Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba, tr. Lisa Dillman – a #BTBA2018 flashlight

***This Review Contains Spoilers***

I’m surprised more people haven’t made the Lord of the Flies comparisons between William Golding’s classic book and Andrés Barba’s Such Small Hands. Perhaps it’s a little too obvious? And yet, Barba explores the power dynamics of female relationships using girls in the same way Golding did with young boys – with equally horrifying results.

smallhands_online.pngA 7-year old girl arrives at an orphanage, the only survivor of the automobile accident which kills both her parents.

Marina holds herself aloof from the other girls, focusing all her attention on her dolly (also named Marina). The orphans are enraptured by the otherness of her. “And we didn’t know what to do with our love, either, it was so heavy.”

The atmosphere is that of a hothouse. We are trapped in the impermeable world of children, claustrophobic and separate from the one adults inhabit. Marina’s fellow orphans function as a Greek chorus – miniature Einyes, infernal child-goddesses, Furies in training – who obsessively following her every move. Or – like Hitchcock’s birds, gathering in silence; perching on power lines, cars and fences – always watching; un-blinking; waiting.

But then at recess, out on the playground, everything went back again. Marina shrank and we grew. She stood alone, with her doll, by the statue of Saint Anne, watching us. Or was it the doll who was watching? We didn’t know who the doll really was. Because sometimes she looked like Marina, and she, too, seemed to have a hungry heart, and clenched fists held close to her body, and she, too, was silent even when invited to join in; and she nodded her head back and forth, something we’d never seen a doll do before. And she seemed persecuted and excluded, too. If you sat her on the ground, from above she looked like a little girl and we were the adults, and we thought that we actually were a little like that, a tiny head you could hardly see, a head you had to lift by the chin in order to see its full face. Even her face was like ours, though wary and full, like when you got scared.

Eventually, Marina teaches the other orphans a game. One they can only play at night, after the teachers have gone to bed. Tragedy, of course, ensues.

Barba based the plot on an event he heard about by way of a Clarice Lispector short story “in which some girls in an orphanage of Rio de Janeiro kill another girl and play with her body for various days as if it were a doll.” That’s a bit of a spoiler, but one I suspect is really more of an open secret. Reader’s enjoyment (questionable word choice) of this book doesn’t hinge on plot points, but rather the fraught atmosphere Barba has created. Lisa Dillman’s translation is dense, dark and evocative. She embraces the author’s psychologically charged representation of feminine isolation and, possibly, hysteria. It’s very reminiscent of Sophia Coppola’s 2017 reinterpretation of The Beguiled – in which it is the anticipation of horror more than the horror itself which fascinates.

Ultimately, Barba’s affinity for the macabre, combined with a creepy tendency to hyper-sexualize Marina and the orphans (unconsciously done… I think?), creates a deeply disturbing reading experience, but also a very interesting one. Such Small Hands is mercifully short and quickly absorbed… as all truly unsettling stories must be.

 

Title:  Such Small Hands

Author: Andrés Barba

Translator: Lisa Dillman

Publisher: Transit Books (Oakland, 2017)

 

 

 

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa (translated from the original Japanese by Stephen Snyder)

Revenge-ElevenDarkTalesYoko Ogawa shares the same elegant, pared-down aesthetic of Kazuo Ishiguro and/or Akira Yoshimura.  Like them, she exerts remarkable control over her prose narrative.  And, like them, the fact that something significant is occurring is not always immediately apparent.

Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales provides eleven intimate encounters with love, loss, desire and, yes, revenge.  The violence committed by Ogawa’s characters is particularly chilling, often presented as an afterthought.  The situations into which the reader is pulled are eerily familiar,  like in dreams.  The stories are imbued with a sense of artistry.

Afternoon at the Bakery begins with a woman waiting at the counter of an empty bakery to purchase strawberry shortcakes for her son’s birthday.  An elderly woman wanders in and sits beside her.  They trade small-talk, and in the course of their conversation it is revealed – very matter of factly –  that the birthday boy is dead.  He suffocated (perhaps years ago?) playing in an abandoned refrigerator.  The elderly woman sympathizes and then she leaves, promising to send back the baker if she should see her.  The mother continues to wait, seemingly with unlimited patience.  Eventually she notices the baker in the kitchen, clutching a phone and crying.  She wonders at the cause of the girl’s tears but decides not to interrupt.

People passed by the shop window – young couples, old men, tourists, a policeman on patrol – but no one seemed interested in the bakery.  The woman turned to look out at the square, and ran her fingers through her wavy white hair.  Whenever she moved in her seat, she gave off an odd smell; the scent of medicinal herbs and overripe fruit mingled with the vinyl of her apron.  It reminded me of when I was a child, and the smell of the little greenhouse in the garden where my father used to raise orchids.  I was strictly forbidden to open the door; but once, without permission, I did.  The scent of orchids was not at all disagreeable, and this pleasant association made me like the old woman.

On first reading, that may sound a little too simplistic of a plot.  The author is using a classic bait and switch scenario – pull a reader into a seemingly average, everyday situation and then draw back the veil.  She keeps the action and revelations balanced on the edge of what is possible.  Ogawa performs this trick over-and-over-again throughout the collection, yet the novelty never diminishes.  And even when things begin to feel unsteady, she uses the (authentic) emotions of her eleven narrators to steady us.

Every story is told through the first person, introducing a new storyteller who brings a new set of emotions, responses and perspective to events.  So one woman’s confessor becomes another man’s creepy uncle.  These tales are linked together by a delicate cord of tenuous relationships.  As the book progresses the number of connections grows and the cord becomes a net.

Part of the fascination of Revenge is derived from the joint discoveries of what the next connection will be and where it will occur.  A woman who wears her heart outside her chest, a surgeon’s jealous lover, a black-sheep uncle, a college student’s patroness, that crazy neighbor you made the mistake of talking to once… Ogawa binds the macabre and the mundane with brilliant results.  She and her translator Stephen Snyder make it look easy – allowing the action to move at its own, languid, pace.  Together they are carefully constructing prose environments, emotional tableaux, frozen in time like the scene in a Vermeer painting.

Or like Pieter Claesz’s Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill.  It’s been a favorite of mine since college.  The artist  has thrown together an assortment of mostly common, everyday items – except for the skull.  And it is that one disparate element which sets the tone and defines the viewers response.  Claesz was a 17th century “Haarlem painter who gave extraordinary presence to familiar things”.   It’s the gift given to every true artist:  that ability to draw back the veil and show the rest of us what is not always immediately apparent.

Publisher:  Picador, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 0 312 67446 5

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