February 6, 2012

"Los Gigantes"

By T. Coraghessan Boyle
~5700 words

A dark satire about a compound of giants selectively bred by the government of an unspecified Spanish-speaking land.

The first-person narrator and nameless main character is one of the eponymous gigantes, and the narrative focuses on the conditions in which he lives with eight others. "At first they kept us in cages like zoo animals," he begins, adding that the compound is a former camp "where the regime had kept dissidents in a time before dissidence had been so radically discouraged as to eliminate it altogether." But these nine inmates are all volunteers who, despite the squalid, Guantánamo-like surroundings (which eventually improve), are well fed and supplied with throngs of women. Recruited for their prodigious size and compelled by their sense of patriotism, they while away the days in endless copulation, all part of the government's plan to breed a race of giants that will defend the fatherland against unspecified enemies. But it turns out that the government is also breeding a race of little people, "like cats who can come and go in the night without detection," and the realization that this scheme could ensnare his diminutive girlfriend back home marks a turning point for the narrator.

The plot scores points for originality, weaving threads of Swift and García Márquez into a cautionary fable of the modern police state. For satirical creations, the characters are remarkably well crafted, including even a minor figure who is dismissed from the compound early on because "his face was like an anvil and his eyes couldn't seem to focus. And when he talked it was in disconnected monosyllables that seemed to dredge themselves up out of some deep fissure in his digestive tract." At the same time, the satirical qualities of the characters, however well drawn, work to undermine identification on the part of the reader.

In terms of writing, the story opens with a rather egregious example of telling instead of showing:
At first they kept us in cages like zoo animals, but that was too depressing. After a while, we began to lose interest in what we'd been brought there to do. We didn't think about it, or not much, anyway. We were just depressed, that was all, and when they brought the women to us it was inevitable that we went about the business in a half-hearted way.
Is there no better way to represent depression than to say the characters are depressed—twice in four sentences? And yet there are some splendid passages as well, as in the description of the main character's final escape attempt:
I waited till the mute who served me had left with the remains of the evening meal and the last giantess had done with me and waddled her way out the door, and then I went deep inside myself, working like a Hindu fakir through every cell of my body, from my smallest toes to the truncheons of my legs and my torso that was like a bucket of iron and on up to my shoulders, my biceps and forearms, and down into the reservoirs of my fingers, one digit at at time.
Fans of satire may appreciate this story more than the average reader, but the original characters and fanciful plot hold general appeal, and a decent number of well-rendered passages add a rich though uneven texture.



  1. I think this story does work pretty well. The writing is uneven (sometimes quite plain, sometimes rather beautiful), and there is a fairy-tale-like quality to much of it. It's not really full-fledged satire, but it does lean in that direction. My guess is that identification with the characters is not one of the goals. It may be that the unreal quality of the tale serves to maintain a certain distance, to invite the more allegorical reading about power and its misuse.

    1. If it's not intended as dark satire then I think my judgment would be harsher. Not sure how else to interpret a character who is two feet taller than his girlfriend, lifts sheep above his head with one hand, hauls cars up the steps of government ministries, and does the work of three mules at a drawbridge. At any rate, the question of identification is an interesting one. I would argue that it's necessary at some level whatever the genre. Why should we care about the abuse of power, for example, if we don't care about the characters who are being abused?