In an afterword by Edmund White, Andrés Barba’s chilling and sparse novella Such Small Hands is said to be based on events in an orphanage in 1960s Brazil in which a group of young girls killed a fellow child and played with her body parts for some time afterward. This point is almost universally noted in reviews of Barba’s text. My – albeit rudimentary – research into the veracity of this event has come up empty, however it is telling that this transgressive and horrific act is of such interest to readers. Its simplicity is reminiscent of the horror we associate with fairytales: orphans abandoned in the wilderness, children cannibalised by witches.
Such Small Hands is the symbolist gothic tale of seven-year-old Marina, whose parents die in a car accident. Transferred to an orphanage described only in the barest of elements, the child divulges her personal history by rote to the other girls. Barba’s simplification of words, events and character gives the book an experimental form. Early on, fresh from the wreckage of the accident, when doctors and psychologists try to speak with Marina, she recognises the deficiency of words:
Word detached from language, prior to language, forlorn, pure, limpid.
Disassociated by the trauma, Marina has a revelation – she shares her name with a doll she carries everywhere. The doll becomes a stand-in for Marina, a common tool used by children experiencing trauma. Marina handles her in small, disturbing ways, licking its glass eyes so she can “see better.” By day, the other children in the orphanage are cruel to Marina. By night she engages them in a ritualistic game they will all play: one by one, they are to be dolls.
Ominously, the book opens with a quote from the powerful text A Woman in Berlin (Anonymous), in which a girl plays with a doll only after it is disfigured and no longer resembles a human infant.
Chapters alternate between the perspective of Marina and the chorus of the other girls recounting the aftermath of what they have done in the naïve, blameless way of children who have committed abominable acts of violence. The girls’ language is all ‘we’ – made more disturbing by their apparent innocence.
At first we weren’t scared… We didn’t know any other way to love.
At night, in the enclosed world of the dormitory, Marina is powerful, able to direct the other girls. By day, she is ostracized. Children inhabit a world separate from the adult realm. Their games exclude the involvement of authority figures, inciting a macabre and inevitable primitivism resonant of Golding’s classic Lord of the Flies, with a similarly grotesque and breathtaking conclusion.
She couldn’t understand our love. She could only consent.