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Uninvited: Emotional Distance in Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest

By Kyle Callert.

Gabriela Ybarra, The Dinner Guest, translated by Natasha Wimmer (Transit Books, 2019)

Gabriela Ybarra’s debut novel The Dinner Guest, published by Transit Books and translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, is about two things: the death of a grandfather and the death of a mother. There is more to this, of course. The nature of the two deaths—one a kidnapping ending in assassination, the other by cancer— necessitates meditation on politics, art, memory, genealogy, and stories, and the novel swiftly, if not lightly, moves between them.

The extent to which The Dinner Guest is a novel, however, can be debated. The narrator shares a name and history with the author. The major facts surrounding the two deaths don’t appear to be exaggerated either, at least beyond that which is verifiable by public record. Presumably, the most baldly fictionalized portions are the minute details of the hours after Ybarra’s grandfather’s kidnapping, which happened before Ybarra was born, but even those moments, such as the narrator’s father struggle to free himself of handcuffs, feel culled from conversations, hardly out of line with the type of imaginative re-creations often seen in nonfiction. In an interview with The Guardian, Ybarra claims: “the truth is that for me, as a writer, [how much of it is real] doesn’t matter. I just want the book to work by itself. The story of the book belongs to the book and real life is something different.”

In a short note that introduces the novel, Ybarra calls The Dinner Guest a ‘free reconstruction.’ When she was a girl, she writes, she first heard of her grandfather’s death through a classmate, who told her his body was fished out of a reservoir. Later, she heard her grandfather was actually run over by a train. These two stories became linked in Ybarra’s mind, and it wasn’t until her mother died from cancer many years later that she decided to visit the archives, so to speak, and collect an accurate record of her grandfather’s death, which involved neither trains nor reservoirs, rather a gunshot wound to the head.

Javier Ybarra, the grandfather, was a prominent figure in mid-century Basque Country. At various times, he served as mayor, bank executive, newspaper man, and member of the Spanish Nationalist Party. On a May morning in 1977, members of the ETA, a Basque separatist group, broke into the Ybarra home and kidnapped Javier, demanding an enormous ransom for his return. They handcuffed and restrained other members of the family, issuing instructions to not call the police until the afternoon. The newspapers came, then the television crews. Soon after, the Ybarra family communicated messages of encouragement with Javier through crosswords and other word games in the newspaper he was known to enjoy. Javier intermittently wrote letters back. Search parties scoured the wilderness for traces of him, which proved fruitless. Ultimately Javier was murdered, and his body dumped in the woods. His funeral service was well attended.

This story is told piecemeal—partly through imagined account, partly through description of Ybarra’s own research, and partly through history, letters, newspaper clippings, the word games placed by the family, and photographs. In all, this effectively replicates the fragmented way the family, and thus the author herself, uncovered the full story of Javier’s death.

The story is also inherently enigmatic, which perhaps helps explain why Ybarra chose to freely reconstruct the history of her family rather than meticulously research and report it. Much of that work, of course, had already been done—the kidnapping, understandably, was well covered by the press. But on another level, any kidnapping is also the story of an absence. There is only so much of reality that the facts will account for, especially so when most of the action—if that is the right word for it—is little more than family members’ anxious waiting. Filling in the gaps with what others remember, even if those memories are not corroborated and may be out of order, with what Ybarra or her narrator can invent makes sense—surely, that way, a more accurate emotional picture would emerge.

Curiously, however, Ybarra does not take the expected steps afforded by this authorial freedom. There is no attempt to dive into the interiority of those involved, no imagined experience of her grandfather’s time in captivity, no characterization of the kidnappers, or, for that matter, of anyone. If there is any emotion prevalent in the section on the kidnapping, it is disorientation; information is given to the reader without pause. When the text does slow down, it is usually focused on the material world—for instance, Ybarra reflects on the discrepancy between a crime scene photo and a portrait, two images—opposed to the human. As a result, most of the novel’s first section suffers from a lack of context, as if the kidnapping took place within a political and emotional vacuum. Only toward the end does Ybarra fill in some of the edges with a scant history of her family and the region in a move that ultimately feels more obligatory than illuminating, as if she felt she needed to address a few lingering details. Within the pages of The Dinner Guest, the kidnapping and death of Javier Ybarra is unmoored. His death is senseless, too, but this is the case outside of the realm of literature, for what death is not fundamentally senseless?

Ybarra takes up this question in the second section of the novel. After the narrator’s mother is diagnosed with cancer, she travels to Manhattan, where her daughter—and of course, Ybarra herself—is living. What follows are a series of diary entries and recollections of the author’s time caring for her mother while she undergoes treatment, along with assorted family histories, such as the time her uncle was sent a mail bomb and her father’s decades-long security detail. The descriptions of the latter are the closest the two sections of the novel come to being in communication with each other.

Ybarra approaches the emotion surrounding her mother’s illness only tangentially, but unlike the strangely flat treatment of the kidnapping, here the reader is given enough to guess this hands-off approach may be the very nature of Ybarra’s family. For example, her mother doesn’t seem to accept how terminal her disease may be until she’s near the terminus: she goes apartment hunting in Williamsburg, finds an apartment she likes, and wants to buy it outright. Witnessing this, the narrator notes that her mother is behaving erratically, but does not find herself devastated as much as she finds herself unsure. Like the discrepancy between the crime scene photo and the portrait, she is more inclined to compare two different situations as representations of the same object—death—than she is to explore how it makes her or anyone feel. In this case, the representations are her mother’s incongruous behavior and what the doctors are telling her. Is this a coping mechanism? A way of avoiding the abyss? Possibly. But for woman as intelligent as Ybarra, or her closely aligned narrator, clearly is, she rarely risks extrapolating beyond the physical and obvious, limiting any interpretations of what her family’s life might say about them, might say about her.

The reader, too, is given little opportunity for such extrapolation, again by lack of context. Whereas the first section was devoid of the political, the second is blind to anything resembling class structure. The money expended on medical procedures isn’t given consideration, nor is the cost for an apartment, only the brazen, irrational act of buying it. While her mother undergoes treatment, Ybarra quits her job to spend more time with her. The financial toll of this, too, goes unmentioned. Of course, this does not necessarily mean there was no economic stress, but the absence of any mention of bills piling up suggests such burdens are either manageable or too personal to include.

Arguably, The Dinner Guest isn’t interested in topics as mundane as bills and debt collectors, the omission of which only serves to place a greater emphasis on death and grief. But then, there isn’t much emphasis on those qualities, either, outside of what can be seen and observed. In an interview with Wilma, Ybarra stated: “When I was too obvious with emotions, it became kind of cheesy. For me, it’s more powerful when they are taken away.” However, whether or not any power remains without obvious emotion is questionable.

Take the narrator’s admission from the second section: “When I think about my mother’s illness it’s hard for me to remember my father. All I get are flashes. My father laying cold washcloths on my mother’s head. My father writing in a notebook, taking down everything she said at the hospital.” Ybarra doesn’t put any extra effort into imbuing these moments outside of what is already there—the sadness of a husband caring for his wife and recording what may be her last words—choosing to let them speak for themselves, and the resulting effectiveness may be dependent entirely on the reader; I imagine someone who has lost another to disease might be moved, but someone who has not would find it hard to be transported.

Ybarra’s tendency to let things like death, politics, and wealth speak for themselves seems to have the aim of inviting reflection on part of the reader. The sparceness of the prose and swift movement between topics certainly aid this argument, yet those same two elements also rob the novel of a much needed density.

This is perhaps most apparent with the inclusion of Robert Walser. The infamous, snowy death photo of Walser makes an appearance in the book, but not much is said about him; the photo nearly takes up the same amount of space as the text devoted to it. What is said is hardly revealing: Ybarra was reading The Walk during her mother’s illness, and she came across the same book again after her mother’s death. She reads a brief excerpt from Walser’s story, when the narrator describes his wish for a forest grave. Maybe, Ybarra thinks, Walser stopped writing to make his wish come true, to die and have a forest grave.

And, just like that, the novel moves on, the ghostly image of Walser left behind. Ideally, Walser’s death would mirror the deaths of Ybarra’s grandfather and mother, offering some echo on the sudden and arbitrary nature of our mortality. Some may find this to be the case. But the inclusion of the photo also feels grotesque and haphazard, life given shortchange. Ironically, Ybarra is aware of this problem, at least in terms of her own family. After her mother dies, she is frustrated by the impossibility of her mother’s life and personality being encapsulated entirely by a three paragraph obituary.

This frustration may be the reason Ybarra, who in the same Wilma interview says she wrote The Dinner Guest without intent of publication, was compelled to write it at all. Tracing the histories of her family and her place within them is one way of resurrecting the dead, or, at least, preventing them from disappearing completely. If the act of writing was originally a private one, if Ybarra wrote the book for herself and no one else, that would explain the lack of context. She already knows all of it, so why the need for any exposition? It would also explain the vagueness of the book’s few proclamations, such as, toward the end of the novel, where Ybarra realizes that “My private life is still political…it’s all political. Even literature.”

What exactly these politics are and how Ybarra intends to act on them is left unclear. If a reader is prepared for it—and perhaps if they are also scions of a powerful family—such a revelation may prove explosive. If they are not, if they are still hoping for the novel to dig its heels into one of the many territories it flies over, they may be left scratching their heads.

Kyle Callert is a writer from Detroit. He is assistant fiction editor at Ninth Letter.


First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, May 22nd, 2019.