El comensal, de Gabriela Ybarra
· Editorial: Caballo de Troya
Una novela autobiográfica en la que la autora trata de comprender su relación con la muerte y la familia a través del análisis de dos sucesos: el asesinato de su abuelo a manos de ETA y el fallecimiento de su madre.
«Una novela cuya atmósfera nos proporciona un alivio semejante al que siente un pez devuelto al agua después de haber sido capturado. […] Leyéndola se asiste una vez más a ese misterio por el que la vida de otro, que poco o nada tiene que ver con la tuya, deviene en una cuestión de orden personal. Como si más que una novela, se tratara de una carta dirigida a ti.»Juan José Millás, Diarios del Grupo Editorial Prensa Ibérica
La muerte es un acontecimiento de primer orden. Cuando la parca se lleva a un ser querido heredamos lo que quedó sin resolver, y el dolor, o la liberación, que acarrea el deceso se extiende en el tiempo hasta que el vivo asume no sólo la desaparición del otro, sino también parte de la suya propia en la medida en que estamos hechos de retazos de los demás.
En esta novela autobiográfica Gabriela Ybarra trata de comprender su relación con la muerte y la familia a través del análisis de dos sucesos: el asesinato de su abuelo en 1977 a manos de ETA y el fallecimiento de su madre en 2011 por un cáncer. Así, la primera parte de El comensal es una reconstrucción libre (por tanto, no esconde la parte de ficción de toda memoria) del secuestro y posterior asesinato del empresario español Javier de Ybarra, quien también fue alcalde de Bilbao y presidente de la Diputación de Vizcaya durante el régimen franquista. Aunque esta muerte ha sacudido a todo el clan familiar (los padres de la protagonista tienen que abandonar el País Vasco y convivir con un escolta), no es hasta que la madre de la narradora enferma fatalmente que los duelos no hechos y las herencias políticas no asumidas (a veces por ignorancia) estallan.
El comensal es una novela importante por dos cosas: la narración de un conflicto histórico desde un lugar personal procurando la huida del victimismo y el reconocimiento de la importancia que tiene el hacer visible la muerte para asumirla. Acostumbrados como estamos a que los procesos de deterioro y fin de la vida se escondan, la novela sorprenderá por lo que tiene de reconciliación con la enfermedad, que aquí es relatada con luminosidad y sin puritanismo ni autocompasión.
Gabriela Ybarra, con su novela El comensal, es la sexta voz novel que trae Elvira Navarro a Caballo de Troya durante su periodo de tutela del sello editorial.
Breaking Down The Doors To The Past In 'The Dinner Guest'
The Spanish writer Gabriela Ybarra comes from a politically elite family. In the 1970s, her family was one of about a dozen that occupied every position of power in Vizcaya, a province in the Basque region of Spain. This made them targets for the left-wing Basque separatist group ETA, which , six years before she was born. That kidnapping serves as the point of departure for her debut novel, , masterfully translated by Natasha Wimmer. In elegant, flat prose, Ybarra links her grandfather's very public murder to her mother's swift and private death from colon cancer. In doing so, she puts the increasingly popular form of autofiction to exceptional use.
is a seamless blend of art, politics, and private life. Ybarra researched her grandfather's death heavily and includes excerpts from newspaper stories, as well as ETA communiqués. Her prose reads very much like reportage, which creates a certain tension: How is she different from the newspaper writers who covered her grandfather's death? Is she right to transform her grief into art?
After Ybarra's mother dies, she expresses her grief through re-enactment. She starts to "consciously repeat some of the things that happened to me a year ago, when she was sick. This week, for example, I called the guy I slept with the day after she had her first colonoscopy at the hospital." Soon,takes on the floating spirit of a re-enactment. The novel is anxious to enter a past reality, but unable to do so.
This anxiety gives fiction a purpose in a book that otherwise could have been a memoir. Ybarra uses her imagination as a literary battering ram, breaking down the door to the past. In her preface, she explains that she found no alternative. "Often," she writes, "imagining has been the only way I've had to try to understand." As a result, has a helpless energy that novels like Karl Ove Knausgaard's and Ben Lerner's — incidentally, also a book originating from an act of terrorism, in this case the 2004 Madrid train bombings — lack. Knausgaard and Lerner choose themselves as subjects, and have as much access to their own inner lives as they want. Ybarra chooses her dead mother and grandmother, and beyond her imagination, she has no access to them at all.
Fiction also serves a purpose in connecting Ybarra to her father, who is alive but distant. "During my mother's illness," Ybarra writes, "my father and I had to get to know each other again. I'm not sure when we lost touch. Sometimes I think it was the day I banned him from my room, forbidding him to read me any more bedtime poems." Throughout the novel, art and literature are the only way Ybarra and her father connect. When she is a child, this leads to a certain fusion between art and life. Even "stories about 'La ETA' and my grandfather's killing were mixed with other stories that my father told me about Pompeii, Degas's ballerinas, Darío's 'the princess is sad' poem, and Max Ernst's bird men." No wonder, then, that Ybarra turns her own story about "La ETA" into art.
Ybarra is far from the first writer to use autofiction for political purposes. Philip Roth did it to brilliant and baffling effect in ; Reinaldo Arenas wrote five autofictional novels after escaping Castro's Cuba; and more recently, the Spanish writers Marta Sanz and Clara Usón have produced excellent works of feminist autofiction. Ybarra is not unique in deciding, as she does in , that "[my] private life is still political." But she makes that decision remarkably clearly, and executes it remarkably well.
Perhaps this is because Ybarra's life has never been private. For her, there is no inherent drama in writing a family story. The story is already news. She's had to reckon with other writers' presence throughout her life, including after her mother died, when "three obituaries appeared in the paper. At first I couldn't understand why my mother's death was of interest to the press. Then I was frustrated." She tries to write her own obituaries, but struggles to condense her memories, writing, "My mother wasn't three paragraphs long, or six." Nor was her grandfather's death.
operates as a fuller obituary, a memorial to both Ybarra's mother and her grandfather. It is a quiet act of public mourning, and of resistance to public memory. For many of us, fiction serves the second purpose. It offers an empathic way to understand history, which, as a reading public, we seem to need. For Ybarra, that need is far more acute. Her life may always be political, but in , she uses fiction to claim it as her own.
THE IRISH TIMES
The Dinner Guest review – An angel at the table
Gabriela Ybarra’s captivating debut is written with the forensic eye of a true crime writer
By the end of ‘The Dinner Guest’, Ybarra has done herself and her family proud in a story that is full of light and shade
Sat, Mar 10, 2018, 05:24
“The story goes that in my family there’s an extra dinner guest at every meal.” The opening line of Gabriela Ybarra’s succinct and inventive debut introduces her central subject – family. Applying Tolstoy’s equation of happiness, the Ybarras of Bilbao are certainly unhappy in their own way. The titular dinner guest is the author’s grandfather, a former mayor of Bilbao who was kidnapped and murdered by Basque separatists in the spring of 1977. The novel is his granddaughter’s “free reconstruction” of the story, which took place six years before she was born.
Ybarra’s research is evident, with articles from Spanish papers at the time interspersed with the text in the opening chapters. These document the kidnapping itself but also the desperation of Javier Ybarra’s children who cannot raise the obscene ransom and attempt to make contact with their father through crossword puzzles and comic strips in the daily papers.
Their efforts prove futile and Ybarra brings us through the process with the objectivity and forensic eye of a true crime writer, allowing glimpses of poignancy through her connection to her subject. As she reclaims the story of the kidnapping for her family, drawing attention to all the versions of the truth that appeared in the media and even among her relatives, the grim details emerge: how her grandfather lost 22 kilos in captivity, how he was given almost nothing to eat, how he was incarcerated for a month in a prone position “or inside a sack”.
Ybarra, who has a master’s degree in marketing from New York University and currently works in network analysis in Madrid, expertly blends techniques of fiction and non-fiction in her first novel. As she documents the kidnapping and its aftermath, she adds intrigue by not revealing her grandfather’s public persona until a quarter of the way through: “ETA had him in its sights because it considered him the epitomé of the Neguri intellectual and because he belonged to one of the families that had traditionally occupied top posts in the province.”
The conflict in the Basque region makes for an interesting backdrop and if Ybarra had left it there, her debut would have been a worthy non-fiction read about a tumultuous time in Spanish history. What elevates it to the status of novel is the second, more developed narrative about the death of Ybarra’s mother from cancer in 2011. Using the same sparse but vivid prose, the author documents the process from diagnosis to death six months later in a bid to remember her mother and, again, to reclaim her story from its public obituary.
The book reads like a pilgrimage for both grandfather and mother, particularly the latter as the author literally revisits the waiting room of a New York hospital a year after her mother’s death and travels to places her mother had wanted to see when she was alive. As such, the quote from Robert Walser’s The Walk that appears a number of times in the book fits beautifully: “To lie here inconspicuous in the cool forest earth must be sweet. That one might still sense and enjoy death even in death!”
While there is little to enjoy about the news that a cancer initially thought to be curable has had a silent metastasis, the mother’s grace and courage in the face of death is captured by her daughter: “She found acceptance in the time it took her to eat the yoghurt on her meal tray.”
The ode to a much-loved mother recalls the American author Zinzi Clemmons’ debut from last year What We Lose. Ybarra employs a similar style by incorporating online content from Google searches and other media into her story. The tone of her debut has the conversational appeal of a really well written blog; it makes the reader think about the subjects and connect with their plight. From the glamorous consultant in New York who initially makes her mother feel like “a piece of garbage”, to the side effects of chemo, to the restrictive protein rich diet, the illness is meticulously documented: “Now she only liked soft, cold food and she was eating gelatin from a bowl.”
In an excellent translation from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer, the writing sparkles throughout, despite Ybarra’s initial difficulties: “When I tried to get to the heart of who she was, everything I wrote seemed irrelevant. My ideas changed by the day or according to circumstances. Sometimes I was sad, because I felt that I hadn’t been able to encompass her nuances.”
Although short on word count, by the end of The Dinner Guest, Ybarra has done herself and her family proud in a story that is full of light and shade: “My mother wasn’t three paragraphs long, or six. My mother was warmth and presence. Goodness and light. My mother was all of the things that are said about the dead but in her case they were true.”
After her grandfather was assassinated by Basque separatists in 1977, Ybarra’s family never talked about it. Using fiction to fill in the gaps, debut novel The Dinner Guest is up for the Man Booker International prize
Wed 11 Apr 2018 15.51
When the Spanish writer Gabriela Ybarra heard she had been nominated for the Man Booker International prize, she could hardly believe it. “I had just fed the baby and was going to take a nap,” she says, her four-month-old son gurgling and squawking on her knee, as she speaks at her home in Madrid. “I was super-relaxed. Then I read the email from my UK editor and I couldn’t sleep, because I was so excited.”
The novel that has put this debut author alongside literary stars such as Laurent Binet, Han Kang and László Krasznahorkai is The Dinner Guest, a bold examination of silence and mortality that explores her grandfather’s murder at the hands of Basque separatists in 1977, and her mother’s death from cancer in 2011. The novel was born from Ybarra’s frustration with her mother’s obituaries, and her own struggle to capture the woman she loved in prose.
“I didn’t know how to tell the story of my mother without sounding super-cheesy,” she says, “because all I could think of was good memories.” As she thought about the six months between diagnosis and death, she was struck by her mother’s calm in the face of her imminent end. Ybarra found her acceptance hard to understand. “I thought that death was something completely new to me … When I looked back, I realised that I had lived surrounded by death, but I just couldn’t see it.”
Born into one of Vizcaya’s most illustrious families in 1913, Ybarra’s grandfather Javier fought for the Nationalists in the Spanish civil war and served as mayor of Bilbao from 1963 to 1969. When four Eta militants arrived at his house carrying machine guns in 1977, they handcuffed his children to a bed and bundled him into a car. His body was discovered in a mountain gully a month later.
The family was still under threat when Ybarra was born in 1983, and throughout her childhood – a bomb arrived in the post at their Madrid apartment in 2002 – but nobody ever talked about it.
“Talking about terrorism was completely taboo,” she says. “Although the problem existed and there were bombs exploding every other day, people just pretended nothing was happening.” The silence surrounding the violence in the Basque country extended even to her own family: “In my family there still is a taboo. I didn’t dare ask anybody about [my grandfather] until the book was published.”
Instead of talking to her relatives, Ybarra trawled through newspaper archives for answers that would help her understand her family history – where she came from and who she was. But there were gaps in the media coverage of her grandfather’s assassination, and Ybarra was left with only her imagination to fill them in. “I always tried to be faithful to what I thought would have happened and I tried to make it look as real as possible,” she says, “but many, many passages are completely made up.”
In the second half, where Ybarra turns to her mother’s death, fact and fiction remain difficult to tease apart. “You are always relying on memory and memory tricks you all the time,” she says. “When my sisters and my dad read the book they constantly said ‘This didn’t happen that way, we didn’t go to that place,’ or ‘This wasn’t like that’.”
Readers always want to know how much a work of literature is real, she says, but “the truth is that for me, as a writer, it doesn’t matter. I just want the book to work by itself. The story of the book belongs to the book and real life is something different.”
After ignoring her family’s close acquaintance with death for so long, the act of imagination required to write a novel has made it seem more real. “We live in an equilibrium between fiction and nonfiction, because if we were always aware of all the dangers we have around us, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy anything, we would always be scared,” she says. “Sometimes you have to escape … The problem is that, in my case, I had escaped too much.”
The short, declarative sentences of Natasha Wimmer’s translation reflect the direct, minimalist prose of the Spanish original, a style Ybarra chose partly to allow her some distance: “I was so involved emotionally that in order to understand how it had affected me I needed to take a step back and try to analyse everything as if I were a surgeon.”
Her father was furious when she showed him the manuscript; why, he asked, had she written about something that hadn’t really hurt him? “He had the pain so encapsulated he was convinced he hadn’t suffered,” she says. “After that, he spent two weeks crying.” At first she feared it would wreck their relationship, but instead “it was the opposite. It opened a new channel of communication that had been blocked.”
The Dinner Guest is opening other doors for Ybarra: its Man Booker International longlisting offers her a chance to find readers beyond her Spanish-language audience. “Other countries always look to what is translated into English, so you get more possibilities to get translated into other languages if you are translated into English. [The Booker listing] opens up the world. It’s very exciting.”
The Dinner Guest by Gabriela Ybarra is published by Vintage.