Having no dolls to play with, and maternity already pulsating terribly in the hearts of those orphans, the sly little girls had concealed another girl’s death from the nun. They hid the corpse in a wardrobe until the nun left, and played with the dead girl, giving her baths and little snacks, punishing her just so they could kiss her afterward, consoling her.
Aside from evoking the image of playing with a doll, Lispector’s short story, which chronicles a French explorer’s encounter with the smallest woman of the smallest tribe of pygmies in Central Congo (also purportedly true), otherwise has nothing to do with the events at the orphanage. In a sea of several hundred sentences, the incident appears only in these two. Its connection to the story is, at best, a metaphorically moral and, at worst, a disturbingly tangential mise en abyme that jars us from our complacency but whose broader purpose remains a mystery. The anecdote compels us to consider everything from “the malignity of our desire to be happy” to “the ferocity with which we want to play.” But it is up to us to decide what it — and its relation to the broader story about the European colonization of Africa — is supposed to mean, exactly.
Andrés Barba’s novel Such Small Hands, originally published in Spanish in 2008, spends the entirety of its 83 evocative pages trying to figure out this meaning. Barba, a Spanish writer with a gift for expressing gallons of meaning from only a handful of words, has pointed to these two sentences when explaining the origins of the novel. He read them years ago and, it seems, they have fascinated him ever since. But the novel isn’t about Lispector’s short story. It isn’t even really about the anecdote. It is, instead, about something so alien to anyone who might pick it up at a bookstore: the psychological world of orphaned girls. The novel, which is set in the present, delicately observes this world mostly through the eyes of Marina, a seven-year-old girl who arrives at an orphanage following a car accident that kills both of her parents. We relive the accident and witness Marina’s ensuing haze in the hospital. Yet the people who treat her seem to be more affected by the accident than she does. Her questions about what happens next are met with the kind of incomprehension only an adult could provide: “‘You’re going to live in a nice new house, a very pretty place with other girls, you’ll see,’ the psychologist said. ‘No parents?’ ‘No. But it’s very pretty, you’ll see.’”
Depending on your cultural diet, the subject of the psychology of orphaned girls may sound either too cliché or too academic. But for Spaniards in the late aughts, attempting to understand the inner lives of children couldn’t have been a more popular endeavor. Children were everywhere in Spanish culture. In 2007, J. A. Bayona had released The Orphanage, a horror film about, among other things, the difficulties adults encounter when communicating with distressed children. The next year, just a month after Barba’s novel was published, Camino, a film about a girl who died of cancer at 14 and who is now in the process of becoming canonized by the Catholic Church, appeared in cinemas across Spain; it would eventually walk away with six of a possible seven Goya Awards — the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars. And, by the end of that year, the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón judicially decreed “the lost children of Francoism,” an estimated 30,000 children who were abducted from Republican parents during the Spanish Civil War and the ensuing Franco dictatorship, a crime against humanity. In each of these cases, childhood psychology — both fictional and real — took center stage: How brainwashed were these children? What could they have known about their own condition? Can society do anything to salvage their lives or their memory?
Such Small Hands unearths similar questions, not so much by providing an adult’s perspective on the matter, as these examples do, but instead by circumscribing the narrative to the point of view of children. Barba gives us two perspectives, both from the point of view of the children in the orphanage. Throughout much of the book, he alternates chapters: one from the perspective of Marina, another, from the perspective of the girls in the orphanage, who share a single, collective narrative voice. This may sound rather limiting, a self-imposed handicap on a Faulkneresque experiment in literary form. But it turns out to be liberating, in the same way that the Dogme 95 movement, which sought to free film from technological gimmicks by way of adhering to strict formal rules, yielded such master classes on scene and mood as Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen. For Barba, it’s the limits on narrative form that open the door for probing the psychological questions of childhood.
In the novel, the girls’ “emotions are translated into actions, sometimes touching and sweet, sometimes cruel, even violent,” writes Lisa Dillman, Barba’s translator, in her note at the end of the book. “It’s fair to say that Such Small Hands is in many ways about translation.” Without an excellent translator, such a broad view of the novel would have been lost on its readers. Fortunately for us, Dillman’s translation is exquisite, and we experience Barba’s surgical precision with tone and meaning from the operating room floor, not merely from the observation deck. With many translations, one can feel the depressions and scars from translators doing their best to stitch together myriad forms of prose in order to make up for the lack of precise English equivalents. Dillman’s translation, by contrast, is absolutely seamless. Consider, for instance, the orphans’ theory of Marina:
It was as if Marina had already seen all the movies, already gone on all field trips, already played all games; there was something terrible in her past. She’d already lived so many things. She buried her head in the pillow and saw everything, she rested her head and it was heavy as a rock, filled with memories, she pressed down on her pencil (How many pencils had she had? Thousands? Millions?) and even the pencil was a little envious, wishing she would use it to write all those things that Marina had already lived.
Just as Barba manages to capture the naïveté, wonder, and grandiose conclusion-drawing of what childhood thought is all about, Dillman manages to strike the right balance between not alienating readers with direct translations of labyrinthine Spanish prose while also not changing the meaning, mood, and metaphors of the original. What’s more: By the end of the book, I completely forgot I was reading a translation.
This theory of Marina, which the orphans formulate about halfway through the book, is also something of a turning point. Their earlier suspicions of Marina had been abstract. “From one second to the next something had broken: our trust,” the orphans conclude upon Marina’s arrival. They would treat her like a ragdoll, teasing her, hitting her, and making her feel like an unwelcome alien. “It was as if someone had written: ‘Now hate Marina’ and they’d all obeyed.” But, at the same time, they would hang on her every word. At one point in the novel, she goes more than a day without eating just, it appears, in order to prove it to herself. “Marina would go through what lovers sometimes do: she would become a slave more to the act itself than to the driving force behind it.” Her force of will mesmerizes the other girls. “There was something majestic and tough in Marina’s pallor,” they observe. Since that first encounter, they come to think of her as a God-like figure.
In the last section of the book, Marina invents a game in which, every night, a girl at random would be chosen to be a doll, completely at the mercy of the rest of the girls who would dress her, put on her make-up, and play with her. During the day, Marina continues to suffer the bullying of earlier, which increases with each page. But at night everything changes: the girls would worship her. As the day-and-night routine approaches its opposing extremes, their distrust of Marina resembles a loss of faith. By the end of the novel, their resolution predictably completes the Christian metaphor, with Marina as the Jesus figure. She inevitably suffers an appropriate, child-like crucifixion: as in the Lispector story, Marina becomes the doll that the other orphans will play with.
Have we learned anything about the “malignity of our desire to be happy,” the “ferocity with which we want to play,” or any of the other questions raised by the Lispector story? It’s difficult to say. The novel ends, like Breaking Bad, with a resolution in the form of a bowtie that doesn’t allow us to witness the fallout. What we learn has less to do with answering questions than with being reminded of the difficulties of childhood. Few of our difficulties, of course, compare to Marina’s. Some that do: bullying, ostracism, loneliness, misunderstanding, sadness — all of which are part of the emotional toll that comes with a new class, a new grade, or a new school. Such Small Hands returns these facts of growing up from the storage closet of mere abstractions to their proper place on the shelf of things children actually experience. Barba’s stunning and beautiful prose helps us realize that our adult incomprehension is not absolute.
Bécquer Seguín is an assistant professor of Iberian Studies at Johns Hopkins University. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Slate, and elsewhere.