This week in book review it's Eduardo Mendoza's science fiction parody, Sin Noticias de Gurb, in which two alien shapeshifters explore Barcelona eating churros and observing the banal but hilarious paradoxes of a consumerist society.
'0.01 (local time) Landing effectuated without difficulty. Conventional propulsion (amplified). Velocity of landing: 6.30 on the conventional scale (restricted)- 07.00 Obeying orders (mine) Gurb prepares to make contact with life forms (real and potential) in the area…I choose for Gurb denominated human appareance Marta Sánchez.'
A social parody narrated in the form of an alien’s diary covering 15 days on earth, Sin Noticias de Gurb presents an absurdist portrait of life in late-80s pre-Olympic Barcelona. Though it’s a science-fiction novel, it riffs on the common, everyday local spectacles presented to the bemused alien visitor, which puts the novel firmly in the costumbrista tradition. Costumbrism is primarily a Hispanic literary field, described by Juan López Morillas as ‘preoccupation with minute detail, local colour’ usually seeking refuge ‘in the particular, the trivial or the ephemeral’ as a reaction to the extraordinary contradictions observed in the exasperatingly complex and rapidly-changing world around them.
The plot is the following: two shapeshifting aliens are transported to late 1980s Barcelona. They are separated and take the form of locals. Gurb takes the form of a popular Spanish singer called Marta Sánchez and goes missing in action. The other, who is the narrator, and has no name throughout, explores Barcelona looking for him (an idea, which along with the title, brings to mind Beckett’s Waiting for Godot), struggling to come to terms with the consumerist values and glib social commentaries of the city’s citizens.
One criticism levelled at the book is that its in-jokes only appeal to a Catalano-centric core of readers. In places the criticism is partly merited:
’15.02 I fall into 15.02. I fall into a ditch belonging to the Compañia Hidroelecvtrica de Cataluña
15.03 I fall into a ditch belonging to the Compañia de Aguas de Barcelona
15.04 I fall into a ditch belonging to the Compañia Telefónica Nacional
15.05. I fall into a ditch belonging to the Calle Córcega community of neighbours’
However elsewhere, the everyday interactions and preoccupations of local people are represented with such repetitive glee that Mendoza manages a biting degree of social commentary reminiscent of Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and several of Voltaire’s works. From the incompetence of the social security system to the obsession with football, common Barcelonan themes are satirized poignantly.
Meanwhile, the narrator fills up on churros, discusses politics on the street with strangers, wonders why humans choose to live in San Cosme as opposed to Pedralbes, and molests his attractive neighbour for olive oil and sugar. In some passages the alien’s refreshingly different attitude actually unravels human-made problems. In one memorable scene, struggling to understand the relationship between presidents and landlords of housing communities, the alien offers to help the president out:
’10.00 I present myself at the door of the president de comunidad de propietarios. In spite of the importance of his title, he receives me in pyjamas. I inform him that it is my intention to provide him a provision of funds to replace the wretched elevator we have with a new one, paint the staircase, restore the façade, change the pipes, fix the interphone, fill in the cracks in the roof, install a satellite antenna and carpet the entrance hall. In exchange for all this, I add, all I require is to be remembered with cariño, as I am undertaking a long trip. The president says if all the neighbours were like me, there wouldn’t be all this socialist bullshit. We enjoy a glass of whisky. ‘
As a translator for the United Nations and an inhabitant of the New York melting pot during the 1970s, Eduardo Mendoza has a special feeling and understanding of diplomatic relations, cultural misunderstandings and language, which come to the fore in this mischievous look at Barcelona’s pre-Olympian identity. The book may not stand the weathering elements of time, but it offers an entertaining critique of a generation’s values and its mix of science-fiction and local colour is genuinely funny.