>The New Yorker: "Vast Hell" by Guillermo Martínez

>Oooh, a nice twist here, and so I’ll try not to reveal too much of the plot. The narrator works in the grocery store and occasionally thinks back to the arrival of nameless young man. The village is full of gossips—there’s little else to do—and so when the wife of one of the barbers in town seems to take a shine to the boy, there is talk. It doesn’t help that the woman, known as “the French Woman,” is already under a cloud of suspicion, especially by the women of the village. Beside this nice conflict, there is the battle between the two barbers in the village, each outdoing the other with service, perks of various kinds, color T.V., etc. But then the boy and the French Woman disappear, and half the town figures they just ran off together and the other half figures that the barber did away with them somehow.

And that’s where I’ll leave the discussion. It’s short. Read it.

Although I call the ending a twist, it is not at all an incredible twist, and in fact, on rereading, there are clues, or at least there is a foundation, and that’s what makes the ending satisfying.

It’s a good, meaty story, I think.

April 27, 2009: “Vast Hell” by Guillermo Martínez

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  1. >I could be wrong about this, but I believe the bodies were a mass grave for citizens executed by the military dictatorship. There is one earlier mention of the military banning porn, and I assume that’s there to tell us that they run, or ran, the country. As for the boy–he left. Or in fact he ran off with the French Woman and she came back when they split up.

  2. >Why do you call the ending a ‘twist’ then? The military performing mass executions has no bearing on the immediate plot, right?

    I was suspecting something more sinister with the activities in Cervino’s barbershop. There’s references to drugs (people gossip that the boy and the French Woman were high on the beach), prostitution (the French Woman is always wearing makeup at the shop, men are trying to prove their ‘virility’ and the rival barbershop shop includes ‘porno’ magazines as a ‘competitive’ measure). Also, the opening quote in the story is strongly suggestive of the the moral corruption in small towns.

    That being said, I don’t really understand the ending. Oh, well, I suppose the beauty of the short story is that it doesn’t have to resolve itseld.

  3. >The mass executions provide a deeper meaning to disappearances and retribution, however, so although they aren’t part of the plot they are part of the meaning.

    I thought of it as a twist because it doesn’t have a direct relevance to the vanishing of the boy and the French Woman, and because we are meant to expect that their bodies will be discovered there.

    The opening quotation could also mean that hell has come to this small town in the form of the mass grave.

    Or not. As you say, the openness of a short story can be a great thing.

  4. >Gotcha … You’re probably right. Nice to hear your views.

    I read the New Yorker short story every week but this is the first time I’ve had a chance to discuss one 🙂

  5. >Very good story. Clifford, I think your analysis is spot on. To me, the story is also a cautionary moral tale about (not necessarily) small town rumor-mongering and the destruction it can cause (though in this case the barber is “lucky”).

  6. >I thought the point was that there are some narratives of murder that are intriguing, that inspire interest, gossip, etc. – perhaps because they are only fictional or virtual – versus the horrible unmentionable brutality of what people (and in this case a military dictatorship) have actually done to others

  7. >I just read this piece for a point of view class. I believe he is writing about the "secret death camps" in Argentina during the "Dirty War." This sets the story at around 1978, during the year Argentina not only hosted the World Cup, but won it.


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