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)

 

 

 

The Bosnian War – In Short Stories & A Computer Game

This week’s review can be found over at The Rumpus. Soundcheck: Tales from the Balkan Conflict is a book of short stories by Galician author & journalist Miguel-Anxo Murado, translated by Carys Evans-Corrales.  This War of Mine is a computer survival game based on the Siege of Sarajevo. Each compliments the other – forcing readers (and players) to re-evaluate the way we think about war.  Arguably in more realistic ways than we’re used to.  CLICK on the cover to learn more:

 

SOUNDCHECK: TALES FROM THE BALKAN CONFLICT

 

Note:  This War of Mine was created by the game company 11 bit studios. They’re currently developing a new version of the game which ups the ante even further by adding children to the group of survivors. I talk about the original game in the review – here’s a link to the homepage and trailer (you’ll need to scroll down) for This War of Mine: The Little Ones. No release date yet, as far as I can tell.

Cría Cuervos (1976) – film directed by Carlos Saura *BEWARE! some spoilers!*

The first group scheduled event for Spanish Language Lit Month is to post on the film Cría Cuervos*.  This is an off-kilter and beautiful film starring an adolescent Ana Torrent.  The title translates as Raise Ravens, which refers to a Spanish proverb – “Cría cuervos y te sacarán los ojos.” (Raise ravens, and they’ll pluck out your eyes).  Set in Madrid, during the final days of Franco’s Spain, it tells the story of one dysfunctional family from the perspective of the middle daughter, Ana.

The film opens with Ana finding her father’s dead body in bed, as his lover flees the house.  Her mother has only recently died of cancer – after suffering both physically from the disease and emotionally due to her husband’s infidelities.  Ana blames her father, played by Héctor Alterio, for her mother’s pain and has mixed a powder she believes is poison into his milk.  Now orphaned, an aunt & grandmother arrive to look after Ana & her two sisters.  The earthy housekeeper, who acted as nurse to Ana’s mother, completes the household.

Cría Cuervos is billed as a “psychological drama”.  In the 70’s that must mean minimal dialogue; an indordinate amount of time spent focused on the Torrent’s huge, haunting eyes and abrupt switches mid-scene between reality and Ana’s memories.  Snarkiness aside, those are kinda’ the things I loved about it.  The main plot line is deceptively simple. The girls have no real concept of what death is.  But Saura brilliantly shows how they have absorbed and processed the events taking place around them.  In one scene they dress up and amidst much giggling, re-enact a scene they must have witnessed of their parents fighting.  In another Ana offers to assist her disabled grandmother die by giving her some of the same “poison” she gave to her father.   In a final scene the eldest daughter sums up the feelings of uncertainty, fear and confusion all three are experiencing when she tells Ana of a nightmare from the previous night as casually as if it had no relationship to her real life.

More complicated is what the director is attempting to say about Franco’s regime and its legacy to the people of Spain.  Ana’s father, we learn, fought beside the Nazis in Germany.  There is a sense of decaying luxury within the walls of the family’s Madrid home (where almost all the scenes take place).  The swimming pool is empty and neglected.  We’re told repeatedly that the house is in disarray.  There is Ana’s casual approach to death, which is partly due to her 9-year-old lack of understanding but also serves as a commentary on the atmosphere in which she was raised.  She feels no remorse or guilt, despite believing she killed her father.  And her older self, who appears sporadically throughout the film to attempt to explain the actions of the younger Ana, no longer seems to have a connection to or understanding of the psyche of the child she once was.  What will become of this post-Franco generation, is the question Carlos Saura seems to be posing, who have grown up in strange times with only their parents as examples?

Visually, Cría Cuervos is beautiful – and the remastered Criterion Collection edition I watched was vibrant and crisp.  The film’s color palette and the slight awkwardness to the actors’ performances  reminded me of a Wes Anderson film.  As did the song “¿Por qué te vas?” (Why are you leaving?) which was played repeatedly throughout.  One review I read pointed out that in the film Ana’s mother, played by Geraldine Chaplin (who also played the adult Ana), speaks Spanish with an English accent – as does the singer.  The adult Ana speaks with a “pure” Spanish accent.  The reviewer put forward that the reason Ana repeatedly plays the record is because the singer reminds her of her mother’s voice.  Which, to my mind, makes perfect sense. Cría Cuervos is full of small, subtle touches like that.

My final review? I enjoyed the film much more than I expected to (I’m not really a fan of 70’s cinema).  So much so that I’ve already added El espíritu de la colmena (The Spirit of the Beehive) – an earlier Saura/Torrent collaboration) to my Netflix queue.  It was, overall, a wonderful way to begin Spanish Language Lit Month.

*I’ve posted my review early because I’m a dope who’s never been good at reading directions.  You should definitely check out Winstonsdad’s Blog and Caravana de recuerdos this weekend for links to everyone else’s brilliant (and on time) opinions of the film.

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Death of a Nationalist by Rebecca Pawel (narrated by Elizabeth Klett)

My most recent audiobook download from Iambik.com is Rebecca Pawel’s novel Death of a Nationalist.  Set in 1939, in the early days of Franco’s Spain, it’s a murder mystery that doesn’t shy away from the complexities of history.

…The Spanish Civil War, often  considered a practice run for WWII, has only recently ended.  The short-lived Republic is no more.  The Nationalists, backed by Nazi Germany and Italy, are the winners.  The remains of the Republican army – a mixed bag of Communists, Socialists and Anarchists backed by the Soviet Union & Mexico, (and more quietly by England & the U.S.) – are in hiding.  Once discovered they’ll be imprisoned… if they are lucky; “taken for a walk” if they are not.

All in all, this is not a good time in the history of Spain.  People are starving in the streets of Madrid and the black market thrives. The population is still divided over the recent war.  Death of a Nationalist opens with the murder of a member of the Guardia Civil, the often corrupt civil police force tasked with restoring order and normalcy to the city.  The murdered man’s best friend and fellow Guardia, a Sargeant Carlos Tejada, is determined to find the killer.  What follows is an investigation fraught with wrong turns, mistaken beliefs, moral ambiguity and a number of red herrings.  All of which plays out against a vividly rendered historical backdrop.

So well rendered that at the end of the audiobook I was looking for the name of the translator.  Guess what?  There isn’t one.  Rebecca Pawel was born in New York City.  She’s still alive and still writing books.  Death of a Nationalist (published in 2003) is the first in a series featuring Sargeant Carlos Tejada Alonso y León.  A series that now consists of four books.

My point is:  Death of a Nationalist has all the strength and authenticity of a novel written in the 1930’s.  The writing style, historical details and psychology of the narrative reminded me so much of Nada by Carmen Laforet that I completely mistook Pawel for a contemporary. There is an immediacy to the events and opinions, an absence of hindsight, that I thought would be hard to create so long after the fact.

Death of a Nationalist throws you head first into the plot.  A young schoolgirl witnesses the murder of the Guardia, and that random act creates a domino effect that changes the course of her life and the lives of her family.  Pawel keeps a large cast of characters at her disposal.  To her credit I never felt lost or confused.  Everyone fit neatly into place without the plot being formulaic.  The main protagonist, Tejada, is something of an anti-hero.  He’s a fascist, not your typical knight-in-shining armor.  His beliefs make him unpredictable.  That unpredictability only increases the suspense.

As for the audio:  Iambik has come a long way in a short time.  More indie publishers are on board, more audiobooks are available – their library is constantly growing.  Now, when you click on the book title it takes you to a page where you can listen to a segment and decide whether or not you like the narrator’s voice.  A feature which I love!  Elizabeth Klett, who narrates Death of a Nationalist, does a great job. Her character voices are nuanced, each is imbued with subtle individuality.  I’ll definitely be listening to more of her work.  And I’ll definitely be looking for the next book in this series.  Which, sadly, is not yet available in audiobook.

Death of a Nationalist is available in traditional book form through Soho Crime.
ISBN:  978 1 56947 344 3

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The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte

I’ve been searching for a good literary mystery.  That rules out at least 75% of the books in the Mystery section which is stuffed with thrillers, true crime, and bad things happening to small children.  I’ve been looking for a mystery that is…well… clever.  And maybe old fashioned.  Maybe something along the lines of the Da Vinci Code – if it had been better written with less contrived puzzles and a plot that didn’t pander to the masses’ macabre fascination with religious taboos (ahem, stepping off the soapbox now).  In short, I want a mystery that’s intelligent – rather than one that lets me feel intelligent.  Arturo Perez-Reverte snuck up on me.

I purchased The Club Dumas while on vacation and never  read it.   The fact is, I couldn’t bring myself to do it once I realized that it was the basis of that tragically bad Polanski movie with Johnny Depp.  (It seems that there is an entire shelf of unfortunate movies based on Perez-Reverte’s books… who would have guessed? I encourage you to look them all up on imdb – yes, it will be on the test).  Fortunately, the inside cover and back pages advertised his other novels.  I was intrigued by Captain Alatriste, a sword for hire in 17th Century Spain.  I bought the first book of that series, appropriately named Captain Alatriste and also picked up The Flanders Panel on a whim.

So, at this point I owned three Perez-Reverte books, in case anyone is keeping track.  I read The Flanders Panel first.

Arturo Perez-Reverte lives in Spain, so not surprisingly all of his books were originally published in Spanish. This Flanders Panel is set in Madrid, specifically in the center of the Madrid art world. Julia, the heroine, has been commissioned to restore a painting by a Flemish master, – two men playing chess, a woman reading in the background.  She discovers the words “Who killed the knight?” beneath layers of paint.  All the clues needed to answer that question and solve a 500 year old murder are contained within the painting.  But while attempting to find the solution Julia and her friends find themselves stalked by a killer whose victims are all somehow linked with the painting and, ultimately, with Julia.

The Flanders Panel has all the right components for the genre – a 15th Century painting holding the clue to a murder, a heroine who is an art restorer, a cast of supporting characters well realized and each interesting in their own right.  And, at the very center of it all, chess.  Not just the game of chess, but a particular chess game, which is the crux of both the novel’s historical and modern day mysteries.  And Perez-Reverte writes in such a way that reading about chess is as interesting and exciting as the mystery itself.  He writes in a way that not only makes you want to play the game, but makes you want to study it and to play it well.  (He is so compelling that after finishing the book I went out and bought a book on opening chess moves, tried chess online, and endured repeated humiliation at the hands of what I believe to be a series of high school chess prodigies.  Thanks Arturo).

Be warned: The Flanders Panel carries with it the inherent flaw of most mysteries – plausibility.  I.E. – the plot needs to be carefully constructed so that at the end when all the pieces fall into place, ultimately leaving Colonel Mustard in the billiards room with the lead pipe, it is plausible.  If the author does this well, which Perez-Reverte does, then the revelation of Colonel Mustard’s guilt is anticlimactic.  But that’s not really the point of reading a mystery.  Sticking with my metaphor, the fun isn’t taking those cards out of the envelope… the fun is in the game play.  Perez-Reverte sets up a wonderful game.  And if the ending, particularly the denouement, is a little disappointing – it doesn’t take away from everything preceding it.  It even allows the (albeit faint) hope that we will see these characters again.

The other Perez-Reverte books on my bedside table are not all translated by the same person as The Flanders Panel.  Normally, I wouldn’t comment – but I noticed the difference in the writing.  It takes a bit of getting used to, especially after enjoying the first book so much.  But that’s the price of failing high school Spanish.  Still, never one to fall back in the face of adversity I’ve begun Captain Alatriste and purchased The Nautical Chart. I’m even considering giving The Club Dumas another chance (after discovering that the movie was only loosely based on the novel).  Best of all, according to my list there are at least six other books to keep me busy after that…and my new friend Arturo is only 57.