The cry for Catalan independence isn’t very convincing if one looks at the environment and the characters in Toni Sala’s sad but engaging novel, The Boys. Most of the incidents in the episodic story take place in and around the rural village of Vidreres, fifteen or twenty miles outside of Barcelona. Catalan Independence flags pepper the edges of the roads and at near-by houses. There’s been a recent wave of burglaries in houses, leading to speculations that they may be part of “a government plot to discredit the Catalan police force now that the regional government was becoming pro-independence.” A couple of the main characters are little more than drifters, though it is obvious that the 2008 recession has hit the area hard.
There’s even speculation that the recent deaths of two brothers (age twenty and twenty-two) may have been a suicide, just as likely as an automobile accident. (They died after their vehicle, driven by the older brother, crashed into a tree). Their deaths become the obsession and the catalyst for the activities of four other characters—three of them embodying a deep pessimism toward life in general, a recklessness that may have been true of the two Batlle brothers. Life doesn’t appear to have much purpose, and even expressions of grief (for the fourth character, a young girl who had planned to marry the younger brother) appear to be pretty much without meaning.
The oldest of the four is a banker whose first name is Ernest. He’s almost sixty years old, commutes to Vidreres each day to work in the local branch of the Santander Bank. He’s aware of the effect the recession has had on his clients and he has some of the most astute observations about economics in the novel: “…morality doesn’t move at the speed of money,” a thought prompted by his observation of the increasing number of prostitutes along the road where he makes his daily commute; and later, when he again thinks of his position, “…money moves between men like a gust of wind, and in a small town, where there is always the same amount of money, you can watch it move from one account to another like birds changing branches.” Later, when he thinks of some of his clients who brag about their money, he thinks how ignorant they are about the truly rich. “You can’t live without money, but you can live without sex.” Men, however, boast equally about money and sex.
When the two boys die, Ernest feels his outsider status. He doesn’t go to their funeral like almost everyone else in Vidreres. Rather, he has a momentary sense of his own mortality, aware of the number of times he has wished for his own automobile accident. Similarly, a trucker in his early thirties who was making a delivery in Vidreres the day of the funeral believes that the brothers got out of life in the nick of time, further reinforcing the underlying death wish of several of the characters in the story. He believes that the whole world is rigged against those who are young: “Every medicine that came out extended old people’s lives, so they had time to find a new cure that would keep them alive until the next discovery. They ran the pharmaceutical industry, they had specialized in defeating the cancers of old age, geriatric oncology was making leaps and bounds, eternally healthy prostates, skin, breasts, and colons, replacement parts; soon they’d cure Alzheimer’s; soon the old would watch how the young moved past them, soon the young would be the old and the old would be the young—thirty-two-year old people, like him, trying to survive by rummaging through the dump, wrinkled by unemployment and bad news, gutted, playing dominoes on the Internet while outside of the house hundred-year-old young people sunbathed all day long, and at night leapt and danced in the discos—now when you see someone with tender skin and impeccable teeth, colorful clothes, long, shiny hair, full of health and joie de vivre, they’re old.”
There’s a generational gap. The older people in the village are living quite well, the younger ones just barely hanging on. That is true, also, of the other young man, who wanted to be an artist, but has given up on that and, instead, begun making videos of live animals being set on fire. They’re highly profitable. Both of these younger men lust after Iona, the one female character, engaged to the younger brother who was killed in the auto accident. They do not appear to understand that she is in mourning. Their insensitivity drives both of them to begin harassing Iona just a few days after her boyfriend is killed.
Thus, the boys who die in the accident become catalysts for the actions of other young people in the village (and one older man), provoking them to face their own mortality in a country that seems unsure about its own destiny. The Boys is a stark tale of confused people trapped in a wrinkle in time, rendered with painful sensitivity and gut-wrenching bleakness. No surprise that Toni Sala has been praised as one of Catalan’s most important writers.
For something much lighter—as the icing on the cake—consider Daniel Sada’s One Out of Two, a clever, and very brief, narrative of two forty-year spinsters who are identical twins. The Mexican writer, who died in 2011, was widely praised for his wit and originality, both on display in this novella that can easily be read in one sitting.
In a town named Ocampo, the two women have worked for years as seamstresses in their own successful shop. Their parents both died when the girls were thirteen, and twenty-seven years later Gloria and Constitución are as easily confused for one another, as they were when they were children. True, Constitución has a tiny mole on her right shoulder, but no one is aware of it other than Gloria. For years, they have enjoyed tricking others by acting interchangeably. And that’s where the story’s center focuses once a successful rancher named Oscar Segura falls in love with one of them. What he doesn’t realize is that each weekend when he goes for a walk in the hills with one of the twins, it’s always the opposite one he spent time with the previous week.
The twins realize they are skating on thin ice, especially if one of them should fall in love with Oscar. For weeks, they successfully “share” the man, but then he proposes, engendering jealousy for the first time in the twins’ lives. There are a number of goofy scenes and some whimsical dialogue after Oscar expresses his love for one of them—for example, “I assume you didn’t let him touch our noble parts,” Constitución says to her sister—and Sada has fun referring to his spinsters with terms such as “martyred virgins.” But, then, how can the plot be resolved when the sisters realize they both want to marry Oscar?
I’ll leave that for you to discover for yourself. I don’t consider this a cop-out but my way of probing you to enjoy a story you might not pick for yourself without a little prompting. Yes, the translation is full of clichés, but the story itself is great fun.
Toni Sala: The Boys
Trans. by Mara Faye Lethem
Two Lines Press, 206 pp., $14.95
Daniel Sada: One Out of Two
Trans. by Katherine Silver
Graywolf Press, 100 pp., $14