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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

NEW DYSTOPIAN NOVEL: Jesús Carrasco's "Out in the Open"

Author: Jesús Carrasco  
Translator (from Spanish): Margaret Jull Costa
Plot Type: Dark Dystopian Fantasy 
Publisher: Riverhead Books (Penguin Random House LLC)
Publication Dates: Original Spanish text: 2013; English translation: 2017

     Jesus Carrasco was born in Badajoz, Spain, and now lives in Edinburgh, Scotland. He received the European Union Prize for Literature in 2016. Out in the Open is his debut novel. It was a bestseller in Spain, has been published in twenty-five languages, and is the winner of many international awards, including an English PEN award.

     Margaret Jull Costa has been translating Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American fiction—including authors like Javier Marias—for more than twenty years.

     A searing dystopian vision of a young boy's flight through an unnamed, savaged country, searching for sanctuary and redemption—a debut novel from one of Europe's bestselling literary stars.

     A young boy has fled his home. He’s pursued by dangerous forces. What lies before him is an infinite, arid plain, one he must cross in order to escape those from whom he’s fleeing. One night on the road, he meets an old goatherd, a man who lives simply but righteously, and from that moment on, their paths intertwine.

     Out in the Open
 tells the story of this journey through a drought-stricken country ruled by violence. A world where names and dates don’t matter, where morals have drained away with the water. In this landscape the boy—not yet a lost cause—has the chance to choose hope and bravery, or to live forever mired in the cycle of violence in which he was raised. Carrasco has masterfully created a high stakes world, a dystopian tale of life and death, right and wrong, terror and salvation.

    Contrary to the title, the opening scene centers on a young boy who is hiding in a place that is anything but open: "From inside his hole in the ground, he heard the sound of voices calling his name, and as if they were crickets, he tried to pinpoint the precise location of each man within the bounds of the olive grove. The desolate howling of fire-scorched scrub. He was lying on one side, knees drawn up to his chest, with barely enough room to move in that cramped apace. His arms either around his knees or serving as a pillow, and only a tiny niche for his knapsack of food. ... He sensed that the men were getting very close now and so he lay utterly still. He heard his name proliferating among the trees like drops of rain falling onto a sheet of water." As he lies in his hole, he thinks about his father and "the black flower of his family's betrayal [that] still gnawed at his stomach." So...what do we know about this young boy, who is perhaps eight or ten years of age? All of the men in the village, including the sheriff, are searching for him, because he has "caused an incident," an incident that somehow involves duplicity by his family. All this nameless boy can think about is escaping to a safe place—turning his back on the village and the olive grove and heading north into the unknown plain, certain that his carefully collected horde of food and water will be enough to propel him into a new life.

     What could this little boy possibly have done to cause this massive search? The boy assures us that he "hadn't killed anyone, he hadn't stolen, he hadn't taken the name of God in vain," so what did he do? Carrasco doesn't tell us exactly what happened until much later in the story, leaving only sickening hints—forcing the reader to make his or her own dark guesses as to who or what the boy has escaped from and what will happen to him if/when he is caught by his primary pursuer. 
In an interview, Carrasco says, "When I wrote the novel I tried to create an incomplete psychological profile of the boy. Not just because he was a 'personality in progress' but because I wanted to attract the reader to the characters by giving them a sort of mystery. When I read I'm always tempted to fill in with my own experience of life what is suggested but not said, I think we all do. When the blank says 'fear,' it is more suggestive when the reader fills the blank with their own fear instead of a neat description of what the writer thinks that the character feels."

This is how the old man
looks as he rides his
donkey, which is loaded
with panniers (saddle

bags) filled with his 
     Once the boy escapes from his hole and makes his way into the desolate, tinder-dry, drought-ridden countryside, Carrasco draws the reader into the boy's mind as he trudges for miles with the sun beating relentlessly down on his unprotected body. That night, after his meager provisions have been eaten and drunk, he comes upon an aged goatherd who catches him when he tries to steal some food. Instead of punishing the boy, the goatherd shares his food and water, and after some initial distrust, the boy, the goatherd, and his animals continue to make their way north. "The old man and the donkey were at the front, the dog chasing madly after them, and last of all came the goats, leaving behind a slipstream of dung like the tail of a comet." The boy is still somewhat distrustful of the goatherd because he is sure that a reward for his capture has been posted, and the goatherd is desperately poor, but he truly has no choice but to team up with this monosyllabic old man if he is to survive. 

A rope lighter
   Note: The goatherd habitually uses a rope lighter  (encendedor de mecha) to light his cigarettes as well as the campfire. Click HERE to see a video of how a rope lighter works. It's pretty neat.

     The next chapters follow the group of animals and the two humans as they move slowly across an arid, dusty, rocky plain pocked with bone-dry stream beds. Although some have criticized this section of the book for being too slow, I found it fascinating to watch the primitive but principled goatherd begin to mentor the boy, almost as if the old man is readying the boy to take his place when the time comes. This part of the book is truly a coming-of-age process for a youngster who has never been beyond the boundaries of his own village and who has always relied on his family for sustenance and shelter. Now, he has only himself—and the goatherd—to keep him alive. Carrasco's writing is filled with the meticulous details of surviving in this unforgiving landscape (which is based on Carrasco's childhood in a drought-ridden area of Spain).

     Comparisons can be made between the boy's search for safety and Don Quixote's quest for chivalry. In an on-line interview, Carrasco makes the following statement on this subject: "There are many parallels between the books. Both are, in some way, travel books, unfolding in the same landscape, and danger is a substantial part of the plot. The difference is that while Don Quixote seeks danger, the boy in this novel, flees from it. In my opinion the need for safety that the boy feels is actually finally fulfilled by the encounter with the goatherd. It is, anyway, a psychological safety, which has been sourced from a newly acquired feeling of autonomy. For the first time in his early life, he feels that it is himself who is in charge of is own life. It is good to be aware that life is not cocooned in safety and that it finally ends." The book has also been compared to Cormac MacCarthy's The Road.

     Eventually, of course, the boy's pursuers catch up with him in a horrific scene set in the ruins of an ancient castle. From that point on, suspense builds at a compelling rate as we root for the boy and his savior to emerge from this virtual nightmare alive. "The elements had pushed him far beyond what he knew and didn't know about life. It had taken him to the very edge of death...." The boy struggles to understand the goatherd's motivations for helping him. He wonders why the old man has put himself at high risk and has suffered extreme pain and hardship just to help him escape from his pursuers.

     After many trials and tribulations, the boy "had been guilty of meting out violence, exactly as he had seen those around him do, and now he was demanding his share of impunity." But when the boy wants to leave an enemy for dead, the goatherd reminds him, "He, too, is a child of God."  From this old man the boy eventually learns the importance of compassion to the human soul. 

     Although there are a number of extremely violent scenes in the second half of the book, Carrasco takes a Hitchcockian approach to them, never giving us the full graphic details, but instead relying on shadows, sounds, and smells to communicate the horrors. Like Alfred Hitchcock, Carrasco uses his storytelling as a means of forcing his audience to project their worst fears and anxieties—to place the reader just outside the scene as a silent, powerless observer. 

     In one brief scene the boy's most feared pursuer meticulously collects a variety of food, leisurely eats his meal, and then uses his knife to open a handful of walnuts, carefully scooping out the whole nutmeats. As the terrified boy watches, the man holds "one half of a nutshell in each hand. Then holding each half between two fingers, he put them together so that they fitted perfectly like a brain with four hemispheres." He looks at the boy and says, "It's important to do things properly. ... And you haven't." When read in full context, this little vignette will make the hairs on the back of your neck stand straight up. 

     Click HERE to read or listen to an excerpt from novel on its page. You can click on the cover art for print or the "Listen" icon for audio.

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