Luces de emergencia by Oswaldo Estrada

Luces de emergencia. Oswaldo Estrada. Granada: Valparaíso Ediciones, 2019. 92 pages.

Peruvian-American Oswaldo Estrada’s new collection of stories presents itself as a great repertoire of bodies. Some are exhibited in a showcase of delicate short pieces which eventually explode (given their accumulation), leaving us with possibly useful pieces to represent “the great human tragedy.” Once we have done the work of rearranging them once again, we realize that each story-body is part of a greater whole, and it is possible that by the end we will be embroidering a great Renaissance tapestry, one in which woman and man would be not only the center, but also possibly kaleidoscopes, if you draw close to really LOOK.

Each one of the stories which I will briefly review is an individual universe. Among them there are no shared plots or characters that cross from one to the other. However, the notion of travel is continually expressed as we delve into the book and its heroes/antiheroes and heroines/antiheroines, who move from childhood or early youth (in the first stories) to senescence (in the last ones). They are not the same, but something about them exudes continuity.

In “Ganar la guerra” [Winning the war], Estrada condenses two of his most recurring bodies within the repertoire into the character of the boy Demetrio: that of the migrant and that of the diverse functional subject. It is a diversity that, in this case, has become associated with trauma provoked by the torture of war. It is a mutilation that is wrenching, while signifying the silence to which the life of an exile is so often reduced.

“El otro mar” [The other sea] presents a body that is not yet so vulnerable, but equally insistent if we think about the uncomfortable “otherness” to which migrants are ordinarily reduced: “Me fastidia que la gente quiera averiguar de dónde soy apenas abro la boca, cuando mi nombre les crea cierta molestia en la lengua y el paladar” [It bothers me that people want to know where I am from as soon as I open my mouth, when my name creates a certain discomfort on the tongue and palate] (21). However, there is also a splendid display of humor in this piece, of a nostalgia (love) for Peru that is not afraid to say its name, and a lovely appearance of the Pan-Latin community in the United States, as the best homeland in the face of the possibility of no return.

With “El otro mar,” Estrada also introduces one of the great symbolic successes of Luces de emergencia [Emergency lights]: a catalog of positionings that help us decipher the character of the father (and as we will later see, the mother as well). There is an intense relationship with this character that is, in reality, a riddle because he is at times abandonment, nostalgia, hate, and impossible reconciliation, and at other times shelter and homeland. As I said before, these characters must be viewed as kaleidoscopes.

For the same reason, “La carga de los sueños” [The burden of dreams] again shows Estrada’s interest in these diverse functional subjects; asking us, one more time, about the absurdity of existence while bringing us back to a father who, in this case, is not elusive or evocative, but loving. The ending, which I will not disclose, seems to be the most organic of solutions with which the author could cause us to shudder.

The short works which follow, “Náufragos en la ciudad” [Castaways in the city] and “La tercera profecía” [The third prophecy]—as well as another which appears in the second half of the book, “Volver a la tierra” [Return to land]—emphasize this repertoire of bodies I have been talking about. They are not only diverse bodies in their respective functionalities, but are also frankly sicknesses. There is a clear association between nomadism, migration, and travel—these being the clearly defined and unchangeable semes of the book—as well as sickness. They can be women or men, but in their displacement they are two equally possible types: either a somatization of trauma (exiles, migrants) or a search for a cure through travel (nomads, wanderers).

In the specific case of “La tercera profecía,” this other man who is ill tries to find a respectable exit with a trip to India—a space that is not explicitly stated, but can be deduced through clear references. Perhaps this is the most Renaissance of all of his stories in the way it causes us to participate in the pain of a man who dies while “seeing” grotesque images. Here there is a sort of tacit homage to Rabelais as well as a highly disturbing anxiety that becomes a list of questions for the reader. Among these, there is one which stands out: what is allowed and what is not in terms of images in this oversaturated world of landscapes, at times insipid, in which that precept of man as the focus seems to fade no matter how much he is placed in the center of the camera? Likewise, it occurs to me that his “Come. Caga. Y Duerme” [Eat. Shit. And sleep] (45) is a parody of the famous Eat. Pray. Love with which Elizabeth Gilbert so foolishly entertained us years ago. Oswald Estrada’s protagonist is one who can record his own illness while knowing that death, the failure of the journey, is his only destiny.

I also read three of these stories in a tripartite way, in the style of “the garden of forking paths”: “Salida de emergencia [Emergency exit], “Cuento de hadas” [Fairytale], and “Mole para ratas” [Mole for rats]. In the first one, the narrator zooms in on and lends relevance to abused women, those who were not able to be rescued (or rescue themselves) and therefore could not even save their own children. Here the complex figure of the father returns to the horror zone. Meanwhile, in “Cuento de hadas,” it is maternal perversity that is denounced. Mothers who try to produce daughters who are miniature versions of themselves, without identities, and from whom one can only be saved by escape. He parodies fairy tales in order to reflect their dysfunction. Meanwhile, in “Mole para ratas,” redemption finally appears: female justice warriors who have decided to put a stop to extortion and derision, whom we will call “domestic founders of #metoo.”

“Los placeres de la carne” [The pleasures of the flesh] is adorably entertaining. The appearance of several lesbian girls who are dysfunctional and dramatic, as we are (I can attest), actually conveys a call to the weight of culture in the context of migration and exile. The character of the mother is one who here comes to be rescued while rescuing with flavorful delight, the performance of a besieged identity that is, above all, the history and pride of a race. The call for a return to the tribe could not be given more gladly or accurately.

With “A falta de cielo” [In the absence of heaven], Estrada bids us farewell, and with this last story he reminds us of what we have always known: death is our inevitable fatum and the journey towards it will be filled with both joy and pain. If the book in its entirety takes material and symbolic journeys to the world of sickness, this story also reveals their destination and that of their characters; the extreme right side of that giant tapestry that in an estimated eighty pages (or years?) we will begin to embroider together. The narrator’s voice dissolves, proposing an extreme and pending debate about the (un)desirability that establishes power in the presence of senile bodies. Without propaganda, it offers us a reflection about euthanasia as a dignified way out for these bodies, and about the social impossibility of caring for them. In a tremendous change of signs, the same thinker who has been talking to us, mothers and fathers, begins to confront us with children and their absence; that is, with ourselves.

Mabel Cuesta
University of Houston

Translated by Ardyn Clayton

Ardyn Clayton is currently pursuing an MA in English-Spanish Translation and Interpretation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California. She previously attended Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, where she obtained a BA in Spanish before deciding to pursue translation and interpretation at Middlebury.


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Other Reviews in this Issue

Ojo de agua
Luces de emergencia
La casa de Moravia


LALT No. 14
Number 14

The fourteenth issue of Latin American Literature Today features dossiers dedicated to the dislocated writing of Latin American authors based in the United States and the gothic fiction of Mariana Enriquez, plus reflections on writing in a second language by Fabio Morábito, an interview with 2019 Alfaguara Prize winner Patricio Pron, and exclusive translation previews from Guadalupe Nettel, Gabriela Wiener, and Luis Alejandro Ordóñez.

Table of Contents

Editor's Note

Featured Author: Mariana Enriquez

Dislocating Writing: Latin America Rewrites Estados Unidos





Brazilian Literature

Indigenous Literature

Translation Previews and New Releases

On Translation: Seeking Publisher

Nota Bene