Out in the Open: A Novel by Jesús Carrasco, translated by Margaret Jull Costa (New York: Riverhead Books, 2015, originally published in 2013. 240 pp)
Jesús 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, his debut novel, 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 Marías—for more than twenty years.
Every Story Needs Salt and Pepper
The motifs sitting just underneath the surface of a story tell us how to feel. When a character goes from point A to point B, the reader or viewer—depending on medium—will have different emotions depending on these background elements.
A story focusing on lightheartedness in its dialogue, and in the warm tones it might choose if it’s on film, will convey a parent dying with stark difference from a story with sparse language and consistent reminders of death in its surroundings. The plot point is the same; the audience feels different.
Motifs act as the salt and pepper of a narrative, they give it particular flavor.
Motifs come front of mind when considering Jesus Carrasco’s Out in the Open. The story is bleak. It feels McCarthy, like The Road meets Blood Meridian.
But a couple of motifs transform a survival story and color its bleakness. Namely, Carrasco’s insistence on reiterating urination and sleep constantly.
Out in the Open illustrates a dystopian existence where climate change determines extreme drought conditions.
For reasons never explicit but nevertheless openly intuited, a boy has run away from his village. He faces relentless pursuit from the bailiff and his henchman.
“Although he had not as yet spent one whole day on the run, he knew that more than enough time had passed for fear already to be racing through the village streets toward his parents’ house, an invisible torrent that would carry all the women of the village along with it to form a pool around his mother, who would be lying limply on her bed, her face as wrinkled as an old potato” (15-16).
The boy’s pack of snacks provides little long-term sustenance, especially considering the magnitude of this vast, arid plain to which he has escaped.
A chance encounter with an elderly goatherd provides hope for the boy; if the two can team up, maybe—just maybe—the two can survive this harsh existence.
The age dynamics of the goatherd and the boy, coupled with the pure evil of the bailiff provide an easy template for a reader to see the links to The Road and Blood Meridian.
But, to me, the clearest link to Cormac McCarthy’s oeuvre rests on Carrasco’s stylistic motifs. With prose focused on gritty humanism, Carrasco strategically elaborates on certain mundane details that would many authors would avoid creating a different tonality to this story.
Namely, when a character needs to go. A character is going to go. Urination plays two functions in the story, however. For one, it becomes a key metric for considering survival. You need enough water to expel it from your system. Second, urine spoils any hope of cleansing. The further the protagonist moves from safe harbor, the dirtier, grittier, and smellier he becomes. Urine houses this narrative in realism.
“Nothing, not even the hours spent underground of the teacher’s urine still sticky in his hair or the hunger which was, for the first time, pricking him hard, nothing was enough now to weaken his resolve, because the black flower of his family’s betrayal still gnawed at his stomach. He fell asleep” (7).
Additionally and as you can see from the above quotation, a realistic narrative must account for the circadian rhythms of the human body. We all need to sleep. That said, midday naps encounter an increased danger when shelter is non-existent, and shade hard to find.
The punishing heat means life threatening danger if the body fails its attempts at wakefulness at the wrong time of day. It’s not just sunburn that becomes a concern.
For all the punishment in reading such a book, it transitions to a note of hope, no matter how faint in the distance. Spoilers for those that care, but Carrasco completes this book with one of my all-time favorite concluding lines.
“Then he went back and stood in the doorway for as long as the rain lasted, watching as God temporarily slackened the screws on his torment” (226).
This book is a must read.
Verdict: 5 out of 5