Quick! Name a novel written by a Spaniard. Any Spaniard. I’m not talking Latin American literature. Mario Vargas Llosa and Gabriel Garcia Marquez don’t count. Tapas eating, conquistador descended, European Spaniards only. Is the novel Don Quixote? If it’s not Don Quixote, why are you lying? Go to the bookstore of your choice. Aside from the somehow still hilarious 1605 novel by Miguel de Cervantes, novels translated into English written by Spaniards are few and far between, at least here in the states. You’ll likely find novels by Hemingway set in Spain, or maybe see a copy of George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, but for the most part, translations of Spanish works come from writers in Latin America. What works you do find, all tend to revolve around the same topic: The Spanish Civil War.
This isn’t a bad thing. It’s tragic and it’s complicated. The Spanish Civil War lasted three years and led to an eventual forty-some odd year dictatorship under the fascist Francisco Franco. Fighters from all over the world came to Spain to join the Republican army opposing Franco. The fought valiantly, lost badly and in many cases, died heroically. Fascist forces using planes and bombs sent by Mussolini destroyed the town of Guernica, later portrayed by Pablo Picasso. Ernest Hemingway and John Dos Passos traveled with film crews to capture the carnage. George Orwell was straight up shot in the neck by a Fascist sniper. This conflict, usually presented as a footnote on the road to World War II, punches above its weight class in terms of romance, violence and the characters that took part in it. Reading about it can send you down a rabbit hole, but when most of the Spanish literature you have access to focuses solely on that, it can wear you down.
Today’s book was difficult to find. It required a deep Google dive into Spanish novels and could only be acquired by an Amazon order. No Barnes & Noble within 100 miles of Boston had a copy. It’s a look at 1990’s Barcelona seen through the eyes of a literal alien. It’s a social satire that’s premise was so outrageous I had to get it and read it immediately. This is No Word From Gurb by Eduardo Mendoza.
The story of No Word From Gurb is as simple as it gets when it comes to aliens landing on Earth. Our unnamed narrator is the alien captain of a small ship that lands in 1990’s Barcelona. He is looking for his sole crewmate and lackey, Gurb, who went to Earth on a scouting mission and hasn’t been seen since. He is a being made of, in his words, ‘pure intellect’ that is able to take any physical form he desires. He has access to the complete scientific and cultural knowledge of human civilization and is able to track any statistic he wants, from local temperatures to wind speeds to ocean levels at a moment’s notice. He finds a suitable human appearance (a long dead Spanish aristocrat called the ‘Duke of Olivares’) and leaves his ship, only for his head to fall off and roll into the street, because he was unaware human heads are attached at the neck.
This joke sets up the majority of interactions our narrator has with Earth and its inhabitants on his search for Gurb. For all the knowledge he has, our narrator displays a lack of ability to contextualize the information at his disposal. He eats money given to him when a passerby thinks he’s a beggar so as not to be rude. He discovers a love of churros and eats them by the pound, unaware that the vast quantities he can consume terrify the mere mortals around him. When seeking to open a bank account, he takes the form of the Pope because he is the most ‘trustworthy’ human in his database and causes a panic at the local bank branch. At one point, he walks so long and so fast that his legs wear out like tires and fall off. Our narrator understands how humans look, but he’s unable to create a human form that replicates the intricacies of our inner systems.
The book is made up entirely of episodes like this, told in the form of a Star Trek style captain’s log. An alien walks around Barcelona, engages in shenanigans, repeat. He takes a human form, let’s say for instance, of the actor Gary Cooper in a cowboy costume, walks around a neighborhood is database tells him is ‘bad,’ and is robbed of his hat and sheriff badge by rowdy teenagers. He is then picked up by police and promptly beaten up by them. Through these interactions, our hero makes snide comments about everything in modern society from celebrity culture and wealth inequality, to commuting and how bad Ford Fiestas are. Its main strength lies in Mendoza’s ability to present 1990’s Spain through the eyes of a literal stranger to human society. All the little quirks and small hypocrisies of everyday life are pilloried by a little green man who only half understands what’s going on. When our narrator rigs a lottery ticket to get himself money, he then overspends on everything from 600 lbs of churros to a bag of spark plugs in order to ‘blend in’ with the consumerist culture he sees around him. When he develops a crush in his neighbor, he torments her at all hours of the night asking for cups of sugar and other foodstuffs, because the sitcoms in his database tell them that’s how you get a girls’ attention. The book is essentially a novel version of shows like Mork and Mindy or Invader Zim, but told from the point of view of the alien, rather than the humans that have to deal with him.
As a social commentary, the focus is more on modern society as a whole than Spanish culture specifically. Sure, our hero likes to eat six libs of churros in a sitting and get blitzed on red wine, but that’s just something every tourist in Spain does. Aside from a few references to local architecture and Spanish cultural figures, this book could take place in any major human city. Wherever apartments are small and traffic congestion is the norm, this guy will be walking around in the form of a celebrity befriending old drunks and leaving $8,000 tips at coffee chops (both of which he does in this book). For all the mockery our narrator heaps on human society, the tone of the book is good natured and happy, as our hero likes more things about Earth than he hates. He comes from a world where his species are essentially born as adults and implanted with all the knowledge they need for their assigned roles in life. The freedom he is allowed to engage in on Earth, from eating and drinking to making friends and terrorizing dogs endears our planet to him, making the book less a search for a missing friend, and more a discovery of the beautiful potentials of human society and all its absurdities. Gurb turns up eventually, but the shenanigans along the way are the true strength of the novel.
Quote of the Book:
“13:00 The standing position I have forced my body to adopt for five hours has left me exhausted. Muscular strain plus the continuous effort I have to make to breath air in and out. I once forgot to do so for more than five minutes. My face turned bright purple; my eyes came out on stalks, and I had to go and recover them from under the wheels of passing cars. If this goes on, I am going to attract attention to myself.” –Eduardo Mendoza
Keep or Donate:
This book isn’t some grand social critique. The jokes are dry and land with the air of a grumpy observational comedian more than some stuffy critic. Though the observations aren’t deep, they are very funny and the situations Mendoza builds for his alien narrator are endlessly entertaining. I spent the majority of this small book cackling to myself, which eventually convinced my fiancé to pick up the book once I finished it. The laughs one gets alone makes this book worth the purchase, and its relative obscurity, at least in America, make it a conversation peace on your bookshelf. Keep it so that you can eventually pass it off to every friend you have so they can share in the laughs. It’s absolutely hilarious.