Fernando Iwasaki - the book contains “chilling and wrenching stories of terror, where beasts, ghosts, vampires, incubi and succubi, crimes and enigmas cross over to the fresh breeze of everyday life without having to recur to remote geographies. Iwasaki describes his hells with a rare stylistic intuition that measures out the fear; it twists it, turns it into metaphor.”
Fernando Iwasaki, Grave Goods, Trans. by Steven J. Stewart, Blood Bound Books, 2014.
To Troy, Helen
Nobel Prize winner Mario Vargas Llosa has said Fernando Iwasaki’s work “delights and instructs all at once; it takes readers on a trip through a fantasy world while forcing them to face, without any fuss, a sinister reality, one dominated by fear.”
In Spain’s Diario Sur, Alfredo Taján highlights the book’s strangeness, writing that it contains “chilling and wrenching stories of terror, where beasts, ghosts, vampires, incubi and succubi, crimes and enigmas cross over to the fresh breeze of everyday life without having to recur to remote geographies. Iwasaki describes his hells with a rare stylistic intuition that measures out the fear; it twists it, turns it into metaphor.” Renowned philologist, writer, and critic Miguel García Posada says of this book, “It’s not a stretch to consider it one of the most notable revelations of recent Latin American literature.”
Grave Goods contains ninety-eight pieces of flash fiction from one of Peru’s best contemporary writers. While Fernando Iwasaki’s stories—like all good horror stories—are intended to frighten or disconcert his readers, they are also often humorous in nature. Some re-create or re-envision urban legends, some come from dreams, and some are pure inventions of Iwasaki’s remarkable mind.
Fernando Iwasaki is a ventriloquist of sorts; one needs only move from his short story collections to his probing literary essays to see that he is not only a talented writer and storyteller, but also a shape-shifter, switching genres and themes so quickly—and masterfully—that his work really cannot be categorized. Having moved to Sevilla, Spain from Peru in 1989, Iwasaki has proved that he can occupy both literary worlds: although his language has not lost its Peruvian shadings, his novels and short stories certainly demonstrate that he has a deep, and often witty, insight into Spanish—and especially Andalusian—culture. Perhaps his most accessible short story collection is Ajuar funerario [Grave Goods], which has been described as a tribute to horror and flash fiction, “concentrating all the shuddering, nausea, and unease of the genre into a mere ten to twelve lines.” - Megan Berkobien, translator
Fernando Iwasaki, Neguijon (Teeth Decay)
In the same manner as alchemists obsessed over the philosopher's stone, a tooth puller from Seville reaches the Peruvian viceroyalty in search of the worm that makes its home in people's mouth to hasten human corruption. The Spanish Empire during the 16th and 17th centuries is the backdrop for this novel that recounts the culture and knowledge of the Golden Age; an era of voyages and discoveries, of madness and superstition.
It is my firm conviction that Patrick Süskind’s Perfume gave rise to a new sub-genre of the historical novel. I am not sure it is within my remit to give it an accurate definition or characterise it with the appropriate scholarly expertise. I will humbly abstain from any academic pretense. What appeared in the wake of Perfume‘s triumphal march is the historical novel that ironically revisits the 16th-18th century period with an unflinching portrayal of the gritty and explicitly gruesome aspects of life at the time, of that which heretofore had been either hushed up or considerably toned down. Right on the first page of his bestseller, Süskind makes it abundantly clear that what we are going to read is not some romantic Dumah-esque fantasy about the noble past:
In the period of which we speak, there reigned in the cities a stench barely conceivable to us modern men and women. The streets stank of manure, the courtyards of urine, the stairwells stank of moldering wood and rat droppings, the kitchens of spoiled cabbage and mutton fat; the unaired parlors stank of stale dust, the bedrooms of greasy sheets, damp featherbeds, and the pungently sweet aroma of chamber pots.
As you might know, this litany to various manifestations of the omnipresent stench goes on for a dozen more lines.
Some of the better-known excursions into the “gritty past” are Federico Andahazi’s The Anatomist and Andrew Miller’s IMPAC Award-winning Ingenious Pain. I would especially recommend the latter, which tells the story of an 18th-century English misfit completely impervious to physical suffering. The novel traces the trials and tribulations of James Dyer who makes a vertiginous ascent from a side-show freak to a prodigiously skillful (if cold-hearted) surgeon.
The Peruvian writer Fernando Iwasaki’s short novel Tooth Worm is a worthy addition to the said sub-genre. Welcome to the ghastly world of the 17th-century dentistry! If truth be told, I had never asked myself what would have befallen a person with teeth problems several centuries before. After reading Iwasaki’s book, I realised how lucky we are to inhabit the era of cutting-edge dental care.
Originally, the Spanish word neguijón was used to denote an elusive worm that was believed to nestle in the human gums and cause caries by eating away at the molars. Iwasaki graphically describes the way barbers, the dentists of the period, devastated their patients’ jaws with a hair-raising assortment of chisels, pincers, hammers, lancets and hooks in search of the mythical creature. Moreover, the reader has an exciting opportunity to see what these tools exactly looked like thanks to the illustrative woodcuts borrowed from historical medical treatises. In case your curiosity has been piqued, this illuminating post at Chirurgeon’s Apprentice will supply you with additional details concerning the long-standing tradition around the existence of the notorious parasite.
The alternating chapters of the novel are set in two different time frames and places. In one of these chronotopes we follow the adventures of several characters trying to escape from a prison in Seville during a bloody mutiny of the convicts; in the other we trace their fate in the Vice-royalty of Peru after the lapse of some years. Generally speaking, there are no healthy characters in Iwasaki’s novel. Each of them has some kind of ailment that could be treated at the time by such gut-wrenchingly barbaric methods, as, for example, the removal of a renal calculus through the patient’s anus. (In case you wondered, yes, Iwasaki gives a detailed description of this procedure as well). They suffer a lot and incessantly meditate on suffering as they go about their daily life. There is no lack of lurid musings like this:
Perhaps it was fever or melancholy, but while his bones were being sawed and the wound cauterised by boiling oil, it occurred to “Stumps” that a pair of pincers tugging at the molars caused even greater pain.
Of a particular interest is bookseller Linares who has organised the distribution of Don Quijote from Spain to the New World. There is something Quixotic about the man himself, as most of his knowledge about the world stems from the numerous tractates, disquisitions and compendia he has voraciously read. In an episode reminiscent of the book-burning scene in Cervantes’ masterpiece, Linares observes with a bleeding heart chaplain Tartajada, one of his companions in misfortune, choose which books to sacrifice for the makeshift barricade erected to delay the onslaught of the rampaging galeotes.
Bookseller Linares burst into tears as the chaplain added to the defensive wall Peter Martyr’s Decades of the New World edited by Nebrija, for he had recalled that it was about the giants of Patagonia and the sirens of the island of Cuba, more beautiful and affectionate than those of Madagascar. Or when he had to plug a nearby hole with the Sevillian edition of Summa de geografía by Bachelor Fernández de Enciso, a marvelous bestiary of the West Indies, whose forests were roamed by cat monkeys, lizards the size of bull-calves and pigs with armour of scales.
Linares even puts on a barber’s basin on his head for protection before an imminent attack of the criminals besieging the prison infirmary where he and his companions have found a temporary shelter. His main motivation to stay alive is the overwhelming longing to dip into the codices and manuscripts he has set out to read, for death itself is not as frightening to him as the grim prospects of “eternity without books”. It comes as no surprise that his ruminations on possible death are irredeemably bookish, as he wonders whether the forthcoming quietus will fit the description found in The Agony of Crossing Over by Alejo de Venegas or rather that of Alfonso de Valdés’ Dialogue of Mercury and Charon. Such meditative mood runs through the whole novel. Not really much happens in Tooth Worm story-wise. Except for a scuffle or two and flashbacks of a naval battle, the major events are tooth-pulling, gum-piercing and amputation. From beginning till end, we are immersed in the flawed world of brutal medical practices, following one excruciating manipulation after another, with little respite in between.
The lush language of the the novel deserves a special mention. To say that reading Tooth Worm has been a challenge would be an understatement on my part. A historian by education, Iwasaki has done his homework with an insufferable diligence. The diction of El Siglo de Oro returns with a vengeance on the pages of the book, forcing a meticulous reader to rummage through the academic El Diccionario de la lengua española on the regular basis throughout the whole reading. Iwasaki employs very rich vocabulary, and is always ready to pile a heap of synonyms or related words wherever he deems necessary. For instance, in the very first sentence of the novel we come across four different words for the sound of ringing bells: tañido, repique, doblar, rebato.
At the end of the book there is an eleven-page bibliography listing all the treatises mentioned by the characters of Tooth Worm. According to the author himself, he has invented only one apocryph, The Book of Treasure and Padlock of the Poor Knights of Christ and Solomon’s Temple, because The Knights Templar literature simply did not exist at the time. It’s always a pleasure to hold in your hands a carefully researched historical novel that not only offers the titillation of observing the gritty past from the safe distance of the technologically advanced twenty-first century, but also makes you aware of the vast body of medical knowledge produced by the time Don Quijote was published, and without which we might not be sitting so poised in the dental chair today. - theuntranslated.wordpress.com/2014/02/18/neguijon-tooth-worm-by-fernando-iwasaki/
Fernando is an extremely prolific and varied writer; he writes novels, short stories, such as Neguijón (The Worm of Decay) and Ajuar funerario, non-fiction essays and academic histories, like Nabokovia Peruviana, and things in between. He has worked as a columnist, a magazine editor, an anthologist. But his works still haven’t been translated and distributed in English – pointing to the gaping hole in the UK literary industry and its readers’ acquaintance with ‘foreign’ fiction.
Fernando was wearing a bright red (velvet) jacket, and round glasses; he didn’t know how to work the microphone properly, and he didn’t belong here, in the drab North. These were good things. The wine was warm. This was a not such a good thing.
He was charming, in the way of the exuberant, warm, patriarchal (and emphatically non-British) artist. I wanted him to tell me things about my life. Instead I asked, “In your opinion is, or should, writing be, difficult, a struggle, or can/should it be something approached light-heartedly? Unlike life, can it be without struggle?” After multiple muttered attempts at translation, Fernando answered by describing his writing habits: he can write non-fiction anywhere, plane, train, dentist’s office, but fiction he must be consumed by, writing only at his own table in his own house, write 18 hours a day, for many months absorbed in it. He talked about the “writer’s voice” which must be upheld, even when composing a text message. He didn’t really answer the question. But then, he never could have.
The past and present, and their relationship, seemed to be an overriding concern for Fernando. This manifests in the idea of pain, in the novel Neguijón (The Worm of Decay) – which takes place in the pestilence of 17th Century Spain. The neguijón is the ‘tooth worm’, a medieval idea that tooth decay was caused by microscopic worms burrowing into the tooth. The author discussed the abstract, detached conception of pain we have today, our detaching from pain; whenever it occurs: we numb it immediately, and illuminating this through the extreme contrast of a world where the body, its smell, its pain, could never be escaped.
The impact of technology definitely underlines this idea of a present rapidly accelerating from its past. Cauti doesn’t mind iPads and e-readers and kindles; and their literary counterpart: micro, “flash” fiction, just so long as they don’t replace reading. And their discussion did prompt the best line of the night, in a section read from Libro del Mal Amor (The Book of Bad Love): “In these times, we have a lot of face, and not enough Book.” I posted it as my status. - Phoebe Chambre