Review by Sean Alan Cleary
translator: Natasha Wimmer
Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest is described in its promotional materials as “a novel with the feel of documentary nonfiction.” In her Author’s Note, Ybarra describes the novel as “a free reconstruction of the story of my family,” and that through “imagining” she has tried to “understand” the kidnapping and killing of her grandfather, Javier Ybarra Berge, in June of 1977. Abducted just days after the first democratic elections in post-Franco Spain by Euskadi TaAskatasuna (ETA), Javier was held by a splinter group of the Basque nationalist military and political group seeking ransom. After weeks of uncertainty, his body was found dumped in the mountainous woods of Navarra. Considering this central event, The Dinner Guest could be a book that has all of the angles and characters of a Spanish “novel of memory” reminiscent of Javier Cercas’s Soldiers of Salamis, or Javier Marías’s Thus Bad Begins. Ybarra’s novel has achieved similar praise and attention, both in Spain and worldwide; in 2018, The Dinner Guest made the longlist for the Man Booker International Prize. It’s a quiet but powerful book, neither talkative nor chatty in its narrative voice, but clear and somewhat spare.
Unlike Cercas’s or Marías’s novels, which hoped to unpack Franco-era reverberations through historical memory, The Dinner Guest is not overly concerned with the historical machinations of political groups, their ideologies, or members, never speculating on the interiority of those involved. The book does not want to solve the mysteries surrounding the murder of Javier Ybarra Berge, fictionally or otherwise. Instead, Ybarra turns toward the details on the edges of trauma. The coolness of a courtyard. The make and model of a pair of handcuffs (they’re French, from the country where ETA had seeming amnesty during the Franco era). The color of a balaclava worn by the man who hauls off Javier Ybarra Berge (it’s red, she guesses correctly). Ybarra does not dig into fictions of the characters involved; she fictionally reconstructs what could be known, sticking almost exclusively to the visceral in her detailing. The novel looks closely at how it feels to witness, if not be a part of, the trauma that envelops “premature death.”
That experience of death takes different forms. Initially, The Dinner Guest focuses on Ybarra’s memories, sometimes intuitive and even “reconstructed,” of a grandfather she never knew. But ultimately, the book unpacks the absence and repression of trauma, torture, and terrorism. Ybarra’s explorations include her own experience of her mother’s abrupt death from colon cancer as well as the torture and killing of ETA members by paramilitary groups and the police. She stops short of examining the (published) memories of her grandfather, who fought with the Francoist Rebels during the Spanish Civil War, served as mayor of Bilbao, and oversaw a juvenile prison under Franco. Her father, a journalist and writer, tells her “that’s my territory,” and Ybarra concedes.
Ybarra’s territory is often, then, the quiet details of experience: television channels in the waiting room of the New York oncology clinic where her mother seeks treatment, or the sheets stained by her mother’s blood when, during pregnancy, her placenta detached and she nearly died. At one point, imagining the rain on the day of her grandfather’s kidnapping, she “reconstructs” that it was “loud, like someone throwing bread crusts at the windows.” And when Ybarra Googles her mother, she renders in black and white the images she finds on the page.
At times, the book can seem wearisome in the nonchalance of its upper-crust ennui. In a memorable section, Ybarra’s narrator finds herself feeling trapped in a Manhattan apartment so open to the city, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, that she can’t seem to escape. But even privileged numbness has its points. When her mother nearly dies during pregnancy, bleeding all over a twisted mess of sheets Ybarra cannot shake from her memory, the author notes coolly that “my mother was taken out the back door so as not to soil the main staircase.” Still, it’s the terror that stands out. Her father, she says, always wanted to escape his hectic life to the country. But he couldn’t, trailed as he was by his bodyguard and, presumably, an ETA militant ready to succeed where former assassination attempts had failed.
In this novel, details matter. They’re what linger in the memory for Ybarra. She recognizes and beautifully renders the power of these details, while keeping them freshly experienced—a sort of visceral reconstruction of memory unencumbered by the weight of history. At times, this scope seems limiting in its relative amnesia; at times, it seems like that’s the point.
At less than 150 pages, The Dinner Guest reads quickly, but leaves a haunting impression. Ybarra ends the novel trying to understand the peaceful woods where her grandfather’s tortured and murdered body was dumped by ETA militants. She ends this scene of visiting the grave with a passage from Robert Walser, who also perished in a forest, after wandering off from a sanitorium in Switzerland. Walser writes, and Ybarra quotes, “to have a grave in the forest would be lovely. Perhaps I should hear the birds singing and the rustling above me. I would like such a thing as that.” No matter how we go, she says, it’s the birds, the rustling, the place—the details—that matter.
Sean Alan Cleary is a writer and educator from Cambridge, Massachusetts. His reviews have appeared in Public Books and Independent Book Review and his fiction in Puerto Del Sol, Limestone Review, and Another Chicago Magazine, among others. In 2018 he won the Puerto Del Sol Prose Prize, and in 2017 he won the Bread Loaf School of English Fiction Prize. Sean is a graduate of Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English and the University of Montana MFA program.