Published by Other Press on August 28, 2012
“Like a black angel of memory, almost every tale, every occurrence finds an echo inside the walls of the barrio.” The Barcelona Brothers (from which this quotation is drawn) tells a story of intertwined lives, of barrio residents reacting to the echo of a dramatic event that will force them to reexamine their desperate lives.
The novel opens with the mother of all bar fights. Tanveer Hussein loses. His assailant, Epi Dalmau, flees. Epi’s brother Alex, a medicated schizophrenic, witnesses the killing, as does Salva, the bar’s owner. Rumors spread around the barrio about the cause and perpetrator of the assault on Tanveer, all of them wrong. As the story progresses, glimpses of the past alternate with snatches of the present, providing clues to Epi’s motive for attacking Tanveer. That Tanveer deserves to die becomes increasingly apparent as his violent life is revealed, yet Epi seems an unlikely assassin.
The story drifts from past to present, from one damaged character to another. Whether they are central to the story or playing a bit part, the characters are unique and unforgettable. Tiffany Brisette, Tanveer’s girlfriend, is driven by the need to feel empowered. She thinks she can control the game when she’s with a man because she’s the only one who knows they’re playing a game. Her sister Jamelia, a little slow and befuddled by life (and by far the novel’s sweetest character), is convinced that God will eventually punish Tiffany for being mean to everyone. Aging part-time sex worker Rocío Baeza just wants to stay alive while she supplements her family’s income. Allawi, like barbers everywhere, is the barrio’s central repository of gossip.
Carlos Zanón writes with insight and sensitivity about hopeless and forgotten lives. His characters are incapable of planning or of achieving goals because in their lives “one thing knocks away another, like in a billiards game.” Their aspirations are simple -- a stable relationship, a job, a good life -- but unattainable. Although they seem destined to make bad choices, it’s not clear that good choices are ever available. They are prisoners of their own fatalism. They live together but they are alone, “their hearts withered by solitude.”
The barrio itself is virtually a character. This isn’t the Barcelona of fashion models, art museums, and trendy tapas bars, where happy tourists play on white sand beaches. It is a gritty place where dreams shatter like the windows of abandoned cars, a locked warehouse that isolates the poor and the mentally ill and the drug addicted, a place where the criminal underclass allies with the Arab immigrants who are shunned elsewhere.
Zanón’s powerful prose builds and maintains teeth-clenching tension as the story moves to a conclusion that the reader will both anticipate and dread. It seems inevitable that at least one luckless life will end tragically, yet the final chapters leave room for the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Some readers will dislike the uncertainty, the feeling that the novel isn’t quite finished, but I appreciated the respite it offered from the sense of impending doom that pervades much of the story.
Although I loved The Barcelona Brothers, I recognize that many readers will not. If you are looking for humor and warmth, look elsewhere. If you do not like a book unless you like the characters, if you believe fictional characters should always learn lessons or experience moral transformations, this is not the book for you. The world doesn't always work that way, and The Barcelona Brothers reflects that reality.
It is a tribute to Zanón that he made me care so much about such disagreeable people. If, like me, you appreciate strong and uncompromising writing that examines the hearts and minds of realistic (albeit broken) characters in dark settings, you will find much to admire in The Barcelona Brothers.