In an age where the isolating effects of social media are continuously analyzed, the short story collection Hi, This is Conchita by Peruvian writer Santiago Roncagliolo offers an encompassing view of the ways we become detached from intimacy and the painful, misguided ways in which we attempt to retrieve it. The book is composed of four thematically dark but sentimental stories that read like soft requiems for human connection. The collection also highlights Roncagliolo’s literary virtuosity, as he moves from an opening story told entirely through dialogue to more traditional forms of narrative that become increasingly brief and concentrated.
The titular story, “Hi, This is Conchita,” is raunchy and hilarious with jabs taken at popular Meg Ryan movies, secret sexual kinks, and messages of desperation that make the worst drunk-dialed, post-break up calls you’ve ever heard seem level-headed in comparison. The entire story is told through dialogue—answering machine messages from obsessive ex-lovers, conversations between sex phone operators and their clientele, a married man and his mistress and, later, the hitman he hires to murder her. It would be easy to write off most of the characters as psychotic, and in a couple of cases it would be entirely justified, but the underlying issues provoking their frantic and lonely outbursts speak to larger topics in modern day relationships that are fragmentally formed. If there is truth in all humor, “Hi, This is Conchita” reveals the brutal honesty of laughter’s dark underside and the absurdity of what comforts us.
We are led into “Despoiler,” a story of a downbeat woman named Carmen who is about to turn 40 and who is trying to accept the solitude of her life and what she perceives as her own mediocrity. Dreading attempts by co-workers to celebrate her birthday and drawing her own questionable lines between “comradeship and emotional blackmail,” we consume her fearful rationale for closing herself off from the people she is surrounded by. The story spins into a Freudian kaleidoscope of recollections, free associations and nightmares that are focused on her childhood and her mother. This story is the most predictable in the collection, but dreamlike imagery and psychological revelation give the story its texture and depth. The ambivalence of Carmen towards other people is also keenly developed from a distant third person narrator who understands her better than she understands herself.
“Butterflies Fastened With Pins” opens up with a character who tells us he is getting used to his friends committing suicide, a comment whose understatement is jarring because it marks how an event that normally seems rare and extreme, can become, like anything, routine. This is especially true for a person so removed from emotions and personal relationships, a recurring motif in the collection. Despite being an unusually grim tale of events, the story follows a simple, linear account of all his friends and lovers who have killed themselves, taking an otherwise straightforward narrative into the realm of the absurd. With no mention of how any of the suicides have personally affected him, we find ourselves in the opposite situation of reading “Despoiler”; the narrator is speaking directly to us about his experiences yet we must surmise how they have affected him and what they mean to him since detailed ruminations and psychological associations are withheld in each account.
The final story, “The Passenger Beside You,” is the most brief and eerie. Told in the second person with the narrator addressing himself after a car accident, we follow him as he embarks on a bus and begins a flirtation with the girl of his dreams who reveals to him that she is, in fact, dead. After showing him her bloodied bosom pierced with a bullet and making a sardonic joke about hating men who “can’t take their eyes off a girl’s chest,” she recounts the rough area she lived in, how she was killed and how she didn’t notice what was happening because it was the first time she died. She then remarks that being dead quickly becomes routine. Next to the narrator whose only self-expressed responsibility is to have a good time on his vacation, we begin to compare the half-lived lives of those like him, who could easily be each and every one of us.
Hi, This is Conchita highlights the common denominators of a diverse set of extremely alienated people. Their inability to properly connect with others is as much the cause as it is the result of personal tragedy and ongoing isolation. In this collection of personal stories that range from the humorous to the surreal, Santiago Roncagliolo begs us to bridge the gap between negation and self-acceptance.