by Ignacio Padilla
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
132 pages, 2004
Postcards From the Other Side of the Century
Reviewed by David Abrams
Though they don't make appearances in Ignacio Padilla's collection of stories, Antipodes, the reader would not be surprised to see Robert E. Peary, Henry Morton Stanley or Captain Richard Francis Burton pop up somewhere in these pages. Like those 19th- and early-20th-century adventurers, Padilla's tales feature men exploring the boundaries of known civilization, as well as the limits to which a person can be pushed.
These are short stories -- 12 crowded into 132 pages -- which are snapshots of a 19th-century world where a hallucinating Scottish engineer imagines rebuilding the city of Edinburgh in the middle of the Gobi Desert, a medical scientist finds a plague journal in the Amazon jungle (with deadly results), a cross-dresser dying of tuberculosis tries to scale Mount Everest ("a voluptuous high-heeled shoe" is later found a few paces from Sir Edmund Hillary's summit flag) and a British colonel in charge of the railway in Rhodesia is determined to get the trains running on schedule -- if not, he'll shoot himself in the smoking room of the Hotel Prince Albert.
As the title indicates, these stories place men at the opposite poles of the earth in their quests. Padilla, a Mexican author whose previous work in English was the 2002 novel Shadow Without a Name, writes in a carefully-crafted style reminiscent of these travelers, isolated in the jungle or halfway up Everest, feverishly scribbling longhand in journals, all the time with an eye on prosperity and ego-driven immortality. They should have saved their ink. Padilla's main goal seems to be pointing out the folly and insignificance of mankind. The Anglo characters in these vignettes are nearly always defeated by disease, natives or the wrath of nature.
It's hard, really, to call these stories stories since most of them are filled with expository material. Dialogue, action and conflict are sacrificed in favor of long stretches of fable-like prose about colonialism, industrial progress and megalomania.
One of the book's several problems lies in the fact that these are not so much characters as they are blurred human shapes, as indistinct and superficial as names in a history textbook. In these truncated morality tales, people take a backseat to thought and philosophical debate.
In theory, there's nothing wrong with that -- Diderot, Borges and Calvino all excelled at this in one way or another -- but in practice, it's difficult to pull off successfully. How to keep the reader entertained while making him think? While he may be a competent (perhaps even brilliant) wordsmith, Padilla fails to engage the reader where it matters most: at the character level.
History, not people, is at the forefront of Antipodes. Because each story sends the reader to a new, far-flung locale, the collection also functions as a sort of travelogue. Unfortunately, the stories are like stickers on the side of a steamer trunk. We know where the traveler has been, but those stickers won't tell us the interesting stories of his journeys. | July 2004
David Abrams is a January Magazine contributing editor. He has written for Esquire, Glimmer Train Stories, The Greensboro Review, The Readerville Journal and other literary magazines.