Scorched earth: Jesús Carrasco’s novel describes the struggle for survival on a barren Spanish plain. Photo: BORJA ALCAZAR PHOTO/GETTY
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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.

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.

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. 

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The real opposition

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist