The Dinner Guest

Gabriela Ybarra, who has been long-listed for the Man Booker International Prize with her debut novel The Dinner Guest, is almost an exact contemporary of Alicia Kopf, whose Brother in Ice I read recently (Kopf was born in 1982, Ybarra on 1983). Both novels also won awards before being translated into English (in the case of The Dinner Guest, by Natasha Wimmer who has previously translated much of Roberto Bolano’s work). The similarities do not end there, however, and both novels might be said to belong to the same genre, one in which the novel originates in the author’s own life, and which mixes some element of research with an autobiographical story which borders, at times, on the diary form.

The origin of The Dinner Guest lies in the kidnap of Ybarra’s grandfather in 1977, six years before she was born. According to her father, he went calmly:

“He showed no qualms about being kidnapped, not for a second. He got dressed, collected his hat and some books, and tried to reassure us.”

Though a ransom is demanded, her grandfather is never released, and a month later his body is found. Ybarra recreates the event from newspaper articles as well as family recollections, fictionalising certain scenes. Her grandfather was murdered, she says, “because he belonged to one of the families who had traditionally occupied top posts in the province. The group [ETA] saw him as a symbol of central government power.” This means her father, too, is a target:

“I knew there were people who wanted to kill my father. Sometimes I watched him transcribing an interview or reading a book and tried to understand why.”

Eventually the family move from the Basque country to Madrid when Ybarra is twelve years old.

The story resumes when Ybarra is an adult with the death of her mother from cancer:

“My mother’s death brought back my grandfather’s death… The tedium of illness recalled the tedium of the wait during the kidnapping.”

In the novel’s second part (which makes up 100 of its 140 pages) Ybarra recounts her experience of her mother’s illness from the phone call in which her mother tells her she has cancer “but it’s really nothing” to her death six months later. Much of her mother’s treatment takes place in New York where Ybarra is studying, and initially the prognosis is good:

“’You’ll live to see your grandchildren,’ Doctor Marsden said to my mother before we left.”

However, after treatment, her mother’s condition worsens and eventually her mother tells Ybarra “the tumour has broken out and spread to the rest of my body.” Her mother’s experiences throughout this time are retold in painful detail, and, though we know her death is inevitable, it is impossible not to share the emotional journey of the family.

Despite this, the award-winning status (and long-listing) of The Dinner Guest puzzles me in much the same way as Brother in Ice. Ybarra seems to feel that by placing the two deaths between the same covers her work is done and fails to connect them in any meaningful way. She tells us:

“Before my mother’s diagnosis I didn’t pay much attention to death… In those days I still believed that premature death belonged to the realm of fiction.”

This suggests that the events of the novel (and her life) will cause her to reflect on mortality, a reflection, however, which doesn’t transpire in much depth. In some ways, the lesson seems obvious: death can strike even those whose lives are privileged and protected. Yet Ybarra seems unaware of her own privilege, even when her mother declares at one point that she will buy an apartment in Brooklyn as if it were a handbag.

Reflection is also central to genre she has chosen to write in which avoids inhabiting to any great degree the thoughts of her characters because they have not been fictionalised. Both Part One and Part Two certainly contain enough raw material from which to build a novel; Ybarra seems to hope that by yoking them together something extraordinary would happen – perhaps for some readers it does. I found, instead, her decision to place herself at the centre of everything actually mitigated against sincerity: her journey at the end to the place where her grandfather was killed seemed to be more about finding an ending for her book than seeking answers for herself. Ybarra’s grief seems like then dinner guest of the title: always there in her motivation to write, but invisible in her writing.

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5 Responses to “The Dinner Guest”

  1. Bellezza Says:

    What you said about the two events (of the deaths) being between the covers but unconnected strikes me. I expect a book longlisted for such a prize to be nearly flawless, and yet even novels that are full of flaws (in my eyes) have won. The shadow panel does not seem particularly impressed with this, although I have not read it yet. I know how often I agree with your reviews, though, and I suspect I will be similarly disappointed.

  2. Max Cairnduff Says:

    Hm, I can see how it would attract attention – issues of mortality, history, politics, exploration of the past, but one does have to bring it all together. A probable pass from me barring other more positive reviews.

  3. Wretchedness | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Booker long list there is usually one book which leaves me cold. In 2018 it was Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest; in 2019, Alia Trabucco Zeran’s The Remainder; and in 2020… well, let’s just say, the judges […]

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