Granta’s Josie Mitchell talked to Andrés Barba about his new book, Such Small Hands, Gothic and Greek Literature, and how he approaches writing from a child’s perspective.

 

Josie Mitchell:

Such Small Hands tells the story of Marina, a young girl who moves to an orphanage having lost her parents in a car crash. Her arrival creates a strange tension among the other girls, and the behaviour of the children becomes increasingly dark and ominous. Children and their perspectives often feature in horror stories – is there something inherently scary about their way of seeing the world?

Andrés Barba:

If, for an instant, you let go of that image of the innocent and happy child, you immediately discover that on many occasions throughout history the child has also played an ominous cultural role. The child has been the ‘divine animal’, whose essential animal qualities are to be tamed and civilised. But the child has also been the pure and uncorrupted human being, in certain respects greater than the adult and in other respects lesser than the adult. Traditionally the adult has always wanted the child to become an adult as quickly as possible, because deep down the adult is frightened by the child’s gaze. Adult secrets are revealed by the child’s gaze, and even St Augustine thanked God that children do not have the capacity to execute the violence that they can harbour in their souls. During the Enlightenment the child was seen as the ‘noble savage’. I think that this myth reveals the struggle during that period in history to break free from what were felt as instinctive and uncontrollable forces. It is possible that the period in history with the most idiotic vision of childhood is our own: we demand that the child be the most pure and the most innocent being possible to prevent ourselves from recognising the child’s true complexity.

Mitchell:

The events of your book are based on a true story – a chilling incident that took place in Brazil during the 1960s, in which girls at an orphanage killed another child and played with her body parts for a week. How did you find out about this event, and what drew you to dramatize it?

Barba:

I found it accidently in a tale–chronicle by Clarice Lispector called ‘The Smallest Woman in the World’, 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. This episode struck me as incredibly powerful, not because it is particularly sinister but because it seems to hide in its interior a story of love and fascination.

Mitchell:

The book is divided into two perspectives. Sometimes we hear from Marina, at other times, the story is told collectively by other the girls at the orphanage. What drew you to the collective ‘we’ voice?

Barba:

I had a tough time finding the appropriate perspective to tell the tale. What finally changed it for me was recognising that what I was writing was nothing more nor less than a Greek tragedy and that what was therefore needed was . . . a chorus! That discovery gave me a way to give the girls a voice that was both conscious and childlike. It was a literary device that allowed me to be inside and outside the girls.

Mitchell:

Such Small Hands shows a deep awareness of the genre conventions of gothic literature. What is it like to write in the gothic tradition?

Barba:

I was more conscious of the Greek than the gothic tradition, but it is true that for many reasons the book can be considered gothic. In Spain there is little of the gothic tradition in literature – I can only think of some pieces by José Cadalso – but there is a strong tradition in visual art, with Goya as the epitome. And now when I think of my book I realise that unconsciously I was working with images reminiscent of those witches sabbaths painted by Goya. What really fascinate me – to the point of obsession – are the ghost stories of Henry James, which are always written with a strikingly realist style.

Mitchell:

Are there any writers in particular that you are in conversation with or who have influenced your writing?

Barba:

Many authors have influenced me over my life. In the particular case of Such Small Hands women writers have been the biggest influence. For a while now I have been searching for a more lyrical voice, and I have been guided by Clarice Lispector, Marina Tsvetaeva, Mary Flannery O’Connor, Natalia Ginzburg, and Dinesen (the pen-name of the Danish author Karen Christenze von Blixen-Finecke). My novel is thus very feminine in all senses, even in its tone.

Mitchell:

Do you think there is a relationship between gothic film, literature, art and real life?

Barba:

The true gothic tradition is capable of making the reader put aside her perception and expectation of real life and enter into a zone of suspense that is quite different. In this sense I am thinking of Charles Maturin, for example, and Edgar Allen Poe and Matthew Lewis. Yet I prefer the gothic that was crafted by Henry James, who continued to use a realist tone and who spoke of ghosts as if he were speaking of tables or pencils. The gothic is anchored in real life because the tensions produced are anchored in the everyday fears of the readers.

Mitchell:

Ann Radcliffe, in her nineteenth century essay ‘On the Supernatural in Poetry’, wrote that ‘terror and horror are so far opposite that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a high degree of life; the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them’. Do you recognise this distinction, and how do you employ these emotions in your own work?

Barba:

It is an interesting idea, although it seems to me essentially academic. It is certainly true that there exists that gut fear – that’s to say fear felt in the stomach – and perhaps there is also genital fear, lung fear and heart fear. They are all different types of fear, and from an intellectual point of view it might be interesting to analyse them. However, when I am writing fiction I do not get too bothered by this sort of classification; instead I try to focus on the impulse that is driving me, and to consider the requirements of each moment and to envisage the natural pathways as they branch forward from the moment.

Mitchell:

Many have praised your uncanny ability to conceptualise the world as young children might see and describe it. I’m reminded of Marina’s description of the other children at night – ‘All together, they looked like a team of sleepy little horses’ (‘Todas juntas parecían una recua de caballos pequeños y adormilados’). Meanwhile they all get ‘tiny little folds, miniscule creases by their mouths, invisible gills that made them seem like sea creatures that only came out at night’ (‘unos pliegues minúsculos, pequeñísimos, junto a las bocas, como unas agallas casi invisibles, y entonces parecían criaturas submarinas que sólo emergían durante la noche’). How do you enter the head of a child and capture the way they see the world?

Barba:

Well it is relatively simple to enter the head of a child because we all have a very vivid memory of the thoughts we had when we were children. It is a Platonic exercise: its not so much that you have to learn something unknown, rather that you have to try to recall what you knew in the past, to recover the memory with all its complexity, without embellishing it, and with all the details associated with that particular moment. Then you work with that material.

Mitchell:

In the grand tradition of Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the book is at once a ghost story and an exploration of psychological trauma – how did you develop the tension between these two approaches?

Barba:

Well I’m not certain my novel is really a ghost story. It is simply a story, based on reality, and therein lies much of its potential. It is true that in some respects it is a wound that contains its own cure, but basically I am happy to see it as a love story. A story of love and fascination for others, for others who are literally in a polar opposite situation.

Mitchell:

‘And when the doll was so disfigured that she no longer looked like a human baby, only then did the girl begin to play with her,’ reads your epigraph, a line taken from A Woman in Berlin by an anonymous author. Tell me about this quote. Why does it introduce your book?

Barba:

It is the tale of a young girl during the Russian occupation of Berlin after the War. What I found very beautiful was that absolute destruction could generate a new category of humanity. Normally one thinks of horror as the total obliteration of what it means to be human, but many people who live through extremely traumatic experiences recognise that other dimension in the human spirit. When it seems that there is no hope left, true humanity appears in the least expected place – in this case in the most monstrous.

Mitchell:

Such Small Hands was originally published in Spanish just under a decade ago, and is only now being released for an English-language audience. How does it feel to return to this book after so long?

It is lovely and it is emotional. It is like seeing an old friend after many years.

 

Mitchell:

And finally, it’s a wonderful thing that this excellent book is now available to English-speaking audiences. What other Spanish-language authors do you think we should set about translating?

Barba:

There are many writers in Spanish yet to be discovered of my generation and of other generations. Here in Spain I am fascinated by the works of Mercedes Cebrián and Carlos Pardo, and in Argentina, Mariana Enriquez and Hernán Ronsino.


Such Small Hands is published by Portobello Books, and is available for purchase here.

Painting by Francisco Goya, Witches’ Sabbath 

Théâtre Golgotha
Reign of Trauma | Discoveries