Trigger warnings for violence, rape, incest, sexual abuse, and human trafficking.
Sometimes families hide secrets behind closed blinds where monsters lurk; they may be your brothers, fathers, uncles or neighbors. Evil lurks and even bleach cannot cleanse it away. Unlike little pups ingested whole by their mothers, children are not protected. You may be in mourning from all the trauma, so severe as if coming back from Nam. Sometimes so demented, you’d rather be sold at a human auction or suffering the pain like the Passion of the Christ. Other times you cry out for your maid Coro or your neighbor Griselda. If adulthood is reached you may be as damaged as Miss Ali. If you can escape the dark suffocation, there is light and air on the other side.*
Have you ever read a book whose stories are horrifyingly wretched yet ones that kept you utterly engrossed? This is Ecuadorian María Fernanda Ampuero’s masterful collection of short stories Cockfight translated by Frances Riddle. Deftly written with spare, exacting prose, Ampuero has penned searing portraits of family life highlighting themes of violence and sexual abuse as a window into gender, class, and race analyses. In Ampuero’s world, families hide disturbing dark secrets, monsters lurk behind closed blinds, and yet the feminist stories indict patriarchy.
The stories reveal the weight of patriarchy and machismo in Latin America. Interestingly, the point of views shift in the second half of the book. Most of the early stories are told through a child’s perspective but the stories in the latter half are reflected through the lens of adult women. The book is a tour de force—I have never read something so disturbingly powerful.
The setting for many of the stories is on the surface banal; of the 13 stories nearly half center on family life. The façade of normalcy is immediately fractured starting with Auction an eerily haunting story about cockfighting. The malodorous scents wafting through an unknown warehouse location take a young woman back in time to her childhood when her father forced her to clean up gutted roosters after a cockfight. Her living nightmare has just begun as she is abducted during a routine taxi ride and human trafficked to the highest bidder. Subtle acts of defiance help the woman as her ultimate fate is revealed by the story’s end.
The extent to which family life is interrogated as a place where evil may reside rips through a number of the stories. Monsters tells the tale of two young girls raised by their nanny, a teenager named Narcisa. The young girls enthralled with watching horror movies such as The Exorcist and The Shining resort to acting out scenes from the movies with their collection of dolls. As the sun sets, the girls implore Narcisa to sleep in their room, but she admonishes them not to fear the evils of their nightmares but the real world. The message behind this story—and which runs through the whole collection—is that things are not as they appear. Revolting acts are often committed behind closed doors.
The point of view of many of the stories is told through a child’s perspective and this is one of ways the book shatters you. Early stories such as Monsters, Griselda, Nam, Pups, and Christ are told through children at varying ages. Some of the stories reflect violence against women (Griselda) but it the child who is aghast not at the brutality inflicted against her neighbor but at the loss of the neighborhood baker who had created the most sumptuous, elaborate children’s cakes for all of the neighborhood kids. The distance between violence and the child’s perspective packs a punch. It is as if Ampuero suggests a desensitizing to violence. It becomes second nature, thus is not terribly distressing to the neighborhood kids.
Stories such as Auction, Nam, and Pups center abuse of children whether physical, emotional, or sexual. This is what is so disturbing about the storytelling—the children in these stories experience horrific sexual acts. Some of the clues in the storytelling suggest the trauma suffered by girls once they become young women. For example, in Pups, a young woman has returned to her next door neighbor’s house, the site of her repeated sexual molestation by an older neighbor boy. The years of trauma have manifest as a woman who “always says yes to men.” In short, these girls become f---d up young women. And, it seems that by using the lens of a child’s perspective, Ampuero shows us varying responses to that abuse. The children are not as aghast as are we as observers of this trauma. Trauma begets trauma unspooled in later stories.
Then late in the collection, agency shifts just as the point of view shifts to older characters. Probably the most horrific collection in this astonishing book is a scene of graphic violence and rape in the story Mourning. In spite of the vile abuse the young women endure in this story, they exact revenge. One of the abused women sits at the head of the table following the demise of the abuser. Ampuero illuminates shifting agency through seating position at the dining table. The language is spare but the meaning is potent.
The final story in the book titled Other provides a glimmer of hope for women’s futures. The setting is a grocery store where a woman is purchasing her monthly foodstuff. The extent to which she is controlled by a dominating male, her husband, becomes painfully obvious in the list of exact products he requests. In the final scenes of the story, the woman has become fed up with her abusive husband and opts out of shopping for his precious sardines, passion fruit, and flank steak. She has decided to crossover to a life on the “other” side outside the control of her husband. But this action gives hope that women can find a way out of abuse and terror at the hands of men. In this regard, this feminist book shines a light on the power expressed in a patriarchy where emotional, physical, and sexual abuse rear its head like a Hydra.
María Fernanda Ampuero
Translated from the Spanish by Frances Riddle
120 pages. 2020.
* [Each of the boldfaced words in a title of one of the 13 short stories in Maria Fernanda Ampuero’s stunning debut collection of short stories Cockfight.]