:: Article

The Rite of Lusus Naturæ

By Yelena Moskovich.

Andrés Barba, Such Small Hands (Portobello, 2017)

“The building had gone dark, but we hadn’t.”

And so begins Marina’s nightly ritual at the girls’ orphanage in Andrés Barba’s visceral and translucent novella Such Small Hands, translated with sublime intuition by Lisa Dillman.

Seven-year-old Marina who has lost both parents in a car crash arrives at this orphanage with nothing but a doll given to her at the hospital, and a thick, worming scar around her shoulder from the accident.

“‘You’re very pretty, Marina.’

The word pretty was a giant hole swallowing everything up.”

Within the orphanage grounds, the solemn building, the black statue of Saint Anne and the garden playground, the other girls exist in an automatic routine. From breakfast to bedtime, they are one body and one mind. They wake, they dress, they eat, they play, they go to bed. When they speak, their narration is unified, a presence both airily distant and ferociously close. Love, their every gesture pleads, with a voice covered in the skin of its failure. And then Marina arrives.

“We had to defend ourselves against that scar that Marina didn’t hide.”

Recently orphaned, Marina still has memories of a singular identity, a familial context of herself, an individual life. Her scar, so newly healed, shows off how fresh this life is inside her. “It’s my secret. All mine.” her scar seems to say to the girls, whose own scaring is all invisible, abrasions in the lining of their sleep. They simultaneous bully and cherish Marina, the newfound object of their deformed gesticulations of care. Indeed, the term “bully” was originally used to mean “sweetheart,” from Dutch boel, “lover, brother”, before the connotation curdled into that of the tormentor/oppressor in the 17th century.

“It was a little like falling in love with her, with her body, with her memories.”

There is something of this fermenting etymology in the girls’ behaviour, their pinches, smacks, yanks, and taunts are eerily heartfelt, enamoured.

Like Marina’s scar, her doll is also part of her secret world, a world that spellbinds the girls – memories, sensations, and feelings they’ve long forgotten or doubt they ever had, and yet, Marina has access to all of these, seemingly through this surrogate self.

“Dolls serve as talismans. [They] are reminders of what we feel, but do not see,” Dr. Clarissa Pinkola Estés describes in Women Who Run With the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype. “[The doll] is the symbolic homunculi, little life. It is the symbol of what lies buried in humans that is numinous [spiritual or holy].”

Together, the other girls are a homologized life, dull matter with only a suspicion of spirit, a stirring for something numinous. Whether their sense of a singular self was lost or never developed, Marina and her doll reveal this lack, and the girls must face the “crude physical datum” of their bodies and being, as philosopher Mircea Eliade would describe, a datum devoid of value or meaning, unable to transcend its physical matter.

“For the first time we felt fat, or ugly; we realized that we had bodies and that those bodies could not be changed. Just as she had materialized, we materialized: these hands, these legs.”

The perception of Marina’s difference, her body with a meaning beyond the confines of the orphanage, infects the other girls with a perception of their own difference, their lack of meaning beyond orphanage parameters. The anxiety of this difference becomes unbearable, and the girls act instinctively to re-instate the original homogeneity:

“One Wednesday night we stole Marina’s doll without her realizing, and she woke up in a panic. Now she was unprotected, like us. Now she tried to love, and her hunger had no object.”

This violence is so painful that it glows without sound in Marina. The psychological agony is muted, oddly gentle, as the excruciating transforms into the endurable like a succession of musical notes. Marina decides to introduce her own game. In the dark of their communal bedroom, each girl peels herself from her bed and crouches around Marina, sitting upright in the dimness. Marina lifts her finger, it hovers like a compass around the girls heads, then steadies at a face. “You,” she points and the game begins, a ritual to exercise the devotion and horror of a childhood they are all no longer able to wear.

“We were all lovers and the game was our love.”

It is the very trauma of a human life seeking to connect to its origin, its value, its meaning, which is at the heart of what becomes this game, a sort of ritual of an “eternal return” as Eliade would explain in The Myth of the Eternal Return:

“The crude produce of nature…acquire their reality, their identity, only to the extent of their participation in a transcendent reality. The gesture acquires meaning, reality, solely to the extent to which it repeats a primordial act.”

The primordial “dollness”, that is – what is felt but not seen, is evoked not only through the story of the girls’ doll role-playing, but through Barba’s use of voice, which advances through dissonance, like a caterpillar moving forward, stretching itself while pulling back.

Such Small Hands, the first of his works to be published by an anglophone publisher – Transit Books in the U.S and Portobello Books in the UK (others have been published in English, but through a Madrid-based publisher, Hispabooks), is consistently labelled a “scary story” and compared to Daphne du Maurier and Shirley Jackson (both rightful queens of that underworld), yet this novella oversteps the genre and literature all together, into an experience much less cognitive and closer to that of music. There is something of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring, a childhood both impossible and endless, not solely within the parameters of this story, it goes beyond a generational anecdote and places itself into the space of Myth (mythos, “story” as the origin of all stories).

Honoured as one of Granta’s Best Young Spanish Novelists, Barba’s Chekhov-like precision to emotion, a weightless peering into the minutiae of feeling, shines clearly in his works, such as the disturbingly luminous August/October, amongst his others, twelve in total, translated into ten languages, not to mention the feat of translating classic authors such as De Quincey and Melville into Spanish.

This particular novel, however, contains a delicacy in register à part towards behavioural digression, a voice that stretches and pulls into the source of the lusus naturæ, the freak of nature, a discordance which palpates in the self-consciousness of our need to love and be loved.

Just as the hand, according to Immanuel Kant, is “the visible part of the brain,” (a context for palm-readings), and its fist is supposedly the size of one’s heart, there is a certain subconscious truth, between the space of cognition and feeling, that reveals itself in the hand, even when consciously stifled elsewhere. As George B. Brigman explains in The Book of a Hundred Hands, “The face is well schooled to self-control as a rule and may become an aid in dissimulation of thought and feeling. Rarely is the hand so trained; and responding unconsciously to the mental states, it may reveal what the face would conceal.”

On the canvas green book cover of the Portobello edition of Such Small Hands, we see a compact pink figurine, her head almost too big or too adult for her body, and her hands, too small. They are clutched fists at her waist, long-hanging fruit refusing to ripen.

photo credit: Marianne Katser

Yelena Moskovich
is a Ukrainian-born American and French playwright and author of The Natashas (Serpent’s Tail). Her plays have been produced in the US, Vancouver, Paris, and Stockholm. Her short story “Marlene of Number 16” won the Galley Beggar Short Story Prize in 2016. She has written for The Happy Reader, the New Statesman, and in French for Mixt(e) Magazine. Her second novel, Virtuoso, will be out in Spring 2019 (Serpent’s Tail).

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, September 24th, 2017.