Mar 052011
 

 

Here is a twisted, black comic reversal of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” which, yes, is already a twisted, black comic reversal story. So that “Gregor,” by the wonderful Catalan author Quim Monzó is a double dose of twisted and black, or maybe twisted and black squared. This story is from Monzó’s collection Guadalajara, translated into English by Peter Bush, and forthcoming this summer from Open Letter Books. Watch for the book—it’s amazing. Like “Gregor,” many of the stories work on the principles of literary reference and inversion: Ulysses gets trapped inside the Trojan Horse, Robin Hood steals so much that the rich are impoverished and the poor become wealthy, a famous prophet can’t remember any prophecies. Monzó’s influences are often postmodern (Coover, Barthelme, etc.) or surrealist (Raymond Queneau). He was born in Barcelona in 1952. He has been awarded the National Award, the City of Barcelona Award, the Prudenci Bertrana Award, the El Temps Award, the Lletra d’Or Prize for the best book of the year, and the Catalan Writers’ Award; he has been awarded Serra d’Or magazine’s prestigious Critics’ Award four times. He has also translated numerous authors into Catalan, including Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger, and Ernest Hemingway.

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Gregor

By Quim Monzó

(Translated by Peter Bush)

 

When the beetle emerged from his larval state one morning, he found he had been transformed into a fat boy. He was lying on his back, which was surprisingly soft and vulnerable, and if he raised his head slightly, he could see his pale, swollen belly. His extremities had been drastically reduced in number, and the few he could feel (he counted four eventually) were painfully tender and fleshy and so thick and heavy he couldn’t possibly move them around.

What had happened? The room seemed really tiny and the smell much less mildewy than before. There were hooks on the wall to hang a broom and mop on. In one corner, two buckets. Along another wall, a shelf with sacks, boxes, pots, a vacuum cleaner, and, propped against that, the ironing board. How small all those things seemed now—he’d hardly been able to take them in at a glance before. He moved his head. He tried twisting to the right, but his gigantic body weighed too much and he couldn’t. He tried a second time, and a third. In the end he was so exhausted that he was forced to rest.

He opened his eyes again in dismay. What about his family? He twisted his head to the left and saw them, an unimaginable distance away, motionless, observing him, in horror and in fear. He was sorry they felt frightened: if at all possible, he would have apologized for the distress he was causing. Every fresh attempt he made to budge and move towards them was more grotesque. He found it particularly difficult to drag himself along on his back. His instinct told him that if he twisted on to his front he might find it easier to move; although with only four (very stiff) extremities, he didn’t see how he could possibly travel very far. Fortunately, he couldn’t hear any noise and that suggested no humans were about. The room had one window and one door. He heard raindrops splashing on the zinc window sill. He hesitated, unsure whether to head towards the door or the window before finally deciding on the window—from there he could see exactly where he was, although he didn’t know what good that would do him. He tried to twist around with all his might. He had some strength, but it was evident he didn’t know how to channel it, and each movement he made was disconnected, aimless, and unrelated to any other. When he’d learned to use his extremities, things would improve considerably, and he would be able to leave with his family in tow. He suddenly realized that he was thinking, and that flash of insight made him wonder if he’d ever thought in his previous incarnation. He was inclined to think he had, but very feebly compared to his present potential.

After numerous attempts he finally managed to hoist his right arm on top of his torso; he thus shifted his weight to the left, making one last effort, twisted his body around, and fell heavily, face down. His family warily beat a retreat; they halted a good long way away, in case he made another sudden movement and squashed them. He felt sorry for them, put his left cheek to the ground, and stayed still. His family moved within millimeters of his eyes. He saw their antennae waving, their jaws set in a rictus of dismay. He was afraid he might lose them. What if they rejected him? As if she’d read his thoughts, his mother caressed his eyelashes with her antennae. Obviously, he thought, she must think I’m the one most like her. He felt very emotional (a tear rolled down his cheek and formed a puddle round the legs of his sister), and, wanting to respond to her caress, he tried to move his right arm, which he lifted but was unable to control; it crashed down, scattering his family, who sought refuge behind a container of liquid softener. His father moved and gingerly stuck his head out. Of course they understood he didn’t want to hurt them, that all those dangerous movements he was making were simply the consequence of his lack of expertise in controlling his monstrous body. He confirmed the latter when they approached him again. How small they seemed! Small and (though he was reluctant to accept this) remote, as if their lives were about to fork down irrevocably different paths. He’d have liked to tell them not to leave him, not to go until he could go with them, but he didn’t know how. He’d have liked to be able to stroke their antennae without destroying them, but as he’d seen, his clumsy movements brought real danger. He began the journey to the window on his front. Using his extremities, he gradually pulled himself across the room (his family remained vigilant) until he reached the window. But the window was very high up, and he didn’t see how he could climb that far. He longed for his previous body, so small, nimble, hard, and full of legs; it would have allowed him to move easily and quickly, and another tear rolled down, now prompted by his sense of powerlessness.

As the minutes passed, he slowly learned how to move his extremities, coordinate them, and apply the requisite strength to each arm. He learned how to move his fingers and gripped the windowsill. Seconds later he finally succeeded in raising his torso. He thought that was a real victory. He was now sitting down, legs crossed, with his left shoulder leaning on the section of wall under the window. His family stared at him from one corner of the room with a mixture of admiration and panic. He finally pulled himself on to his knees, gripped the sill with his hands, so he wouldn’t fall, and looked out of the window. Part of the building on the other side of the street stood out clearly. It was a very long, dark building, with symmetrical windows that broke up the monotony of the façade. It was still raining: big drops of rain that were easy to spot individually and hit the ground separately. He made one last effort and pulled himself up and stood erect. He marveled at being so vertical, yet felt uncomfortable at the same time, even queasy, and had to lean on the wall so as not to fall down: his legs soon went weak, and he gently eased himself down until he was back on his knees. He crawled towards the door. It was ajar. He had to push it to open it wide, and he pushed so energetically (he found it difficult to estimate the effort strictly necessary for each gesture he made) that he slammed it against the wall and it swung back and almost shut. He repeated the movement, less brusquely this time. Once he’d managed to open the door, he went out into the passageway, still on his knees.

Could humans be somewhere in the house? Probably, but (he im­­agined) if he did find any, they wouldn’t hurt him; he looked like them now. The idea fascinated him. He’d no longer have to run away for fear they’d crush him underfoot! It was the first good thing about his transformation. He saw only one drawback: they would want to speak to him, and he wouldn’t know how to reply. Once he was in the passage, he pulled himself up again with the help of his arms. He didn’t feel so queasy now. He walked along slowly (his legs bore his weight better now) and every step forward he took became easier. There was a door at the end of the passage. He opened it. The bathroom. A toilet, bidet, bathtub, and two washbasins under their respective mirrors. He had never looked at himself before and now saw immediately what he was like: naked, fat, and flabby. From his height in the mirror he deduced he wasn’t yet an adult. Was he a child? An adolescent? He was upset to see himself naked; he didn’t understand why—nudity had never bothered him before. Was it the misshapen body, the pounds of flesh, the chubby, acne-ridden face? Who was he? What was he all about? He walked through the house, gaining in stability all the time. He opened the door to the bedroom that was next to the bathroom. There were some skates next to the bed. And lots of pennants on the walls. There was also a desk, exercise books, reading books. And a shelf full of comics, a football, and some photos. A photo of himself (he recognized himself straightaway, just like in the bathroom: fat, spotty, and dressed as if for indoor football, in a blue jersey with a white stripe on each sleeve). He found clothes in the cupboard: underpants, a T-shirt, a polo, tracksuit bottoms, socks, and sneakers. He got dressed.

He looked through the spy-hole in the front door. Outside he could see a landing and three more front doors. He went back to the living room, ran his finger along the spines of the few books on the shelves. He caressed a china mug. Turned on the radio. Music blared out, but he couldn’t understand the words:

. . . unforgettable doves,
unforgettable like the afternoons
when the rain from the sierra
stopped us going to Zapoopan . . .

He switched it off. Silence. Sat down on the sofa. Picked up the channel-changer. Turned on the TV. Changed channels; brightened the colors as much as he could, turned the volume all the way up. Turned it all the way down. It was so easy. There was a book open on the sofa. He picked it up, convinced he would understand nothing, but the second he looked at the page, he read almost fluently: “I’ve moved. I used to live in the Duke Hotel, on the corner of Washington Square. My family has lived there for generations, and when I say generations I mean at least two-hundred or three-hundred generations.” He closed the book, and when he’d put it back where he’d found it, he remembered he’d found it open and not shut. He picked it up again, and while he was looking for the page it had been open to, he heard the sound of keys turning in a lock. A man and a wo­­man appeared; they were clearly adults. The man said, “Hello.” The wom­an walked over, kissed him on the cheek, looked him up and down, and asked: “How come you’ve put your pants on backwards?” He looked at his tracksuit bottoms. How was he to know they were back to front? He shrugged his shoulders. “Have you done your homework?” the man asked. Oh, no, not homework! He imagined (as if he could remember) an earlier time, when homework and backward pants didn’t exist. “Get on with it then!” It was the woman’s turn. Before going to his bedroom and getting on with it, he went into the kitchen, opened the fridge, took out a can of Diet Coke, that he struggled to open (still being clumsy with his hands), and spilled half on the floor. Before they could scold him, he went to the junk room, and as he unhooked the mop, he spotted three beetles huddling against the wall; after freezing for a moment, they tried to escape. He felt disgusted, put his right foot on them, and pressed down until he could feel them squashing.

—Quim Monzó, translated by Peter Bush

See also Monzó’s biography and selections of other works in the magazine Words Without Borders.

(Peter Bush is an award-winning literary translator who was born in Spalding, Lincolnshire, UK, and now lives in Barcelona. Previously he was Professor of Literary Translation at the University of East Anglia, where he directed the British Centre for Literary Translation.He has been active in defence of the rights of literary translators as Vice-President of the International Translators Federation and was founding editor of the literary translators’ journal, In Other Words. His recent translations from Spanish include Níjar Country and Exiled From Almost Everywhere by Juan Goytisolo and Celestina by Fernando de Rojas; from Catalan A Shortcut to Paradise by Teresa Solana and The Last Patriarch by Najat El Hachmi. He is now finishing Tirano Banderas by Ramón del Valle-Inclán, the classic novel on the theme of dictatorship in Latin America and L’Éloge de l’Amour, a philosophical dialogue between Alain Badiou and Nicolas Truong. He has also translated the novel, The Enormity of the Tragedy, by Quim Monzó.)

  4 Responses to “Gregor: A Short Story — Quim Monzó”

  1. I’m diggin’ this Spanish vibe of late. Makes me long for tinto y cafe con leche. It’s almost feria season in Andalucia…

  2. [...] “Gregor,” a short story by Quim Monzó (via Numéro Cinq) Posted on 6 March, 2011 by Jarle Petterson Here is a twisted, black comic reversal of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” which, yes, is already a twisted, black comic reversal story. So that “Gregor,” by the wonderful Catalan author Quim Monzó is a double dose of twisted and black, or maybe twisted and black squared. This story is from Monzó’s collection Guadalajara, translated into English by Peter Bush, and forthcoming this summer from Open Letter Books. Watch for the book—it’s amazing. Like “G … Read More [...]

  3. Thank you Quim and Peter. In many ways more frightening—and familiar—than the original.

  4. Monzo’s novel GASOLINE (Open Letter) is always well worth a read. I’ve been looking forward to this collection — thanks for posting.

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