Like Ivan Repila’s The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, Jesus Carrasco’s Out in the Open is a relentless story of survival, similarly almost entirely focussed on two characters, a young boy and an ageing goatherd. As its title suggests, rather than the claustrophobic confinement of the well, they are faced with the equally unforgiving emptiness of a barren plain. The novel begins with the boy in hiding, hunted for some nameless crime. The desperation with which he hides, in a hole covered in branches and twigs, is revealed when the schoolmaster (the entire village are involved in the search) pisses on his hiding place:
“Nothing, not even the hours spent underground or the teacher’s urine still sticky in his hair or the hunger which was, for the first time, pricking him hard, nothing was enough now to weaken his resolve, because the black flower of his family’s betrayal still gnawed at his stomach.”
The boy’s chances of survival are slim. He has no water and the heat of the sun is ferocious, on a flatland with little shade. Though we soon learn that the boy is being hunted by the bailiff, he is also pitted against the landscape itself. When he dozes off in the sun he awakens two hours later to find:
“His skin, from his chin to his scalp, felt strangely taut. Every hair follicle quivered with microscopic anguish, which multiplied a hundredfold, provoked in him a feeling of stiff bewilderment. His brain burned and buzzed with a kind of cobalt-blue electricity and his head felt as if it were about to explode.”
Only his chance meeting with the goatherd saves him. The goatherd accepts him into his company unquestioningly:
“You know, it’s all the same to me whether you’ve run away or if you’re simply lost.”
He feeds the boy; in return the boy helps him to tend the goats. They learn to trust each other in a world of threats, their humanity as rare, and as vital, as water. The sincerity of their relationship is shown when the bailiff catches up with them, as is the fact that it is two sided.
Like The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse, the setting in both time and place of Out in the Open is vague. It would seem logical to assume we are in Spain, though it could equally be the Middle East, (the novel, at times, has a Biblical feel). Carrasco was born in 1972, and it seems unlikely that, if set in Spain, the novel is set during his lifetime:
“The bailiff was the only one in the region to own a motorised vehicle and the governor was the only one to own a vehicle of the four-wheeled variety.”
The lack of names, and use instead of occupations which have existed for hundreds of years, also allows the story to feel to some extent timeless. Out in the Open is not a historical novel, then, but perhaps it might be described as a geographical one: that is, one where the particular geography of the setting is a vital component though it is not necessarily set in a place we can identify and visit. Instead the confinement of the setting is used as testing ground for the characters, in this case to examine how human beings can either help or harm each other.
In the end, the novel suggest this is not about motivation: we never learn why the bailiff and, by extension, the village wish to harm the boy, nor why the goatherd helps him. The goatherd lives by a code he does not feel it necessary to articulate; one of the first things he says to the boy is, “Help me up,” – though the boy needs his help far more, he establishes their relationship as one of mutual support. As events unfold, they will be vital to each other at different points.
Both The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse and Out in the Open are fantastic new novels from young Spanish writers, suggesting a bright future for Spanish fiction.