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.
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”.
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