and pointless imitation. It's a poor Freudian nonentity echoing the style of Kundera, but without knowing when to stop or shift. There were too many stories that suffered from that.

In the Storms section they're more realist, and filled with people you can to some degree identify with. They're fleshed out and have normal jobs, they'd be at home in Europe or New York. They have plans, visions, regrets. But Valenzuela is too distant. You don't get to care about the characters or what they do. It's just a writing exercise.

The Firytales section (I don't know what the Spanish pun or portmanteau is that this translates) is modern retellings of Sleeping Beauty, Red Riding Hood, Bluebeard, Cinderella, and so on, with ironic twists. Oh dear. The sinking heart again. It doth not good copy make to have the heroines of a fairy story wiser, more cynical, or more liberated, because it's so easy and so obvious. Through most of these stories I couldn't see any point in doing them. Throw in a bit of postmodern self-knowingness and watch the magic shrivel up and die.

She really moved me in the last couple of stories, which refer more directly to the rapes and murders and hypocrisy of Argentina's recent history, of the mothers and grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo. I hope she has earned her reputation on writing novels with this sort of feel: they'd be well worth reading.

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