I’m a big admirer of Alessandro Baricco‘s prose. Sometimes his plotting gets a bit questionable but I enjoy the journey anyway because his lines are worth it:
Jun Rail’s mouth did not leave you in peace. It simply bored a hole in your imagination. It muddled up your thoughts. ‘One day God drew Jun Rail’s mouth. That’s what gave him that strange idea called sin.’
Lands of Glass
He can describe something without having to really describe it, not even by what I think is conventional figurative language (the slacker in me rejoices), and he achieves this by establishing a very strong, very confident and trustworthy narrative voice that speaks in a consistently economical style. Considering that I read his works in translation, his use of language is a triumph. Strong openings, for one:
Only seldom, and in a way that some people, in those moments, when they saw her, were heard to whisper
“She’ll die of it”
“She’ll die of it”
“She’ll die of it”
“She’ll die of it.”
All around, hills.
My land, thought Baron Carewall.
Futhermore, his narrators all have a tendency to very directly have the reader learn Something About Life but they never come off as preachy because he writes so plainly.
No matter how you try to live just one single life, others will see inside it a thousand more, and this is the reason that you cannot avoid getting hurt.
I read Without Blood last night and I was thinking of how it reminded me of Sandor Marai‘s Embers. It’s been a couple of years back since I read that book (which is why I have a separate tab with a blow-by-blow account of the plot because I’m terrible at remembering that sort of thing) but they’re similar in that they’re short so you’re always anticipating the punch around the corner and they’re both reluctant cat-and-mouse games over the wrongs committed in a bygone era, reluctant because a crucial part of these books is whether or not it still matters to exact revenge when things have already changed so much.
I was very caught up in Embers’ psychological build-up and irony but was a little let down by the ending. Literally handing it to the metaphysical made sense in answering the questions in the character’s heads, but as the final, physical act that tied up a very dramatic and vivid journey, it felt a bit like a cop-out. I remembering thinking, You write a story like that now and end it that way, you’d be poleaxed by the editors (granted, Embers was written in 1942 so that’s a moot point). On the other hand, with a build-up like that, you’d be hard-pressed to find a payoff equal in emotional intensity without resorting to melodrama.
While reading, I wondered if Without Blood was going to end up in the same place because the build-up is even more involving – it makes Embers look very First World Problems (which it actually sort of is, now that I think about it). The viscerality of Without Blood is spartan and efficient.
Salinas placed the gun against one of Roca’s knees. Then he fired. The knee exploded like a piece of fruit.
El Gurre responded instinctively. The machine-gun burst lifted the child up off the floor and hurled him at the wall, in a mess of lead, bone, and blood. Like a bird shot in mid-flight, Tito thought.
Then they set the house on fire with a little girl inside. She survives and spends her life taking revenge on each of the murderers until she meets the last one, who is by now a seventy-year-old man selling newspapers at a kiosk and herself only ten years younger.
The ending is certainly unpredictable, with just enough foreshadowing to keep it from being entirely incredulous, although I think the last two sentences pushed it just a tad too much. Still, the ending can’t match the tension of the first act of the story, although I’m a little less let down here than in Embers. But again I’m made to think, well, what ending could be possibly satisfying to a build-up like that? and I can’t think of any. For a story like that, there’s usually just two options of ending it, but the first option was already looking to be unlikely toward the end, and the second one would only be stopping short of really disenfranchising the reader.
A friend of mine, who admits he’s one to prefer big dramatic flourishes in the end, read one of my short story drafts and said it was well-crafted and well-executed but needed a bit more oomph. According to him, everyone in the story was both a hero and a villain and it was all just too human and dignified. That made me chuckle because in a way that’s what I had been going for in writing that story, though to the detriment of giving the reader a satisfying, punchy end. I think that’s also what Baricco might possibly have been going for as well.
Then she thought that however incomprehensible life is, probably we move through it with the single desire to return to the hell that created us, to live beside whoever, once, saved us from the inferno. She tried to ask herself where that absurd faithfulness to horror came from but found that she had no answers. She understood only that nothing is stronger than the instinct to return, to where they broke us, and to replicate that moment forever. Only thinking that the one who saved us once can do it forever. In a long hell identical to the one from which we came.