Archive for the ‘Andres Barba’ Category

The Right Intention

September 24, 2022

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.

August, October

July 17, 2021

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.

A Luminous Republic

December 7, 2020

“Violence is always there,” Andres Barba has said in interview, “it’s the ultimate agent of social destabilization.” And so it proves in his latest short novel, A Luminous Republic, translated by Lisa Dillman. In the novel, the small town of San Cristobal finds itself visited by a group of thirty-two children who we know, from the opening sentence, will die. The narrator, who had recently joined the Department of Social Affairs at the time, attempts to make sense of what happened years later, but struggles to find easy answers. Where, for example, did the children come from? When did they arrive?

“It’s hard to pinpoint the moment when our eyes started to become accustomed to them or to know whether the first few times we saw them we were shocked.”

Their poverty is different from that of the indigenous Nee children, who “were poor and illiterate in the same way the jungle was green,” the narrator concluding that “unlike so-called normal kids, they were rightful heirs to nothing.” They roam the streets and steal in various smaller groups and without any clear leader:

“Someone once compared the children’s appearance to the fascinating synchronised flight of a starling murmuration.”

Their behaviour is also compared to “an organism’s cells,” and, when the narrator catches hold of one, “it wasn’t a human being in my hand but some sort of giant insect.” There is something inhuman about the way they act, and their interaction, which takes place in a language they seem to have invented. They are both a “benign presence and a terrible omen.” Little is done about them until the attack on a supermarket, unplanned and uncoordinated, but resulting in two deaths and three wounded:

“But there’s something harder to count than the victims, something infinitely more palpable and definite, a feeling akin to terror: the conviction that this was the first step of an irreversible process.”

The novel focuses not only on the narrator’s personal involvement in events, but also includes research undertaken later: it is both a confession and an investigation, having the emotional depth of the former while at the same time the analytical scope of the latter, accessing the theories of others. On a personal level, the narrator questions his own actions, particularly his attempts to gain information regarding the children’s whereabouts:

“I tortured a boy, for two days, to get him to give his friends away.”

At one point he meets a man who claims that “everyone had their own witness. Someone that we secretly want to convince, someone all of our actions are directed towards, someone we can’t stop secretly talking to.” This is, of course, a reasonable understanding of any first person narrative, but in this case the reader does often feel like a witness to events, asked to weigh up guilt and innocence. After the attack the children disappear, but they are not forgotten. For the adults they become an abstract threat:

“By losing their realness the thirty-two had morphed into the perfect monster.”

For the children of the town they are remembered in a different way, as they put their ears to the ground to hear them, and soon they, too, are disappearing, making the hunt even more urgent.

Barba’s novel is a modern horror, drawing on both fairy-tales where the children are frequently victims (but often capable of violent retaliation as in Hansel and Gretel) and newer tropes where children are seen as in some way alien, such as The Midwich Cuckoos. Here we question not only the children but society’s response. As the narrator says at one point, “often we submit to the prevailing morality only because the truth seems less plausible than the beliefs we adopt.” We see small town corruption, indifference and distrust. Helping the vulnerable is easy when the targets of our charity are passive and malleable, but, as the narrator says, these children “made us lose faith in the religion of childhood.” They are not what the town wants them to be and therefore town cannot help them, and attitude that exists far beyond San Cristobal.

In the final chapter, the reason for novel’s title becomes clear but, rather than providing answers, this only leaves the reader with more questions; a final image which will haunt us just as it does the narrator. Though not for the faint-hearted, A Luminous Republic is a powerful parable of dissonance and guilt which is likely to leave its readers both scared and scarred.