Eduardo Mendoza: No Word From Gurb
If aliens were to read Eduardo Mendoza’s No Word From Gurb (1990) they may well determine that it suffers from ‘structural simplicity’. While this is true, it makes it no different from most other things on Earth they are likely to discover, like family apartments and Ford Fiestas.
The novel, initially published in installments in the popular Spanish newspaper, El País, is told in the style of a diary and parodies the city of Barcelona in the build up to the 1992 Olympics. Each day sees a number of entries, usually little more than paragraph with a time of the day attached, as one of the two aliens in the novel writes down his observations about human life while searching for his companion, the eponymous Gurb.
Gurb, having been given the task of making contact with humans, has vanished. It’s probably something to do with how he looks:
Given that we are travelling in non-corporeal form (pure intelligence-analytical factor 4800) decide he should take on bodily appearance similar to that of local inhabitants. Reason: so as not to attract the attention of the autochthonous fauna (real and potential). Consult the Astral Earth Catalogue of Assimilable Forms (AECAF) and choose to give Gurb the appearance of human being known as Madonna.
While not attracting attention is the name of the game for these aliens, the narrator can’t help but attract it as he settles into the task of finding Gurb. He regularly takes human form to blend in although the forms he chooses (Gary Cooper, the Duke of Olivares, and His Holiness Pope Pius XII, amongst others) are never as inconspicuous as he thinks.
His ignorance of human customs also draws strange looks, like when a woman, mistaking him for a down-and-out, gives him some spare change and he, out of politeness, swallows it. Or, when ordering in a restaurant: “The gentleman asks what I will have to drink. Not wishing to attract attention, I order the most common human liquid: urine.”
There’s a great deal of humour to be had with the idea of aliens trying to understand human culture and Mendoza plays it for laughs throughout, like when the narrator reads a mystery novel by a famous English lady:
The plot of her novel is very simple. An individual who, to simplify, we will call A, is found dead in the library. Another individual, B, tries to discover who killed A and why. Following a series of illogical undertakings (all that was needed was the formula 3(x2-r)n-+0 and the case would have been solved from the start), B states (wrongly) that the murderer is C. Everyone seems happy with this conclusion, including C. No idea what a butler is.
Repetition is another key to Mendoza’s humour, showcased a number of times when the narrator performs the same activity over and over, with small variations, like when he decides to scour the city looking for Gurb:
15.00 Decide to make a systematic search of the city instead of remaining in one spot. […] Set off following the ideal heliographic plan I built into my internal circuits on leaving the ship. Fall into a trench dug by the Catalan Gas Company.
15.02 Fall into a trench dug by the Catalan Hydroelectric Company.
15.03 Fall into a trench dug by the Barcelona Water Company.
15.04 Fall into a trench dug by the Calle Corcega Neighbourhood Association.
15.06 Decide to abandon the ideal heliographic plan and to walk watching where I put my feet.
While it may seem parochial, poking fun at the state of Barcelona as it (lazily) worked toward the Olympics, there’s an element of truth that can transcend any city, be it criticisms of traffic control, social problems like drugs, the constant cycle of repairs that seem to keep museums closed, or the anti-social mores of councils:
Woken by a thunderous crash. Millions (or more) years ago, the Earth was created out of a series of terrible cataclysms: the roaring oceans covered the coastline and buried whole islands, whilst gigantic mountain ranges collapsed and erupting volcanoes threw up new ones; eaethquakes shifted entire continents. To commemorate these events, every night City Hall sends machines, called refuse trucks, to reproduce that planetary chaos under its inhabitants’ windows.
The steady stream of misunderstandings as the alien goes about finding Gurb, making connections with humans, and even considering romance is nicely balanced against the impressions of humanity from an external point of view as he discovers concepts that don’t exist on his own world, such as class:
Amongst other categories, human beings are apparently divided into rich and poor. This is a division to which they attach huge importance, without knowing why. The fundamental difference between rich and poor seems to be this: the rich, wherever they go, do not pay, even though they acquire and consume as much as they like. The poor, on the other hand, pay through the nose.
Although the daily narrative takes us on a whistlestop tour of Barcelona, the biggest problem Mendoza has is coming to the end of the line. It’s inevitable that Gurb is found, although the way that comes to pass is a tad clumsy and fortuitous. Perhaps the formula 3(x2-r)n-+0 doesn’t work for some books, but the fun to be had with No Word From Gurb is not so much in its conclusion as it is its journey.
March 8, 2009