Andrés Barba is on stage at Green Apple Books to speak about his novella Such Small Hands. By stage, I mean a wooden fold-out table barely large enough for two people. The interviewer is Yiyun Li, who’s just returned from Moscow. She clutches her Starbucks grande cup as if palpating the carton will bring her back to life. Barba speaks of his wife but not of any children. So why has a forty-something man written a novella about 7 year old girls? Some identity politics fanatics might call it appropriation. I think it’s brilliant writing.
Let’s not blame the current US President for inspiring Such Small Hands. The idea came from a murderous incident at a girls’ orphanage in 1960s Brazil. Edmund White, author of the Afterword to Such Small Hands, lays the link between Barba and Jean Genet. The 20th century French playwright wrote The Maids after reading a newspaper account of two maids who kill their mistress.
As fate would have it, I saw The Maids performed last night by Toneelgroep Amsterdam. Now I know that newspapers are not the only link between Such Small Hands and The Maids. A game stands central in both works. And that game, as twisted as it must be, is in essence an act of love.
the mind of a child
Do 7 year old girls love? Barba believes they do. Children have the power of subtle thought, he says. What they lack is the means to express their feelings. And so he does it for them. Barba gives voice to the childish mind in words that can be shockingly beautiful.
Such Small Hands opens with a cataclysmic accident. 7 year old Marina is the accident’s sole witness. The doctors come to give her the news.
“Marina, your father died instantly and your mother died just now.”
They’d laid everything out beside her, ready for a panic attack, but the attack didn’t come. Marina was still watching the words as if they were an airplane, flying from one end of the hospital room to the other.
Marina is sent to an orphanage for girls. Barba reassures us that single-sex institutions no longer exist. Not so! I am a product of an all-girls high school and that school is very much still alive and kicking. In my day, there were boarders at the school who I imagined to be just as Ludwig Bemelmans described Madeline:
In two straight lines they broke their bread and brushed their teeth and went to bed.
The girls at the orphanage lead similarly regimented lives. Their days are scheduled; their appearance homogenized. Barba expresses their one-ness in the creepiest possible way: by using the voice of the Greek chorus. Here, the orphans anticipate Marina’s arrival.
Some of us thought she’d be big, others said she’d be our size; some said she’d be very pretty, others didn’t think so. Her first triumph was this: we were no longer all the same.
Marina is the Outsider. She has memories none of the others can share. It’s only a matter of time before they turn on her. Yet the crudeness of the act belies the combustible mixture of hatred and love that inspires it.
One Wednesday night we stole Marina’s doll […] Now she was unprotected, like us. Now she tried to love, and her hunger had no object […]
“Give her back, give me my doll back,” she said.
So we gave her a leg. We broke it off.
And we wanted to say: this is so you’ll look at us. It was easy to love her again then.
Chilling, heart-rending, magnificent.