5 under 35, book reviews, Christina MacSweeney, Fiction, Foreign fiction, Foreign Literature, Latin American literature, Mexican Literature, National Book Foundation, novella, Reading Suggestions, The Story of My Teeth, Translated Literature, Valeria Luiselli, World Literature
“As with any story, this one begins with the Beginning; and then comes the Middle, and then the End. The rest, as a friend of mine always says, is literature: hyperbolics, parabolics, circulars, allegorics, and elliptics. I don’t know what comes after that. Possibly ignominy, death, and finally, postmortem fame.”
Valeria Luiselli’s creative novella “The Story of My Teeth” is the imagined biography of the self-described world’s best auctioneer, the memorable Gustavo Sánchez Sánchez, otherwise known as Highway.
“I explained that what I meant was that I could tell stories whose degree of deviation from the value of the conic section of their related objects was greater than zero. In other words, as the great Quintilian had once said, by means of my hyberbolics, I could restore an objects value through ‘an elegant surpassing of the truth.’ This meant that the stories I would tell about the lots would all be based on facts that were, occasionally, exaggerated or, to put it another way, better illuminated.
It is unclear why Ms. Luiselli had this novella translated into English by Christina MacSweeney. I saw her read from this novella at the Brooklyn Book Fair this past Fall and she seems to be fluent in English. Ms. MacSweeney adds a timeline at the conclusion of the English version of the novella. It is as tongue-and-cheek as the novella. It places Highway within a historic chronology of obscure events. It may add some insight into the creation of the story because it references the auction of Marilyn Monroe’s and Winston Churchill’s teeth.
The novella is the biography of Highway as reflected through the history of his teeth. The Afterward conveys the back-story about the author’s development of the novella- a collaboration between the author and workers at a juice factory in Mexico. In part, the novella is an homage to tobacco readers that existed in Cuban cigar factories in mid- 19th Century. The chronology, like the book, is having some fun with the reader, as it publicizes the works of fellow Latin American writers/poets (and friends) such as Guadalupe Nettel, Paula Abramo, Alejandro Zambra, and many others. The book also has a small photographic gallery of venues in the novella, with accompanying quotations of various writers.
Ms. Luiselli, unlike many authors, understood that at a book reading it is essential to entertain. Greater prose can fall flat when read. She selected from this novella’s Parabolics chapter the description of the “tent effect”: the pyramid that aroused men create with a blanket or sheet when awaking in the morning.
Johnny Cash’s “Highwayman” was a survivor and so is Highway. He is not a con man, he is a story-teller, creating value from nothing. A priest asks him to raise money for the church from its senile congregation. Highway auctions each tooth in his mouth, ascribing the tooth to notables in history, philosophy, literature and art. He ascribes life lessons to teachings of his relatives such as Juan Pablo Sánchez Sartre. He is a good person and is taken advantage of by his son Siddhartha. A friend El Perro (also the name of a literary magazine) remains loyal to him. “Since then, I’ve always thought that hell is the people you one day become.” Highway does not change; finding beauty in everything. He gives value through his stories.
The book is funny and at times absurd. The weakest chapter is Allegorics. It seems to be the chapter that the workers collaborated on.
I was looking forward to reading this novella and was not disappointed. It is a different form of a novel- almost performance art. Her earlier novel, Faces in the Crowd was well received. She is an author worth paying attention to.