Saturday, 2 September 2017

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba     {Review by THOMAS}
“It was once a happy city: we were once happy girls. It was as if we were all one mouth eating the ham, as if our cheese were all the same cheese: wholesome and creamy and tasting the same to all of us.” When a young girl arrives in an orphanage following the deaths of her parents in a car accident, she brings an unhealable wound into the community of girls. The identity of the group, which had hitherto subsisted in a single collective consciousness begins to differentiate by contact with a new and unassimilable member. “Her first triumph was this: we were no longer all the same. It was as if, in a short space of time, we had all become aware of so many things. Those things hurt, they flowed down like a river from upstairs, where the principal and the adults lived.” The otherness of Marina is both threatening and alluring, hateful and attractive, and as the girls rub up against each other both poles of this ambivalence are potentised without being able to discharge their energy. Such Small Hands is narrated alternately by Marina, her immature mind incapable of accepting the death of her parents and accordingly unable to grieve for them, unable to release the hurt that instead grows and spreads under the surface of the whole orphanage society, bringing awkwardness to what hitherto been facile and unexamined, and by the collective voice of the orphans, desperate to retain the integrity of their undeveloped state, their stifling innocence, and at the same time fascinated by the adult knowledge that Marina represents, the scar on her torso, her familiarity with death (though they also are orphans they are preconscious orphans, ‘natural’ orphans, orphans without specific loss). “Marina had been there watching over our mistake. Everything around her was contaminated, and so were we.” Marina is both one of them and an outsider, a watching eye that divides them, both offering and threatening to pull them into awareness of their individuality (an awareness that cannot be distinguished from an awareness of death). “Now we knew we were inescapably the way we were. It was a discovery you could do nothing with, a discovery that served no purpose.” Awareness of one’s separation from the world is the awareness of trauma, or, more specifically, is the trauma. What we think of as our pleasures are those things that relieve us from the awareness of our not being the world we are aware of. Sports and religion and nationalism reinstate the ‘magical’ group thinking of the undeveloped mind, relieving their adherents from individual identity and individual responsibility. The harmony of the underlying unity, without the individualising angst that comes with self-awareness, will at all costs maintain itself in the face of any threat to its claustrophobic innocence, and will commit whatever atrocity will suppress a developmental threat. When the orphans steal Marina’s doll, also called Marina, which had been given to her by the psychologist, presumably to encourage her to express and release her devastation, they dismember it and return it to her in parts. Later, Marina institutes a nighttime game in which each of the girls takes a turn to be a doll, to be passively undressed and dressed and manipulated and treated as a doll, to be ‘small’, depersonalised, objectified, relieved of individuality to become nothing but the projection and plaything of the group, the ‘other’ completely at its mercy, the vector both of the desire for experience and of the simultaneous desire to unmake or unhave that experience. A game, a ritual, a sport, a sacrifice, a mob: each relieves us of the angst of our individual experience and becomes also the collective expression of that angst. When Marina insists on taking a turn as the doll in the nighttime ritual, her passivity, her objectification, allows the discharge of the contradictory forces, the longing and repulsion, that have threatened the immaturity of the group since her arrival. It is “as if the living were suddenly possessed by a violent covetousness of the dead ones’ peace.” Fascination and destruction can no longer be distinguished from one another: “desire was a big knife and we were the handle.” Barba is convincing in his recreation of the inherently psychotic thinking of childhood (no, this is surely too glib: the progression from childhood is one made against the pull of retrograde ‘psychotic’ forces which are discharged when experienced in adulthood by the psychotic/antipsychotic collective rituals of sport, religion, nationalism and so forth or held at bay by angst), the instability of identity and nausea of aetiological inconstancy that is inherent in the horribleness (as well as in the wonders) of childhood. 

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