The Short Stories of Carlos Martín Briceño

By James Dayton Gunn,

calosThis interesting and talented writer, born in 1966 in Mérida, has published several collections of short stories in Spanish. I will comment here on two of them: “Los Mártires del Freeway y Otras Historias” (Ficticia, México, 2008) and “Caída Libre” (Ficticia, México, 2010). First, however, a warning may be in order. Martín Briceño’s themes are for adults. These are not stories for children or for the squeamish.

Dramatic and Disturbing

The problem for contemporary Yucatecan writers is that dramatic sources are scarce. Life here today in Mérida and in the state of Yucatan is tranquil, and people are honest, normal and nice. It’s quite different in Mexico City, or Ciudad Juarez, or the states of Sinaloa or Michoacan. There’s plenty of drama in those places. But in Martín Briceño’s stories there are no blazing assault rifles, rampant and crazed narcotraficantes or bloody massacres. They are not action and adventure stories. That doesn’t mean they are light-weight comedies or romances. On the contrary, they are dark and disturbing.

The author tells us that his environmental circumstances force him to focus on a more universal theme, “the human condition”. These two collections of stories concern men and women who are usually located in Mérida or in some nearby small town (the most distant place of action in “Los Mártires” is Belize), but what he describes could happen in almost any other place in the world. Perhaps that is why the personages that inhabit his stories are somehow familiar to the reader, even though their circumstances, especially their sexual compulsions and prejudices, can be uncomfortable to the point of being repellent. The following are a few examples.

It Could Happen Anywhere

In “Todas las Tardes” (Every Afternoon) we get a brief glimpse of Catalina, the obese daughter of a recently deceased owner of a store, The Horn of Plenty, which specializes in imported luxuries. When Catalina’s mother dies giving birth to her, the father promises to dedicate body and soul to the business and to his daughter. By the end of this three-and-a-half page story, we begin to understand how literally he fulfilled his promise. In the twenty minutes before the store opens for another day, Catalina lies naked in bed playing with a huge ivory phallus and nostalgically remembering her deceased father.

Strong Women

Many of these stories deal with strong and domineering women. That is certainly the case with the old matriarch in “Helena o la Anunciación,” in which four women (a grandmother, mother, daughter and music teacher) interact in a strange drama. Playing the piano is a tradition in this family and when a new piano teacher is required for the daughter, a beautiful and enchanting foreigner named Helena is hired. As a result, the daughter discovers a new interest in music and the mother develops a growing appreciation (and physical attraction) for the new teacher. This continues until the teacher is living in the house and the neighbors in the small town of San Bernardo are beginning to gossip.

The daughter has a disturbing dream in which a young nude girl is condemned to death by guillotine. Soon after, the grandmother hears the rumors and demands that Helena be fired. Of course, she is. There is no question that the matriarch of this family is fully in control.

The Dark Side

In the longest story in this collection, “Los Mártires del Freeway (Martyrs of the Freeway),” a young police inspector in Merida is assigned the task of tracking down a serial killer of homosexual men. The killings themselves are horrific. The men are first fed delicacies and then tortured, their eyes gouged out, and their bodies thrown into the atriums of the Santa Lucía and San Juan churches. The reader’s first hint that not all is quite right is that the police commander chooses the protagonist, we are told, because he’s “the right type for the job”. This is an early example of numerous ambiguous suggestions regarding the sexual orientation of the inspector, an orientation he himself seems unsure about. The author provides a glimpse into the darker side of relationships and of sex in Merida and elsewhere. As you might expect, the view is not pretty.

In the second collection, “Caída Libre” (Free Fall), we have more views of the dark side of human relationships. In this case, the author focuses on dysfunctional parejas (couples), usually with the female in the dominant role.

One story in this collection that I found especially curious and well done is called “Round de Sombra (Shadow Round).” The scene is Merida, and the narrator is an ambitious and very sarcastic and manipulative young author. He seeks the endorsement of a highly successful writer named Patricia Santiesteban, who he thinks of in disparaging terms as “the oracle,” “an old libertine,” “the adversary,” and so on. He has no respect for her or her work, but his lying obsequiousness seems to be working in his favor. For several years he has been trying to get a publishing house interested in a novel he has written, and his hope is that Patricia will open the way for him. He sees the relationship he aggressively pursues as a series of boxing rounds, in which he repeatedly beats his adversary. In the end, and unexpectedly, it is she who wins the match. It’s a clever and surprising ending, as is the case with all of Martin Briceño’s stories.

Skilled Storyteller

This author is skilled in the development of his stories and in his presentation of unappetizing and disturbing aspects of human relationships. He often uses subtlety and understatement, suggesting that something is wrong without explicitly stating it, yet cleverly making it clear to any perceptive reader just what is happening. This is a writer who has received well-deserved recognition and numerous honors for his work.

For readers who like short fiction of high quality and challenging themes, this is a writer you should not miss.

Martin Briceño’s blog, where he writes, “I write to reaffirm my relevance to this world, to feel that my life has meaning.”

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