The Word of the Speechless: Selected Stories by Julio Ramon Ribeyro
Translated and Edited by Katherine Silver

Translated books obviously mean a great deal to me – some of my favourite authors are from Russia and France, for example – but there are some countries where I haven’t explored so much. South America, for example, has produced some stunning authors, and its my loss that I’ve only read a handful (Borges, Bioy Casares, Ocampo spring to mind). So I was delighted to have the opportunity to read a collection of short stories by a Peruvian author new to me: “The Word of the Speechless” by Julio Ramon Ribeyro.

Ribeyro (1929 – 1994) was a prolific author; as well as novels, essays and plays, he produced numerous volumes of short stories; he’s a considered a master of the latter genre. This new collection draws from all of his short story volumes, as well as featuring one ‘forgotten’ story; and they really are gems. Aside from his writing career, Ribeyro served as diplomatic ambassador for Peru at UNESCO – a position which it appears occasionally caused conflict with other Peruvians (the political situation in that country seems to have been changeable and problematic). Ribeyro stated once that his work was to speak for “the marginalized, the forgotten, those condemned to an existence without harmony and without voice”. That’s an apt summing up of the feeling I got from this excellent collection, and the title of the book is very well chosen.

So – on to more specifics. The stories range far and wide over a number of different settings (and the date and location of writing is often stated). Paris, Capri, Lima (his place of birth), Antwerp – Ribeyro was certainly well travelled, and his characters often share that peripatetic lifestyle. Some of the stories feature fantastic elements, perhaps what might be called ‘magic realism’ (though I’m never entirely sure about that term…) “The Insignia” was a clever tale, involving a man being absorbed accidentally into a secret society about which he knows nothing; “Nothing To Be Done, Monsieur Baruch” narrates the tragicomic end of an abandoned and lonely old man (and manages to insert a lovely in-joke); “The Wardrobe, Old Folks, and Death” looks at the importance of family history and heritage, as well as taking in more slightly surreal elements; “The Solution” is a dark, twisty and quite brilliant short piece looking at the state of a marriage. A particular stand out is “At the Foot of the Cliff” which really does look at the lives of the disenfranchised, their struggle to survive against all odds, and the tragedies life deals out to them. Then there’s “Doubled”, another short, clever and twisty tale of opposites.

The central chamber was topped off by a high square door, always locked, and we never knew what it contained; perhaps those papers and photos that one carries around from one’s youth and doesn’t destroy out of fear of losing part of a life that, in reality, is already lost. (Describing the wardrobe from “The Wardrobe, Old Folks, and Death”)

It’s always hard to review short story collections, as picking out favourites kind of implies that some are better than others; and that’s not the case here. Each story is quite wonderful, albeit often in different ways from others; and some obviously draw from Ribeyro’s life (for example, “For Smokers Only”, a dark look at how a tobacco addiction can take over your whole existence – Ribeyro was himself a hardened smoker, suffering from lung cancer).

The Author (public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

This lovely collection frmy NYRB Classics has been edited and translated by Katherine Silver (and a wonderful selection I think it is!); and the impressionistic introduction is by Alejandro Zambra, a renowned author in his own right (and is taken from his “Not to Read” collection, which I have TBR in a lovely Fitzcarraldo edition). Despite the downbeat nature of some of the stories, there is also a dry humour, particularly in stories which skewer societal norms and relationships – “A Literary Tea Party” is a wonderful example of that. And Ribeyro writes so beautifully and evocatively throughout the range of his work.

However, there *is* inevitably a thread of melancholy running through these tales. There are usually no happy endings for Ribeyro’s characters, but nevertheless the stories are absorbing, wonderful and unforgettable. He really does speak for the marginalised and disenfranchised, and I’m so happy I made the acquantaince of his writing. There appears to be little else of his work available in English, so I can only hope that the release of this book will herald further translations; I’d really like to read more Ribeyro!

(Review copy kind provided by the publisher – many thanks! :D)