The characters in Cristina Peri Rossi’s stories, as found in the collection The Museum of Useless Efforts, inhabit limited worlds–either self-created or dictated by fate–in which they feel safe and secure because the many choices of everyday life have been reduced to a manageable few or have been eliminated entirely. But to call these brief fictions “stories” is to misrepresent what they do. Beginning with the tiniest of inspirations, they patiently explain a situation, or describe a character, or define a relationship. Once the situation or character or relationship is fully envisioned, the fiction is over. No “story” as such develops.
The title piece tells of a visitor to a museum where humanity’s useless efforts have been recorded in great dusty volumes. These efforts are categorized by year and by type, some years consisting of many volumes. The narrator–all of Peri Rossi’s narrators are nameless and, in many cases, genderless as well–comes to the museum each day to spend hours reading over the useless efforts of one year or another and to chat with Virginia, the museum’s one and only employee. The useless efforts recorded within the museum range from a man who wasted twenty years trying to win the love of a woman, to a man who spent ten years fruitlessly teaching his dog to speak. There is the dwarf who searched for a doctor to make him taller; explorers who sought nonexistent places; people who tried desperately to trace their family trees or to win the lottery. “Some of the useless efforts are beautiful, others somber,” the narrator says. “We don’t always agree about their classification.” The relationship between the narrator–one of the museum’s few visitors--and Virginia–its only clerk--becomes the focus of this surreal tale: “I’ve invited her to take a walk in the city, to go out for coffee or to the movies. But she doesn’t want to. Only inside the gray, dusty walls of the museum is she willing to talk with me.” And so this useless, ongoing effort to establish a friendship, taking place within the museum’s own walls, will one day become part of the museum’s archives.
Another self-contained world with little variation is found in the story “Instructions for Getting Out of Bed,” in which the narrator explains the detailed plans necessary before he can muster up the courage to climb out of bed. The room’s furniture must be moved out of his way, a warning sign placed on the bedroom door to keep visitors out, children and animals must not be running loose, and the wardrobe’s mirror must be turned aside. “Failing to avoid the mirror,” he explains, “means I could be improperly reflected, shown someone I don’t recognize myself in.” Only when all the particulars are correct can the narrator rise and stand for a brief time before the view from the window drives him back to bed once more. Getting out of bed is a rare occurrence for the narrator, whose numerous fears paralyze him into inaction. Usually he stays in bed and allows his family to care for him: “They treat me like a broken doll, a machine that’s out of order.” And yet this humiliating and stifling existence is better than being overwhelmed by the world, intimidated by it, frightened by the complexities of its nature.
A similar desire to bring order and control to one’s life by making that life claustrophobically small is found in “Casting Daisies to the Swine.” Here, a young boy lives in a permanently overcast landscape where he has chosen to feed his family’s pigs the daisies which grow in a nearby meadow. When asked by his mother–the only other character--why he does this, he waxes philosophically: “I pick the daisies and they grow back again.” As for the pigs, “they don’t even know they’re pigs or that they eat daisies, and all that ignorance helps them devour the flowers, which are easy for me to raise.” This safe little world requires so little of its inhabitants, and offers so static a future to them, that, aside from a description of the situation her characters are in, Peri Rossi develops no plot to this story. Nothing happens beyond the simple relationship between the boy and the pigs he feeds.
It is this still-life quality that often gives Peri Rossi’s stories a luminous, near-allegorical feel, especially in the stories where works of art–paintings and sculptures–are used to describe characters or their situations. In “At the Hairdresser,” the salon customers are seen in profile, “as happens with the figures in the Leonor Fini painting, The Permanent Miters.” “Mona Lisa” is concerned with an obsessive admirer of the famous painting, while the plot for “Notes on a Journey” hinges on a “seaside landscape painted by Salomon van Ruysdael.” The story “Statues, or, Being a Foreigner” tells of a visitor to a strange town that, although without buildings, nonetheless contains a town square filled with statues. Arranged in circles, these statues form their own self-contained groups from which the visitor feels himself excluded, a foreigner. “At the heart of being a foreigner,” the visitor concludes, “is a void, not being recognized by those who occupy a place solely by virtue of their occupying it.”
Peri Rossi is a Uruguayan writer who lives in political exile in Spain. Her tales of alienation can be read as renderings of the psychological effects of living under dictatorship and totalitarianism, though she is rarely so crass as to openly introduce her political views into her fiction. "The Inconclusive Journey," the story of a doomed ocean liner, is a rare exception where Peri Rossi depicts characters rebelling against their fate. The story begins: "Pandemonium broke out when it was discovered we were on a one-way voyage to nowhere." But though the passengers want to do something about their desperate situation, all their efforts are directed in wrong directions. They elect a captain; they create an organizational chart; they insist upon "not losing hope"; the band members are ordered to wear smart uniforms; a formal dance is organized--all of which does nothing to prevent the inevitable sinking of the ship with all aboard. "Useless efforts" indeed.
In the end, Peri Rossi’s brief stories are surreal portraits of individuals either too afraid to challenge the restrictions of life and society or ignorant of useful actions they might undertake to free themselves. As such, the best of these stories serve as little mirrors in which we may for a moment catch a glimpse of our own fear-ridden, desperate faces.