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Eduardo Mendoza: Sin noticias de Gurb (No Word from Gurb)

Mendoza’s stock in trade is Barcelona. He is from Barcelona, his works are generally set in and around Barcelona and he writes, often critically and mockingly, about the city and its inhabitants. One of the pleasures of reading Mendoza is that we get different perspectives on Barcelona and its inhabitants, depending on who the narrator/protagonist(s) are.

This book is no different in that respect though it has one significant difference. Our narrator, whose perspective on Barcelona and its inhabitants is the core of the book, is not from Barcelona. Indeed, he is not from planet Earth but is an alien who has happened to land in Barcelona. We do not know what planet he is from, though he does communicate with a station in the Antares constellation, a mere 550 light years from the Sun. We also know that he takes some offence when he is called a Martian. (Antares was compared to Mars by early astronomers, as both are red.)

Our narrator does not have a name. However, we know the name of his travelling companion. (It seems that people from his planet exploring the universe travel only in pairs.). He is the eponymous Gurb. Like Beckett’s Godot, he is frequently mentioned, primarily with the phrase no word from Gurb but our narrator can never find him. As soon as they arrive in Barcelona, Gurb hops into a car. He has met a university professor who speaks a very simple language but difficult to speak, not least because the narrator and Gurb not only do not speak (they seem to use ESP) but they do not have bodies, though can (and do) assume any form they want. Gurb becomes Madonna and, with the agreement of the narrator (who is the commanding officer), gets into a structurally very simple means of transport but one that is complicated to handle, namely a Ford Fiesta.

The narrator is now on his own in Barcelona and as we see from the frequently repeated title, he has no word from Gurb. Firstly, he invents a body for himself and changes the body throughout the book. This is generally a famous person, though many of them are only known in Spain and will be little known elsewhere, However, they do include Pope Pius XII (who was dead at the time), Gary Cooper and the Duke and Duchess of Kent. Not surprisingly, this often causes a certain amount of consternation. Only once does he try to be animal – a cormorant, so he can fly over the city, but it does not help.

He is not very impressed by the human body. Not being used to having one, he finds it difficult to operate and is continually losing body parts. Indeed, early on, in his search for Gurb, he materialises at the Diagonale-Paseo de Gracia intersection, one of the busiest parts of Barcelona, and is knocked down by cars several times, losing his head more than once. This will not be the only body part he loses during the course of the book.

He soon finds it difficult understanding human culture. For example, the first day, he is tired of the badly designed body he has and kneels down. A woman thinks he is begging and gives him some money, which he immediately swallows, in order not to be rude. We see something similar when he goes to a posh restaurant to eat and immediately eats the flowers on the table, to be polite.

There are really three strands to the story. The first is his difficulty in coping with humans and human culture. He struggles with food, relationships with the opposite sex, the police alcohol consumption, traffic, human machinery, the human body and animals. It is not all bad. He likes food and often eats huge quantities, such as several kilos of doughnuts in one sitting. Digestion is only a minor problem. He has no problems with money, as he can manipulate computers so, for example, he deposits twenty-five pesetas in a bank (while in the body of Pope Pius XII) and then tells the computer to add fourteen zeros. He is now very rich and goes on a spending spree, including buying an expensive flat, in which he installs a jacuzzi.

The second issue is his view on Barcelona and its inhabitants and, indeed, on humans generally. He does make friends, including the couple who own the café next to his building, and helps them out when she, Mercedes, is ill, and a neighbour, who is a single mother, whom he tries (not very successfully) to woo. However, Mendoza uses the narrator in his usual mocking for his fellow-citizens. There is a lot of serious drinking, our hero is frequently mugged, the utility companies are always digging up the roads so, while he is driving, he ends up in another town, because roads are blocked, and while walking frequently falls into a trench. He comments on the division between rich and poor. Humans attach great importance to this division. He cannot see why. He mocks the food. For example, he drinks a bottle of wine, which contains one hundred and six ingredients, none of which has any connection with grapes. He does not understand children and childhood, a concept which does not exist on his planet.

Finally, there is his search for Gurb. All too often he gets sidetracked but, even when he is not sidetracked, he finds considerable difficulty in tracking him down. He visits various parts of Barcelona (giving Mendoza the opportunity of commenting on the different neighbourhoods) but to no avail. He is not helped, of course, by the fact that Gurb will have another body that he will not recognise.

At times this is a very funny book. Mendoza loves mocking his fellow citizens and does so very much here, with the added benefit of being able to make fun of our narrator’s struggle with the human world. While it is often funny, it does, however, occasionally verge on the silly. Accordingly, while I enjoyed it and laughed at it, I do not think it is of the same calibre of his earlier work.

First published 1991 by Seix Barral
First English translation 2007 by Telegram
Translated by Nick Caistor