His Days are Numbered
José María Merino
El libro de las horas contadas
El libro de las horas contadas [The Book of Numbered Hours / Hours Recounted] is José María Merino’s latest contribution to Spanish microfiction. The collection brings together seventy-three stories that range in length from one to several pages, and vary in form from a tale told in a single sentence to a novel with more than a dozen tiny chapters, and frames and organises the minicuentos or short-short stories with a variety of innovative techniques. The book’s title exploits the dual meaning of contar: to enumerate and to narrate, to count and to recount. It also plays on the set phrase tener las horas contadas (as in, ‘tiene las horas contadas’: his days are numbered). The idiom encapsulates the circumstances of the book’s main, and authorial character, Pedro, who finds his own days to be numbered as he faces major surgery and a grim prognosis. With a heightened sense of mortality, he redoubles his activities as a writer, recording his whimsical fictions in the time he has left. Pedro’s brief stories and the framing narratives that recount his fantasy-infused domestic life are the pieces which make up El libro de las horas contadas.
The book’s title also recalls medieval books of hours, the little collections of scriptural excerpts, litanies, prayers, and hymns used for private devotion. Just as a devotional book of hours constituted a carefully structured assembly of short pieces designed to stimulate sustained, meditative reading, so too does Merino’s collection invite thoughtful attention to its constituent, microfictional parts, as well as their relation to the larger, unified whole. The apparent jumble of the texts masks an architectural precision in their arrangement. The stories that recount Pedro’s diegetic present alternate with clusters of minicuentos, presumably from Pedro’s pen. As a visual guide, alternating serif and sans serif fonts serve to distinguish the two categories of text. Like an individual psalm in a medieval book of hours, each story in Merino’s compilation is potentially discrete yet also interrelated with the others. One can read each story on its own or in relation to the rest of the collection.
On one level, the interconnected nature of the narratives is most apparent in the minicuentos that deal with Pedro’s suspicions of a love triangle involving his wife, his best friend, and himself. The short-short stories grant him a canvas on which to skew the triangle in various ways and to imagine alternative endings for the suspected affairs,. At the same time, his allegations, although presented as literary fictions, have ‘real world’ repercussions for his relationships in the diegetic present. More subtly, Merino sets up resonances among fantasies and fictions across the discrete narratives. One minicuento (part of a cluster suggestively titled ‘Anderseniana’) features a lecturer who hypothesizes that Hans Christian Andersen, if he had found himself in a similar situation, would have invented a tale of frustrated love among the personified water bottles on his podium. The hypothesis, in effect, plays out before the lecturer’s audience, as the bottles mysteriously cuddle and compete in a vitreous love triangle which echoes Pedro’s own.
Merino has previously used organizational techniques and metaliterary metaphors for the short-short story to provide structure and coherence for his collections of microfiction. The 100 minicuentos in his Días imaginarios (Imaginary Days (2002)) include one story for each of the twelve months, as well as stories related to seasons and Spanish holidays in the order of the calendar year. Similarly, in Cuentos del libro de la noche (Stories from the Bedside Book (2005)), Merino orders his narratives according to the hours between midnight and dawn, assigning titles in the form of clock times to texts arranged at intervals throughout the collection. Palabras en la nieve: Un filand√≥n (Words in the Snow: A Filand√≥n (2007)), a collaborative effort with Luis Mateo Díez and Juan Pedro Aparicio, employs one of Merino’s favourite tropes for the microfictional enterprise: the filand√≥n, a traditional winter gathering in Le√≥n in which villagers spun yarns, both real and metaphorical.
Calling the anthology a filand√≥n draws attention to its collective nature, its array of narrative voices, and the folktale-like form which its authors strive to recreate. But El libro de las horas contadas combines elements both of temporal ordering and metaliterary self-definition more effectively and fittingly than Merino’s previous collections. Here, the entire collection is set in what may be the final summer of a terminally ill writer and this framing device permits a convincing portrayal of uncertain recollections, delirium, and transitions between waking and dreaming—Merino’s preferred catalysts for fantasy in microfiction. It also serves to unite the characters through gatherings of friends and family, which allow oral and written stories to be exchanged within a community. The result is the most successful of Merino’s attempts to approximate the ethos of a filand√≥n.
The title’s allusion to books of hours and Merino’s evocation of bygone filandones represent a crucial dimension of his microfiction. For Merino, minicuentos are at once innovative and derivative; they are part of a vogue that invites experimentation and also part of a tradition that includes the earliest oral tales. It is to this tale tradition that Merino returns at the close of the collection. He does not offer a fairytale ending, but rather an ending of fairytales. Pedro’s last minicuentos encourage his granddaughter to reimagine the story of Little Red Riding Hood from the perspective of grandmotherly wolves and to imagine time as a physical palace in need of maintenance. In the end, the tensions of the alleged love triangle remain unresolved and we do not know if Pedro will live beyond his surgery. Yet the ending imparts a sense of perpetuation. From what we know of the granddaughter’s own capacity for storytelling, we can infer that her participation signals a sustained, rejuvenating engagement with her grandfather’s texts. The implication stands as a narrative corollary of Merino’s own artistry. With El libro de las horas contadas, Merino remains at the vanguard of innovation in the hyper-abbreviated form while pointing to the age-old roots of narrative traditions.
Merino’s microfiction is available in English in the bilingual Words in the Snow / Palabras en la nieve: A Filand√≥n, trans. Simon Breden Santos (Hastings: ChristieBooks, 2007).
Tyler Fisher is Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Royal Holloway, University of London, and Lecturer in Spanish at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.