Fishy Tales: Rodrigo Fuentes’ Trout, Belly Up

The debut collection of short fiction by the award-winning Guatemalan writer Rodrigo Fuentes gets its English translation by Ellen Jones

“The water was churning, looked like it was boiling, and the surface filled with the metallic flashes of a knife fight. A minute later everything had calmed down. The big family was once again swimming anti-clockwise. There was no sign of the trout that went belly up.”

Sink or swim. Fight or flight. For the inhabitants of Rodrigo Fuentes’ debut collection, the thin line between those options is more often than not barely visible. The English language debut by the young Guatemalan short story writer – shortlisted in 2018 for the prestigious Premio Hispanoamericano de Cuento Gabriel Garcia Marquez Prize – barely stretches to a hundred pages, but its seven inter-connected stories are etched with a watchful, roughened detailing that condenses lifetimes into paragraphs.

The trout that chooses to “peel off from the group” in the shattering opening title story pays for its transgression with its life: an apposite metaphor for the deftly drawn characters who people Trout, Belly Up’s pages. That story, in which Don Henrik, who we see at various stages of his life throughout the book, builds a trout farm in the hillside outside of San Augustin, bristles with enough electricity to shake your hands as you read. His madcap, and ultimately doomed, endeavour is described so coolly by Fuentes (“At one point, not long after the project started, the trout started dying”), the dread builds unbearably. The un-named narrator has the wit to re-oxygenate the fishes’ water when they start to suffocate, but is beyond hapless in how he conducts a disastrous, short-lived affair. (Fuentes is devilishly good at revealing and weaving viewpoint drama into the broader narrative.) Ultimately, it is nature itself, cruel and forthright, that destroys the fish farm, while those responsible for a living from its meagre proceeds are too busy destroying their own lives to fend off the inevitable.

The remaining stories are slim but no less affecting. In ‘Dive’, Tavo and the reckless Mati embark upon a drug-fuelled expedition into the icy depths of a lake rumoured to contain a lost Mayan city. In lesser hands, the enterprise might have been set up with a knowing nod across the pages, but Fuentes trusts his reader and respects his characters too much to indulge in shady signalling. When disaster strikes, Fuentes delivers the news as if removing a hair from his sleeve. As Mati struggles to survive the bends after surfacing too quickly, and his family rents a private plane to get him to a hospital, a storm whips up, causing the pilot to ascend above the clouds. The resulting increase in air pressure in the cabin slices a gorge into the family: “My dad shouting at the pilot to decrease the pressure, the pilot shouting back that he couldn’t unless he wanted the rest of us to explode instead.”

Mati’s reappearance in a later story offers the invested reader only momentary relief. In ‘Whisky’, fortnightly weekend visits from his young daughter are a spur to stay off the booze and re-build his life after divorce. A dog named Whisky bonds the pair until it goes missing one night: “…Mati realised he didn’t know what to do with his daughter now that Whisky’s absence had carved a hole in their day.” A shattering climax is painfully unresolved.

Throughout, Fuentes’s minutely-observed tales rumble with the expectation that the small steps people take to add colour, righteousness, honour to their lives will see them stumble ultimately into failure and, all too often, disaster. Trout, Belly Up is true to its characters even when it shows them little kindness. In a book that pits man against nature, it is inevitable that it is an animal that emerges with more dignity than her two-footed counterparts. In ‘Out Of the Blue, Perla’, a cow abandoned by her mother finds itself caught up in a bloody stand-off between striking farmworkers and hired gunmen. As difficult as it is to stomach the violence visited upon Perla, a cow able to stand on two feet and judge people effortlessly (“It was finally clear, the thing we’d all suspected: Perla had sided with the workers”), Fuentes’s unflinching eye for the horror of small-scale conflict is hypnotic.

That conflict escalates in ‘Ubaldo’s Island’, a terrifying story of extortion and gang violence, in which beaten-down villagers finally fight back against the gangsters systematically robbing them of their land. While informers are dispatched with cold pragmatism (“We threw him in the sea that same afternoon”), friends and neighbours rouse themselves against a shadowy aggressor. For once, courage triumphs, if only in part.

Much credit for the exacting precision of Fuentes’ writing must go to Ellen Jones, whose translation allows for the author’s spare prose to quietly sing. Like the under-appreciated American short story writer Rick Bass, Fuentes shrewdly re-scales lives led within the dark form of the landscape into something large and bright. Finding yourself lost within the whorl of his dense, event-driven passages is like being caught in a gunfight. As his protagonists battle misery and sadness, alighting on joy (briefly) and connection in the most surprising of places, their troubled journeys help confirm that Fuentes’ gift for a particular kind of story-telling owes as much to his deep-seated humanism as it does to his craft.

Trout, Belly Up by Rodrigo Fuentes is published by Charco Press

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