Brendan Riley translating Juan Gómez Bárcena

Good Intentions

Every morning Mom wakes me up with her shouting and through her tears asks me where Dad is. Our little farce commences in that very moment––while I dress or bathe her I tell her any old thing that comes to mind. That Dad will be right back in a few minutes or maybe that he already died, many years ago.

Mom has that strange look on her face when I answer her, that way of saying yes and no at the same time. But in the end she always nods––even on the days when I’m only her nurse––and with her eyes half-closed she asks me where my bathrobe is. She always says yes because there’s no reason for her to stubbornly cling to saying no, no flimsy memory that denies that we’re at war or that her other daughter––your little girl, Mom, don’t you remember––was finally devoured by cancer.

She has long white hair, a thin pale mane that takes me a long time to untangle. And I use those empty minutes to tell her some story about the past, weaving a truth that might be any truth, because any one is just as good as another––whatever ours was, I forgot it a long time ago. She listens in silence, staring at me, her eyes round with astonishment. She asks no questions. No question is possible when nothing is certain. She doesn’t even open her mouth to complain when the comb gets snagged in her hair, because I just repeat to her that pretty little girls don’t cry when they get their hair pulled.

Sometimes I remember Mom’s dreams, the ones she had before she got sick, before she forgot all those things she would have liked to have been. And I repeat them to her in every detail. I tell her that she was a scholarship student, that she didn’t get married so young, that Dad never said all those things. I tell her that the world outside is doing much better than she thinks. But the fact is that Mom doesn’t think at all and she simply stares at the closed venetian blinds, shrugs her shoulders, and smiles. She doesn’t think of anything because it’s enough for her to know that I graduated first in my class or that I’m about to close a business deal somewhere so far away that I need a plane ticket to get there. And then there are also those lucky days when we win a million dollars in the lottery and we’ve got so much money that we could buy any old thing we like, except today is Sunday and all the shops are closed.

Mom smiles on any of those days when everything is perfect. But there are also days that begin differently. Days when I wake up with a strange taste in my mouth or I get another one of those tremendous migraine headaches. And suddenly things just don’t seem quite so easy to me. Something prevents me from inventing another story about the past that sounds just the way Mom would have liked it to be. Something that seems a lot like rancor or envy. Envy for that comfortable existence that consists in waking up fresh each day, always ready to hear anew what a success your life has been. The same beauty again and again ad infinitum. After all, my real life, that life I sometimes remember, was never easy or wonderful. It’s then when I feel that unbearable migraine that I can’t do anything about. Mom shouts from her room, crying for Dad, asking where he is all over again, and I surprise myself by telling her that she threw him out of the house years ago. Or that he died, or that he’s in the room next to hers and doesn’t want to see her. Or that I’m his mistress and it’s me whom he really loves.           

Of course I love Mom; and I sympathize with her condition. But it’s not easy to take care of her day after day with the same spirit as if nothing were going on, as if time didn’t exist and we were back inside her photographs of a forgotten childhood. What I mean is that every time my migraine surges back I know it’s going to be a hard day for us, that I’m going to say some terrible thing that I’ll regret later on, or simply that our past will be unbearable all over again. Maybe I was never really born. Maybe my mother’s whole family died in some bloody war whose name I invent. Maybe Mom never met Dad: you think you remember that you did, but it’s not true, Mom; it’s only another one of your dreams. And she stays silent in that way she does when she believes absolutely everything. Also, when I tell her but of course you love mashed potatoes, Mom, and while she makes an effort to choke them down, I feel how she trembles and struggles with herself, with her revulsion, with her traitorous tastebuds. Or I point to her sick leg and I tell her nothing’s wrong with your leg, and I make her walk up and down the hallway while she grits her teeth and tries not to show any sign of the agonizing pain. The next day she wakes up with her leg all purple from the effort. Her exhaustion is the perfect excuse to tell her that everything really is pointless, that the accident that killed Dad many years ago also left her crippled. Mom looks at me again in that strange way, because she tries to remember but her memory is nothing but the same blind wall without any windows.

Sometimes the game consists of precisely the opposite: in not doing, in not saying absolutely anything. First thing in the morning I hide from her and pay no attention when she shouts and cries. Even when she drags herself out of bed and ends up with bloody gashes on her wrists. With great effort, she totters all around the house but nobody’s there and she doesn’t recognize a thing. Her most recent memories are thirty or forty years old, so I smile when I think about how each new piece furniture forces her to confront a painful, incomprehensible oddity, like a strange artifact from a science fiction movie. Her favorite place is the bathroom. The fixtures are old, probably at least as old as those memories of hers, and the bare pipes are even made of lead. There she hugs the toilet bowl or the sink and, pressing her forehead against the marble, screams until she loses her voice. Sometimes she cries out for Dad; sometimes she remembers my name or her own mother’s name. I deliberately leave a calendar next to the mirror. A calendar that might be current or perhaps, as necessary, one from the past, or even a fake one showing some unbelievable date from the distant future. Mom reads 2374 and repeats it to herself again and again while she clutches the sink weeping, because she understands that she surely must be dead already. At some point she falls asleep, fainting from hunger or thirst: her anguish must surely be immense. Later she wakes up in some part of the house and then I appear, her savior. I help her sit up and I say to her, Mom, you fell asleep, and after you told me that you’d help me peel the potatoes this time.

Other days I lower all the blinds and switch off the electricity. I enter her room in the dark, clapping my hands all the while. Time for school, I tell her, time for school, get dressed now or you’ll be late. I try to make my voice sound different, but it doesn’t really matter, because as I’ve already said, Mom accepts everything I tell her. Who are you, she asks me, and I reply very casually that I’m Mom, why aren’t you getting up. She takes a few moments to answer, because my mom is no idiot and she must remember vaguely that her mother died when she was a very little girl. But I don’t give her time to think. I caress her white hair, her wrinkles, and her flaccid breasts, and I say to her, Darling, you’re going to be late for school, get up now I’ve already prepared your breakfast for you. She doesn’t know what to say. She vaguely murmurs something about my father, about her daughter, but I leave her no room for doubt, and I tell her here you go again with that absurd nightmare about your husband and your daughter. Finally she accepts the fact that I’m Mom and she’s seven years old. Then she kisses me. She calls me sweet names that make me laugh. She also tells me that she has a math test at school that day. I give her a kiss and then I sit up, switch on the lights, and raise the blinds. I hold a mirror up to her face.

But I love Mom. What I mean is that I want the best for her. Especially those days when my head isn’t killing me. I know that I love her because sometimes I’ve listened to her cry––maybe I told her that she has cancer or that her little girl drowned in the bathtub; the little girl in her head who must surely be me––and when I’ve heard her crying I feel like something inside me is breaking. It only happens very, very rarely, but when it does I can’t stop hugging her and I need to be sincere. I need to tell the truth for once, because I’ve repainted the past so many times that it’s now like we never had any or, on the contrary, that we had every past you could imagine. So I look her in the eyes and I tell her everything. I tell her about my migraines, about her illness, the reason why I lower the blinds and why I don’t answer the phone or the doorbell when they ring. I tell her that some days I invent a perfect past for her and on other ones I feel like I’ve got to make her memory a living hell. I also explain that I surely must seem cruel, but in the end it’s not all my fault: that in a certain way it’s the past that chooses me, that calls to me each morning. I tell her that in these years I’ve learned that the truth doesn’t exist, that the truth has to be reinvented every day––and that sometimes the truth surges up from one simple headache, or from a hopeless whirling nausea in my stomach.

Mom doesn’t say anything. She only listens in silence and smiles or half-closes her eyes. She looks at me in a completely different way than usual. For the first time she doesn’t believe me. It’s strange to realize how sometimes the truth is harder to accept than a lie. At first she doesn’t believe me, and she lolls her head because everything is absurd, but suddenly something changes in her expression. It’s a look of horror or surprise. Perhaps it’s because at last she remembers, that she suddenly sees something in my face that that startles her, something she had never seen before. For a moment she looks me in the eyes, and in her gaze I see certain memories that I promised to never name again. In an instant her expression is more terrible, more unhinged than on the days when, with tears in her eyes, she hears me explain how the Cold War finally erupted and we’re the only survivors left on Earth. And then it happens. For a moment her strength returns to her body. She pulls away from my arms, she flails at me until she manages to claw at my face or my breast; she scratches me, spits at me, and screams horrible things at me that she might never have imagined before getting sick, none of which I take seriously because I pity her condition. She bites me with her toothless mouth or she simply goes running down the hallway; she runs despite her bad leg, in spite of her big heavy shoes and the trembling in her knees; she runs to the door that’s bolted shut or clutches wildly for the telephone. The poor thing doesn’t remember that it’s been disconnected all these years.

Mom pounds on the door over and over again. She screams things that no neighbor will ever be able to hear. She slowly starts to understand that the phone is disconnected and the door is locked tight. Sooner or later she’ll forget everything that I’ve told her. She keeps banging on the door but her energy is spent, along with her hope, and when she’s finally overcome by the pain in her leg she lets herself slide down to the floor. There she cries long enough to forget what she’s doing there on the carpet. And when I see that that moment has arrived I slowly count to twenty and then I go to her side, I caress her head and sweetly ask her why are you crying, Mom, and with her voice raspy from screaming and crying she answers I don’t remember, and keeps on crying. Then I wrap her in my arms, I hug her tightly and I forgive her for all those things I don’t remember and that perhaps I invent. It’s as if I suddenly feel an infinite compassion for her bad leg and I can’t help starting to cry myself. We cry together. We cry in silence for days gone by: for all our yesterdays, and for tomorrow as well. And for a moment I fold my hands together and I wish with all my might that tomorrow will be a different kind of day. A day without migraines or bad tastes in my mouth. A day when there is one single truth that we can confront face to face. And that truth can be any lie properly told. After all, knowing that something was true never really did us much good anyway.

Translator’s Note

Juan Gómez Bárcena’s “Good Intentions” is a powerful, melancholy, darkly comical story of family entrapment in the face of aging and senility, and a daughter’s weakness against the temptation to enact revenge for past wrongs both remembered and perceived as she struggles, alternately, between being her crazy mother’s caretaker and tormentor. And while the narrator wryly confesses the mental cruelty she routinely visits upon her mother, the story is much more than its masque of black humor; akin to the bleak meditations of Beckett and Pinter, “Good Intentions” is about humans’ unenviable, Sisyphean labor to maintain clarity and make peace with the reality of corporeal decay and its attendant physical suffering while confronting the shibboleth of truth. It is an excursion into the quagmire of subjectivity famously explored by Thomas Hobbes in Chapter II of Leviathan, “Of Imagination”: “imagination and memory are but one thing, which for divers considerations hath divers names.”  For some readers, the story may also resound as a very dark echo of Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory.” But where Capote’s famously poignant tale features two people––a young boy and his older, female cousin––essentially alone together, bound by mutual affection, and protecting each other’s souls from the spite of unloving relatives, Gómez’s nightmarish narrative memorably imagines the weird, disturbing solitude of mutual entrapment and the perpetual battle it engenders, something akin to what William Faulkner in his tragic tale “Barn Burning” laments as “the old fierce pull of blood,” the humbling, horrifying, sometimes fatal, truth that we are born into an inexorable, lifelong confrontation with our gene pool, forever groping between who we think we are and how our family defines us.

Translating a story like this one entails dwelling a while, willingly, inside its house of horrors. To a certain degree, familiar territory. I grew up in a very large, spooky old pre-Civil War era house. Ghosts? Unquestionably. But ever more powerful is the effect that large, old, open, lonely inner spaces have on the mind and memory because they provide an almost infinitely interchangeable set of interconnected spaces through which to move and imagine, searching and being followed at the same time. Add, to many echoing, dusty, high-ceilinged rooms, various attics and a labyrinthine basement once used as a stop on the Underground Railroad and, well, when you encounter a story like “Good Intentions” it feels like stepping through the front door after baseball practice, familiar environs, that is; but actually inhabiting that unhappy place for a while is not not always easy because this is someone else’s intimate creation and, as translator, I have to explore it rather closely and allow myself, authorize myself to write down words, phrases, emotions, scenes that are seriously disturbing; it’s a process of discovery and revelation, and of coming to terms with all that; writing something, and having to write it clearly, deliberately, precisely, and then revisiting it, something that I would probably never have thought of or written myself, can be an odd feeling; revealing all that, committing to having a relationship with that text and then putting my translator’s byline on it. All a bit surreal.                      

In terms of actually translating, after the initial reading, it’s a process of gradual and increasing familiarity, building up the translation sort of like the way forensic model makers add layers and bits and pieces to a skull in order to create a bust, and trying to recreate the face of a person whom they will never really see, working through several drafts, checking for errors, reading aloud, listening to the voice come to life, trying to feel that it’s convincing until the time comes to surrender it, and then wait to hear back after other eyes and ears have taken a crack at discovering its character.

This is the only story by Juan Gómez Bárcena that I’ve translated, and I can’t speak to his immediate influences. Nor can I pinpoint codified or canonical precedents but it certainly reminds me of, and unnerves me like quite a few other stories I’ve read from the world of Spanish-language literature. I think of the spiraling claustrophobia of Borges’ detective story “Death and Compass” with its pathological relationship between Eric Lönnrot and Red Scharlach, and Antonio Ungar’s novel Tres ataudes blancs (Three White Coffins). I think of the cruelty that saturates and defines the relationship between a father and son in Ana María Shúa’s knife-edged novel Death as a Side-effect.  Finally, I think of the coldness of Albert Camus’ Mersault (obviously from French literature, not Spanish) and the ludicrous, terrifying closed-house scenarios found in some stories by Julio Cortázar, such as “Bestiary,” where children try to survive in a house where a tiger sometimes roams free, and the fascinating but disturbing and inescapable möbius strip of “Continuity of Parks.”

Brendan Riley holds degrees in English from Santa Clara University and Rutgers University. An ATA Certified Translator of Spanish to English, he has also earned certificates in Translation Studies from U.C. Berkeley, and Applied Literary Translation from the University of Illinois. Riley’s translations include Álvaro Enrigue’s acclaimed Hypothermia, and Juan Filloy’s 1937 modernist epic novel Caterva, as well as the travelogue Sunrise in Southeast Asia by Carmen Grau, and The Bible: Living Dialogue, a religious and spiritual roundtable by Pope Francis, Marceloa Figueroa, and Abraham Skorka. Recent translations include Carlos Fuentes’ The Great Latin American Novel, an expansive, nonfiction survey of the genre, and Antagony–Book I: Recounting by Spanish novelist Luis Goytisolo, both published by Dalkey Archive Press.

Spanish author Juan Gómez Bárcena (b. Santander, 1984) holds degrees in Literary Theory and Comparative Literature, Philosophy, and History. His 2014 novel El cielo de Lima (Translated as The Sky Over Lima, by Andrea Rosenburg) won the Ojo Crítico de Narrativa prize from Spain’s Radio Nacional. His 2012 book of short stories Los que duermen was named one of the best literary debuts of 2012 by El Mundo’s El Cultural magazine, and also received the Premio la Tormenta al Mejor Autor Revelación award. He also edited the anthology Bajo treinta, a collection of short stories by young Spanish writers.