Review: No Word From Gurb
An absurdist alien knockabout.
There's a thin line between sense and drivel. Money. Organised religion. Sport. The irrationality and marvel of human affairs is rarely demonstrated better than when seen through the eyes of an outsider. And what better outsider than an extraterrestrial? It's a literary device that can be used and abused of course; the zenith being the Martian school of poetry, particularly Craig Raine's classic A Martian Sends A Postcard Home. Enter Catalan writer Eduardo Mendoza, one of Spain's leading literary lights, turning his hand to the medium with No Word From Gurb.
Two shape-shifting aliens (the Captain and his friend Gurb) land on Earth and camouflage their spaceship as a family apartment. Gurb adopts the "appearance of human being known as Madonna" and is instantly picked up by a passing admirer. The narrator assumes the image of "his lordship the Duke of Olivares" and sets out to find his missing compadre, encountering arrests, crushes, fights and various incarnations as popes, cowboys and actors along the way.
What follows is an enjoyable absurdist knockabout, which coasts along on its considerable charm and sweetness. Materialising in the middle of a busy intersection, the confused narrator is repeatedly run over by cars, at another time he forgets to breathe: "my face turned bright purple; my eyes came out on stalks, and I again had to go and recover them from under the wheels of passing cars."
There's no doubting the ingenuity in conceits such as reading the future in a hen's egg, finding frozen bodies in the air-conditioning vents, the alternative history of a black empire where white people were slaves or the original Babylon ("not the one that appears in chronicles…but another, earlier one, situated near where modern-day Zurich is to be found"). Mendoza is a fount of observational wisdom; describing the folly of small talk ("we compare prices today to those in days gone by"), the sight of cars attacking each other, "old folks drying in the sun" and the ludicrous distinction between rich and poor with wit and relish. For all his use of stylistic games, his clowning repetitions and riffs off the diary format, his humour seems as natural, surreal and sharp as a child's; on the absurdities of human biology he notes "almost all have two eyes which, depending on how one looks at their heads, are placed either at the front or at the back."
Gifted with a zippy, colloquial-rich translation, his prose gains vigour in several fine set-pieces (the narrator's first visit to a public house springs to mind), proudly surveying his native city of Barcelona (with winks to locals like Dali i.e. the telephone as "a lobster with legs") and the quirks of its inhabitants.
Amidst the fun and games though there are snags. While grounded in Catalan life, sometimes it feels too parochial especially with the persistent complaints about the city council. As with most picaresque tales, the book lacks a solid direction or progression, fluttering from unrelated scene to scene with tenuous links between. The kind of whimsy present in No Word…coupled with the staccato diary set-up can cause fatigue over the length of a novel but Mendoza has a charisma that by and large avoids irritation. Whether the book has the darkness, emotional engagement or bite to make a lasting impression is arguable, but it's entertaining, peppered with insight and good-spirits, and hell that ain't no crime.
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No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza
trans. Nicholas Caistor