GURB, STILL AT LARGE: REVISITING EDUARDO MENDOZA’S QUIRKY BARCELONA TALE

Sin noticias de Gurb (1990, English translation No Word from Gurb [2007]), is a short novel by Eduardo Mendoza (b. 1943, Barcelona; Premio Cervantes 2016), which was originally serialised in El País, back in 1989. It belongs to the science-fiction subgenre of the ‘stranded alien tale’, popularized, above all, by Steven Spielberg’s family film E.T. (1982, written by the late Melissa Mathison). In Mendoza’s novel a pair of extraterrestrials land in Cerdanyola, next door to my own university, on a Christian/anthropological mission to explore Earth. Both are pure intellects capable of metamorphic embodiment, though they don’t particularly enjoy being human. Tired of the monotonous company of his crewmate and boss, the fearless Gurb soon transforms into a woman, is picked up by one of my colleagues at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona in his car, and vanishes. The other alien–whose name we never learn–starts then an anxious search for his lost mate. Throughout this chase, the alien narrator tries to make sense of the city of Barcelona, then getting ready for the Olympic Games of 1992. His bizarre nature and the no less bizarre city clash, which is why Sin noticias de Gurb is often read not as science-fiction (which it definitely is) but as a satire of Barcelona’s Olympic aspirations. An extremely funny satire.

I’m thinking of this book today because, to my immense pleasure, it was the centre of this week’s episode of David Guzmán’s Rius de Tinta (https://beteve.cat/programa/rius-de-tinta/). This is a series on Literature and the city of Barcelona, and I have become frankly addicted to it. I believe that we’re extremely lucky to be offered this kind of cultured television in what appears to be a total international dearth. There had already been an episode on Barcelona and science-fiction (with, among others, Antoni Munné-Jordà and Marc Pastor), which is why I never expected Gurb to be the subject of another one. But, then, David Guzmán and his team decided to explore Mendoza’s very popular work as, possibly, the best-known novel about Barcelona. I absolutely admire what Mendoza did in La ciudad de los prodigios (1986) and I personally believe that this is the most relevant work about the city (sorry Juan Marsé). Sin noticias de Gurb captures very well a particular moment in recent times and although I do recommend it, even Mendoza himself is surprised that this particular work has so many fans of so many different types.

Right after watching the interview with Mendoza, I picked up the book and read its 139 pages again, in one sitting. That was possibly my fifth reading and I still laughed hard. I remember carrying the novel to read on the train as a post-grad student, and having to stop because I was in tears, trying to suppress my out-of-control hilarity. What’s so funny about Gurb? Mendoza speculates that readers find the narrator ‘entrañable’, which has no exact equivalent in English (‘cute’, not in the sense of ‘pretty’, seems to be as close as we can get). An academic article by Benjamin Fraser (there seem to be only three… in English, Spanish, and Italian), focuses on the ‘costumbrismo espacial español’ of Mendoza’s novel, connecting it with Alex de la Iglesia’s appallingly bad TV series Pluton BRB Nero, which is an insult.

There is ‘costumbrismo’ in Gurb, and a great deal of the comedy is no doubt generated by the contrast between the common people of Barcelona and its outskirts, and the befuddled alien narrator–equipped, poor thing, with very defective information about what humans are. Yet, this is not enough to explain the success of the novel. What is so funny is how deadpan everyone’s reactions are: no human shows surprise at the alien metamorph, not even when he chooses the most absurd shapes, from pop singer Marta Sánchez to historical figures like Conde Duque de Olivares. As for the satire, I was amused to discover yesterday that though part of it is dated –Up & Down is no longer the reference club for the glitterati, but a gym, and so on–, another part still works very well, particularly as a critique of the specific life of the city of Barcelona. Every reader of Gurb remembers for ever that in our city “it rains as the Town Council acts: very little but brutally”. As for other matters, such as Gurb’s transpecies fondness for being a woman, what can be more up-to-date?

The most interesting part of the interview, and the challenge to any local Barcelona writer, were Mendoza’s comments on another kind of transition, that of the city from boring backwater to touristic world icon. As he explained very well, Barcelona “makes no sense” since it lacks a major river, its harbour is too shallow and it is not at all a communications hub to other places in Europe. Mendoza noted that the accounts of foreign visitors from the remotest past up to 1992 show mostly disappointment. Then he explained that, for reasons he fails to understand, particular buildings that were considered just an ugly, inconvenient feature of the city have been re-read as unmissable attractions. Casa Batlló, he recalled, used to be known as Iberia House, for this is where the airline’s only agency in Barcelona used to sell the tickets. There was a lab for blood analysis in one of the tops floors.

There have been a number of novels in Spanish and Catalan about post-Olympic Barcelona–Miqui Otero’s Rayos was named in the programme–but not just one that has managed to capture the zeitgeist as Gurb did in 1989/1990. And the question is that we, Barcelona’s disheartened citizens, need to understand (like Mendoza) why we’re losing our city to the swarm of tourists that are so actively pushing us out–to the alien invasion. A friend once told me that Parisians are not nice at all because they are sick of tourists–well, we’re going that way. One Gurb and his mate are welcome indeed; millions are just an impossible burden.

Going back to Sin noticias de Gurb, then, reminds us of how fast the change has been. The only tourists mentioned are the Japanese, harbingers of the later hordes, who, perhaps even more than the Olympics, put us on the world-map by declaring Antoni Gaudí a genius. Surprisingly, there is actually very little about the Games in Gurb, whereas in La ciudad de los prodigios Mendoza shows a unique awareness of how hosting major international events transforms a city. In that novel the protagonist of the unlikely name–Onofre Bouvila–is direct witness and participant in the two events that frame the action: the International Exhibitions of 1888 (which gave us the Ciutadella park and buildings) and 1929 (the excuse for Montjuïch’s regeneration). In interview with Guzmán, Mendoza noted that the 1929 exhibition was actually a failure, as it came at quite a bad moment in world affairs–the start of the Depression–and in national History (the second Republic was established in 1931, the Civil War started in 1936). Though things were not as dramatic, the 2004 Forum de les Cultures also failed to galvanize the city, perhaps because we had already started the decline into our current status as a theme park. There has even been an attempt, better forgotten, to stage the Winter Olympics here, in association with the ski resorts in the Pyrenees. Our imagination is not only stagnant but positively flagging. And without it, any city dies.

Mendoza stressed that he will not write again about Gurb, still at large somewhere on Earth, nor about his nameless lonely mate, still seeking Gurb’s whereabouts. My guess is that whereas Gurb is possibly in Tahiti, his mate is not very far from where he landed; maybe one day he’ll even visit my office… The readers’ insistence that Mendoza writes a sequel of Sin noticias de Gurb, I guess, is not motivated by the need for some humour–though I can tell you that we do need this in our city–but by his key role as interpreter of the changes Barcelona has gone through. We are somehow asking Mendoza whether he can write not quite a sequel of Gurb, but a sequel of La ciudad de los prodigios, with our favourite stranded alien as observer/narrator. Perhaps because only an alien can begin to grasp how we have managed to become alienated from our own city, while believing that we were finally fulfilling the cosmopolitan dream that would show rival Madrid one thing or two. Now in Madrid they are beginning to talk of the negative impact of tourism as ‘Barcelonification’…

I am these days giving the finishing touches to a monographic issue for Science Fiction Studies on Spanish sf. To my chagrin, I realized this morning that I had neglected to include Sin noticias de Gurb in the bibliography/filmography, an error I have quickly repaired. I am certainly dismayed by my own omission, particularly because the list (in special the films) suggest that comedy is a fundamental ingredient of Spanish sf. In the introduction to the issue, I explain that comedy compensates for our low self-esteem as a nation. I have already written here, just one year ago, a post on this issue (12 April 2016, “President Rajoy and the Starship that Failed to Land on Nou Camp”). I did discuss there Gurb as an example of Valle Inclán’s ‘esperpento’ (or the bizarre), though funnily some of the plot details I gave were wrong… Gurb and his mate, however, land here in Barcelona at a moment when self-esteem was at its highest (hey! We got the Olympics!), and yet, still the raucous comedy is needed. Why? Most likely, Mendoza already had an intuition that the Games would change the city for ever but also reveal that behind Gaudí’s gaudy buildings, there is nothing much–even less than there used to be.

Gurb, wherever you are on the planet, go on having fun. The other one: my office doors are open, and I specialise in science-fiction… We could have a very nice conversation (and there will be lots of those ‘churros’ you love so much, promise…).

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2 comentarios en “GURB, STILL AT LARGE: REVISITING EDUARDO MENDOZA’S QUIRKY BARCELONA TALE

  1. I read Gurb when I was in 4th of ESO (teacher’s recommendation), and I remember laughing hysterically with it. Since then, I must’ve read it at least 3 other times, always finding it more amusing than the last one. Yet, it never struck me as sf – I don’t know why… I think it’s about time that I read Gurb again… With a more, let’s say, critical? mindset.

  2. Laura: Yes, it happens all the time with Gurb and with Mecanoscrit del segon origen – the aliens are clearly there, and even so the reader has problems seeing the book as SF. It possibly has to do with the setting and our typical inability to connect Barcelona with science-fiction. Or Mendoza… Add to this the combination humour + sf… I’m glad you loved the book, and I wonder whether it can work just the same for a foreign reader (or even for a Spanish one outside Catalonia). Thanks for the comment.

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