Andrés Barba’s fiction is a zone of transformation. In Granta’s Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists issue, Barba’s story, “The Coming Flood,” follows a prostitute obsessed with grafting a horn to her head. An excerpt from Barba’s Las manos pequeñas, appearing in Words Without Borders, portrays a group of orphan girls who ritualistically dress and treat one of their friends like a doll. Both works reinforce the mutability of personhood, albeit through extreme cases. In August, October and Rain Over Madrid, Barba’s first full-length works translated into English, the author attends to more conventional types of transformation: puberty, fatherhood, and grief. These transitions are not so much physical, as in the earlier texts, but emotional, and they signal a shift in Barba’s work, a move away from the gritty realms of prostitutes and orphans to the unspoken depravity of domestic life.
August, October, a novel, opens with Tomás, a fourteen-year-old boy on vacation with his family at the seashore, masturbating to the image of an “abstract amalgam of girls.” His pleasure is intense and displeasing, we’re told. But Eros isn’t the only drive in Tomás’s life. A few days later, he tries to drown himself: “it occurred to him that he could die there, and the idea didn’t frighten him in the slightest.” His parents insist that he had an accident, that their son would never try to kill himself. Tomás doesn’t argue with them.
But Barba makes clear that their explanation is a form of naïveté: “Deep down they were a childish family. Just as some families were melancholy, or happy, or destructive, theirs was a childish family.” Tomás’s brush with suicide disabuses him of this childishness and initiates a rift between him and his family. His terminally ill Aunt Eli begins to repulse him. His parents look depleted. As Tomás further isolates himself, he becomes a stern critic of his parents:
All his life, he’d admired his father’s grace, and now he was discovering—as though the discovery had occurred while watching him sleep but taken until that moment to be confirmed—that he was also a troubled man, biased, impatient, perhaps sensual; he was discovering that his grace was the result of a pretense, a pretense as ingrained as a habit or an incurable defect.
In his father, Tomás sees a vision of his future self: flawed and vulnerable. Essentially, human. To counteract this, Tomás ditches his family to hang out with a group of boys from the poor part of town. The boys are hardened and reckless, veritable Lotharios of the dock: they see sex “simply [as] a basic, vital thing ever present in the world of possibilities.” Tomás, a shy, sensitive virgin, is an outsider among them. He becomes further alienated, suspended between the dock boys and his family.
In this liminal space, he learns to think for himself, albeit with the prescriptive ennui of an angsty teenager: “He had never before suspected that life also entailed infinite shame, and that that shame was so directly and heartlessly related to physical pain.” The pain in question is that of Tomás’s Aunt Eli. Days later, she passes away, and the family proves incompetent in the face of death. In the hospital, they don’t even realize Aunt Eli has died and continue caring for her corpse. They attend the funeral wearing beach pastels, reassuring themselves Aunt Eli would have liked their attire. Only Tomás seems aware that they are deluding themselves.
In the days after her death, Tomás spends more time with the dock boys. Their violent, sexualized lives offer him a reprieve from his grieving family. Death, for them, is as unremarkable as sex. Tomás wishes he could think like they do, but he is clearly grieving, despite his best efforts not to. It is his authentic, indelible grief that separates him from the dock boys. Barba pushes their differences to an extreme when the boys pressure Tomás into gang-raping a mentally challenged teenager. When it is his turn, he fakes it, wishing only that he could apologize to the girl. It takes an act of brutality to awaken Tomás to his morality.
The final part of the book, “October,” veers toward sentimentality. Tomás is no Meursault. His gruesome act on the beach haunts his psyche, spurring him on a mission of atonement at odds with his character and the nature of the book. He redeems himself without much of an effort, a perhaps too simplistic conclusion to an otherwise unflinching portrait of adolescence.
The shape and expectations of a novel just might not be suited for Barba’s particular skill set. Readers of “The Coming Flood” know the author excels when he denies his readers a neat resolution. In his collection of novellas, Rain Over Madrid¸ the author plays to this strength, driving his characters toward states of self-opposition where they begin to grasp, without fully comprehending, their own complicated selfhoods.
Like August, October, the novellas in Rain Over Madrid take the family as its primary subject. The opening novella, “Fatherhood,” follows a handsome, unnamed musician as he struggles to build a relationship with his son. His commitment to his son is questionable, and throughout the piece Barba explores the difference between merely fathering a child and actually being a father.
The protagonist straddles the line between superficiality and authenticity. A small-time musician, he uses his talent primarily as a tool for picking up women. One of those women, Sonia, shows up at his apartment pregnant one morning. She moves in, but the relationship fizzles once she reveals that she is wealthy. What good is a father, Barba asks, if he cannot provide emotional or financial support? After their son Anton is born, the protagonist proves to be a clueless father: “Every time that he saw [his son] he brought a gift that only seemed appropriate for the previous child, the one he’d been the last time he saw him.”
Over the course of six years the protagonist finds it increasingly difficult to communicate with his son. Though he remains a capable womanizer. In the novella’s final scene, the father sits his son in front of a TV and passes out in his bedroom, trying to sleep off a hangover. When he wakes, one of his recent lovers is watching TV with the boy. Her kindness stabilizes the scene and offers the father a template for how to treat his son.
The piece ends when the father comes to an ambiguous insight while the three are playing Monopoly: “Six, three, four, Jail, a house, and every time they pass Go, the glimmering, long-awaited twenty-thousand-peseta bill. And then, suddenly, he understands.” What the father understands remains unclear. How to be a good father? How to treat this new lover kindly? Here, Barba highlights the superficiality of an epiphany, resisting the template offered by Joyce to so many other writers of short fiction. This ending may ostensibly provide closure, but it complicates what readers might have hoped would be made simple. We are left merely hoping the father will reform, even though nothing about him suggests that he will.
“Guile” and “Fidelity” both center on women drawn toward unforeseen relationships as they work through family crises. “Guile” examines the unexpected relationships we form to work through grief. The middle-aged protagonist is facing the slow death of her mother (Mamá). Early on, the story feels like a conventional tale about a mother and daughter working through their strained past. But Barba is not aiming for reconciliation—these characters cannot even admit to loving each other.
Instead, Barba tracks the protagonist’s burgeoning obsession with her mother’s caretaker, the nineteen-year-old Anita. It is she, and not the protagonist, who seems most affected by Mamá’s illness: “I don’t want to see Señora die. Do you understand? I don’t want Señora to die in front of me.” As Mamá’s condition worsens, Anita and the protagonist form the sort of bond one would expect between mother and daughter. Ironically, it is the daughter, not Mamá, who Anita seems to be caring for.
Two years after Mamá’s death, the protagonist sees Anita at the mall and trails her. Their eventual interaction is hardly chummy: “Please don’t follow me anymore,” Anita says. As Anita departs, the protagonist belatedly suffers the grief she had evaded. She weeps for some time and then walks onto the street feeling “as if she were now free from something—of what, she did not know—finally, marvelously, free.” Without the buffer of Anita’s friendship, the protagonist is free to experience pain. Grief, Barba suggests, is both debilitating and freeing, but it must be faced head-on. And the protagonist’s friendship with Anita—who represents a safe connection to death—offers a refreshing contrast to the clichéd depiction of sex as a balm for mourning.
“Fidelity” follows seventeen-year-old Marina as she ventures toward sexual freedom. The novella begins with a dismissal of literary sex: “While making love for the fourth time in her life, Marina thought for the first time (the other three, she’d set out to simply feel, to register information) that real physical pleasure—the flickering that came of that bumbling, fondling game—was nothing like any fictional version she’d ever red in a novel.” Marina, the daughter of a literary scholar, rebukes fictionalized sex while having sex in her father’s library, setting the tone for a novella concerned with the interplay between sex and its resultant narratives.
Marina’s lover is Ramón, an insecure Adonis with a crippling case of test anxiety. But their relationship is not the foremost love affair on Marina’s mind. While volunteering for Doctors Without Borders, she spies her father with his mistress. Instead of exposing him, she infiltrates the mistress’s apartment under the pretense of handing out leaflets. Sitting in the apartment, Marina wonders, “How much tedium, how much wisdom, how much life, how much love was contained in those empty teacups, those half-filled bookshelves, that nervousness, that dress she wore?” Barba is drawn to these sorts of intense, conflicting emotions. After leaving the apartment, Marina imagines her father together with his mistress, Sandra. The image hardly disgusts her. “She’d been immediately turned on . . . envisioning Sandra pronouncing those words [Do whatever you want to me]. She was turned on against her will.”
This type of emotional honesty reappears throughout Barba’s work. His characters are often self-centered, aggrieved, and closed-off. They are not abnormal. They merely live in a world—our world—where love of oneself is prioritized over love of others. The domestic realm, for Barba, is rife with superficial love and habituated affection, but literature offers a way to break through habit and superficiality. Barba’s goal is to force his characters to confront their undisclosed, authentic feelings; this is not merely character development, but character transformation. The narrative arc serves as a transitional phase into a new personhood.
For Marina, this means discovering her capacity for empathy. Late in the story, on a chance encounter with Sandra, Marina intuits that her father has ended the affair. She decides to have a drink with Sandra, knowing the woman does not want to be alone. Adult love, she realizes, is composed of betrayals and sudden conclusions. This realization culminates when, on vacation with her parents, Marina wakes early one morning and watches them sleep:
Up until now, she’d assumed that it was for fear of seeing their nakedness, albeit accidentally, that she was embarrassed to watch her parents sleep, now she understood that what she was really afraid of, what she was ashamed of, was something else; it was as though something had altered their intimacy itself. She felt like she’d never truly seen them before.
The final novella, “Shopping,” follows a thirty-one-year-old woman Christmas shopping with her mother, Nelly, a self-centered and beautiful woman. Here, Barba once again explores the divide between parents and children. Families are composed of conflicting narratives. And in the story the protagonist tells herself, her father, recently deceased, was a kind, loving man who Nelly treated with unwarranted cruelty. Throughout the novella, the protagonist’s memories frequently interrupt the real-time narrative, drawing readers back to her parent’s ill-fated marriage, her father’s slow death, and Nelly’s ostensible cruelty. These memories force the protagonist to reconsider her parents’ relationship. Over the course of the day, Papá devolves from a spurned saint into a lovesick drunk who manipulated his daughter into feeling sympathy for him. Nelly’s selfishness undergoes its own stark revision. Character, Barba reminds us, is nothing but a fabrication of perspective.
Lisa Dillman, translator of both books, has worked with Barba in the past, and here she does an excellent job rendering Barba’s prose with precision and clarity, even as his long sentences map the minutiae of thought over numerous clauses. In Dillman’s translations, Barba’s psychological acuity is patient and uncompromising; it sheds light on the dark corners of the mind that very few authors attempt to explore. The depraved, selfish, and violent thoughts that drive his characters are not deviant thoughts, but disturbingly normal: his characters are all too human in their vanity, cruelty, and naked love.
Alex McElroy’s writing appears in Black Warrior Review, DIAGRAM, Tin House, Indiana Review, Electric Lit, Gulf Coast, The Millions, and more work can be found at alexmcelroy.org. He currently lives in Bulgaria.