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Review: Cockfight (Pelea de gallos) by María Fernanda Ampuero

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Before I even started reading Cockfight – the Frances Riddle-translated English-language and fiction debut of Ecuadorian writer María Fernanda Ampuero – a friend voice noted me about it: “Lauren…Cockfight is one of the most fucked up books I think I’ve ever read.” After reading it for myself, I mean…yeah, accurate. But don’t be deterred, because Cockfight also manages to combine its unfiltered darkness and depravity with captivating storytelling and effective recurring motifs of faith, animals, and blood.

Across a baker’s dozen of short stories, most often centering children or childhood memories, Cockfight distils tales of familial violence behind a bold yellow cover designed by Sukruti Anah Staneley. This is an animalistic blood-stained, shit-smeared collection of bodily fluids, incest, abuse, and violence, in which men rape, kill, kidnap, and molest and women are auctioned off, abused, and trampled on both literally and metaphorically.

If you’re thinking that this could all easily stray over into gratuitousness, you’d be right; at points, it does. Take ‘Blinds’ which cannonballs into an incest swimming pool at the close for seemingly no other reason than to splash the reader square in the face with repulsion, or the revenge-fantasy-esque ‘Mourning’.

However, these sporadic gratuitous blips are balanced out with equally shocking but better-balanced highs. The three opening stories – ‘Auction’, ‘Monsters’, and ‘Griselda’ – reverberate with echoes of Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber, each one of them blood-soaked and brief. ‘Auction’ (from which the collection takes its name and features a protagonist who protects herself from “macho guys” by stuffing “a rooster head between my legs”) is a standout, as is ‘Passion’ in which Ampuero retells the revivification of Christ through the eyes of “another lost girl in a world of lost girls”, a.k.a. a downtrodden devotee and the true instigator of Christ’s best known party tricks – think: loaves and fishes, healing the blind.

Ampuero’s sensory evocations are also exquisitely visceral, like when a dead body becomes “a huge doll…filled with stuffing instead of bones” and cum “tastes like Dijon mustard and bleach.” (Did you gag? Be honest.) She also has a knack for the unexpected oration – “I close my eyes and open my sphincter” – and a talent for merely alluding to the sinister, which, in a collection with so much explicit violence becomes all the more effective.

Because while many of Cockfight’s tales feature demons lurking above and below the surface, at the core of it they’re just people. More specifically, men; insignificant, filthy, perverted men engaging in one big cockfight and leaving a trail of wounded women in their wake. It’s not for nothing that the Clarice Lispector epigraph reads: “Am I a monster or is this what it means to be human?”

For my money, the best stories are towards the beginning – dialogue-rich and brief – while the latter tales, especially ‘Ali’, meander that bit more, easing into more insidiously ‘normal’ scenarios and fixedly domestic settings. The collection’s closer, ‘Other’ (a self-proclaimed favourite of Ampuero) is a taut liberation, while it’s arguably ‘Coro’, with its gaggle of racist, classist women bossing around the help and indulging in “air kisses, flattery, air kisses, flattery”, that left me feeling most uncomfortable. As Ampuero writes, “people are incapable of seeing themselves and that is the root of all evil.”

*I read Cockfight as part of my #ReadMoreLatam2021 challenge, for the theme ‘short story collection’.

Buy Cockfight: Bookshop (US) | Waterstones (UK)

Buy Pelea de gallos: Páginas de Espuma (Spain)

About María Fernanda Ampuero

María Fernanda Ampuero (Guayaquil, 1976) is a fiction writer and journalist. Cockfight was her first foray into fiction writing and the first of her works to be translated into English.

Other Books by María Fernanda Ampuero: Lo que aprendí en la peluquería (Dinediciones, 2011) and Permiso de residencia (La Caracola Editores, 2013), Sacrificios humanos (Páginas de Espuma, 2021)

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