Out in the Open

By Jesus Carrasco

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

Riverhead Books.

240 pp. $26.

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Reviewed bv

Joseph Peschel

nolead ends Out in the Open is the American debut of Spanish novelist Jesus Carrasco, a winner of many international awards, including a European Union Prize for literature. Margaret Jull Costa has been translating Spanish and Portuguese fiction for more than 20 years. Her translation is simple and direct, if pocked with a few repeated clichés.

Carrasco's central characters are a young boy and an old man who herds goats. They journey across an arid land. The drought seems to have devastated the entire world, not just the boy's village.

Pursued by the townsfolk, the boy hides in a hole he has covered with branches and twigs. Why the villagers chase him is unclear: He "hadn't killed anyone, he hadn't stolen, he hadn't taken the name of God in vain." It is clear, however, that he "caused an incident" and is terribly frightened. When he's certain his pursuers have dispersed, he climbs out. Hungry and thirsty, he comes upon the camp of an old goatherd whose food he tries to steal. When the goatherd wakes and catches him, he offers the boy food instead of a beating.

The two become travel partners. Each helps the other, but they aren't quite friends - yet. Carrasco wants readers to sympathize with his characters, so he portrays the boy, goatherd, and donkey as figures in a Nativity scene. Carrasco even depicts the goatherd as a Christ figure: He is "nailed to the wood with tin tacks" and has "wounds in his sides ... similar to the wound Christ must have had on the cross." They journey northward across to the mountains - a heaven of sorts, "home of the gods," with eternal snow and water.

The mob finally gives up the chase, but a bailiff and his men continue to track the two. They take refuge in the ruins of an old castle, with the bailiff, on his motorbike, and his two deputies, on horseback, in pursuit. As the deputies ride, their horses' shoes strike sparks from the stones. They corner the goatherd at the castle, set his belongings on fire, and beat him while they try to find the boy.

Violence and gore abound; men and animals are shot and burned. The bond between the boy and the man strengthens near the story's end. But it isn't until near the end, despite some previous hints, that Carrasco reveals why the boy has run away and why the bailiff and his deputies pursue him. It is apparent, though, that hell will soon be opening its doors to the bailiff and his cohorts.

This review originally appeared in the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer.