Morderás el polvo (Roberto Osa)

Published by Fundación José Manuel Lara/Planeta, 2017 (2nd edition, 2018), 176 pages

Synopsis

Águeda has just turned thirty, she’s eight months pregnant, and lives alone in a flat furnished with cardboard boxes. She is missing one eye. She has a perfect boyfriend, and a father she hasn’t spoken to for years. Her life is monotonous: she works a night shift, sleeps a little, talks less, and bottles up her rage as best she can. But this routine will be shattered when she receives a phone call. In the novel’s very first sentence, Águeda declares that she is going to kill her father. She isn’t going to wait until she’s given birth, and nor will she ask for anyone’s help. She’s going to do it alone, and she’s going to do it now. The story takes place over the course of little more than a day. A desperate journey from Madrid to La Mancha – from a city whose streets are overflowing with garbage to a small town in the harsh, arid landscape of the Castilian plateau, in search of a past that is full of violence – will culminate in a final showdown between father and daughter. The hostile geography of abandoned houses, empty reservoirs, out-of-hours brothels, cemeteries that look like building sites, and stones – so many stones! – is the setting for a powerful tale tinged with rural drama, drawing on the Spanish tradition of grotesque realism, suffused with the aesthetic of the western, and framed as a timeless classical tragedy.

Biography

Roberto Osa (Cuenca, Spain, 1981) graduated in Audiovisual Communication from the Complutense University of Madrid in 2004. His creative work encompasses a range of artistic disciplines. He has worked as a television scriptwriter and editor since 2007, and also contributes regularly to a number of online publications and cultural magazines. He teaches on the Master in Literary Creation at the International University of Valencia, and has given talks at literary festivals and led workshops for students. In 2017, he was selected to participate in the CELA Programme (Connecting Emerging Literary Artists), a European Union project to promote some of the continent’s most exciting new writers, and under its auspices he has attended the Pisa Book Festival, the Hay Festival Segovia and BookFest Bucharest to publicize his work. Osa’s first novel, Morderás el polvo [You will bite the dust], won the 36th Felipe Trigo Prize for Fiction, and was shortlisted for the 2017 Nadal Prize, one of Spain’s most prestigious literary awards.               

Style and benchmark texts

Morderás el polvo is a contemporary novel that draws on a literary tradition that goes all the way back to Ancient Greece, offering a 21st-century take on myths such as the parricide of Oedipus or the return of Odysseus. The setting – Don Quixote’s La Mancha – provides a dusty small-town aesthetic with hints of the American western or Juan Rulfo’s Mexican classic Pedro Páramo, but Morderás el polvo combines this with the narrative drive of a psychological thriller.

Osa’s prose has echoes of a number of post-war European writers: the grotesque realism of Spanish Nobel laureate, Camilo José Cela, the existentialism of Albert Camus, the raw simplicity of exiled Hungarian, Agota Kristof, or the tersely moving style of Austrian novelists such as Peter Handke and Elfriede Jelinek. And he also shares a vision of the world that will be familiar to readers of Cormac McCarthy, Tobias Wolff and Donald Ray Pollock.

Critical reception

“The contrast between the story’s setting and the manner in which Roberto Osa tells it is a deliberate choice. His use of language is highly visual, rapid, brutally direct, shorn of the slightest hint of ornamentation.” Carmen Bachiller. eldiario.es

“A powerful image runs through Morderás el polvo, the narrative debut of TV scriptwriter Roberto Osa: the rotund figure of the story’s protagonist, Águeda. She is eight months pregnant, is missing her left eye and, despite the fact that she is soon to give birth, appears more concerned with death than with life as she returns to her roots to settle a score with the past, determined to kill her father.” Braulio Ortiz. Revista Mercurio

Morderás el polvo is a harrowing tale from start to finish. A story of violence between father and daughter that takes us to the very darkest corners of the human condition. A solid narrative voice, with a powerful rhythm, which has the capacity to hypnotize the reader from start to finish.” Manuel Bravo. OkDiario

“El tono de esta novela, que llama poderosamente la atención, no fue expresamente elegido por el autor. «Si yo tuviera que incluirlo en un género, para mí sería novela contemporánea, a secas. Pero es cierto que tiene tintes de drama rural, de tragedia casi teatral, incluso ciertas reminiscencias al género negro o al western, por la estética de los escenarios y la búsqueda de la violencia que impregna todo el relato», señala Osa.” Mariano Cebrián. ABC

“Roberto Osa’s story mixes rural drama, the western aesthetic and classical tragedy in almost equal parts. But it is not just that. Morderás el polvo is a skilfully written and carefully constructed contemporary novel. The debut from an author from whom, I am sure, we will be hearing much more in the coming years.” Diego Álvarez. OcultaLit

Extract 1: pages 9–14

1

I’m going to kill my father this weekend.

It’s not a decision I’ve reached suddenly, more a question of settling some of the things that went wrong when I was a kid.

We’ve hardly seen each other for the last twenty years.

All this time I’ve been scraping by in Madrid, all knotted up with my memories of him, bounced from social services to support programmes that took me from one job to another until I found this night shift on a telephone helpline, and now I’m going back after seven days off.

My father still lives in Pedregal, the small town where I grew up, and I hadn’t heard much more from him until tonight, when the phone rang. A number flashed green and, when I took the call, all I could hear was breathing, almost a snarl. Nothing else. I know it’s him because nobody else snarls like that, nobody else makes me shake like el Morueco. I’m going to do you in, I swear I am.

I swear, on this belly I’ve been dragging around for eight months, on my one good eye, on all the pain we caused each other back then. I swear on the piles of garbage that cover the city’s pavements, on the overflowing bins, on the rats feasting among the boxes of rotten fruit, on the bluebottles buzzing among the wine cartons and the dogshit. Sometimes, the pavement’s so dirty I have to kick a path through.

I don’t mind the rubbish, the only thing that makes me feel sick is the stink of red wine. It reminds me of my father.

When I arrive at work, I still have ten minutes before eleven o’clock comes round, when my shift starts. I take the time to wipe the sweat from my face with my tracksuit sleeve, particularly around my eyelid; then I get my breath back as I smoke a quick cigarette. I smoke facing the opaque glass that covers the facade. I’m hot but I don’t remove my hood; I know those bastards on the evening shift are about to come out, and I’m not going to show them my empty eye socket. To my left there’s a pile of cardboard boxes. I touch them to check if I could use them in the flat, but they’re soaking wet and smell of entrails. On the other side, there’s a shiny black motorbike, I don’t know how anyone could have parked it there surrounded by filth, or maybe the bike was there before the boxes and the burst rubbish bags, even before the rotting vegetables or the smell of vinegar.

Shadows from the previous shift appear behind the screen.

I always start on a Friday, tonight it’s too hot for May, I try to concentrate on the smoke coming out of my mouth, I have to think about how I’m going to keep my oath, but I’m distracted by something pressing against my leg; a Dalmatian has appeared from among the boxes, it’s got something in its jaws and is squashing it against my leg. It’s a pigeon.

I let out a cry.

The dog’s owner calls it from the corner, the dog stands in front of me with the pigeon between its teeth. On the third call, the dog releases its prey and runs towards the woman.

I kick the pigeon away and take another draw on my cigarette.

If you’re scared by that, just wait till you see your father.

The door beeps six times. Correct code. The door opens and the herd streams out. First are the mothers, hurrying back to their nests. The fat one’s cheeks wobble as she laughs, no doubt the guy with the moustache telling her some lie or other. Then come the ones who are my age, the hipsters, as they call themselves, each of them staring at their phone screens, looking away just long enough to dodge the dead pigeon. Their conversations mix up inside my ears, always the same, I’m going to the metro, are you coming? Sorry, I’m walking, I’m meeting someone near here. The muscly guy and the silly girl with the green stockings walk towards the bike, waiting for me to get out of the way. I stay put. I hear them muttering, leave her, the sad freak. They get onto the bike and their reproaches are drowned out by the roar of the engine, smoke from the exhaust pipe warms my right leg, the fabric of my tracksuit caresses my ankles. The Colombian raises his eyebrows in greeting when he knows nobody is looking, and walks on down the street.

They all swirl around me, turning their back on me, taking out their cigarettes, chatting, asking for a light. A light? I’ll set light to the lot of you. Carry on, turn your back to me, cross the road with your head down, don’t look at the one-eyed woman, it’s bad luck, she’s already looking at you, but she doesn’t care about you, either: the fat girl, the muscly guy, the hipsters, the silly girl with the green stockings, the Colombian. Nothing.

Ernesto – that’s what the rest of them call him – is the last to leave, with his white hair, and his gut bulging against the buttons on his shirt.

I can’t help remembering you, dad. I often imagine what you’ll be like after all these years but however hard I try, I just see you like you were then, when we skinned rabbits in the yard; a punch between the animal’s ears, cracking its skull like a walnut, then a trickle of blood forming a puddle on the ground. I held the hind legs while you cut into the rabbit’s skin with your knife and quickly stripped it naked, pulling off the pelt as if it was a jersey.

When I look up, the evening shift have all gone, and I see the top of Ernesto’s head disappearing into the distance, between the mountains of garbage.

I’m alone in the street. It’s eleven o’clock at night.

The basement is gloomy, there’s just a single point of light at the table where Tariq and me sit, next to the stairway that goes up to the entrance hall, the other tables will remain dark all night. The room is rectangular, at the far end are the toilets and Silvia’s office. When I arrive at my workstation, he’s already answering a call. The first thing I do is take off my shoes and socks. Tariq looks at me, smiling, his brown fingers keying in text as he dictates the hours of some municipal office into his headset mic. He’s unshaven, like he always is when we come to work after a few days off. I throw my bag down next to the keyboard and drop into the seat at Tariq’s side. We sit facing the darkness, our backs to the stairway that leads up to the entrance hall; he’s always on my right, so that I can see him and he can pretend I have two eyes.

We spend a lot of hours below the ground. There are no windows in this place, it’s like working inside a tomb. We call it the coffin.

I punch my code into the keypad and answer the first call, Águeda Pacheco speaking, how can I help you? Of course, just a moment please. The closest metro station is Antón Martín, you can check this month’s events on the website. Thank you for calling. Our terminals beep, sometimes competing or overlapping, we spend a couple of hours answering calls; Tariq explains how to get to the zoo, it’s very easy madam, catch line five or ten, get off at Casa de Campo, or take a bus from Príncipe Pío, the number thirty-three drops you at the gate. Happy to help, goodnight. After all these years, we can recite most of the information from memory. Sometimes, as I listen to the complaints of some pain in the ass, I feel the fingernails scratching inside my stomach and I feel sick. That’s when I let my head fall back against the headrest and look at the ceiling, a ceiling that is nothing more than the floor of a city covered with filth that I have to wade through. I sit listening to the moron who’s decided to do his paperwork in the middle of the night, maybe there’s no other time, but I don’t care what he’s saying, I just want him to shut up before I vomit, and I take advantage of a short pause to unleash my advice: you have to fill out the form, present your ID, your residence certificate, your driving licence and pay the fee, Monday to Friday, from nine till two at the district office, goodnight.

And I hang up.

I tear off my headset and throw it down on the desk.

I need to move, the nausea and the pain in my ankles get worse every minute of every night that I spend buried down here with Tariq. But I sit still, holding my bulging belly between my hands and staring at the rotten wood of the beams above me. A few months ago, when they were making redundancies, they decided to paint the beams blue; they sacked eighty people and they painted the beams, the skirting boards and the corners cobalt blue, and the walls a tone of yellow so sickly it’s best not to look, better just to sit in the dark like vampires. That’s what Silvia calls the night shift workers.

Silvia is… How can I put it? If she was introducing herself, she’d say she’s the coordinator, but she’s just a midget with a raccoon’s eyes, responsible for kicking out all those losers who don’t work here anymore. I escaped by the skin of my teeth, and now she doesn’t know what excuse to come up with to get rid of the Cyclops. There’s just four of us left on the night shift: Tariq and me work seven days on and seven days off, when we’re replaced by two girls that we never see. A few weeks ago, Tariq heard a rumour that they were going to get rid of the night shift and he hasn’t left me in peace since then: the baby, Águeda, what are we going to do with the baby if we’re unemployed? I don’t usually reply. People are shouting in the streets, they want clean pavements – they want someone to give them a job. I’ve got work.

I should feel grateful that this guy, who dreams of working in a museum, has noticed this thing that I am, and I should fight for whatever it is I’m carrying in my belly. But I don’t care about any of it. All I can think about is my father.

Tariq takes out the potato omelette he’s so proud of. He eats it straight from the tupperware, cutting it into tiny pieces, as if for a small child. Sometimes he offers me the fork with a piece of omelette on the prongs, but I always reject it, and he always eats it with a smile and goes on chewing and reading his museum studies textbook.

When he gets tired of the silence, he starts talking about all the things his parents have bought for the baby and how they’re really looking forward to coming back to Madrid to meet me.

They’re intrigued to know what their grandson’s mother is like, Tariq says; it’s better they don’t know, I tell him, and then his eyes bulge until they’re almost touching the lenses of his glasses and he scratches his stubble and tells me I don’t appreciate myself, that I’m very pretty with my flaming hair and my white skin, although the truth is it’s actually yellowish.

And the eye, Tariq? What about the eye? And he wrinkles his nose and touches his glasses, and says don’t start that again, that I should love myself a bit more.

Extract 2: chapter 7, pages 97–101

On the way out of town, the walls of the livestock pens are already covered by the evening shadow. The path to the cemetery is a deep cattle track that would be unchanged were it not for the fact that the cypresses that once lined it have disappeared. In their place are holes a yard deep, the jaws of a digger have cut through the roots, which are dying inside the earth. Every four or five paces there’s a new crater. The holes run the length of the track, like giant bitemarks in the earth, until I come to an old metal sign with the word “graveyard”. The digger is parked at the entrance to the cemetery, the engine still running, the hazard lights flashing. Maybe Gladis wasn’t lying; to my left, instead of the cemetery wall, I see the profile of the burials against the reddish evening light. There are no walls or anything of the sort. The shadows of some workmen wander among the rubble; they’re talking, laughing, their white teeth still visible as they pile up the stones.

The engine of the digger falls silent. The driver calls the rest of the workers, it’s time to leave. When he raises the peak of his cap, I realize it’s the same man we met at the petrol station, the one who helped the fat guy with the coupons to get up. I avoid his eyes, losing myself among the gravestones in the hope that him and the other workers leave as soon as possible, but I know he’s still looking at me. After a few seconds I hear his voice among the marble crosses.

“Hurry up, they’ve been waiting for ages.”

It’s more than ten years since I visited my mother’s grave. With so many stone crosses, without the reference of the walls or the cypresses, the cemetery seems endless, I struggle to locate exactly where she was buried. A good daughter wouldn’t have this problem.

There he is, sitting on a tombstone, his feet resting on a neighbouring grave. He’s smoking, his arms are resting on his knees. His bulging eyes exaggerating his profile against the dim light of the reddish horizon. The noise of the workers gathering their tools gradually fades, or maybe it’s me who can only pay attention to this unexpected family reunion. I approach slowly. I can feel the elastic of my two pairs of socks squeezing my ankles with every step I take. When I’m just one grave away, he speaks. “You’ve forgotten the sickle.”

You go to kill someone and the victim reminds you about the weapon. Typical of a daughter who’ll never live up to her father.

There we are, facing each other, separated by the tombstone that covers my mother’s remains. He looks at the grave. He has a cigar in his mouth, takes short puffs, allows the thick smoke to slide across his face. I should answer, but all I can think to do is look around me: a few yards away is a pile of empty beer bottles that the workers have left next to the statue of an angel.

“What would you know?” I say, without thinking. As soon as the words have left my mouth I regret them, it’s the reply of a snotty kid.

“You don’t know how to hide. You can’t hide from me, however much you want to.”

He talks without looking at me as he rubs the sole of his shoe against the marble to get rid of the earth.

“I came. I’m here,” I say, opening my arms idiotically.

I’d like to be able to tell him that my life isn’t like he thinks it is; that I fall straight asleep, that I don’t work in a basement answering phone calls from insomniacs or have a respectable boyfriend who irons his shirts while listening to some bloke called Bach or wealthy, cultured in-laws capable of indulging every last whim of their future granddaughter. I don’t know why everyone talks about it in the feminine, I’ve never said it was a girl, as far as I’m concerned it’s nothing right now. I’d like to have been strong enough not to answer your call.

The red line of the horizon has almost disappeared, but I can clearly see his half-unbuttoned shirt and the disappointment on his deeply-lined face.

He carries on smoking, lost in thought.

We remain silent, like before. The woodpigeons coo in the distance, perhaps they’re in the cork oaks on the other side of the road. The roar of a lorry helps me not to think. My father strokes the cigar with his fingertips, he paws it, returns it to his month, and a flame from his lighter causes the smouldering cigar stump to glow orange, illuminating his face. I remain standing. The cross on my mother’s grave is barely visible against the black sky. I take out the pack of cigarettes I stole from Gladis. There are still three left. We both smoke in the stillness of my mother’s grave.

“What have they done to the walls?” I ask.

He glances around listlessly.

“This way, there’s more of a breeze,” he says, blowing out some smoke.

“It would have made more sense to have removed the remains before knocking down the walls,” I say.

“It’s not as if the dead are going to run away.”

He takes another draw, opening his eyes wide so they show very white in the darkness.

“The other day they took the cypresses away,” he says after a while.

“Where to?” XXX para break XXX “How would I know? They took them away,” he points at the path to the town. “They didn’t even fill in the holes. They’ll make another cemetery. This one…” XXX para break xxx “What do you want?” Don’t use empty words with me, dad. Not you.

“Did you get married? You need to get married,” he says, looking at my belly.

Pain shoots through my brain, from my false eye to the nape of my neck. I want to tell him that I’ll get married far away from this sick land.

“I should pick up a rock and dash your brains out.”

“Who’s stopping you?” He spreads his arms as if he’d like to be shot. His chest shows through his shirt, open almost down to his belly button. “Do it, and we’ll all be at peace.”

“I’m going to be a mother.”

“I can see that. You should have told me when I called.”

“You’ve got enough with your whores.”

He laughs, the cigar hanging from the corner of his mouth.

I hear his back creak as he stands up.

Do you see how smart the girl is, Tránsito?” He’s looking at the marble slab as he talks. “I told you she’d go far.”

“It was you.”

“It was both of us. Anyway, it doesn’t matter now, she isn’t going to come back to life.” He stubs out the cigar on the white marble. “That’s the last thing we need.”

My head is spinning. I can feel the elastic of my socks like shackles round my ankles. Don’t fall over, and don’t start crying. He presses his fingers hard against my belly. Hold on. I’d like to hurl myself at your throat, but my arms are too heavy, and a few seconds later I’m sitting on the grave, trying not to collapse as I watch his feet approach.

“Help me die, Jara.”

His voice is so hoarse that I’m not sure if it’s a plea or a threat. I can’t look at you, I’m tired of pretending, I can’t take any more, dad. I’m going to fall.

“Cut your throat, then, you’ve had plenty of experience of that.”

He rests his paws on the grave, his face next to my ear, I feel his breath wheezing against my hair, he’s talking very close to me, as if he was going to swallow me. “It has to be you, Jara.”

I try not to move while he pants.

“Just die and leave me to live in peace.”

“Help me,” he continues panting. “Come to the Lagarto with me, I’ve got my car just on the edge of town. But don’t say anything to the Moor, you shouldn’t have brought anyone, this is just between me and you, Jara. It’s our business.”

You bring me to this pigsty so everyone can see my face when I give in to you.

“For me, you’re already dead.”

His fingers brush my face, the same face his hands hit this afternoon; a coarse hand that smells of rust strokes the swollen cheek, then he runs his fingers roughly through my hair, awkwardly, as if for the first time. I close my eyes. I feel very weak.

He takes a lock of my hair between his fingers, pulls it tight, feels the roots pulling inside my scalp. I’m in his hands. Then he lets me go. I hear him disappear among the gravestones, the ground disappears beneath my feet and I fall, I fall, I fall and I burst into tears with my belly between my hands, all of the darkness of the world is here, in this cemetery without doors, with no beginning and no end, that extends into the night and mixes with life under the gloomy song of the woodpigeons, who laugh at me because I don’t know, I’ve never known, how to laugh in front of anybody.