Put simply: childhood is strange. Countless writers have tried to capture this strangeness, the landscape of novelty that is a child’s world. Such Small Hands, a slim and haunting novel by Andrés Barba, not only succeeds at this but does so in one hundred haunting pages. Each one of these pages is exquisite, and the end result is a perfectly expressed work that transmits the perverse and bizarre experience that is youth, where games signify life and death and where relationships are teased and pushed to the breaking point. Childhood: part fairy tale, part nightmare.
The novel opens in the midst of tragedy and the reader being told, at the same time as our young protagonist Marina: “Father died instantly, your mother is in a coma.” The family has been in a car accident and Marina, though seriously injured, has survived. Brief details of the accident flit in and out of Marina’s mind; before long her mother has also died and the aftermath is complete. Marina herself has been in recovery, and once she is ready to be released she is told she’ll be sent to an orphanage.
The book is told in three parts, and the second part shifts to a narrative spoken through the collective voice of the girls at the orphanage, who speculate what the newcomer will look like:
Some of us thought she’d be big, others said she’d be our size; some said she’d be very pretty, others didn’t think so. Her first triumph was this: we were no longer the same. We, who had been tamed, we, who made no distinctions among ourselves and our bodies, we, who all wanted the same things, were no longer all the same.
The collective voice isn’t just a stylistic choice, but crucial for the story since the group of girls are, in many ways, a single mass. Acting as a Greek chorus of sorts, they not only seem to sense the advancing change, even danger, that Marina will bring to their lives, but imbue it with a metaphysical weight that threatens to transform the lives they are fated to live out. Before Marina arrives this collective voice describes lunch at the orphanage: “It was as if we were all one mouth eating the ham, as if our cheese was all the same cheese: wholesome and creamy and tasting the same to all of us.”
The arrival of Marina is nearly as fraught as the return of Oedipus to Thebes or Agamemnon to Argos. Marina immediately stands out from the other orphaned girls in that she knew and still remembers her parents; she’d had a childhood of new dresses and toys and visits to Disneyland Paris and, most importantly, a family life. At first the girls bully Marina: “If the adult wasn’t watching, we hit her. Never very hard, usually just softly. She’d crouch to pick something up and we’d stab her butt with a sharp pencil. She’d flinch and we’d laugh.” Marina has the realization that she’s different and decides to stop eating, perhaps to feel in control or, perhaps, to control the other girls. This realization was like “carrying something haughty and cruel, like a flag. I’m different. Faith in that belief, even just for a moment, is all it takes for everything to change.” Marina’s fasting gives her the self-assurance needed to turn the tables; the girls are both intrigued and frightened by this strange archetypal phenomenon, by the new girl whose sense of quiet confidence is strange but irrefutable, a nature that quickly begins to impose its will upon them.
Throughout the novel the children appear as instinctive, sometimes frenzied animals on the verge of making some huge discovery about themselves. A trip to the zoo grants Barba the opportunity to draw subtle connections between these children and the beasts they observe. Amid the wolves and the peacocks Marina suddenly announces: “Tonight we’re going to play a game.” She says nothing more and the collective voice underscores how “the rest of the trip was tinged with the anxiety of the wait. The wait was essential.” Although Marina has become another animal, she still stands visibly separate from the pack and the allure and fascination she holds for the other girls is overpowering.
An inevitable attraction made us crave contact with her, seek out her voice, yearn for her to look at us. We no longer cared about the animals, or felt scared of the wolf, or sorry for the elephant, or admired the glimmering grace of the dolphins; we wanted Marina’s contact, and we didn’t know how to cast ourselves into that desert.
Few authors would equate a relationship between human beings to an arid desert, but the remainder of Barba’s tale bears out this unnerving metaphor.
For the game Marina has devised takes the novel into even darker territory. There is a strange dream-logic to Barba’s writing and the action of the novel begins to mimic the implacable forward-march of dreams. Marina’s game is very simple: once they’re left alone a single girl is chosen to be a doll and the rest of the girls undress her, apply makeup and dress her up again. Marina instructs all the other girls: “The doll has to be quiet; she’s not allowed to talk. And she has to be very pale and sweet and wear this dress. She’s like us, but in doll version; she can’t live without us.” Each night a different girl is chosen and the game proceeds. Here the collective voice grows increasingly claustrophobic and increasingly urgent as what happens to the doll-girl happens to all the girls. “Closing our eyes, we’d compel our bodies to produce the sleep-smell that convinced the adult it was okay for her to go.”
Barba’s earlier books in English translation, Rain over Madrid and August, October, evince the complicated distance between perception and reality, between how a character sees herself and how she is understood by those around her. Barba’s interest in the wordless transformations that occur in youth as well as the obsessions and fixations whose seeds are planted in life’s earliest stages are on full display in this novel. The reader can almost feel the children growing in both body and mind.
Like a puppet-master, or an idle Greek divinity, or even one of the three Fates, Marina is in control of everything; she chooses the child who will be the doll, simply says: you. The orphans come to play with the chosen child as if it were a doll, a smaller version of themselves. The perversity and logic of this ritual is impossible to ignore. “We’d start to undress the chosen girl, thinking trivial thoughts; that we never noticed that mole on her shoulder before, that her face leaned comically to one side, that her nightgown had Donald Duck on it and was frayed at the hem.”
Barba’s novel is a sharp, strange and highly authentic piece of fiction. There is not a superfluous word. In Lisa Dillman’s hands, Andrés Barba’s prose is nothing short of sublime; her renderings almost force the book’s readers to underline and read aloud passages by the dozen. In her translator's note, Dillman notes the power the book had over her when she’d first read it close to a decade ago, as well as her overwhelming desire to translate his singular story as a result. It is not hard to understand why: Barba writes his scenes in brief sketches, left for the reader to piece together like shards of pottery, revealing a motif in crisp outlines.
And this motif is one to take note of: childhood is indeed strange, but Barba’s prose imbues that stage of life with a menace rarely seen before. Playing with the chosen child, the chorus of orphans says: “And then we were discovering that her body was smaller than it had ever been. And with the smallness came fascination. Because anything small fits in our hand, and we can touch it, and move it, and guess what it’s for, and see how it works.” Barba’s readers would do well to take these lines to heart as they remember the haunting experience that is childhood.
Mark Haber is the manager of Brazos Bookstore in Houston, Texas. He has been a juror on the Best Translated Book Award for 2016 and 2017, and his book of short stories, Melville’s Beard / Las barbas de Melville, has just been published in a bilingual English/Spanish edition by Argonáutica books in Mexico.