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Following her frightening, philosophical dystopian novel, Tender Is the Flesh, Agustina Bazterrica has returned to haunt our bookshelves with a short story collection, 19 Claws and a Black Bird, and it is not for the tender-hearted. Written in her deliciously dark tone, Bazterrica’s claws puncture polite society’s fragile membrane, revealing the darkness writhing beneath. The 20 stories in this slim collection are miniature masterpieces in a macabre gallery, empathetically exploring themes of loss, death, abuse, desire, and alienation.
Being human is messy and unforgiving, and Baztericca pushes her readers to run the gauntlet of emotions, carrying them along with characteristic wit. The reading of these tales, in the words of one character, is “a kind of pain incredibly close to pleasure”. Fans of Shirley Jackson, Mariana Enríquez, and Sayata Muraka will be at home with 19 Claws, which is populated by characters living in a “world that’s oppressively civilized and atrocious.” While the collection leans towards the gothic, it isn’t easily categorizable. Baztericca skillfully injects her unique voice across genres with stories that utilise dystopia, murder mystery, and absurdist themes.
While readers can make their own assumptions about which story is the titular black bird, each story is haunted by a dark act. The shortest of the collection, “The Wolf’s Breath,” is only a page long and acts as the book’s central thesis: “each of us is a wolf devouring the other in exquisite eternity.” Desire and cruelty are only a hair’s breadth apart.
For Baztericca, as long as our society to continues to operate in its current machinations, the cycle of cruelty will be perpetuated. She distils systemic injustices such as violence against women and children into singular moments, showing families, couples, and individuals fractured by abuse, shame, and trauma.
In “Roberto,” a young girl confides to her friend that she has a “bunny” growing between her legs. When her friend tells their teacher, he invites her to share Roberto with him. The stomach-churning dread builds to a rollercoaster climax — no small feat for two pages. “Earth” sees another vulnerable girl abandoned by her father’s grave, the same father who sexually abused her under her mother’s knowledge. Baztericca uncannily inhabits Camila’s perspective as she reminisces about happier times at home, but our initial perceptions are confronted with a shocking revelation leaving any kind of moral high ground hanging in the air.
There are, thankfully, several instances of comic reprieve. “Candy Pink,” which Baztericca dedicates to her sister and girlfriends, sees a woman in the aftermath of a breakup following an increasingly unhinged how-to guide she writes for herself. The imperative language puts the reader in the protagonist’s emotional state while knowingly indulging in a few stereotypes: “Open a bag of Kellogg’s crisps and munch on them compulsively. Experience a void caused by the lack of structure and certainty when it comes to love in the universe.”
In “Perfect Symmetry”, a man is being held prisoner for reasons the reader isn’t privy to and is awaiting his assassination by the mysterious “Twenty-Seven.” Ahead of his untimely end, he has bartered access to a kitchen to cook his last meal. He painstakingly and precisely prepares his crêpes with the same grandeur as somebody on Chef’s Table. Through revealing his death in the story’s second paragraph, Baztericca aligns our focus with the cook’s — death is inevitable but a good crêpe makes it all worthwhile.
Several characters are doomed to perhaps justifiable, Sisyphean repetition, as a result of their obsessions. One woman is so possessed by meeting the unrealistic beauty standards enforced on women’s bodies, that she turns herself into a circle. She goes beyond losing weight, severing limbs and more to achieve her goal. A standout story, “Elena-Marie Sandoz,”, sees one person’s obsession with the titular character — a dead cult film star — begin to unravel in a Hitchcock-esque noir as the lines between self and another blur.
In “Anita and Happiness,” Pablo is in a relationship with a woman he both desires and despises. Nit-picking Anita’s idiosyncrasies, he convinces himself that she must be from another planet or some sort of robot. Anita’s behaviour is downright weird to him. Not only is she good at her job — she has an exceptional memory and can recite chapters of complex text at will — but, shockingly, seems disinterested in having sex with him. Women, eh?
The reader is invited to laugh at Pablo, who goes to great lengths to be on the “lookout for mechanisms, hidden buttons, [and] hatches” to justify his theory. Yet the only mystery is how he manages to have a girlfriend in the first place. When Anita leaves him, returning to Planet X he presumes, he picks up another woman who he initially mistakes for Anita although she is prettier, even though she too is an alien. Thus, Pablo is doomed, in one of the book’s gentler fates, to have women leave due to his misogynistic, paranoid behaviours.
19 Claws is full of heightened circumstances that invoke initial black-and-white moral judgments that are suddenly upended, asking the reader to reckon with their discernment. Baztericca’s slippery characters draw us in easily, they are wolves in sheep’s clothing, proclaiming to be good people while behaving quite differently. Her writing “leaves a permanent, invisible stain” because she deals in situational extremes, showing us one thing and then pulling the rug out from under our feet.
While 19 Claws and a Black Bird could never be described as comfortable reading, Baztericca’s devilish conundrums will have readers asking what on earth they just read, but then what on earth would they do, if they ended up in these stories themselves?
By Agustina Bazterrica
Translated from Spanish by Sarah Moses
Pushkin Press, 192 pages
Jennifer Brough (she/they) is a slow writer and workshop facilitator based in Nottingham. She is working on her first poetry pamphlet, Occult Pain, which explores the body, pain, and gender through a magical, disability justice lens. She is also the founding member of resting up collective, an interdisciplinary sick group of artists that offers workshops on rest and creativity. Find her on Instagram @occultpain