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28 May 2015

The latest Spanish fiction shows the impact of the financial crash

The Spanish have had reason to identify with the losing side lately, and two debut novels reflect it.

By Ollie Brock

Out in the Open
Jesús Carrasco. Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Harvill Secker, 184pp, £12.99

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse
Iván Repila. Translated by Sophie Hughes
Pushkin Press, 110pp, £10

The Spanish have a word, tremendismo – literally “tremendism” – which refers to using realism with deliberate intent to shock. Jesús Carrasco was accused of this recently in an interview with El País about his debut novel, Out in the Open. He pleaded guilty. And it is true that Carrasco’s book, which has been published in 13 countries, serves up the horror in spades.

It follows an unnamed boy’s fight for survival on some barren, baking-hot Spanish plain in the early 20th century. Having fled his home, he is hunted by the county bailiff, his former tormentor in repeated sexual abuse facilitated by his father. In scene after scene, we see him pursued, beaten, burned and starved; he usually has blood on his face and uncontrollable bowels, and his clothes stink of sweat and urine. He has one piece of luck, which comes in the form of a monosyllabic goatherd who takes the boy under his wing. The unlikely duo then struggle on together across the “endless, pitiless plain”, caught between starvation on the one hand and violence on the other.

All this tremendismo must have some purpose, I thought, as I kept reading. Perhaps Carrasco is exploring the spirit of the underdog: a raw resentment of those in power, born of loss and hardship. Although the goatherd turns out to have his own beef with the bailiff, he takes the boy on even before he knows they have a common enemy: “You know, it’s the same to me if you’ve run away or you’re simply lost,” he says to him early on. Like him, the boy is a drifter, and this is enough to unite them.

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The Spanish have had reason to identify with the losing side lately. In his El País interview, Carrasco asked: “When the money comes back, where will we be on education, health and rights? Where will the power lie?” Out in the Open, at its best, asks questions about authority, ownership and power. And it offers much simpler, more direct ways of thinking about these than explicit discussion of la crisis. In the bleak landscape of this book, authority is evil; power is enough food to last the day, plus a gun.

If Spain’s economy does make a recovery from disaster, new questions will arise for the country as they did after Franco’s death. The same is true on an individual level. At one point the boy wins a small battle by escaping from the house of a cripple who planned to turn him in to the bailiff for a reward. The boy leaves him for dead at the roadside. But now that he is free from the man’s clutches, he can’t journey much further without his conscience slowing him down. Should he go back, feed the cripple and carry him to shelter if he is still breathing, give him the all-important Christian burial if not? Or should he act more selfishly and press ahead to ensure his own survival?

Iván Repila’s The Boy Who Stole ­Attila’s Horse also springs from the parched soil of the Spanish crisis, but a strictly political reading rather reduces this jewel of a novel. Where Carrasco’s protagonist wanders over an immense plain, the two young brothers of Repila’s story, referred to only as Big and Small, find themselves caught in a confined space: at the bottom of a crude well no more than a few metres across. They cannot get out, but they hatch a plan nonetheless, motivated by the prospect of taking revenge on their tormentor (again, an abusive parent – or the neglectful free market, if you prefer). Big trains his body relentlessly and keeps most of the food – ants, worms, tree roots – for himself. They drink groundwater. Eventually Small becomes so deranged with malnutrition that he starts performing “osteo-vegetable music” by hitting various parts of his emaciated body with tree roots. The brothers’ struggle to re-emerge into the world resonates with mythic power.

The language supports the story’s imaginative breadth. Writer and translator have managed to be playful yet shocking, without recourse to tremendismo. Much of the prose in Out in the Open has been hammered into a Flaubertian degree of featurelessness:

The boy did as the old man asked and emerged from the inn dragging a sack half filled with chestnuts. Following the goatherd’s instructions, he took it over to the donkey, untied the string and . . . poured part of the contents of the sack into the panniers, with most of the chestnuts slipping into any available gaps among the food, flasks and tools.

Amplify these sentences, innocent enough in their own right, and extend them across a good 95 per cent of the book, and you have a feel for its atmosphere – Margaret Jull Costa’s precise, if occasionally fussy, phrasings do a good job with difficult material. By contrast, Repila’s style is witty and refreshing, ironically at odds with the predicament of Big and Small. Sophie Hughes’s translation is subtle, even poetic (“A fine rain numbs the night”).

The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse is, above all, the moving story of a savage and tender love between brothers, whatever its allegorical meaning. However, one economic development is relevant to this novel, Repila’s second: the company that published the Spanish original in 2013 closed later that year, citing the “economic situation”. Foreign-language editions of the book have been orphaned unexpectedly. Big and Small’s parents have, once again, left them to fend for themselves.