Elvira Navarro

On Fantasy, the Quotidian, and Fear

02/19/2020 · By Carmen R. Cuesta
elvira navarro
In the short stories of Huelva-born writer Elvira Navarro the quotidian and the extraordinary coexist. © Asís Ayerbe

The author of 'La isla de los conejos' (Rabbit Island) took up writing to create worlds like the ones she encountered in her readings. Today, the unique universe of her short stories has become a complex scenery in which nothing is what is seems, in which the abnormal coexists with the quotidian. Come in and read. 

In the worlds created by Elvira Navarro (Huelva, 1978), especially in her short stories, the characters inhabit complex, markedly fantastic environments, often uncomfortable for the reader, and riddled with anomalies that cast a shadow on daily life.

That combination of the ordinary and the disturbing pervades her latest offering, La isla de los conejos (Literatura Random House), a collection of 11 short stories —chosen best book in its category in 2019 fusing the normal with the unusual. In the short story that lends its name to the book, an inventor alters the ecosystem in order to wipe out a bird species nobody can name; in “La habitación de arriba” (The room upstairs), the leading character dreams the dreams of others, while in “Myotragus”, the whim of an archduke presumably causes the extinction of a half-goat, half-rat creature.  

“I don’t endeavour to find the abnormal,” she says, laughing. “I think everyday things can be very strange, if you come to think of it. Life itself is a bit weird, isn’t it?”, she explains. “What are we humans doing on this planet in the middle of the universe, in such a sophisticated and complex system, unaware of where we are going or where we come from? The vital connection that exists among human beings is in itself strange. That vital strangeness is my premise, so the abnormal comes about effortlessly. It is that strangeness what makes me draw plots for my short stories that drift into fantasy somehow.” 

“Vital strangeness is my premise, so the abnormal comes about effortlessly. It is that strangeness what makes me draw plots for my short stories that drift into fantasy somehow”

The author of the novels including La trabajadora and Los últimos días de Adelaida García Morales is adept at recreating everyday fears and how they reveal themselves psychologically. But it is specially in her short stories where intensity, the unsettling and the fantastic become most noticeable. In “Paris Phériphérie”, the inability of the female character to find a building —something quotidian and common—, even though she has the address, is an expression of her inability to advance in any vital direction. “In a short story you can’t develop conflicts as thoroughly as you do when you think about them. They are implicit, which makes it all more cryptic. I think short stories, despite them being fiction, are quite often closer to poetry,” she adds.

That difference is also clear in the way Navarro faces a blank page: “For me, writing a short story is much more intuitive. Many times, it catches me by surprise. I have an idea, I sit to write, but I don’t know where it’s taking me until I write the last word. However, in a novel, although there are parts that are also intuitive to write, it’s all much more meditated. You read and read again; you try the structure… For me, there’s something much more mysterious about short stories.”  

Into the Maze 

In Elvira Navarro’s universe, conflict, mystery and fear coexist, creating a space where characters are frequently faced with a loss of control over their lives —which she stages in an unlikely, fantastic way—, and with the emotional maze that entails. But, does Elvira Navarro have control over what she writes, as some of her sometimes uncomfortable atmospheres reveal? “Marguerite Duras said in her book Writing that if she knew what she was going to write before writing it, she wouldn’t write anything because it would have already been written. I think that’s what happens in the writing process, or at least that’s what happens to me — I’m impelled to write so I can discover a universe I still don’t quite know what it’s about.”

“I’m impelled to write so I can discover a universe I still don’t quite know what it’s about”

Elvira recounts how one summer when she was 11 and being at her grandmother’s, after having spent the whole afternoon reading, she realized that she wanted to become a writer so she could create the same worlds she encountered in her readings. Today she has become a key figure in Spanish literature, with characters facing fears she defines as social constructions. “Most of our fears are fabrications coming from culture and the media, for example that the street is an unsafe place,” she explains. 

This coincides, Elvira says, with the fact that “we’re leaving our homes less and less, abandoning street life. Even new neighbourhoods are being built as closed blocks. All this is symptomatic of a society that is being built on fear about a threat that isn’t there.” And this, in the era of social media, creates that kind of psychological maze that is common to her short stories. In “Memorial”, the female character receives a friend request on Facebook from her dead mother — the confusion between the real world and the psychological realm is total. 

Fear is the most effective control tool there is today since it leads people to exercise self-control over themselves. Think, for example, of self-censorship or the fear of being lynched online: everything is trivialized and decontextualized. Some people are labelled on the basis of a fragment that becomes a prejudice against that person,” she says. That’s precisely where the psychological terror and the strangeness of the quotidian that pervades the work of this storyteller lies. “The world is like a snake biting its own tail — there is no way you can think with a prejudiced mind.”