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A lack of character
By Steven Martinovich
Compelling characters are crucial to pulling a reader into the world of a story. Stories may not exist without plot -- though as The Sun Also Rises proved, perhaps the best example of the plot-less story, it's occasionally pulled off successfully -- but the lack of fully realized characters tends to make such stories like homes with no furniture. The house may look beautiful from the street but is deathly dull once entered.
Antipodes, a collection of short stories by Mexican writer Ignacio Padilla, is frustratingly neither a failure nor a success. The collection, originally published in 2001 before being translated into English year this year, is made up of 12 stories that pit men in opposition to their quests against the backdrop of colonialism. The protagonists are nearly exclusively Western, the environments primarily the far-flung eastern reaches of the 19th century British Empire and all arguably fine testaments to the folly of man.
Padilla is a co-founder of Mexico's Crack movement, an attempt by that nation's young writers to rebel against the folkloric literary tradition that is best known by authors like García Márquez, in attempt to promote more universal ideas and approaches in Mexican literature. Although Mexico's colonial past and recent attempts at modernization are often fodder for her writers, Padilla's Antipodes moves the debate half-way across the world, proving that some struggles do not change regardless of where they take place.
There is the Scottish engineer saved by a tribe in the Gobi Desert and who inspires the rebuilding of Edinburgh among the dunes. The British official who struggles vainly to get the trains running on schedule in Rhodesia only to find out his promise to do so seals his fate. A monk in the desert decides to prove the existence of the devil by conjuring him and an angel to debate theology. A pilot with a taste for women's clothing attempts to climb Mount Everest and becomes world famous when he mysteriously disappears, but not before leaving something that is found later by another explorer.
Although the stories themselves are written with a subtle agility and obvious skill -- and are translated beautifully by Alastair Reid -- many in the end are little more than empty vessels. Instead of allowing his characters to speak with their own voices, justifying their existences and explaining the reasons for their futile quests, Padilla spends most of his time quietly debating their actions. They exist not to help propel the story forward, but rather for Padilla to weigh ideas.
As a fault it's not the worst that a writer could engage in, after all there is always a struggle to weigh the need for insight along with entertainment. Thanks to Padilla's skill, a reader might not even notice that the characters scarcely exist except at the barely minimum necessary level. Eventually, however, even the most forgiving reader will begin to wonder why these characters needed to be dreamed into existence and why they are on the paths they have taken. Unless, of course, they are here only to be used by Padilla to be smashed against the rocks of the points he is trying to make. If that's the case, Padilla chose the wrong format to engage in his debate.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.
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