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from the February 2018 issue

Well-Meaning Plans Give Way to Destructive Obsessions in Andrés Barba’s “The Right Intention”

Reviewed by Jeff Tompkins

The destructive consequences of his character's obsessions, traced with an almost clinical precision, are the substance of Barba’s absorbing, unnerving stories.

“If only he could put into words what he feels it would be almost like thinking clearly, but he cannot think clearly.”

This is the distress signal sent up at a crucial juncture by the protagonist of “Marathon,” the third of the four novellas in Andrés Barba’s The Right Intention, a collection originally published in the author’s native Spain as La recta intención in 2002. With its intimations of an inability to communicate, paranoia, and worse (note that “almost”), it’s a moment of realization that could define any of the main characters in these stories—all of them well-off urbanites who succumb to a single, overwhelming obsession. The destructive consequences of those obsessions, traced with an almost clinical precision, are the substance of Barba’s absorbing, unnerving stories.

In “Nocturne,” a single, comfortably settled gay man in late middle age finds his life of routine upended by an infatuation with a much younger man he meets through a personal ad. The lover has no illusions about the life of quiet desperation he’s been leading, the disappointment he’s kept at bay: “It seemed impossible to him that he had held on this way for so many years.” The same objectivity manifests itself later, once the affair reaches the abrupt end he has done so much to bring about, when he declares to the younger man, all too plausibly, “now it’s going to take me five years to get over you.”

Barba raises the stakes, and heightens the emotional pitch, with “Debilitation,” an account of a teenage girl’s descent into anorexia. Her dysfunction starts with an unwelcome poolside kiss—“Luis’s ridiculous, almost unpleasant tongue like a soggy worm wriggling against hers”—and proceeds into a gruesome body horror of cutting and self-starvation before she winds up in an expensive private clinic. Inside, her steely will has to contend with not only a strict, eat-your-peas kind of authority but a witchy fellow patient and an unlikely love interest. Closure, recovery are still somewhere over the horizon when “Debilitation” reaches its close, but at its moving climax her pain unspools in a three-page sentence that is a tour de force for the translator, Lisa Dillman, as well as the author. (Here as in the other stories, Dillman’s skillfull rendering of Barba’s free indirect style, along with a number of casually deployed colloquialisms —“frumpier,” “meds,” terse teen-speak like “Are you into me?” and “It’s pretty messed up”— results in a text that stands on its own in English as a stylistic feat.)

From this ordeal it is a relative step down in intensity to “Marathon,” which might be described as a study in the obnoxiousness of the long-distance runner. Training for an upcoming road race with increasing single-mindedness, Barba’s marathon man is willing to jeopardize both his marriage and a nascent friendship with a fellow runner, conceivably the one person in his life who might be able to understand his fixation. As maddening as the athlete’s behavior is, Barba makes sure we tunnel into his perspective: “If anyone had asked if he was happy he wouldn’t have known how to respond. Perhaps by saying that he felt empty, and that emptiness was, if not happiness, then the closest thing to a state of calm he’d ever known, a calm that didn’t need to be spoken or shared.”

In the final story, “Descent,” a grown, married woman with children has to contend with a sudden injury to, and the subsequent decline of, her elderly mother. The ordeal is made even more trying by the fact that the dying woman is a horror, a tyrant whose neediness and emotional manipulations have turned her three grown children into basket cases. You might think this means the most extreme story has been saved for last, but there’s a subtle change-up in Barba’s approach here, a pulling-back from his previously tight focus, that makes “Descent” the most human and accessible of the four novellas. The material has room to breathe; not just because this family’s backstory is effectively sketched in over a few pages (and because the main character is given a supportive husband, free of her family’s pathologies) but because there’s a sense of contingency, an arbitrariness in the way events unfold around us, that eludes any fine-meshed authorial net. In the climactic deathbed scene, especially, absurdity tugs at mortality’s hem in a way that resonates with one’s own experience of this terminal moment. The young priest who arrives to administer the last rites is both awkward and incongruously handsome—and then: “Life, made more ridiculous by the presence of the hospital window, is the sound of a bus horn.” More than any of the other novellas in The Right Intention, this story made me curious to see what Barba can do in a novel.

As it happens, last year Transit Books brought out a 2008 Barba novel, the well-received Such Small Hands, also in a translation by Lisa Dillman, and he has written twelve books of fiction and nonfiction overall. He has also translated a pair of stylistically extravagant nineteenth-century literary renegades, Herman Melville and Thomas De Quincey, into Spanish. All of which furthers the impression one gets from The Right Intention that an American readership for this talented writer is overdue.

But if one can lament how long it took for The Right Intention to receive its passport into English, there’s a certain piquancy in the way these stories, encountered in 2018, evoke an irrecoverable moment that isn’t even twenty years in the past. Meaning, the short span of our millennium just prior to the arrival of cell phones, texting, social media, and all their attendant compulsions. (In a sequence that seems like a kind of historical fiction, the lover in “Nocturne” races from newsstand to newsstand to track down a copy of the magazine with the right personal ad in it.) Which isn’t to suggest that this quartet of novellas allows the reader to indulge in any easy nostalgia. Sentient people—the kind of people who read fiction in translation, for instance—like to chide themselves for the way the devices in their hands are rewiring their circuitry, messing with their heads. Barba’s stories are a bracing reminder that we were finding plenty of ways to torment ourselves long before the latest technologies made it so much easier for us. 

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