Book Review: The Boys, by Toni Sala

There’s no question that Toni Sala, lauded as “one of Spain’s most powerful authors,” is skilled at producing page-turning works of fiction, while simultaneously touching on some of the darker, and at times existential, issues lying at the heart of what it means to live in times of emotional and economic turmoil. His book The Boys, published in Catalan in 2014, won the Premis de la Crítica — Catalonia’s most prestigious literary prize — the same year it was published. And for good reason:

Translated by Mara Faye Lethem, it not only stretches the boundaries of what is “fucked up” through the use of an at times metaphorical, at times wry omniscient narrative voice, but also humanizes those who could be considered “fucked up” by using literature as a meditation on the frailty and weakness of people who are left vulnerable during their darkest hour.

Divided into four parts, the novel centers around the fatal car accident of two brothers, whose deaths become the focal point of Ernest, Miqui, Iona, and Nil’s drastically different attempts to make sense of their lives in a place like Catalonia, which has been ravaged by the 2008 economic recession, leading to an ideological and existential divide between old and young, wealthy and poor, the living and the dead.

The thing that struck me the most is the way the narrator gets into the central characters’ heads by posing a series of questions that try to make sense of the two boys’ deaths. Because the story is largely told by an omniscient voice, whenever I came across these interrogative sections — which weren’t in any way directly indicated by section breaks, dashes, or quotation marks as being different from the narrator’s voice — I couldn’t be one-hundred percent sure whether I was actually getting a glimpse into the characters’ thought-processes, or whether what I was reading was just the narrator trying to make sense of the tragedy himself.

I loved that.

When Ernest stands in front of the tree into which the two boys crashed their car, the narrator says:

“It happened here, right before him. The asphalt was striped with tire marks. The brothers had braked before hitting the tree. They hadn’t had an entirely treacherous death. The fierce screech had flown over the fields, appearing on the streets of Vidreres with such violence that the next day the townspeople found tire tracks in the hallways of their homes, on their sofas, in their showers, on their sheets.”

Which seamlessly transitions into a two-page meditation on what the fraction of a second before the impact must have been like:

“. . . Why had he released the brake? Why hadn’t he held out until the final moment? Had he given up? Had he understood that there was nothing he could do? . . . Or did the driver want to escape the car? Did he want to get out in that half of a second? Half a second? What is a half a second? . . . He had no idea. No one does. No one knows what half a second is. Life is made up of half seconds. Life is half a second . . . .”

It’s pretty clear in the overall context of the story that Ernest is asking himself these questions, because he’s trying to come to grips with the idea of death, now that he’s in his old age. But because it’s not clearly indicated that it’s Ernest, and because the narration seamlessly transitions through different perspectives by blurring the lines that separate those perspectives, I felt closer to the characters, almost as if I were actively taking on the roles of both the characters and the omniscient narrator myself.

But this isn’t just a novel about coming to grips with death, it’s about identity. In an interview with Bookslut, Sala said:

“My book has to do with identity because I’m telling a story about death and how death makes us be who we are. The crisis also has to do with the personality because in Spain 15 or 10 years ago we thought we were very, very rich. It was a kind of lie promoted by the government. They told us, ‘OK, we are rich, buy houses, build houses,’ and everyone did. It was strange because our culture was not of a rich country, but people believed we were rich. Then suddenly there was this crisis, and you felt again you were poor, and you recognized yourself as a poor country. That allowed us to discover ourselves again. This crisis is awful, especially for the young people, and that’s in my book.”

Miqui, a truck driver and misogynist, is at a loss, not just because the banks screwed over his dad — something he feels directly affected by — but because he wishes deep down that he could find a woman who will love and care for him. But because he’s always on the road, delivering goods between towns, and because he generally has a low sense of self-esteem, he opts for the easy way out, going onto online dating sites, “to be altruistic, to find and offer generosity, to forgive from the get-go, to give [himself] over to the gratuitousness of a limitless, empty planet devoid of responsibility.”

He keeps a collection of photos on his computer of other people, which he uses for his own profile picture, depending on his mood and “depending on the day.” He presents himself as someone he isn’t, he tries out different identities. One day he’s a blonde-haired executive, another day a tennis player, “damp with sweat after winning a game, with two days of beard growth, clean, smiling, sporty.” He does this to play out his sexual fantasies, to be validated by other women, to “place an order for any of the dirty thoughts running through his head just by sending text messages.” But he doesn’t seem to be able to find what he’s looking for, which seems to be a central theme throughout the novel — never knowing who you are and never being able to have what you want.

Would I read The Boys again? Absolutely. Will I? Probably. A novel at times deeply disturbing, at times laugh-out-loud funny and laden with very rich metaphors on nearly every page, The Boys made me feel emotions that left me a little drained by the end. There are certain images that haven’t left my mind since reading it. To reiterate Time Out Barcelona, “Toni Sala creates an exercise in style that meditates on our most primal identity.”