Making a Modern-Day Greek Tragedy

Andrés Barba on an unimaginable act, the outsized emotions of children, and finding a love story buried inside a tragedy

In Andrés Barba’s Such Small Hands, we are introduced to seven-year-old Marina. Her family has been in a car accident, and she is the sole survivor. The book begins, “My father died instantly, my mother in the hospital.” It’s a kind of inverse of The Stranger, packed with the gruesome specificity of devastation.

Marina is sent to an orphanage, and what follows is the story of her relationship with the girls who live there. Barba has engineered a sort of dance between the individual and the group, between the girl and the world. She is at once the object of their desire and their enemy. She is their peer, and she is also someone set apart. Their tenuous friendship is playful and dangerous. Such Small Hands is a slim volume teetering on the brink of awful possibility.

I started thinking about Barba’s title, which is also the very last phrase from an e.e. cummings poem. Such Small Hands is perhaps a commentary on the capabilities of children, the outsize nature of their actions and emotions when compared to their physical proportions. An earlier line from the same poem reads, “i do not know what it is about you that closes and opens.” It seems to me that this is a crucial part of Barba’s beautiful book: a meditation on the way grief shuts doors inside us, on the way imagination leaves our minds ajar, on the way we are each mysterious and fragile, ultimately unknowable to one another.

Hilary Leichter: The premise of Such Small Hands takes its cue from an unsettling incident that took place in Brazil in the 1960s. A girl at an orphanage was murdered by the other children, and for a week they kept and played with her body, like a doll. Though your book goes in very different directions, what was it about that real life event that inspired you to write this story?

Andrés Barba: It struck me that beneath that seemingly sinister tale there in fact lay a great love story. A childhood love story, one of love between children, with everything that entails, the outsized emotions that can be incomprehensible to adults. The springboard for this story was not, “How could these girls have done something like this?” but “Why did love take on this form in the case of these girls?” It seemed to me that it was in fact a tale as classic as Milton’s Paradise Lost. The spark that ignited the whole thing could have been the same as the one that gave rise to The Bacchae or The Odyssey.

Leichter: Can you tell me a little bit about how your work as a translator has influenced your own fiction and creative process?

Barba: When I’ve translated very long texts (in my case that’s only been with Conrad, Melville and James), sometimes those authors’ “music” has filtered into my own texts, but the influence has actually been more in terms of the imaginary. I start to “think” in images that more resemble theirs than mine. It’s fun, like a little case of demonic possession. It doesn’t last long, after a few weeks my head stops spinning, I stop speaking dead languages and foaming at the mouth and become a reasonable guy once more.

“I start to ‘think’ in images that more resemble theirs than mine. It’s fun, like a little case of demonic possession.”

Leichter: I was very interested in your use of the word “polished” throughout the book. It appears frequently in the text as a descriptor: polished enumeration, polished faces. I started thinking about the other more colloquial use of this word, as a verb, a synonym for finished or devoured. I wonder if you could talk a bit about how you came to this word, how it was important to the story, if it was at all! Were there other words that you were thinking about as necessary or valuable while writing?

Barba: I’d never thought that word (I believe you’re referring to “pulido” in the original) was particularly important in and of itself, although there’s an idea contained within the word that is: surface. The sense that things happening inside Marina, with respect to the other girls, are things occurring “on the surface.” Which leads us to the classic theme of to what degree can we hide what’s really going on inside, to what degree does what’s on the surface give us away, even if we don’t want it to? Things are “polished” because they’re shiny (sometimes because they’re worn, yes, but sometimes because just they’re just the opposite: brand new). The new and the old are another important dialectic in this book. The known world and the unknown world, and the way the boundary between the two is broken by the appearance of a character who belongs to both worlds.

Author Andrés Barba

Leichter: Your book is also an interesting commentary on how language fails, or how language shapes perception. There are some beautiful visualizations of what it means to hear a sentence, to absorb information. When Marina learns that her mother and father are dead, she cannot quite hear it at first: “The girl still inhabits the suburbs of the words.” Or this: “Marina was still watching the words as if they were an airplane, flying from one end of the hospital room to the other; she was staring after the white contrail the words left in their wake.” When Marina meets the other girls at the orphanage, she thinks about their names: “At that point the names were all empty, no girls inside them yet.” Language almost becomes a physical object that can be moved here and there throughout the text. Do you visualize language in this way when you’re writing? Is there something about grief or shock or pain, the kind Marina is feeling, that makes language disembodied, a creature unto itself?

Barba: Of course! Language is everything! We only truly know what we’re capable of enunciating. I know many people aren’t of the same opinion, but I sincerely believe that’s the way it is. Our knowledge ends, to a large degree, the same place as our ability to manifest it in words. What’s been that might be consciousness, but to a large extent it’s stopped being human. Language is very important in this book, the words that the girls use to name things and, more importantly, the way, before the arrival of someone new (a new love, a new reality) “old” words no longer serve, they become obsolete.

“We only truly know what we’re capable of enunciating. I know many people aren’t of the same opinion, but I sincerely believe that’s the way it is.”

Leichter: The point of view switches between third person and first person plural. How did you find this structure, and why was it important to use a different point of view for Marina, and for the girls of the orphanage?

Barba: Greek tragedy. It was very clear to me that the girls at the orphanage had to comprise a chorus. That’s where I took it from. It struck me as I was reading Euripides. I said to myself, how could I have been so stupid? I’m writing a Greek tragedy! I hadn’t realized it, but once I saw that, all I had to do was appropriate its structure as well.

Leichter: Such Small Hands was first published in Spanish eight years ago. What is the experience of coming back to this book after spending a large chunk of time away from it?

Barba: Ha! Yes, it’s a slightly bizarre experience. In part, like talking about an old girlfriend many years later. Sometimes you don’t recall things with much precision, an idea might be a little hazy, but rereading the book it’s been lovely seeing how alive it is. For me, I mean. Suddenly, I remember all of my doubts and the struggles I had, trying to make it sound natural.

— Answers translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman

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