August, October

Spanish author Andres Barba’s breakthrough with English-speaking readers came in 2017 with Such Small Hands, but Lisa Dillman had already translated two earlier novels into English for Hispabooks, Rain Over Madrid and August, October. In August, October we see the same concern with the innocence and cruelty of childhood though in a more conventional coming-of-age story, despite being written two years later. Tomas is fourteen and holidaying with his parents and younger sister, Anita, by the sea, as they do every year. This year, however, Tomas is no longer a child, but, as Barbas makes clear, not yet an adult:

“His face had grown sharper, his lips had stopped being so fleshy and gotten thinner…his cheekbones protruded, too, as did his chin, which, together with his round, childlike eyes, gave his face a frightened-boy look.”

Barbas perfectly captures the confused emotions of adolescence, for example his desire to call his Aunt Eli a ‘sick cow’ – an urge that is “too new and compelling to go unheeded.”

“He wanted to be risky, to jeopardise everything.”

This impulse can be seen when he stays under water even as he knows he is running out of air, losing consciousness when he finally makes it to dry land. It also plays a part in the encounter which will change his summer, with a group of local, working-class boys:

“He knew he had to strike first; it didn’t matter what happened after that, he had to strike first.”

A brief scuffle with one of the boys follows but, just as quickly, they invite him to go swimming with them at the docks. Tomas becomes part of the group, though at the same time he is aware that they are different from him:

“They couldn’t have been more then fourteen, yet they were older than him, as old as fossil fish, as survival, as torture or neglect.”

Spending every day with the boys, his relationship with his family changes, he becomes “sullen, presumptuous, independent” and his parents and sister fade in importance – “they were sort of distant irritating figures.” He is most intrigued by the way the boys talk about sex, in a “clinical, neutral way” –

“They didn’t brag, but nor did they skip over embarrassing, even sordid, details.”

However, an incident with Frani, one of the girls the boys hang around with, leaves him feeling humiliated.

At the same time as Tomas is having deal with the reality of sex rather than desire as an abstraction (at the beginning he fantasises about “an indistinct amalgam of imaginary bodies”), he is also having to come to terms with death, which proves just as difficult, when he is told that his Aunt Eli is terminally ill:

“Because if sick-Aunt-Eli was still a decontextualised concept – something almost abstract, distended by incredulity despite the fact he’d watched her deteriorate that summer – then deathbed-Aunt-Eli was a flat-out fiction, like a room with no joists, one that was impossible to enter.”

Tomas’ two worlds collide when he is out with Anita and spots Frani and the girls with another girl he doesn’t know:

“… she looked slightly older, or bigger boned, but her movements were more childlike and uncoordinated. It took him nearly ten minutes to realise she was retarded.”

Frani sends the new girl, Marita, with a message and we see how uncomfortable Tomas is with the cruel humour of the girls, particularly in the company of his sister. Tomas spends time away from the boys, taking his turn sitting with his aunt in hospital as she dies. When he returns, he sees them differently, “subtler, shrewder, more sombre.” It is a warning of what is to come. On the final night of the holiday, Tomas decides, “I’m going to fuck tonight” but the gang can’t find the girls – only Marita. In what follows Tomas finds himself far away from the person he was at the beginning of the novel.

Tomas’ August ends with a guilt that haunts him when he returns home. “I’m not a good person,” he tells his sister, “I’ve done very bad things.” Sex itself disgusts him, as when a girl in his class develops feelings for him:

“It wasn’t specifically Lourdes’ desire he found so unpleasant but desire in and of itself, any desire for bodies on top of one another.”

Finally, in October, his shame prompts him into action, but is there anything he can do which will alter the way he feels? August, October is not as original as Barbas other work – there are echoes, for example, of Alberto Moravia’s Agostino – but what raises it above the average coming-of age story is the deftness with which Barbas portrays the moods of adolescence, the shape-shifting not only of Tomas’ identity, but of how he sees others. As with all his books, it warns us of humanity’s latent cruelty which can so easily consume us and which we must constantly guard against, though it is not without hope of forgiveness.

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4 Responses to “August, October”

  1. heavenali Says:

    Great review. I love the sound of this ,I really love coming of age narratives. I had meant to get a copy of Such Small Hands but never got round to it. This author is definitely on my radar now.

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    Ah, it’s so interesting to see you were reminded of Agostino while reading this. That’s a reference point I can definitely get on board with! As you know, coming-of-age stories with summer stetting are very much my thing, so I shall add this to the list.

    As a slight aside, I’m quite intrigued by the title and cover design for this book, particularly as they suggests Northern Europe (rather than Spain) to me. In terms of style, they’re quite similar to the titles and some of the posters for a couple of Norwegian films: Oslo, August 31st and Uttoya: July 22.

    https://www.google.com/url?sa=i&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.pinterest.com%2F512jun%2Foslo-august-31%2F&psig=AOvVaw1FQD3NY_FGwBt94_b-HVaz&ust=1626678529379000&source=images&cd=vfe&ved=0CAsQjRxqFwoTCPDQlpCI7PECFQAAAAAdAAAAABAD

    • 1streading Says:

      They do look quite similar, though you can see that the book cover is a beach. I suspect the main intention is to give a sense of isolation. The book was published after Oslo, August 31st so possibly some influence.

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