Friday, 24 October 2014

Laugh and the Ghosts Laugh with You

Wenceslao Fernández Flórez (1885~1964) was a distinguished Spanish scholar, journalist and wit. He began submitting poems and stories to the local newspaper at the tender age of fifteen, he was editor of another paper by the time he was eighteen, and his first novel was published when he was twenty-five years old. Fernández Flórez wrote numerous books and hundreds of articles, and I'd never heard of him until I happened to come across his small volume of ghosts stories.

Laugh and the Ghosts Laugh with You was published by British Technical and General Press in 1951, translated from the original Spanish by Henry Baerlein, who added a short introduction. It was first published as Fantasmas in 1930.

There are seven tales in the collection, the first one being 'Twentieth Century', a tale about three very different ghosts who are trying to make their way in the modern world. Flapp, possessed of a melancholy lankiness, is a traditional sort of ghost. He was once the respected and feared ghost of the castle of Onclers, but he was forced out of his home when it was converted into a saw-mill by unbelieving villains who were not worthy of looking at him. Gip, with his flabby cheeks and podgy stomach, is a ghost who has retained his mortal form, though in a somewhat discoloured state. A sinful earthbound spirit, he used to live in a cinema, where he attended matinees and evening performances, until it was burnt down. Tur, gauze-like and mysterious, looks to have been created out of a shred of mist. He used to inhabit the skies, but was evicted from his natural environment by aeroplanes and radio waves. Bombarded with noise and voices, he was prevented from maintaining his ghostly dignity and induced to dance to the modern music sent out over the airwaves by the orchestra of the Savoy Hotel.

We follow their exploits as they try, separately, to find new homes in Spain, America and England. Tur finds himself at the mercy of a group of London psychical investigators, who are intent on investigating the paranormal to within an inch of its life. Their interrogation of him is extremely amusing.

Often in Fernández Flórez's stories, it is human beings interfering in the doings of spirits that causes all the trouble, rather than ghosts interfering in the affairs of the living.'The Demeanour of a Corpse' begins with the employees of El Gran Chaco gathered together for a séance. The ghost of João Pinto, who is minding his own business on his way from Evora to Stockholm, is stopped dead in his tracks, forced to descend from the air, then pulled into the company of the congregated spiritualists.
'Nothing could have caused more exasperation to João Pinto in his ghostly state than the duty of lifting tables in obedience to the wishes of a group of idlers and of replying to all the stupid questions they might put to him. This burden which in his non-human existence he had to bear aroused in him a furious resentment, and a good many other ghosts have similar views.'
I like Fernández Flórez's dark sense of humour and his use of irony. Take, for example, the following passage from 'The Highway', which is a rather short tale about a drunk driver, Cesar Vidal, who kills four members of the Cañavates family:
'It must be said on behalf of this expert driver that in exterminating the four Cañavates he was listening to the voice of his own clemency. A hard-hearted person would not have killed more than two Cañavates. Cesar Vidal destroyed them all - owing to his excess of sentimentality.'
Fernández Flórez's ghosts aren't scary; they're not meant to be. They are characterful, often more so than the living, they are philosophical, and comical. A recurring theme of the stories is the folly of man, which the ghosts often highlight. Not that the ghosts in the stories are above folly; my favourite of all Fernández Flórez's stories is the shortest in the book, 'The Case of the Defunct Pedroso', which is about a ghost who won't rest until he gets his photograph in an illustrated newspaper.

Laugh and the Ghosts Laugh with You, complete with dustjacket, sells for about twenty to thirty pounds (that's 35 to 50 dollars) for a very good copy with its dust jacket. You can expect to pay up to eighty pounds (about 135 dollars) for a fine copy. The first Spanish edition, Fantasmas, seems to cost about the same, but I've yet to find one with a dust jacket.

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