When Granta published its widely noted Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists last year, one of the surprises—for this reader at least—was the omission of Jorge Carrión, who had published a few months before his tremendous first novel, Los Muertos (“The Dead”) (Barcelona: Mondadori, 2011). All the attention surrounding Granta’s brought into better focus how many worthy names remain out of the English-speaking world’s eye. (After all, if one goes so far to list the names of 22 unknown authors, why not bother with a handful more?) Hopefully, the excerpt below will convince at least a few readers to add another name to their list . . .
Part of the pleasure one finds in reading Los Muertos comes from the surprise at its structure. Not wanting to spoil it, I’ll just say that it owes formally to TV series and mixes fiction (or not) with essay (or not). Albeit a short book (167 pages) it’s thematically very rich. A first reading will bring to the mind questions of intellectual property (Who “owns” fictional characters? What is the difference between remixes and plagiarism?) that we usually link to the contemporary art world (think Nicolas Bourriaud and his Postproduction, for example).
The key to Los Muertos is probably in its title: it’s a book about death and memory, about what is dead and how we remember it. In his travel book, Australia, Carrión met with some relatives exiled in the ’60s and noted how the Spain they remembered had very little to do with the real country. The distortion caused by passing time, disappearances, violence: in many ways, Los Muertos is the only book about the Spanish Civil War (and its aftermath) that doesn’t openly talk about it (or that takes place almost a century later). But it would be unfair to label this work as yet another war book: there is nothing in it of the romantic notions and landscapes that we associate with the conflict since at least Hemingway . . . The importance of its ideas and themes are too broad to be limited geographically and historically. Los Muertos is what one might call post-Sebaldian catastrophe literature: how can we talk about horror, war, violence, camps today? If one thing is clear, it’s that Carrión doesn’t want to do it à la 19th-century realism, which sets him apart from many Spanish writers (Antonio Muñoz Molina comes to mind) and makes him close, in spirit at least, to Juan Goytisolo, W.G. Sebald, and Ricardo Piglia, authors to which he dedicated lengthy critical studies. That Los Muertos talks about such loaded themes in what seems to be an entirely fictitious framework is probably its strongest achievement. This debut novel is the first volume of a trilogy that might very well become one of the high points of Spanish fiction thus far this century.
This chapter from the second part of “The Dead” was translated by a workshop in the Translated! Festival organised by Monash University (Melbourne, February 2011), comprising Kieran Tapsell, Adriana Rozada, Jarrah Strunin, Kay Rozynski, Hannah Lofgren, Ana Cano, Joel Calizaya, and Imogen Williams, with the participation of Jorge Carrión and directed by Peter Bush, who is responsible for this final version published here.
The Cemetery at Sea
“How long have you been lying here, honey?” asks Selena, stroking his hair. “All day . . . I’ve been thinking, I’m not going to look for my community,” says Lenny, hung-over. “I mean I already have a community, I don’t need the other one, even if it is for real . . .” “Nothing is real, Dad.” “You’re right, sweetie, you’re absolutely right, but there is one thing that’s real: you two are my community.” A chain of hands . . . “Actually, I came here precisely to tell you . . .” Jessica begins. The girl’s parents focus intently on her face. “. . . that I’ve found my community. You’ve probably heard of it: the Community of the Star. As a child I knew that I had been in a kind of ghetto. Since childhood the oracles have spoken to me about all that death I witnessed before I materialized. But until now I hadn’t found the path; I mean, until now I’d never felt the need to belong . . . to belong to a superior entity, you know? To something bigger than us, or than Samuel and me. It’s a powerful community. Most of them share the same memory of being marked, stigmatized, with two triangles, one above the other. I’m going to join.” “It’s curious,” interrupts Selena, “how the years go by in superficial conversations, important enough because they express affection, but superficial, in the end, because rarely, only eight or nine times in a lifetime, do we talk about what really matters.” “You’re right Selena.” Roy and Selena look at each other. “Which is why it’s time to tell her about Nadia.”
Richie Aprile gets a violent awakening. A municipal unit, three huge men in white uniform, haul him off the ground and carry him to the van that’s also white and parked about five yards from where the New One was sleeping. Richie Aprile suddenly breaks free and runs for it. The men don’t move. Out of sight, breathless from running, he sits on the ground and presses his fingers to his temples. Think, shit, think. He’s shaking. He doubts, hesitates. Then acts. Rummaging through his pockets he scrapes together sixty dollars out of bills and loose change. He smoothes out the bills, folds them around the coins, and puts the money into one pocket. He’s calmed down. He flattens his hair. He stands up. He starts walking, searching the shop-fronts down the next avenue for an Internet sign. He spots one. A bunch of teenagers are playing on the computers. “How much?” he asks the guy at the desk at the back. “Three bucks an hour.” “And if you give me a hand?” Annoyed, the guy rasps, “Ten bucks extra, man.” “Seven.” “OK, deal.” “You’re a New One, yeah?” “Kind of.” “So what’re you after?”
Gutiérrez feels the soft texture of cement on his feet. He’s standing, inside a one-cubic-meter container, with the barrel of a pistol on his right eye. “You wouldn’t die, but it would be very, very painful . . . There are people who remember how in the other life this type of death was called a Moe Green Special,” says the gunman. “Michael, I don’t understand why . . .” “Mr. Corleone! I’ve told you a thousand times that you have lost the right to call me by my first name, you fucking snitch.” Five suited men play the role of spectators or silent chorus around the two of them and the container full of cement. “I don’t want to go to the cemetery, for Chrissake, I don’t want to join all the people I buried, I don’t want to, please, I don’t want to, I won’t be able to bear it, for Chrissake . . .” His words crumble into a whimper. “Just look what this piece of scum has turned into: a coward. Who’d have thought it, Gutiérrez.” Although he is still speaking to him, Michael Corleone, maintains his aim while he glances at his men. “Remember what we do to pig informers and snitches.” Gutiérrez’s face has become a pit of fear, a tremulous target: were the gunman to shoot, even if the barrel were half an inch away from his right eye, it’s likely the bullet would go through his nose, eyebrow or cheekbone, such is the rate at which that face is shaking, collapsing from sheer terror.
“What’s going on? You’ve been typing away for almost an hour.” “It’s tough with these pages, man. As soon as you search for words like ‘mafia,’ ‘death,’ ‘organized crime,’ it gets too hard. It’s gonna cost you another five bucks, results guaranteed.” Richie nods. “How long will it take?” “Say, first thing tomorrow.” “Ok, but no funny business.” “Don’t worry, I love hacking the web and getting results. The more difficult the search, the better.” “First thing tomorrow.” “Yes, sir.”
“You could say that the Government controlled the existence of communities throughout the 20th century,” Lenny says. “Until the internet came along,” Jessica chips in. “That’s right.” They are still on the couch. Morning dissolves darkness. Leftover pizza and cookies are on the coffee table as well as empty cups. “Even though I discovered everything was fake, that I never really met Gaff, Pris, or the others; even though their figures and their words entered my interferences through suggestion, you know?, through close contact, I still don’t regret sharing all these years of . . . ” “Of therapy,” Selena finishes off. “Yeah,” he smiles “of therapy, relief . . . I guess that, ultimately, belonging to a community is simply a way of fighting loneliness.” “Extreme loneliness,” Jessica adds, “which implies not having any blood ties, not sharing DNA and, above all, knowing that blood and DNA, in theory, can be shared.”
Nadia uses her index finger to expand the central window on her screen. It’s a camera in the port. A crane has just unloaded a container with the tracking number AE508932. She types it in. It’s from the Arab Emirates. Five metallic grey vans line up in front of the container door which a laborer opens who isn’t wearing the regulation uniform or hard hat. Two brawny men jump out of each van and start unloading long wooden boxes. Nadia zooms in: the computer measures the boxes, scans them and detects the unmistakable shape of ground-to-air missiles. “Fuck.” She touches the screen twice and the message “Send information to Central Control” appears; she taps twice more, “Urgent.” The window closes.
Immediately after the window opens on The Mole’s central screen at the exact moment that he’s adjusting the knot of his tie. The Mole watches as the boxes are unloaded from the container and placed carefully in the back of the vans; he watches as the doors are shut, as the men hop into the front seats; as the vans start up at the same time as the crane lifts the container back up. He speaks into the microphone: “Emergency, emergency, Code 17: New York port, Pier 28: unloading of heavy weapons underway: all available units proceed to the scene immediately.” His message is received by the Pentagon switchboard and retransmitted to port security. Five patrol cars start up. When they get to Pier 28 it’s too late: everyone’s already gone.
Richie Aprile’s body pushes open the double, swinging half-doors, like in a Wild West movie. His eyes pan across the inside of the pool hall. Two rows of seven pool tables fill the space, each with its own lamp and several cues hanging on the wall. There is a long bar at the back where several customers are resting their backsides on black-leather seated stools. Above their heads four televisions are broadcasting sport: baseball, kids boxing, darts competitions, poker games. Richie Aprile crosses the middle aisle, discreetly glancing at the couples and groups of pool players who look back at him not so discreetly, almost provocatively. He sits at one end of the bar and orders a beer and nachos. His last five dollars. He takes a look at the newspaper: The Pandemic remains an inexplicable mystery. According to the special committee of experts, 0.1 per cent of the world population has been affected so far. After a few minutes he asks the barman: “Is Vito Spatafore around?” “Who’s asking?” “I’m from the family.” From his height of almost six feet, the barman beckons to one of the pool players with Asian facial features. As the player approaches, it turns out to be the only woman in the hall. “He’s asking for you, says he’s from the family.” “Oh yeah? Which family might that be?” she asks with a masculine voice that is in sync with her gestures and her body, mid-way between the two genders. “The Di Meo family.” Vito Spatafore widens her eyes exaggeratedly as she says, “Jack, let us use the office.” They disappear through a concealed door next to the restrooms at the far end of the bar.
Gutiérrez is up to his ankles in a concrete block. They put him in a van. They take him to the harbor. They put him on a yacht that soon goes deeper into the bay. They throw him overboard. He sinks heavily. The water blurs the outline of his body. He goes down and down. There are fish. The light fades into the air’s memory. He lands on his feet on the sandy bottom with a liquid thud. A cloud of watery particles rises up that takes a few seconds to disperse. His eyes are open, he breathes, and from time to time a bubble escapes from his lips. He can move his arms, torso and hips, but his feet are trapped in the concrete block. He realizes he’s not alone. Next to him is a man around sixty with a very wrinkled body, eyes wide open in terror. Like a fish stuck by the tail to the bottom of a fish tank. And another. And a woman. And another woman. Ten, twenty, fifty. A hundred living corpses surround Gutierrez in his new prison, his new world. A hundred fish eyes turn to watch him, their eyes popping out in permanent panic.
“Our community has increased exponentially,” says Nadia over the microphone, “to the point where now the Government cannot hire all of those who are convinced they worked for us in the other life. For that reason, alternative networks and illegal groups have proliferated. It’s nearly over, my friend. It’s nearly over. If the epidemic doesn’t do it, we’ll do it ourselves.” Frank’s voice sounds ironic over the loudspeakers. “If this is the mother-fuckin’ apocalypse, honey, I want to spend it with you in a Jacuzzi with candles and champagne.” “Oh, Frank, you’re incorrigible.” “But seriously, Nadia.” She focuses on the black van just appearing on her screen. “I believe I’m soon going to need your help. This new camera is going to get results, and really soon.”
“Jack! Call the boys,” says Vito Spatafore, hardly sticking his head out of the half open door. The barman calls the three men who were playing pool with her. As soon as they get to the office (a big table littered with papers, a small computer desk, seven chairs, a cigarette vending machine, a dartboard with three darts stuck on it, three porno posters), Vito says, “I want to introduce you to a member of our family. He still doesn’t know his name, but I have talked to him a lot and there is no doubt that he is one of us.” Sandro, Carlo and Christopher shake his hand. The latter, blond and blue-eyed, shakes his hand and says: “Vito must have already told you that we are in a difficult situation. The more we are, the better. I still haven’t talked to him about the Corleone business, we have time, Chris, we have time.” Vito turns around and the three men look admiringly at his buttocks, the only part of his body that, as it moves, reveals itself to be completely feminine. She grabs a liquor bottle and five glasses from a safe in the wall, by a painting of some blurry, ash-grey figures. He serves, they toast and exclaim: “Salute.”
Jorge Carrión is the author of numerous volumes of travel literature, the short novel Ene, and the novel Los Muertos. His work has been widely anthologized, and he a widely published literary critic. The recipient of numerous awards, translator Peter Bush was the director of the British Centre for Literary Translation. He has translated works by Juan Goytisolo, Fernando de Rojas, Teresa Solana and Quim Monzó, among others.
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