The Right Intention

Andres Barba is best known for his short novels Such Small Hands and, most recently, The Luminous Republic, both of which deal with what might be described as a heightened version of reality. In Such Small Hands in particular, Barba is able to inhabit his child narrator with consummate conviction, a skill he applies to the four stories set in much more prosaic environs in this earlier work (2002), The Right Intention, translated by Lisa Dillman in 2018. If the reality is more ordinary, however, the characters struggle to face some aspect of it, a failure which generally sets them on a self-destructive path.

The first, ‘Nocturne’, is the story of a gay man in late middle-age who falls in love with a much younger man he meets through a personal ad. The ad which attracts his attention reads simply, “I’m so alone. Roberto.” Roberto is only twenty-one and, although the relationship progresses smoothly, the protagonist worries about the age difference:

“While it seemed reasonable that someone like him would lose his head over a twenty-one-year-old boy, the inverse stuck him as perverse… to love an old man the way Roberto loved him, you had to be either lying or wicked.”

The narrative viewpoint allows us only to see Roberto in the same way, uncertain of his motivations. The older man’s pleasure in the relationship ironically undermines his happiness:

“Thinking about the future was like poking his head into a dark hole from which he could feel the panting breath of some beast.”

Increasingly his own doubts undermine the love which Roberto seems to feel for him.

Uncertainty over a relationship leading to self-destructive impulses is also evident in the second story, ‘Debilitation’, though in a quite different way. Here the narrative focal point is a teenage girl, Sara, who has developed an uncomfortable relationship with her body, as her friend’s opening comment – “A body like that and you won’t wear a bikini”- makes clear. A kiss from a boy that she cannot discuss either with him or her friend, creates a crisis which leads to self-harm and an eating disorder. If this chain of events sounds a little cliched, it is Barba’s ability to convince that creates a deeper understanding, for example when he describes Sara cutting herself with a letter opener:

“The fact that she did it didn’t mean she liked the pain… but if she kept at it a little, waited for sensation to eclipse the threshold of reason, then came a pleasant state of self-possession, of control.”

The story’s second half tells of her time in a clinic and her relationship with her roommate, Ana, which becomes another form of control.

In ‘Marathon’ we have another very different central character, a young man, newly married, who loves running:

“He liked running the way a little kid likes running up at the sky – irrationally, with no thought of stopping.”

Much is revealed in that opening sentence as in the story he will act childishly, irrationally, and with a compulsion that will prevent him from stopping once on his own self-destructive path. A chance encounter in the park with another runner, Ernesto, leads to a shared plan to tackle a marathon together. Even when they meet, our protagonist treats it like an affair, saying that it is better if he calls Ernesto. In the same way, he is immediately jealous when he thinks he sees Ernesto running with someone else. Both his friendship and his marriage are soon under threat.

The final story, ‘Descent’, in which a daughter cares for her dying mother. It is, first of all, more of an ensemble piece, with a sister and a brother also playing important parts. Secondly, it is the mother who is the destructive influence, cruel and cutting in her remarks yet always expecting more from her daughter:

“She asked for love, and if it wasn’t forthcoming then she demanded love…”

Unhappy with the hospital she is in, she demands her children return the money she gave them years before to pay for a better one. The family give in but, in the end, the daughter finds a way to undo some of the destruction her mother has been responsible for.

These stories demonstrate a real breadth to Barba’s writing, particularly in the way he understands and presents character, and without having to use the first person to convince us. Each one is gripping in its own way and, given that a substantial amount of his work remains untranslated, it is to be hoped that more appear soon.

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2 Responses to “The Right Intention”

  1. Pat Says:

    Hi, not really a comment on this post, just a note to thank you for liking my last two posts, I’ve been having trouble keeping up and it means a lot to me

  2. JacquiWine Says:

    While I’ve been aware of Barba for a while — the cover of Such Small Hands is especially memorable! — I haven’t been tempted to pick him up. That said, these stories sound great (more my kind of thing than his other books, I think), so I’ll keep them in mind. Marathon and Descent sound especially intriguing, and you’ve pitched your review just right – just enough information to tempt without revealing too much!

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