“House of Geishas”  Ana María Shua

“House of Geishas” Ana María Shua

Greg Walklin

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House of Geishas by Ana María Shua. Translated by Steven J. Stewart

Perhaps the most famous microfiction of all time, a six-word story—often attributed, without evidence, to Hemingway—regularly pops up on social media: For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Such flash fiction” in its various forms has continued to capture readers in an attention-deficit, novelty-seeking world.

The strength in the genre lies in the ability of short short fiction” or microfiction” to imply or suggest a much longer and deeper narrative—so to some degree, at least, the shorter the story, the richer the resulting meaning. The Spanish writer Juan Pedro Aparicios one-word story Louis XIV” (Yo”) may be the most economical, and extreme, example of how, even with only a single word, such work can imply a much larger narrative. Its what is outside the story, then, such as its consequences or implications, that drives its impact. Another Spanish writer, Javier Marías, an employer of long narratives and sentences who intentionally used as many words as possible, said that literature doesnt properly illuminate things, but like the match it lets you see how much darkness there is.” Of course, every narrative leaves some things out; microfiction just leaves out more.

Ana María Shua may be one of the best living practitioners of this genre. Though the Argentinian has written novels, poetry, and childrens books, she is best known for her microfiction, often by described as the queen” of the genre. Indeed, there is so much going on in the pages of House of Geishas, but somehow more going on off the page, which is a credit to the authors ability. In the book, she demonstrates her complete mastery of the form, providing incisive and cutting tales that question, wound, bemuse, and befuddle.

None of the stories exceeds a single page; most are, in fact, a single paragraph, and there are several that contain only one or two short sentences. This means the translation, here provided by Steven J. Stewart, is roughly the equivalent of a high wire act. When a story contains few words, the importance of each rises, and a misstep can lead to the whole thing falling. Many words are chosen precisely because of their implications or secondary meanings, which makes the business of rendering the story into another language difficult. This is compounded by some metafictional tricks Shua uses here, such as—in The Fervent Disciplines of Pythagoras”—intentional misspellings or—as in Run!”—dropped letters. Fortunately, Stewart never loses his balance.

The book is split into two sections, House of Geishas, which includes linked microfiction all around the Japanese performers, and Versions,” which contains a multitude of Shuas other flash stories.

House of Geishas employs the form to great operatic effect; a rotating cast of characters, both clients and workers alike, makes for all kinds of literary opportunities. Shuas stories include a geisha with a retractable sixth finger; a description of the daily fitness sessions the women attend; a client who is also a ghost; and numerous bizarre fetishes, fantasies, and escapades. The brevity of her stories fits so well with the setting that its easy to grasp the contradictory erotic world of the geisha without a sustained narrative.

While the microstory form generally cannot achieve the same kind of emotional impact as longer stories, it can make up for it with surprises, tricks, and other tropes. Versions” sees Shua delight in subverting various fairy tales, classically myths, and twists around the stories of fantastic creatures. In a series of linked stories on Cinderella, her stepsisters surgically modify their feet to fit the shoes, and then subsequently rewrite the story, so they become the heroes (fables, and not just history, it seems, is written by the winners). In a series on the princess and the frog, the transformations dont end once the frog becomes a prince. There are all kinds of other subversive and clever tales here, including rebelling golems and revolutionary dwarves. One wickedly fun story, involving a conception with a succubus, leads to a primogeniture dispute in Hell; its easy to imagine a novel from it, probably a cross between Bleak House” and Inferno.”

Other highlights include The Theologian,” about the determination of angels sex by a conference of clergy; Identity and Alteration,” which manages to create an entire world of sentient microorganisms in two sentences; The Angel of Death,” which recounts a visit by Death with ulterior motives; and Time Machine,” which establishes the possibility that Cervantes might have used time travel to steal from Borges Quixote enthusiast Pierre Menard (Borges himself, one guesses, would have delighted in this notion).

In The Caliphs Dream,” a leader has many dreams of battles, loses and diplomacy, but later claims the one imagining victory was prophetic:(O)nly the dreams that come true deserve to become part of the story,” Shua writes. In this way, microfiction exemplifies something we all do—selecting the best small parts of our lives and writing our stories around them. Even the smallest bit, such as a single insult or exhilarative moment, can reoccur in our memories. Shua has seized these types of moments for her work. None of the stories here will take long to read, but your time will be worth it.



Greg Walklin is an attorney and writer living in Lincoln, Nebraska. His book reviews have appeared in The MillionsNecessary FictionThe Colorado Review, and the Lincoln Journal-Star, among other publications. He has also published several pieces of short fiction. His Twitter: @gwalklin


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Posted: January 8, 2024 at 9:13 pm

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