26 January 18 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

This review was originally published as a report on the book at New Spanish Books, and has been reprinted here with permission of the reviewer. The book was originally published in the Catalan by Anagrama as Joyce i les gallines.

Anna Ballbona’s recent, highly praised, debut novel Joyce y las gallinas follows the misad-ventures of Dora, a young, disillusioned Catalan journalist who commutes to Barcelona by day from the rather hermetic and lifeless suburbs around the small industrial city of Granollers. Do-ra’s uninspiring assignments, anodyne reporting on inconsequential city hall press conferences and––for the fourth consecutive year––Epiphany parades for children, leave her hungry for more vital literary and artistic experiences. A weekend holiday to Ireland and an unexpected invitation to a Finnegans Wake reading introduce her to Murphy, a Dubliner whose two passions in life are studying James Joyce and raising chickens—not for eggs or meat, but as pets––hence the novel’s title Joyce y las gallinas [Joyce and the Hens]. Sensing in Murphy’s obsession some-thing stranger and more authentic than her workaday life of commuting, reporting on non-news, and playing half-heartedly at the singles game, Dora finds a catalyst (or is it a siren song?) in the Banksy documentary Exit Through the Gift Shop. Under the conceptual spells of mimesis, rep-lication, and transgression, determined to make her own original statement, Dora’s double dose of aesthetic override drives her to adopt an alter ego (Banx) and pursue a new, double life of ar-tistic vandalism—or is it “Banxism”?

The ensuing comedy of errors reveals Ballbona’s novel to be a clever, tightly-stitched contemporary Catalan Dubliners, a sheaf of echoing episodes exploring problems of identity, self-worth, family ties, technology, sterile voyeurism, the perennial anxiety of influence, and the desire to escape from the endless looping subroutines of social conformity. Dora’s odyssey courses our queasy fear that in a biological world of despoiled wilderness and landscapes, our only escape from the social mandate is an ever-circling flight within our own manias. This includes how Murphy’s hen obsession echoes through Dora’s story in a variety of gallina permutations both silly and serious, as she associates freely and comically about hen-based memories from her past, and begins seeing, with ever-greater significance, new and different ones in the strangest of places.

Ballbona’s multifaceted central metaphor, “gallinas,” certainly stands for the traditional Spanish mother, domineering and devoted, the mother hen who keeps family and society meaningfully intact, but also, in our early twenty-first century, stranded in an increasingly anachronistic past. Of course, in English, “gallina” also means “chicken”—both as the helpless candidate for the stewpot and as a blinking, clucking coward. So in Anna Ballbona’s satire, seemingly as familiar and innocuous as a hen’s white egg, we all turn out to be chickens. This is a novel about decep-tion (legal, illegal, and extra-legal), self-delusion, people (all of us?) who hide in plain sight and live in perennial desire for, and fear of, self-exposure, insisting on false appearances even as we (pretend to) revile them. It’s a satire on the cloistered voyeurism that results from our inability to relate to family and society as traditional life is erased, and replaced, dualistically, by an implac-able technology and a fractured aesthetic to which we find ourselves beholden, whose implica-tions we cannot understand, but to whose chimes we pirouette, enthralled and in thrall.

Seeking to enact a masterful Joycean-Banksyan performance (one that seems patently ridiculous until we see that it’s really something else), Dora appropriately plays a strange and elaborate game of chicken with her community, right up until the very suspenseful climax, perhaps achiev-ing what she intended, and perhaps achieving something worse, perhaps inevitably so. Dora wants to rouse the world from its somnolence, but is she really the blind sleepwalker, oblivious to the absurdity of her mimesis?

In addition to clear, measured and subtly wry prose, engagingly cerebral with a light touch, Joyce y las gallinas also sports a fine and effective cast of secondary characters. Most notably we meet––following a strange encounter between a tennis aficionado and a Rottweiler––the nox-ious Alfred––a sleazy, henpecked forty-something dysfunctionally devoted to his mother, En-gracieta––who provides sinister comic menace and vital suspense.

It’s a happy fact of geography for Ballbona that one of the familiar train depots heading out of Barcelona to Granollers, a busy stop on Dora’s daily commute, is Montcada Bifurcació. In a book about double lives and alter egos (Jekyll and Hyde is/are name-checked early on) this is a resonant binomial. Montcada is a small mountain at the north end of the Collserola massif; con-spicuously quarried away for generations, it is gradually being flattened to nothing––a mountain ceasing to be a mountain, a name without a place, a place without its namesake. It is not unlike the questing Dora––a young Catalan woman at odds with her people, place, and tradi-tion; a journalist who finds little meaning in daily life, who feels herself a very bland sort of belle du jour, a woman who finds a kind of cowardly courage to become, by night, a headless chicken on the run that really wants to be a crowing rooster. Birfurcació means, of course, bifur-cation, and as Dora dwells on that train stop, (and given the novel’s wild, peculiar climax that feels rather more Flann O’Brien than strictly Joyce), bifurcation brings to mind Jorge Luis Borges’ signature story “The Garden of Forking Paths” (in Spanish, El jardín de los senderos que se bifurcan). And just as Borges’s koan-like fiction of forking fortune leaves the reader reverberating with wonder and doubt, Ballbona’s slender, artful dodger of a novel plays its black box finale with a very deft sleight-of-hand.

8 November 10 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Just received an e-mail announcement from the Spanish publisher Anagrama, that Colombian writer Antonio Ungar has won this year’s Herralde Novel Prize for Tres ataudes blancos (Three White Coffins).

The Herralde Prize was launched in 1983 with the goal of promoting new works of Spanish literature. Over the years, a number of very influential Spanish-language authors have won, including Daniel Sada, Martin Kohan, Juan Villoro, Alan Pauls, Enrique Vila-Matas, Roberto Bolano, Sergio Pitol, and Javier Marias. (An awful lot of dudes have won this . . . ) The winning book is then published by Anagrama and the author receives and 18,000 euro advance.

Ungar’s is the author of one other novel, The Wolf’s Ears, which is pretty interesting, but this new book sounds much more complex, ambitious, and playful:

Three White Coffins has the appearance of a bizarre thriller in which the obese, solitary, antisocial protagonist is forced to take on the identity of the leader of the opposition party and undergo unbearable adventures in order to bring down the totalitarian regime of an unnamed Latin American country.

This plot is, however, an empty structure, a skeletal apparatus within which the novel grows—wildly and unpredictably gushing forth in the protagonist’s voice. Excessive, mentally unbalanced, hilarious, the narrator uses his words to question, ridicule, and destroy reality (and reconstruct it, from zero, anew).

Accompanying him on his adventures is an idealistic bodyguard, who is addicted to adrenaline and whose voice bursts in on occasion to narrate the few scenes of violence; and a shy nurse, who ends up being the narrator’s lover and savior. Ceaselessly pursued by the terrorist regime that controls the country and by operatives from their own side, and alone against the world, the characters are finally hunted down and defeated. The two men disappear. The woman manages to escape and leaves the country.

The adventure seems to have come to a definitive end when the woman, living in exile, receives the manuscript written by the protagonist that recounts their experiences (which the reader has just read). Sad and disenchanted, and about to give birth, she reads it, believing that the two men are dead. Her reading, however, becomes a devastating critique of the characters, an assault on the previous narrative’s assumptions, and a questioning of the narrative methods employed. This frantic revision of all she has experienced helps her find, without meaning to, the resolution of the novel, which is also the resolution of her own existence.

Three White Coffins is a polyphonic text, one that is open to multiple interpretations. It can be read as a fierce satire of Latin American politics, a refined reflection on individual identity and impersonation, an exploration of the limits of friendship, an essay about the fragility of the real, or a story of impossible love. Wrapped in a thriller that is easy to open and read and full of humor, this novel is without doubt a fascinating literary game.

27 November 07 | Chad W. Post | Comments [1]

I came across Andrés Barba by chance one day in 2002, browsing at a Spanish bookstore. The book I stood perusing sounded intriguing: the story of an adolescent girl who lives in a Madrid apartment with her prostitute mother and stripper sister. Despite my interest in the story, however, the literary endeavor seemed not just improbable but almost risible. Here was a novel presenting the lives of several troubled women through the eyes of a less-than-savvy, fourteen-year old girl as written by a man – one who was just twenty-six years old. I bought it, I confess, to prove myself right: the protagonist’s voice could not possibly be convincing. Five years later I am still astounded by the heart-breaking tenderness and naked honesty of Barba’s prose.

Katia’s sister, the protagonist, is presented as achingly naive, and her almost saint-like innocence filters each of her observations, deflecting the horrors of the harsh world she inhabits. With utterly uncomplicated candor, she reinterprets prostitution, drug addiction, death and religion, and we are privy to all of her pre-moral reflections. Having quit school, Katia’s sister (who is never named) spends her days cleaning, watching nature shows on TV, and marveling at the tourists in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor who wear such bright colors, say such charming things. She comprises the sole affective bond in the family, the only selfless constant in her all-female clan (Mamá is often gone for days at a time; Katia works late at the strip club; grandmother’s Alzheimer’s is progressing daily). And her perspective is a redemptive one. Daily trials, whether transcendent, morbid, or run-of-the-mill, are all battled with an innocence that ultimately bathes everything in its glow, humanizing us all. At the start of the novel we read:

Mamá hadn’t been home for a week. Katia had just turned eighteen and she’d given her a pair of ladybug earrings that she hadn’t liked. Anyone could have seen it in her forced smile, her gesture of resignation when she asked her to put them on; but that night she went to bed happy in the knowledge that she’d given the perfect gift. Three days later she saw that Katia still hadn’t worn them, not even once. It didn’t trouble her, though. She remembered when she was eight and Mamá had given her a pink watch that she liked so much she didn’t dare put it on, for fear she might break it. She’d take it out at night, watch the second hand slowly caress the quarters of an hour, and then put it back in the same imperturbable case in which a year later it would stop ticking, and then in subsequent years gather dust, purging its sin of having been too beautiful. Maybe that’s why Katia hadn’t worn the earrings yet, because they were just too pretty.

At this point, we are left wondering: is her reaction a defense mechanism, or is she just not too bright? It’s not long, though, before we realize this is no act; the protagonist is not stupid, she’s simply incapable of feeling – or picking up on – malice, cruelty, or bitterness. In Katia’s sister’s world, people aren’t bad; they have concrete rationale for their actions. Their behavior can be explained by a phrase she hears her mother use frequently on the phone, “Men aren’t evil; they just want to get laid.”

Katia’s Sister is a remarkable first book from a very young writer who has gone on to prove his mettle in subsequent novels. This one was finalist for the 19th Herralde Prize in Spain, has been translated into French, Dutch, German, and Italian, and is currently being made into a film in Holland. Rafael Chirbes, one of Spain’s greatest living novelists, has called Barba’s prose “imprescindible”, often translated as “vital” though the urgency is more intense. His writing is “undowithoutable”.

Katia’s Sister
Andrés Barba
Anagrama, 2001

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