“Out in the Open” is the American debut of Spanish novelist Jesús Carrasco, a winner of many international awards, including a European Union Prize for Literature. This novel, first published in 2013 as “Intemperie,” is, for the most part, ably translated by Margaret Jull Costa, who’s been translating Spanish and Portuguese fiction for more than 20 years. Her translation is simple and direct, yet pocked with a few repeated clichés.
The story is reminiscent of Cormac McCarthy’s apocalyptic novel “The Road,” where a boy and his father trudge across a vast wasteland. But Carrasco’s central characters are a young boy and an old man who herds goats. They journey across an arid land, destroyed by a terrible drought, not the unnamed disaster of “The Road.” The drought seems to have devastated the entire world, not just the boy’s village. Carrasco’s story is full of violence and religious references like McCarthy’s work, but the archaic or biblical vocabulary and cadence of McCarthy’s prose is absent here. The evil of Carrasco’s bailiff nearly matches McCarthy’s Judge Holden in “Blood Meridian.”
A few clichés flaw this translation: “threw all caution to the wind,” which recurs three times, and “stank to high heaven.” Otherwise, Carrasco’s story is conveyed with an odd beauty and majesty.
Pursued by the townsfolk, the boy hides in a hole that he’s covered with branches and twigs. Why the villagers chase him is unclear: “he hadn’t killed anyone, he hadn’t stolen, he hadn’t taken the name of God in vain.” It is clear, however, that he “caused an incident” and he is terribly frightened. When he’s certain that his pursuers have dispersed, he climbs out. Hungry and thirsty, he comes upon the camp of an old goatherd whose food he tries to steal. When the goatherd wakes and catches him, he offers the boy food, instead of a beating.
The two become travel partners. They help each other, but aren’t quite friends, yet. Carrasco wants readers to sympathize with his characters, so he portrays the boy, goatherd and the donkey as figures in a nativity scene. Carrasco even depicts the goatherd as a Christ figure: he is “nailed to the wood with tin tacks” and he has “wounds in his sides … similar to the wound Christ must have had on the cross.” They journey northward across this waterless country to the mountains – a heaven of sorts, “home of the gods,” with eternal snow and water.
Although the mob finally gives up the chase, the bailiff and his men continue to track the two. When the goatherd mentions the bailiff, the boy reacts as if he has heard the name of Satan. Not only is the bailiff satanic, Carrasco compares the boy’s entire village to biblical Sodom, although the goatherd looks back at the village without turning into a pillar of salt.
Eventually, the small party takes refuge in the ruins of an old castle with the bailiff, on his motorbike, and his two deputies, on horseback, in pursuit. As the hellish deputies ride, their horses’s hooves strike sparks from the stones. They corner the goatherd at the castle, set his belongings on fire, kill most of his goats, and beat him, while they try to find the boy.
Violence and gore abound in “Out in the Open” as in McCarthy’s novels: men and animals are shot and burned. Like “The Road,” the bond between the boy and the man strengthens near the story’s end. But it isn’t until near the end, despite some previous hints, that Carrasco reveals why the boy has run away and why the bailiff and his deputies pursue him. It is apparent, though, that hell will soon be opening its doors to the bailiff and his cohorts.
Joseph Peschel, a freelance writer and critic in South Dakota, can be reached at email@example.com through his blog at http://josephpeschel.com/HaveWords/
“Out in the Open”
By Jesús Carrasco (translated by Margaret Jull Costa)
Riverhead Books, 240 pages