See this post about Barba for more information about this piece, which was translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman.
The ad in the “male seeking male” section said:
I’m so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.
and was in amongst others listing predictable obscenities and a series of oral necessities. Page 43. At the top. Above a bisexual named Ángel soliciting a threesome and beneath the photo of a man of indeterminate age and sadness who wore a mask that gave him the pathetic air of a terrorist just emerging from the shower; it said so alone just like that, like it was nothing, it said it with the afternoon languor pressing in through the living room window (the one that overlooked the park) almost the way you accept the ritual of Sunday afternoon boredom, with no resentment.
I’m so alone.
If he had accepted Marta’s invitation, now he would have an excuse to get dressed, go out; the doorman’s little desk would be empty, the street would be empty, the dog would stare up at him, watery eyes, panting tongue, tail wagging to the rhythm of his desire to go for a walk, “Platz. Paw. Sit,” repeated, the same as the light, an anonymous conversation beneath his bedroom window (the one that overlooked the patio), traffic.
He bought it last night and the first thing he did was check the ages of the men who’d placed the ads (almost never stated, which was worse because it meant that the majority of them were probably young). The ones who dared to send a photo took the risk of being recognized. He had gone out to buy cigarettes and ended up buying the magazine. When he got home he started to masturbate to one of the personals but ended up using an erotic art catalogue he’d bought last month. When he finished he washed his hands, made some soup and fed the dog. There were no movies on TV. Marta called to invite him over for Sunday lunch with Ramón and the kids and he declined, saying he had other plans. But he didn’t have other plans. The movies playing at the theater didn’t appeal to him enough to make him want to go out, deal with the hassle of the ticket and refreshment lines, and then return home without being able to rave about or even discuss what he’d seen. He hadn’t been to an art exhibit in years. He fell asleep thinking tomorrow he would take it easy at home, and it didn’t sound like a bad idea. Sometimes he liked to stay in, lose track of time watching TV after lunch, listen to Chopin while lounging on the sofa, leafing through a book. The magazine lay on one of the armchairs like a long-drawn-out, accepted failure. After having used it last night, he thought he’d throw it away, but he’d left it there and when he finished watching the afternoon movie it had sat there, looking up at him saying Madrid Contactos on the cover in red letters and death to hypocrisy in smaller ones, under the headline and above the photo of a woman who looked like his brother-in-law Ramón’s sister because, like her, she wore half a ton of mascara on each eye and her thin lips were made up to look fuller, filled in beyond her lip line. He opened it back up to the “male seeking male” section. He lingered over the pictures again and became excited again.
I’m so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.
Then it dawned on him that this had been going on for many years. Simply, almost painlessly, he had become resigned to the fact that he himself would never demand the things the personals were asking for, and although on a couple of occasions he had contracted a rent boy and brought him up to his apartment, the fact that he had to pay, the whole act of the wallet, the question, the exchange, turned him off to such a degree that he would then become uncomfortable at how long he took and once or twice ended up asking the guy to leave out of sheer disgust.
The dog barked and he found his shoes to take him down for a walk. He left the light on and put on his coat.
Monday everything looked the same from the bank’s office window. A Coca-Cola sign flashed on and off, as did the recently hung lights announcing the imminent advent of Christmas. He had heard something about an office party and, although he’d said he would go – declining would have launched a desperate search for excuses – they knew, as he did, that it had been years since he had last liked Alberto’s jokes (always the same, whispered to the new secretary or the newest female graduate to be hired), Andrés’s toasts and Sandra’s conversations about the kids. The fact that he was the oldest employee at the office allowed him to decline those invitations, ignore them without having to worry about subsequent hatreds that were felt but never expressed. He enjoyed that in the same way that he enjoyed his solitude, his collection of consolations and little excesses (Napoleon cognac, fancy cigarettes, a weekly dinner at an expensive restaurant) that he had grown used to and that led him to grant that he was a reasonably happy man. Jokes about his homosexuality told in hushed tones at the office met with his indifference, making him invulnerable, and although his exterior coldness had begun as a survival technique, now he really did feel comfortable in it, like someone who finally finds a warm place to take refuge and decides to make do, without yearning for anything better.
But the ad in that magazine said:
I’m so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.
And those few words had begun, since he read them on Saturday night, to unravel everything. When he finished work on Monday he felt anxious and he didn’t know why. Or he did, but didn’t want to admit it. Accepting that he wanted to call that number would have meant accepting disorder where, for many long years, there had reigned peace, or something that, without actually being peace, was somehow akin to it: his Napoleon cognac, lunch at Marta’s house once every two weeks, walking the dog, the nightly TV movie he watched until tiredness overcame him, maybe the occasional rent boy he’d bring home in his car and whose presence he would then try to erase as soon as possible, fluffing up the sofa cushions (not the bed, never the bed), opening the windows, repenting.
That night he took the dog for a walk earlier than usual and then it became undeniable. Something had broken. Something fragile and very fine had broken. He always ate dinner first, smoked a cigarette watching TV and then took the dog out. Why hadn’t he done that today? The dog hadn’t even wagged his tail when he saw him approach with the leash and, on the way down in the elevator, had looked up at him with an expression of bovine wonderment.
“Paw,” he said. “Paw” and the dog gave him his paw, tongue out and eyebrows raised, as if his owner were teaching him the rules of a new game.
When he got back he looked for the magazine. He’d left it on the table, he was sure, and now it wasn’t there. He looked in the bathroom, and in the kitchen. He shuffled through his desk drawers. Any other day at this time he would have already had dinner and be smoking his cigarette, getting ready to walk the dog, yet that night not only had he not done it but he was nervous, desperately searching for that magazine that he wouldn’t even have been able to masturbate to without the help of the erotic art catalogue he’d bought last month. Finding himself in this situation increased his desperation, but he didn’t give up until he found it. It was on the floor beside the sofa. He opened it again and became excited reading the personals again, but there was something a little different. It wasn’t the TV, or the cognac, or the dog, but himself, in the midst of all those other things. Reading all of the ads was a game he submitted to, fooling himself and yet all the while knowing precisely what he was looking for. Page 43. At the top. Above a bisexual named Ángel soliciting a threesome and beneath the photo of the nude man with the mask.
I’m so alone. Roberto. (91) 3077670.
Finding it was like feigning surprise when an expected visitor arrived, except this time the surprise was real; it was as if the ad had never been there and he had invented it at the bank. He had never met anyone named Roberto, so –though it was a common name – it had hung in the balance on page 43 like a riddle waiting to be solved. It wasn’t an ugly name. Roberto. Anxiety made him eat the steaks he was saving for the weekend. Now he’d have to go shopping again because the leftover rice he’d been planning to have tonight would have gone bad by tomorrow. This was no good at all. Not that it was bad to have eaten something he was saving for another time; that was one of the sorts of luxuries that made him reasonably happy. But doing it the way he’d done it, just like that, for no reason. But really, had there been reasons the other times?
Half an hour later he couldn’t sleep. He always went to bed early, capitalizing on television’s soporific effect, and that night he couldn’t sleep. He’d taken the magazine with him to bed and left it on his nightstand. He picked it up and opened it but then felt ridiculous. It was all Roberto’s fault. In the open wardrobe door, he could see the dark, faint reflection of his fifty-six year old body in the glow of the television, projecting tiredness and an obesity that, while not obscene, he had never made a serious attempt to combat. He felt pathetic for having entered into the game Roberto was proposing. How – after so many years of reasonable happiness, of peace – could so blatant a ploy have gotten the better of him? Crumpling it up, he took it to the kitchen and threw it in the trash. Then he tied the bag and left it by the door, hoping that the doorman would not have made his rounds yet. Sleep descended upon him that night serene and unburdened. He was proud of himself.
In the morning the trash bag was gone. He could have verified this simply by looking out the peephole but instead he opened the door. At the bank, they asked him if he felt all right when he arrived.
“I have a little bit of a headache,” he said.
“It’s the flu. People are dropping like flies.”
But it wasn’t the flu. The Coca-Cola sign flashed on and off, as did the Christmas lights. It was Christmastime. How had he not realized? Two years ago he’d felt a slow-burning sadness during the holidays, too, and he hadn’t been able to shake it off until they had taken the lights down. But what he felt now wasn’t really sadness. He was anxious. He made a mistake keying in the number of a bank account and spent almost half an hour arguing with a customer who claimed his deposits were not being credited correctly. At lunchtime he went to get the first-aid kit to take his temperature. But he had no fever. He took an aspirin. But he didn’t have a headache. The ad said:
I’m so alone. Roberto, and then there was a phone number. He couldn’t remember the number. He, who had always been so proud of his numeric memory, couldn’t recall the number. It started 307. It started 307 and then there was something like 4680. It wasn’t 4680 but it was similar to 4680. 5690. 3680.
I’m so alone. Roberto, and then 307…
When he left the bank he didn’t go home but instead walked to the kiosk where he’d bought the personals magazine the other day.
“Check over there,” the newsagent said.
It wasn’t there.
“Don’t you have any more?”
“Aren’t there any there?”
“I can’t see any.”
“Then we must be out.”
He couldn’t find it at the sex shop three blocks down, either, and the clerk hadn’t even heard of the magazine. He thought about filing a complaint but that seemed ridiculous. When he got home the dog was restless because he’d been gone so long. He was hungry and wagged his tail. Any other day he’d have felt relaxed arriving home, but this time he didn’t know what to do, he didn’t know if he should sit down or watch TV. He hadn’t eaten dinner yet. He had to walk the dog. Suddenly every act that, for years, he had performed in a ritual of leisurely contentment seemed an unbearable obligation. He put on the dog’s leash and went down to take him for a walk but didn’t follow his usual route. When he got back, though he had no appetite, he ate dinner and then took two sleeping pills. He dreamed of someone he had loved for three long years a long time ago, but he couldn’t see his face; there was only the familiar presence of that body lying beside him, his smell, his saliva.
Tuesday and Wednesday and Thursday he went to the bank with a fever. He felt weak but at the same time he wanted to scream. It seemed impossible to him that he had held on this way for so many years. During his lunch break he went out to his usual café-bar for a sandwich and coffee but he felt excluded from everything around him. Wherever he looked, all he saw were couples, kisses, little signs of affection. The cold condescendence he once looked on with now turned against him, blowing up in his face with envy and anxiety. He had to find that magazine. Now.
I’m so alone, said Roberto. He was alone, too. He wanted to be kissing someone, like all those couples, holding someone’s hand, buying presents. Irony was a game he could no longer play.
As we mentioned last Friday, we’re going to spend the next 22 days highlighting all of the authors selected for Granta’s _“Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists” special issue. All past and future posts related to this issue can be found by clicking here.
First up: Spanish author Andres Barba, whose new short story “The Coming Flood” is included in this issue.
I’ve been hearing about Andres Barba for years thanks to Lisa Dillman. She’s been extremely active in promoting Barba—hailing him as one of the “great young Spanish authors” before this issue of Granta was a footnote in an editor’s dreaming eye.
Barba’s a pretty prolific writer . . . He’s all of 35 years old, and in addition to Katia, he’s the author of the novels Ahora tocad musica de baile, Versiones de Teresa, Las manos pequenas, Agosto, octubre, and Muerte de un caballo. In addition (in addition?!?), he received the Anagrama Essay Prize for La ceremonia del porno and wrote a colleciton of novellas entitled La recta intencion. (More on that in a second.)
“The Coming Flood,” the new story included in this issue, which was translated by Lisa Dillman, is about a woman willing to do whatever it takes (mainly prostituting herself) in order to get enough money to have a horn implanted on her face. Which is as strange as it sounds, but is a desire that gathers in intensity as the story progresses:
The idea has a life of its own. She closes her eyes, overcome, feeling something sweet, sharp, finally full of harmony; the safety of the bone. Operations in the past: lips once, breasts four times, ribs removed, cheekbones done, and in her diary, sometimes, between one operation and the next, she’d write ‘I’m a monster.’ Other times she’d write: ‘For my next operation . . .’ Her writing now is perky, vibrant. She doesn’t sleep that night either. Little by little the unrest subsides, but come dawn, it’s back. Now the house, a dank place, befits her large body. Because the body secretes feelings, but you’ve got to be close enough to perceive them. And one day she leaves home and lets out a low moan she’d have liked to make last. Who could say why she walks there when what she wants is to avoid the place? But she holds onto the railing at the entrance and then, as if thrust forcefully, takes one step and then another with the trusty tick-tock of a clock. ‘My face with a horn, my smile with a horn, my arms and legs and tits and cunt with a horn.’ She needs the vulgarity of those words, but there’s no more money. There are no more calls, no more film shoots.
As a special bonus, Lisa Dillman was kind enough to send us an excerpt from Barba’s Nocturne, one of the novellas from La recta intencion. Since this is a pretty long sample, and since I tend to write too many over-long blog posts, I’m going to make this a separate entry, which you can “find here.”:
And don’t forget, if you want to read all of “The Coming Flood” (and 21 other pieces), you can receive this issue for free by subscribing to Granta.
Up tomorrow: Santiago Roncagliolo.
Lisa’s review of Barba’s Katia’s Sister generated a good deal of interest, but unfortunately this book has yet to find an English publisher. (For anyone who’s interested, an excerpt from the novel is included in Spain: A Traveler’s Literary Companion from Whereabouts Press.)
Our latest review is of Andres Barba’s Katia’s Sister, a novel which was published in Spain by Anagrama back in 2001.
Lisa Dillman—a translator from Spanish and Catalan and lecturer at Emory University who wrote the review—actually contacted me from the Guadalajara Book Fair with the news that Barba had won the Essay Prize from Anagrama for his most recent book The Porno Ceremony. So not only is the review interesting, it’s timely as well . . .
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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Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .