Such Small Hands
(translated by Lisa Dillman; with an afterword by Edmund White)
Portobello Books: 101pp.: £9.99
Childhood has been used historically in fiction, but recently there seems to be new sense of realism along with it, exploring the desires that people experience but hardly ever talk about, as if childhood was, or is, that testing ground. Writers like Elena Ferrante and Zadie Smith have laid a path, that has not just exposed a new way of talking about our concealed, inner world that is even concealed from ourselves, but literature as well. Why are using the children to talk about it?
Strangely, to me, it seems to be specifically the female childhood that has had this focus. It’s interesting then that a male chooses to tackle it, or use the experience of the female child, in the work discussed here. I’m not sure what happened, but speaking as a male, it seems that women can more honestly and openly discuss the things that are not so openly and honestly talked about, both in fiction and in life. What this is down to i’m not sure (this could just be the male looking from the outside-in wishing it was not so). The archaic male archetype of ‘manliness’ is still a powerful marker of the man, and comes with it, clossetedness and the inability to talk about it.
Barba then begins with dolls and somebody who has an inability to talk. Both males and females use toys and dolls to say the things we can’t as children, but Ferrante’s epic tetralogy begins with Lenu and Lila playing with dolls in My Brilliant Friend. Dolls and toys of course are a way to enact things we can’t be or say. In Ferrante’s work, Lila, often the object and subject of Lenu’s projections in this recollection of her childhood that Lenu writes, does the inexplicable act of pushing Lenu’s doll down a grate. These are the dolls in which “the terrors that we tasted every day were theirs”, the doll that at first, talks about Lenu’s fears out loud for her.
Ferrante’s work, both My Brilliant Friend and the ensuing saga of course, has a much longer trajectory, but this provides a neat way of framing Barba’s work. Because both novels do start with the protagonists owning dolls, but as Lenu loses hers and finds its childhood power waning, the dolls begin to hold an infinite power for Barba’s protagonist Marina. Ferrante’s work develops into a multi-volume saga of ‘realism’ where Barba’s short novella stays within the confines of childhood, and fantasy, not something magical, but a childhood fantasy (or more comfortably associated with childhood). And both novels start with a loss, although Barba’s would appear of a deeper trauma.
The loss is central though, as the novels in part, become a way in which to describe or depict this loss, or new space that has formed as result. Lenu hears of a her friend, Lila’s, disappearance (before losing the doll), decades after last speaking to her, and so what begins is an exploration, a rewriting of her childhood, in a pursuit of not ‘letting her win again’ (there is also a game in Barba’s work). And Marina, in Such Small Hands, must now try and deal with the hideously vacant space left by her parents death from a car crash. This is the description of the crash:
“The car falling, and where it fell, transforming. The car, making space for itself. That, more than ever, was when she had to fall back on the words. As if, of all the words that might describe the accident, those were the only ones that possessed the virtue of stating what could never be stated; or, as if they, of all words, were the only ones there, so close at hand, so easy to grasp, making what could never possibly be discerned somehow accessible.” [author’s emphasis]
Marina sees a psychologist whom brings her a doll presumably to help her understand her grief. She calls the doll Marina, rather bafflingly to the psychologist, before she is unwittingly sent to an orphanage. She does know that she is leaving the care of the professionals, but she does not know where to. It is the prospect of space, the big open space of the future that has suddenly been opened up to her, but she knows that it’s not so simple as that: “It wasn’t so much the fear of leaving that terrified Marina but the idea of that space, that intricate, bountiful, preconceived place, full of beforehands.” ‘Beforehands’, an obvious reference to the title, but such an acute way of describing the world we’re not supposed to believe we’re stepping into; daubed and touched by many others before us.
As much as a novel is a work of imagination, it’s about the imagination as well, and the question here is how far can that imagination go. Marina has been thrust into the world, the unrestrained adult world, prematurely. She seems to anticipate that it’s not original and uncharted. Or perhaps it’s because it’s a world where she realises you don’t need imagination but a sense of reality. As she arrives at the orphanage she is treated as an outsider. Yet the girls there are fascinated by her as much as Marina is fascinated by them, as the novel jumps between third person direct observer of Marina, to first person plural of the girls. Edmund White in the afterword, notes an important and rendered scene of watching the other girls eat (eating is important here and as White also notes, Marina appears to have come from a comfortable middle class background). And so being coerced into the girls world, she manages to coerce them into hers, in which she invents a game where a girl is selected as a doll to be used whilst they are asleep and motionless.
White says in the afterword though, Barba chooses not to make this a ‘psychological study’ of a young girl’s grief. This is why the darkness imbued in the novel feels all too real. White believes that the introduction of the girls in the orphanage helps to propel it away from that, and perhaps it’s also implicated in the opening pages when the doctors and psychologists are given short shrift by Barba, ushered on and off the scene in all their professional swiftness. As White says of Barba , he “is not a scientist and his book is not the demonstration of a theory but….we are convinced that we are plunged into an archaic system we’ve forgotten but that is oddly remiscient”. A psychologist would have done their best to disband the fantasy, impart some reality into the doll, but instead it’s like a relic with a mysterious capacity out of his hands. In a way it becomes more spiritual or totemic – a family heirloom that is believed to have enigmatic capacities.
What is theory but an attempt to describe something that is there but isn’t? The attempt (and ultimately failure) to render a space with words? Barba’s novel abounds in this sense of space, debating whether it’s positive or negative. I am the outskirts of a non-existent town” wrote Fernando Pessoa in one of his elusive passages, and that takes on a prominence here , indeed formalises in the section where the girls describe the orphanage, “It was once a happy city; we were once happy girls.” The girls are at the whim of their desires, transported around their city of themselves without them knowing how or why they got there. You notice how often though, invisible forces are alluded to, ‘tremors’, ‘vibrations’, ‘spasms’ but are definitely felt. The girls themselves almost seem invisible, like ghostly voices haunting the lonely Marina. At one point they question their pursuit of Marina:
“How did our desire begin? We don’t know. Everything was silent in our desire, like acrobats in motion, like tight-rope walkers.”
You can see them balancing in the air, that precarious line, and one of those ‘tremors’ enough to tilt them over the edge. The question is, what would falling over the edge constitute? That’s a question I would love to discuss and write more about, and I could talk a lot more about this book, only 94 pages long; it is so precise and accumulates in a way that isn’t a contrivance to genre, but a steady development of its ideas, but I need to leave it there for the reader.
I’ll finish on this though; White suggests that the scar from Marina’s crash could be the wing of an angel removed; as Rilke said, “all angels are terrible”. Rilke’s ‘First Elegy’ (who notably was dressed up as a girl by his mother, so desperate was she to have one) seems like it may have been consulted by Barba either before or during writing the novel. Rilke writes:
“to be no longer all that one used to be/in endlessly anxious hands, and to lay aside/even one’s proper name like a broken toy.”
Such small hands, such little power. “Strange, not to go on wishing one’s wishes,” Rilke then writes in the next line. It wouldn’t be perverse to say there is something desired and concealed within Barba’s work but as Barba’s suggests all along, we need to find a way to talk about it. A novel, that at it’s heart is not necessarily about finding a way to talk, but allowing the space for things to be talked about – even if it could be exploring the heart of a trauma.