Sara Mesa: Cuatro por cuatro (Four by Four)
The novel is set primarily in Wybrany College, a mixed-sex boarding school, presumably in Spain. It was named after its nominal founder, Andrzej Wybrany, who fled Poland 1943. However, there is some doubt whether this really was the case, as the school seems much newer. Wybrany, incidently, means the chosen one or the selected one in Polish. This foundation myth is far from the only strange thing about the school.
It is presumably set more or less sometime in the contemporary period, though probably some time in the future. It is near Cárdenas and Vado, both of which seem to be fictitious. Both towns seem to be in poor condition. Indeed, Vado is said to be now defunct. Indeed, the whole area seems to be blighted – the woods are contaminated—a toxic spill in the river and the landscape is described as bleached, empty.
It seems that parents send their children to Wybrany College to escape the world outside. Indeed, they are very keen to do so, despite the high fees.
A quick word on the translation of names/titles. The Headmaster, Señor J., is called headmaster rather than principal, which is surprising, given the the publisher and translator are from the US and US terms are used throughout the book. Most of the characters have straightforward names or titles but three do not. There is a small girl called Poquita in the Spanish text, which means something like a very little. She is called Teeny in the English, which is fair enough. The assistant to the headmaster is called El Culo in Spanish which means, quite simply the arse in UK English and the ass in US English. The translator has opted for The Booty as her name. While, of course, this is common slang in the US, outside the US it will be less well known, certainly far less well-known than the more common US slang ass.
The structure in the college means that boys and girls are divided not only for living quarters but for schooling. Indeed, here seems to be little contact between the two sexes. There is another division. The paying pupils are called Normals. The other group of pupils, which consists of those from poorer backgrounds on a scholarship and, in some cases, the children of the staff, are called Specials. Great effort is made to pretend that there is no distinction between the two categories but, clearly, there is.
The first issue seems to be the relationships between the staff. The Headmaster and Booty are clearly having a sexual relationship and it clearly involves Booty being sexually subservient to the Headmaster. Booty has a rival for non-sexual access to the Headmaster, namely a man called El Guia in the Spanish (i.e. The Guide) and The Adviser in the English. He seems to be some sort of psychiatric counsellor to the pupils. The fact that he is called The Guide (in the Spanish) and the school is the The Chosen One (in Polish) suggests to me some sort of religious connotation, which the term The Adviser does not have. We have more name issues in the second half of the book when his nickname (we never know his real name) changes to Alfeñique. Alfeñique is a Spanish sweet biscuity-type thing, moulded into shapes. However, in the English translation, he is called Softy, which I really do not get. Booty, incidentally, thinks he is a spy.
As regards the pupils, they seem to behave like boarding school pupils do in boarding schools elsewhere. There are big boys and small boys. Ignacio, a small, handicapped boy is mercilessly bullied, both physically and mentally. When a new boy, Héctor, who seems somewhat tougher, comes along, he will become, at least for a while, the protector of Ignacio in return for academic and sexual favours. The Headmaster, when he finally realises the bullying is going on, also becomes some sort of protector of Ignacio. Ignacio will later seem to have more power.
As regards the girls, there is one wayward girl, Celia. She is a scholarship girl, her mother working as a cleaner in Cárdenas. Indeed, she narrates (in part) the first part of the book. It is she who leads a group of girls on some sort of break-out. She claims they were just going to Cárdenas and planned to return. They are caught before they have gone any distance. She acts as the protector of Teeny, who is both small and has health problems. we follow her issues in this book, particularly as regards her relationship with both Teeny and her mother.
There is a change in the second half of the book. Both Celia and Booty have gone, no-one knows why or where. We had barely met the teachers in the first half but now we see much more of them, particularly as our narrator is a new substitute teacher called Isidro Bedragare. Bedragare is the Swedish for liar or cheat, though, on the face of it, he does not seem to be either, except in one respect. Indeed, he seems to be the fairly standard somewhat ill at ease young teacher in a boarding school, a lost soul. He has a sister but no other obvious friends, family or partner. However, for reasons that are not entirely clear, he seems to have assumed the identity of his brother-in-law or, more particularly, his ex-brother-in-law. He is still in touch with his sister – he phones her every Sunday – and she complains about her ex-husband but she is also very worried by the rapidly deteriorating law and order situation in the town where she lives. He himself is divorced, from a woman he calls Crazy Lola. They appear to have no children. She will put in an appearance later in the book.
Isidro struggles to fit in. Indeed, it seems that he is not a professional teacher and is making it up as he goes along, so much so that the guidance counsellor at the school, Marieta, to whom he is sexually attracted, has to give him guidance on how and what to teach. We learn that he really wanted to be a writer but that has not worked out.
He has replaced a teacher called García Medrano who, like Celia and Booty, has mysteriously disappeared. Was he ill? No-one seems to know. He interrogates the cleaning lady, Gabriela, who may or may not know something but she is hesitant to give him information. She does give him some documents Medrano left behind and they consist of a strange story called Four By Four.
Things get worse, as people disappear and there are strange deaths. Gabriela might know something and so might two of the other teachers, Ledesma and Martínez. But, for Isidro, there remains a mystery: A mystery about rules that are established but never completely defined. The stranger doesn’t know them. He can’t come to terms with them, even if he wanted to. But he can’t fight them, either. The rules exist. They’re strong, unquestionable, but they’re not written anywhere. Therefore, they can’t be obeyed or disobeyed.
Mesa tells a very clever story. Something is going on but exactly what is not clear. Certainly the outside world is not in good shape, with law an order breaking down and environmental issues clearly a concern
The college is meant to be a haven from all of this, which is why parents pay large sums of money to send their children there. Yet it is becoming increasingly apparent that the college is no longer a haven. Whether what is happening there is coming in from the outside is not apparent. There is no evidence that we see of anything or anybody entering the the college except for the staff, the parents and the police investigating a death. Is the source of the problem internal? Certainly Isidro and others are suspicious of the Headmaster and the Adviser (later Softy). Or is the whole story Mesa’s view that society as a whole is falling apart, because of social breakdown, environmental problems and the failure of those at the top to deal with problems, not least they are implicated in them? Take it as you will, she writes an excellent chilling novel of the world as it is today.
First published 2012 by Anagrama
First English publication by Open Letter in 2020
Translated by Katie Whittemore