Medardo Fraile - Like Anton Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield, Medardo Fraile is a chronicler of the minor tragedies and triumphs of ordinary life, and each short tale opens up an entire exquisite world.

Medardo Fraile, Things Look Different in the Light and Other Stories. Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa, Pushkin Press, 2014.


A beautifully crafted collection of short stories from the Spanish master of the form.

From one of the finest short-story writers in Spanish, this is the first anthology of his work to appear in English. Like Anton Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield, Medardo Fraile is a chronicler of the minor tragedies and triumphs of ordinary life, and each short tale opens up an entire exquisite world.
'Fraile's stories represent a radical challenge, to make us see the world with a fresh eye.' TLS
Medardo Fraile, born in Madrid in 1925, is considered to be one of Spain's finest short-story writers. The collection Cuentos de verdad (on which this anthology is based), won him the 1965 Premio Nacional de la Crítica. While his stories have appeared in translation in other story collections, this is the first complete anthology of his work to appear in English.
Things Look Different in the Light is introduced by Ali Smith and translated by Margaret Jull Costa, the award-winning translator of José Saramago, Fernando Pessoa and Javier Marías.

From one of the finest short-story writers in Spanish, this is the first anthology of his work to appear in English. Like Anton Chekhov and Katherine Mansfield, Medardo Fraile is a chronicler of the minor tragedies and triumphs of ordinary life, and each short tale opens up an entire exquisite world.

In the story by Medardo Fraile called ‘The Bookstall’, a man starts to buy books from a stall where the wares are generally so weathered that they’ve become more object than book, like rain-soaked slabs of sod—so much so that if he gives one a “squeeze” he can actually smell “the earth and the air, the rain and the sun” in it. At the end of this story, a story about inevitable disintegration, the man is living in a state of hope and delight. What he hopes is that “one day a novel would simply crumble to dust in his hands”, and what has “surprised and delighted” him most is that inside his latest purchase he has found “a small, dead toad”—quite real, quite dead—“but it seemed to him very beautiful”.
This is reminiscent for a fleeting moment of the American twentieth-century poet Marianne Moore who once defined our true poets as the “literalists of the imagination”, the writers most able to present to their readers “imaginary gardens with real toads in them”. It’s a little subconscious nudge, maybe, from Fraile, for us to bear in mind that the dividing line between the forms of short story and poem is often thin and permeable, and that one of the most exciting things that literary forms can do is cross the lines, not just between each other, but between the imagined and the real, between the book and the world, to make a specific, literary and very real kind of surprise and delight.
The stories in Things Look Different in the Light, resonant, distilled, seemingly direct but really shape-shifting and mysterious, have the openness and the exactness of poetry. At the same time they’re salty, earthy, very human stories. They’re often hilarious. They’re often sad. They like to appear throwaway and everyday; some perform like perfect jokes, some act the anecdote, some are so fast as to be over as soon as they begin. But every one of them chases that place where the book and the world come together—where reality, language and fiction meld to make something more revealing about all three.
Medardo Fraile died in early 2013, aged 88. He had spent his childhood and his adolescence in Madrid, but lived in the UK since the 1960s, when he left Franco’s Spain. He worked for a while at the University of Southampton before settling permanently in Scotland, taking a teaching post at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow where he taught Spanish language and literature until he retired from his professorship in the mid-1980s to concentrate solely on his fiction. Fraile began as an experimental playwright, was a writer of academic articles, stories for children, essays about cinema (this collection of stories subtly displays his cineaste love) and along with his bestselling memoir work he was also a translator into Spanish, with his wife Janet, of Robert Louis Stevenson’s unfinished 1896 novel, Weir of Hermiston.
But it was as a short story writer that Fraile was most acclaimed and beloved in Spain, where over the decades his stories won him honours and several major prizes. Things Look Different in the Light is the first anthologizing of his work to reach publication in the UK—the first substantial translation of his work to be available in English. Its opening story, ‘Berta’s Presence’, is so much about the power of the seemingly small things in life that it could be about the short story form itself. It asks readers to shift perspective on, to understand quite differently, human presence in the world.
A small child is having a birthday party. A young man comes to the party. But then a young woman whose mere presence discomfits the young man arrives too, and the man suffers a crisis in confidence and leaves the party downcast. In short, that’s all that happens. But what really happens is—everything, in a comical, bitter near-tragedy for the young man, whose heart in his chest is so full of dark and light that his chest becomes a “great lighthouse”, and where a tiny child not quite one year old, with no recognizable language at all, can be revealed as a force of articulation, “an amorphous, attractive being, at once yielding and terrible, who no one had ever seen in a theatre, a cinema or a café, or even strolling down the street”. It is a story where someone so small, so seemingly removed from what we recognize as the usual social commerce, proves a source of epic energy, “great things engaged in vigorous movement”. It is funny, and as it draws all of a sudden to its end, suddenly terribly sad. The mood-swings from moment to moment in the room, the wordlessness, the unsayables, the small talk, have bristled to life in a story all about people hopelessly unable to speak to each other.
So little is said and so much is conveyed; one of Fraile’s gifts is the giving of voice and language to things and states that ostensibly have none. In his writing, the sea has its own syntax. In the story called ‘Full Stop’, the merest punctuation mark is proof, both at once, of terrible human frailty and ebullient existence. ‘Cloti’, a story of a serving girl who comes from the country to a well-off family in the city, looks like a story whose only purpose is its funny punchline—but its hefty punch, when it comes to the question (in a country where people are the same nationality, share the same history but live as if on different planets) of who has voice, who hasn’t and who decides who gets to speak and how, packs a powerful and far-resonating revelation.
“Life, I think, is full of surprises,” as the narrator of the story called ‘Typist or Queen’ puts it. These stories go out of their way to de-romanticize. This is the beginning of the story called ‘A Shirt’: “Fermín Ulía, although poor— and from a poor neighbourhood—had already sailed, if not the seven seas, at least two or three.” It begins with the puncturing and dismissal of romantic expectations; by the end of its first paragraph it has reduced the sea to “that great cod-liver oil factory . . . that great factory of phosphorous”. Then, in the space of only a couple of pages, Fraile springs an unfathomable surprise, so that ‘A Shirt’ becomes a story about the mysteries that inhabit even the work clothes we mundanely wear, and one of the most romantic and moving stories in the collection.
In Fraile’s work typists are queens and typists at the same time, just as the two ageing old spinster sisters in one of his most playful stories, ‘Child’s Play’, can and will—and of course can’t and won’t—outwit their own ageing process by hanging extra glass and lights on their old chandelier. Their sitting-room furniture has to be altered to make more room for the monstrous size of the chandelier, and the light they create bleeds through the walls into the apartment next door. The neighbours complain. The landlord shrugs. “One cannot speak ill of light.” There’s nothing romantic about it; the chandelier is a “great jellyfish”, a “gigantic udder filled with light”, and the sisters become like “two old raisins filled with light”. But with the final off-switch, death, both old women dead and buried go on glowing under the ground for weeks. The story pivots between gentle satire and a renewal of vision. At its heart stereotype is dismissed—“we will never be relegated to a corner”, the girls decide when they’re younger. Human sensitivity and strength are lit and liberated by a vital piece of comic storytelling.
Such generosity runs through Fraile’s writing like electricity, or like light and flowers do, but always in the knowledge that flowers wilt and light is a matter of darkness. The people in the stories yawn, yearn, know disappointment, sense the sadness of time as it slips away, and can’t do anything about it. But the stories suggest and offer a different currency, and it’s typical of Fraile that Rosita, in ‘The Cashier’, takes the money in the café bar she works in and at the same time records, in a story about the real worth of the stories we tell about ourselves and others, “the hidden depths and ways of the regular customers” or that Luis, in ‘That Novel’, knows he’s read a novel in which the whole of life is held, “in richer, livelier and more memorable form” than life really is, but can’t remember the name of it, and the story’s bathetic and funny ending is both a denial of satisfaction and a satisfaction in itself. In these stories, like in the shining ‘Reparation’ Fraile calls for the recognition of a different kind of accountability. A man’s wife has died. In their lifetime, the man and his wife were robbed of their only substantial income. At her death the man decides to become a beggar and at its end the story calculates what is owed the man, but so exactly that the act of the story becomes a reparation in itself which resonates across all the losses, all the disappointments.
In Fraile’s eyes, “the mornings were the colour of rabbits or wild boar.” “The road was a strange, sleeping, endless blue vein.” Miracles are an everyday matter here and the everyday so surreal that, as the narrator of ‘Play it Again, Sam’ suggests, why would we need cinema when the mundane is so shocking a surreality? But the real miracle in this work is the revelation of the worth, not of strangeness, but of ordinariness. “Was I the boy who was going to write Paradise Lost or The Divine Comedy?” the narrator of the bittersweet ‘The Lemon Drop’ says. “Something very valuable was cut short. And something perhaps far more ordinary was set in motion.”
In these robust, funny, transformatory stories, Medardo Fraile, a master of the short story form, sets the ordinary alight; he graces it with an enlightening shift of vision like the kicker in a cocktail, and with an energy that’s a repeating efflorescence. He reveals the dust of us as really worth something. He questions not just how we’re seen and how we see, but what books are for—books like the ones on that bookstall, so wet and weather-ruined that they’ve stuck to the planks of the stall and have to be prised off, prised open. Inside, “those books contained the tunes he played on the harmonica, the ox carts, human time, the joy of walking the earth.”
It’s a real matter of delight having these stories in English at last.— Ali Smith
Things Look Different in the Light is the first selection of work by the late Spanish writer Medardo Fraile to be translated into English, permitting Anglophone readers access to these unusually delightful, lucid, short, intimate stories, contemporary yet as resonant as old folktales. Though the book is but 220 pages long, it contains nearly 30 stories, some as brief as three pages. Despite their brevity, Fraile’s stories contain worlds, and are marked by a distinctive, singular style, a lightness of touch, and a sense of wonder at the marvelous strangeness of what’s around us. Fraile finds his subject matter in the quotidian, in the micro rather than macro (or so it might seem, anyway), in the delicate, nuanced interactions between people, whether intimates or strangers. Even the titles of his stories suggest this closeness to the everyday: “The Shirt,” “The Chair,” “The Car,” “The Lemon Drop,” “Restless Eyes,” “What’s Going On in That Head of Yours?” One feels in his stories the magnitude of the minutest event, how it can alter perceptions, directions, even whole lives.

One could describe Fraile’s stories as quirky, but their subject matter rests squarely within reality – or, on the occasions when they knock at reality’s borders, within the real, idiosyncratic musings of his characters. Had Gogol chosen to forego his absurdist elements and allow the day-to-day to work its own magic, he might have written stories like these. A telling passage in “The Last Shout,” a grandmother speaking with her grandson, seems to underscore this faith in the sufficiency of reality:

The thing is that miracles happen so often, they seem normal to us, the morning comes then the night, the sun and the moon rise and set, the earth gives us harvest after harvest, and we say, ‘I’ll do that tomorrow’ and tomorrow we’re still alive to do it. My dear, you’re right: reality is a miracle.

Without trumpeting any deliberately meta-fictional intention, Fraile nonetheless manages to make many of his stories about the fragility of language and texts, of all kinds of communications. In “Full Stop,” a teacher, having forgotten his dictation assignment, decides to have his students take dictation from a personal letter the teacher is trying to write. He then pauses at the end of the class when they want to erase from the blackboard those

words that only a moment before had been unknown to them and even distant and worthy of respect…They want to erase them, to erase me, to discard the tender, unctuous, white splendour of those words, to reduce them to dust, to cast them to the winds like so many dead cells hampering their growth...

In “That Novel,” a worker changing jobs bemoans leaving behind a friendship with a co-worker who, regardless of the topic, always mentions the single novel he once read, one that contained “everything important, or unimportant – in richer, livelier, more memorable form.” The departing co-worker finally decides to ask his friend the question he’s always wanted to ask, the title of the novel, only to be told that his friend can’t remember. In “The Bookstall,” a character is mysteriously drawn to the physical decay of books in a poor bookseller’s rain-soaked stall, and lives “in hope that one day a novel would simply crumble to dust in his hands.”

Fraile’s range is surprisingly broad, from stories of marital relations that called to mind James Thurber to fleeting encounters between strangers that underscore one’s fundamental solitude. There’s even a kind of oriental fable, and an exquisite evocation, in “The Sea,” of the phenomenological experience of being by the ocean. “An Episode from National History” brings a sudden intrusion of the “macro” world, with its piercing evocation of the Spanish Civil War, when “the offended parties on both left and right decided to improve Spain by destroying it.” One of my favorites in the collection is the first story, “Berta’s Presence” (“presence” is an operative concept in many of these tales), in which a young man, Jacobo, makes the obligatory visit to see his friends’ baby on the occasion of her first birthday and is brought up short by the child’s demands on life. He can see that Lupita, with her whole life before her, expects him to say exactly the right thing, and he remains silent while inwardly seeking the perfectly crafted words that will meet the child’s rigid expectations:

Lupita was momentarily ignored and she remembered that, before Berta had arrived, someone else had been about to speak to her. And she turned her head, looking at everyone there, one by one, until she found him: Jacobo. Eyes wide, gaze fixed on him, she urged him to say his sentence.

It’s a story that offers tremendous deference and respect to children – and to the importance of communication.

One emerges from Fraile’s small stories with an amplified awareness of the impact of one’s smallest actions, of the myriad ways a word or gesture, a glance, an accidental sighting of something or someone, can transform a moment, often without our knowing exactly what the consequences may be. These are deceptively simple, slyly penetrating stories, full of charm, full of traps. You too may find yourself changed. -