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Andrés Barba: Las Manos Pequeñas (Such Small Hands)
This is a book that falls into a category of which there are quite a few examples on this site. A relatively stable group sees the arrival of a newcomer and the stability of the group is totally disrupted. To be fair, this one is quite different from the other examples (Sara Lidman‘s Regnspiran (The Rain Bird), Ivan Vladislavic‘s The Folly, Hilary Mantel‘s Fludd, Simone de Beauvoir‘s L’invitée (She Came to Stay) and Ali Smith‘s The Accidental).
Marina is seven years old and she is travelling in a car with her parents. The car was clearly travelling too fast, resulting in an accident. Her father was killed instantly. Her mother later died in hospital. Mariana was injured but conscious.
Marina spends some time in hospital recuperating, having both physical and psychological treatment. The psychologist brings her a doll which she immediately takes to, christening it Marina. She is soon told that she will be leaving the hospital but not where to. Finally, she is told that she is going to an orphanage. But at that point the word held no meaning for Marina.
The day she arrives at the orphanage, the other girls are all out on a field trip. They had been forewarned that she was coming. They generally got on with one another and were happy. And then Marina turns up. She didn’t look like us… She stood alone, with her doll, by the statue of Saint Anne, watching us. Or was it the doll who was watching?.
We see the reaction from both perspectives. For the girls already there, Marina was different. She seemed aloof. She had a strange scar. She did not fit in. For Marina, an only child from a comfortable home, this group of girls seemed strange. She watches them at night when they were asleep. Marina now felt she was surrounded by mouths, felt that each girl was a mouth and each mouth filled with fangs.
Barba has a superb section in which he alternatively describes Marina reacting to the sleeping girls, Marina describing the accident in some detail to the psychiatrist (We stopped moving, and we all turned to stone and I felt how my hands and my eyes and my legs were all stone, and everything around me was stone) and Marina watching a train of caterpillars crossing the playground and then watching their reaction when she kills one of the caterpillars, as they all move into circle around the dead animal. We see Marina as a child who feels separate, separate from the other girls, from the world in which she lives but also somewhat afraid, unsure, turning in on her herself.
The other girls continue to be bemused by her. We’d been happy until Marina showed up with her past. We held it in then. But later, when we went out to play, we didn’t know what to do with that thought; we were plagued by a feeling of rage and surprise, and we wanted to gnaw away at her, little by little.
They hit her. They mock her. But she takes it all. We suffered her anger like a curse; it was cast on us suddenly. The curse of an evil, resentful witch.
Then they take her doll, which she seems to love dearly. To tease her, when she asks them to give it back, they give her back one leg, and then they buried the rest. Marina realises something: I’m different.
Initially, she stops eating and falls ill and has to go the sanatorium. When she returns, she tells them that they are going to play a game. Every night in the dormitory, one of the girls will be the doll, as chosen By Marina. Marina has managed to steal some make-up and a dress. The chosen girl will be stripped. She will wear the special dress and will be made up. The others will then play with her as though she were a doll. She will not be allowed to say a word. One day, however, they suggest that it is Marina’s turn to be the doll.
This is a wonderfully skilled book, specially given that it is fairly short. Barba gets under the skin of both Marina and of the other orphans. Both sides show a fear of the unknown though both react in different ways. The other girls become aggressive and cruel, as groups, when faced with something unknown that they cannot understand, often do. Marina, for her part, stands aloof, taking the teasing and bullying but then suddenly reacting, catching the other girls off their guard. Obviously losing her parents and suddenly finding herself in an orphanage with a lot of strange girls, who know each other well, is going to have an effect on her. However, she seems to make no effort to become part of the group, perhaps the result of having been an only child and, when she does, it is with this strange game – controlling but inventive, somewhat innocent but with certain sexual undertones. I am not competent to estimate whether Barba has really worked out the psychology of young girls but what he has done is to create a thoroughly original story.
First published 2008 by Anagrama
First English translation by Transit/Portobello in 2017
Translated by Lisa Dillman