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from the May 2020 issue

Family Life is Just Another Name for Tragedy in María Fernanda Ampuero’s “Cockfight”

Reviewed by Lily Meyer

This collection of stories by the Ecuadorean writer and journalist depicts episodes of abuse in a way that may not be exactly enjoyable to read, but feels urgent, gripping, and smart.

This is the first installment in WWB's new series Close-Up: An Experiment in Reviewing Translationin which Lily Meyer and Mona Kareem review translated books with a focus on the translation itself. Read more about the series in this interview with Meyer and Kareem.

The Ecuadorean writer and journalist María Fernanda Ampuero is not a fan of the family. In each of the thirteen stories that make up her collection Cockfight, newly translated by Frances Riddle, Ampuero presents the home as a trap, a prison, or a site of wrenching abuse. Asked about this in a 2019 conversation with the BBC, Ampuero replied in stark terms, telling the interviewer, “It seems to me that the relationship between parents and children contains something monstrous.” (The interview was conducted in Spanish; this translation is mine.) Later, she added, “Tolstoy says that happy families are alike and unhappy ones are each unhappy in their own way. I think happy families are alike because they’re fictional. I don’t believe that happy families exist.”

Cockfight’s familial pessimism has a clear feminist slant. Only one story, “Blinds,” features a male protagonist, a preteen boy on a miserable family vacation. In the rest, Ampuero keeps female perspectives front and center, and adult men appear almost exclusively as villains—which is not to say adult women can’t be villains, too. In “Griselda,” a grown daughter beats her mother in private, and the narrator’s mother in “Blinds” is both a victim and perpetrator of abuse. But more often, Ampuero presents men and masculinity as a threat. In the collection’s opener, “Auction,” the unnamed narrator falls victim to what is known in Ecuador as a secuestro exprés, or taxi kidnapping. Blindfolded and awaiting her fate, she smells roosters nearby and is transported to her childhood, spent helping her father raise cocks and clean up blood after cockfights. The smell of her kidnappers’ hideout is “the smell of my life, the smell of my father. It smells of blood, of man, of shit, of cheap liquor, of sour sweat and industrial grease.” Ampuero takes pains here to merge the narrator’s father with her kidnapper. Both are men; both are threats.

In later stories, this merging transforms into a recurrent depiction of incest. Often, this means straightforward abuse, as in “Mourning,” a story in which a grown man idealizes one of his adult sisters while turning the other into a sex slave. “Mourning” is among Ampuero’s weaker stories—it leans hard on the Madonna-whore dichotomy without complicating it or innovating on the theme—but its anger and force are undeniable, as is the sisters’ ultimate bond. More interesting, though, is Ampuero’s occasional habit of using children’s nascent desire for their siblings or cousins as a representation of innocence, or an instinctive repudiation of family structure and norms. “Nam” presents a preadolescent threesome—two siblings, one friend—as an escape from humiliation and secrecy, and a similar threesome in “Blinds” gives the narrator, Felipe, hope that he and his cousins can form an enduring bond instead of becoming invisible to each other, like the many “relatives who passed through this family like the maids walked through the house.” The scene is both painful and moving to read; the impulse to turn away meshes with real hope that the narrator’s optimism will not prove unfounded.

But in Cockfight, optimism never works out. Nearly every story has a grim twist at the end—or, if not grim, then one that seems to rejoice either in gore or in misery. Often, Ampuero amps up a story’s violence in its final moments, driving home the book’s commitment to darkness. Occasionally, these endings are cathartic: “Mourning” is a revenge fantasy, and in “Auction,” the narrator finds an ugly way to set herself free. But more often, Ampuero uses twist endings to prevent the catharsis that usually makes sad or frightening fiction pleasurable to read.

Her stories ask the reader to look directly at terrible human impulses—racism in “Coro,” child abuse in “Blinds” and “Pups,” gender-based violence in nearly all the rest—but, unusually, do not then offer the release of either redemption or grief. Life marches resolutely on in Cockfight, as unknowable and unbearable at each story’s end as it was at its beginning. This is a major shift from most contemporary tragedy, which tends to rely on resolution; Cockfight is, perhaps, the polar opposite of novels like Hanya Yanagihara’s best-selling literary tearjerker A Little Life. Both Yanagihara and Ampuero force the reader to confront awful violence, but where Yanagihara tips her novel into climactic tragedy, Ampuero instead looks squarely at what, to misquote Hannah Arendt, I might call the banality of cruelty.

Ampuero’s stance is demanding and admirable, and a more accurate reflection of life than Yanagihara’s self-conscious drama. It also takes a toll. Cockfight is not, strictly speaking, enjoyable to read. It is, however, urgent, gripping, and smart. Ampuero structures her stories so tightly and builds their momentum so well that stopping in the middle of one is barely possible, except to admire a shudderingly accurate description or intelligent turn of phrase. The sharpness and detail of Ampuero’s language and social observation are decisive in making Cockfight work as literary fiction, rather than cheap horror. This raises the stakes for Riddle’s translation in a big way. If her sentences were lifeless or lightless, Cockfight might seem like slasher fiction, which would entirely undermine the book’s agenda. It might also simply be unreadable. Thankfully, neither is the case. Riddle’s translation brings Ampuero’s stories to English-language life.

This is not to say her translation is pretty. The language in Cockfight is blunt, as it should be, and hyperspecific in its bluntness. Take “Auction,” whose narrator seems to delight in using the most precise and graphic language available to describe the bodies of dead fighting cocks. In the original, roosters are despanzurrados and descuajaringados, both of which could translate simply to smashed. But smashed is much flatter than either, and so Riddle opts for tougher language: despanzurrado—with its echo of panza, or belly—becomes gutted, and descuajaringado becomes “ruined and bloody.”

Riddle is equally unsparing with human bodies. In “Blinds,” Felipe’s beloved cousin Julio hits adolescence and becomes “a hateful, acne-ridden creature who never stopped popping his zits.” In “Ali,” a domestic worker complains about her boss taking too many uppers and then prowling the house with “her eyes bugged out, looking like an owl.” Both descriptions blend colloquial language with authorial flourishes, and do so swiftly enough that a reader might not stop to notice the transition from the high-flown hateful creature to the lowbrow zits. These rapid tonal shifts are key to Ampuero’s style, and Riddle manages them well. She’s especially good at choosing words that are idiomatic without connoting place, which is crucial to a translation’s success. If her slang made Ampuero’s characters sound like American Southerners rather than Ecuadoreans, the whole book would be thrown off, but if she included no slang whatsoever, Ampuero’s tonal precision would be lost.

Perhaps the best example of Riddle’s skill in recreating Ampuero’s complex prose is “Griselda,” which is narrated by a little girl in a neighborhood where everyone is, if not poor, then at least broke. The difficulty here is immense: the narrator has to sound articulate but not adult, convincingly working-class but not stereotypically so, and plausible in English without losing her Ecuadorean-ness. Riddle uses slightly more Spanish here than in the other stories, and leans harder on colloquialisms. The narrator’s mother avoids conflict because she “[doesn’t] like all the ruckus,” and when the story’s object of fascination, a cake decorator named Miss Griselda, gets mysteriously hurt, a rumor circulates that she “busted open her head” after an alcoholic bender. Ruckus and busted are unpleasant-sounding words, serving at once to emphasize the story’s ugliness and to locate it in social context. They also remind the reader that a child is speaking: where an adult might try to smooth ugly words and gossip away, the protagonist here doesn’t bother.

Ampuero often relies on child narrators and memories of childhood for precisely this reason. The honesty of youth serves her stories’ anti-familial darkness well. It also gives her space to describe mundane or alarming sensations with a hint of excitement or wonder. In “Christ,” a young girl likens holding her baby brother to “carrying wrinkled tissue paper in my arms.” Later, when he has a fever, she compares touching his forehead to “putting my hand over a bright candle.” Both images are lovely, if fleeting. They provide glimmers of beauty that Cockfight needs.


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