Isabel Olesti, La pell de l'aigua (Barcelona: Proa, 2012). 285 pages.
The protagonist of Isabel Olesti’s La pell de l’aigua [The skin of water] is a nameless middle-aged unhappily married woman who wakes up from a dream (more like a nightmare, I daresay) in which a slimy slug is crawling up her thigh. “It was wet and cold and it was making her shudder. It was creeping up slowly, crawling on her skin in a zigzag. It left behind a film of spittle, like sticky mucus, a rather clear trail, a path; as if it were saying: this is mine.” (p. 9, my translation)
The highly symbolic dream of the slug gives way to the woman’s grim reality when she’s awake and aware of what’s being done to her by her husband, who exclaims: “Why don’t you just open your legs? I can’t do anything this way!” (p. 10). Once he’s done with his business, she just lies down and pretends to sleep, ignoring her husband’s comments about wallpaper being démodé.
The novel is set in the city of Barcelona in 1982. The narrator makes mention of the politician who would go on to win an election. Yet it is the visit of Pope Wojtyla that will lead to a dangerous adventure that will change (let us assume so) her life forever.
Everything seems to be ready for a successful papal visit. But the weather is not going to help. On the days John Paul II is to give his blessing to the faithful (her husband appears to be one of the most zealous believers any religious leader would wish to have) the heavens open and rain comes down mercilessly. Near the Montserrat monastery several young girls are killed as a result of a landslide, while the crowds gathered in the centre of Barcelona are left wondering, and wandering, in the rain.
The protagonist gets lost (wanders off, rather) and loses sight of her three daughters and her husband while they are battling other thousands of people to get a close view of the Pontiff. Soaked to the bone, confused and not knowing too well what she wants to do, she quickly jumps into a taxi and flees to the Ramblas, where she will meet Pura, a chatty transvestite from northern Castelló. For reasons that are difficult to ascertain, Pura decides to look after her and takes her to his flat.
Later she accompanies Pura on the streets for a while; at a bar she meets a much older man and goes with him. Another taxi, another rambling commentary from a taxi driver, and they finally go to the port and have sex on one of the huge cement blocks. Had La pell de l’aigua been published in English, it might have been long- or even shortlisted for the Literary Review Bad Sex in Fiction award. But wait, because after that there is yet another taxi, and a visit to a shabby, putrid hotel room where they are told to hurry up with whatever it is they need to do…
Unfortunately, it is not a lot that can be said in favour of this hit-and-miss narrative. If the intention was to produce a psychological study of the protagonist, it fails miserably. Not a single character in the novel gets to be portrayed beyond the merest, sketchiest outline. There is no depth to the husband or the older man (who happens to be a taxidermist). The protagonist appears to be contented to nod or shake her head to almost every one of Pura’s questions or jokes.
The narrative is interspersed with brief pseudoscientific description of the copulation habits of different animal species: chimpanzees, spiders, worms, mantis, birds, iguanas, bedbugs, etc. Although the reason for their inclusion will ultimately be illuminated by what happens in the taxidermist’s house in an outer hilly barrio of Barcelona, in my opinion these odd passages interfere rather than add value to the story. The thread is lost too often.
The idea behind La pell de l’aigua would seem good in principle, but it has been poorly developed. The female protagonist psychological issues are never fully fleshed out. It hints at a childhood sexual trauma (the narrator repeats the different admonitions or pieces of advice that, as a child, she received from her father, mother and grandmother ad nauseam), yet the issue is never directly tackled or resolved. Despite the denouement, which includes a murder, the novel leaves a strange aftertaste. Perhaps the main problem in this novel lies in the fact that the omniscient narrator has adopted the point of view of the protagonist: it is a story told in both a confusing and confused way, and would have benefitted heaps from a more strict editorial intervention.
La pell de l’aigua was awarded the 2011 Mallorca Prize. Go figure why.