Andrés Barba


Andrés Barba (1975, Madrid) studied Spanish philology and philosophy and went on to teach at Bowdoin College in Maine in the US. Barba made his debut at twenty with the novel El hueso que más duele (1997), which won him the Premio Ramón J. Sender. His second novel La Hermana de Katia was nominated for the prestigious Premio Herralde de Novela in 2001. The novel was made into the film Katia's Sister by the Dutch director Mijke de Jong in 2008. Barba's third novel, La recta intención (2002) is a collection of four stories about fear of commitment and abandonment. In the novel Ahora tocad música de baile (2004), Barba effectively uses gaps in the story to illustrate the development of Alzheimer in the protagonist. His novel Versiones de Teresa (2006) was awarded the Torrente Ballester Award. His latest novel Las manos pequeñas came out in 2008. His work has been translated into English, Dutch, French, German, Serbian and Italian. 

Andrés Barba is writer in residence at the invitation of Het beschrijf, his stay is supported by a HALMA grant which was made possible by the Spanish Ministry of Culture on occasion of the Spanish EU Council Presidency in 2010.


Authors' text

Nele's face

A few days before travelling from Madrid to Brussels I visited the Prado Museum with a painter friend to look at some Velázquez portraits we'd been arguing about, and once again I was surprised not only by the mastery with which they had been executed, but also by how skilfully the artist had portrayed those features that to me seemed as if they could only be Spanish.  It wasn't just that these were still recognizable faces, or that the water seller of Seville looked more or less like the baker in my neighbourhood in Madrid, but rather the possibility - much more interesting by the way - that it might be possible for an entire nation to be embodied in one face.

A few days before leaving Brussels, Ilke Froyen from the cultural association Passa Porta asks me to write a short piece about my stay here, and suddenly I remember that visit to the Prado. ‘A text about what?' I ask. ‘About whatever you like, about Brussels, about Belgium.' ‘Can it be a description?' ‘Of course.' And then, without knowing why, I thought I'd already discovered my topic: Nele's face. A malicious person might think that I fancy Nele and they would not be far wrong, but they wouldn't be totally right either, because that is the irritating quality of the malicious person: to be half right almost all of the time, and also their worst defect. A well-intentioned person might think that I'm describing Nele's face here in the same way Bergman, in that little-known short, describes the face of his mother Karin, like something one loves but which seems to have a sort of hyper-concentrated quality, as if Nele was, for me, Belgium, or Belgium, Nele; just as the water seller of Seville, the last time I saw him in the Prado Museum, seemed mysteriously to me to be the whole of Spain.

The upper part of Nele's face is rounded and plump and her chin is pointed, as if it had been painted in two sittings, or by two different hands. An impatient glance at Nele's face goes straight to her eyes, which have a white, introspective light. (Worry cancels out the expression on Nele's face more than revealing it, as if submerging it, but that's another story.) Behind the apparent calm of the features that make up her face - so difficult to describe in reality, as if they had once been very fine and had been suddenly blurred, or as if someone had drawn with an ink pen over a sketch - her attention has wandered. Nele's face seems only to feign serenity, but it is an emotional face. And it's not her gaze that gives her away, but the fact that she's talking, so it's her lips that have accumulated every expression. And it's well known that lips, like the weather in Belgium, change constantly. In the course of an hour Nele's lips have known almost every kind of expression: they have opened, closed, pursed, spread out. It's as if Nele's smile widened her face, but not in the Mediterranean way (as if opening it up to swallow the world) but rather in a sympathetic, friendly, wise way, as if many ideas were congregating in Nele and they were all compassionate, or maybe lots of Neles, each one of which was capable of comprehending something and all these Neles together had congregated in one single Nele, who is there, in front of me, smiling.

When she concentrates it's as if Nele's face were becoming harder, more impenetrable. (When she's tired it's as if she were concentrating, but that too is another story.) When she is serious her skin becomes whiter, and her eyes once more acquire pre-eminence. Her lips disappear in a fine, thin line, as if hiding beneath her nose, and her eyes recover. They are eyes that don't have the glazed quality of Mediterranean eyes but instead act as a mouth. Nele eats with her eyes, as in my country they say children eat. If Nele's youth and wisdom are in her lips, in her eyes there is a sort of unconscious neutrality. As if it were impossible to know what is happening behind them but one knew for sure that they are devouring things. Looking at Nele's eyes it's possible to hear her inner sound, which doesn't mean at all that one can know what the nature of that sound is. It's obvious that she herself doesn't control her gaze and that sometimes it has landed her in compromising situations by generating misunderstandings: a look that intimidates when she wanted to seduce, or appears inquisitive when she is, simply, attentive. In any case it is a frank and direct gaze; it's not ashamed, but it doesn't tell us anything either; it's absorbing but without giving out any information; it's not inviting, but nor is it evasive.

Nele's face is at its most lovely and compact in a three-quarter view. She has a deceptive profile (as if it belonged to another face), and seen from the front you cannot guess at its depth. Perspective gives her a moving brightness, and suddenly she is there, just like her smile, as if with a single movement Nele's face opened up like a passage or a room. And then you see everything in it, like a cinematographic trick where all the static images that on their own meant nothing are put into motion, and she appears in all her youth and impatience and roundness and beauty.

Translation by Rosalind Harvey, 2010

Rosalind Harvey is a translator of Latin American fiction.

Passa Porta
29.03.10 > 3.05.10

Bookmark and Share Back