Trout are delicate creatures and can’t handle temperatures over thirteen degrees. That’s why Don Henrik bought his land right at the top of the mountain, because he wanted ice cold spring water.
Against the backdrop of agricultural Guatemala, Rodrigo Fuentes presents seven interconnected scenes of danger in this fine although short collection of stories. Trout, Belly Up, a title piquing curiosity in itself, starts by depicting Henrik’s troubles of setting up a trout hatchery on the top of a mountain – which ostensibly has its equivalent in real Northwestern Guatemala – and the image of trout dying (belly up) is carried through the other stories that more or less involve death. The trout’s lack of oxygen is repeated in “Dive” where Henrik and Mati go diving with a fatal outcome, to name one example. In what I would consider the best story in the collection, “Out of the Blue, Perla,” set amidst a revolt triggered by the laying off of farmworkers, a cow named Perla stands up against a bunch of gunmen with such self-assurance that it simultaneously baffled, amused, and worried me:
A few feet away she stopped. A couple of the gunmen came over and looked at her. Perla lowed at the sky and started to circle them familiarly, the cheeky thing. One of the men said something, his words harsh, but the rest were quiet, as curious as I was. Because Perla was giving them a look that was entirely human. And it wasn’t the sort of look just anybody could give: it was the look a woman gives when she knows she’s being looked at by a man. One of those women who snatches your gaze and slaps it right back at you. That’s the look Perla was giving them.
I am yet unsure what exactly Trout, Belly Up is, but at least on one level it probes the barrier between the human and the animal and especially so in the context of poor Guatemalan countryside. I must have missed details as my knowledge of the country is limited to a few negligible Google searches while reading, and therefore, in my shameful ignorance, I offer what Henrik himself says in the concluding story, perhaps applicable to Fuentes himself:
He spoke of vague, sometimes dark characters, contacts in the countryside, individuals who came and went from his story with no clear purpose, and he also spoke of La Corregidora, seized by the bank and taken over by the farmhands.
Charco Press has become known for their clear and effortlessly read translations, and the same is true here: Ellen Jones’ translation into English reads so smoothly that, combined with the overall short length, Trout, Belly Up is the sort of a book one can devour in one sitting while being entertained by Fuentes’ curious stories but also moved by the country’s troubled state of affairs.