New York, NY: Touchstone Books, 2016. 292 pages. $24.00.
Though it’s easy to forget in an age in which punk has long been commoditized, it was once a vital and disruptive cultural force. Perhaps because amateurism informed so much of the music’s credo, because it admitted anybody, becoming a haven for outsiders, it also lent itself to political extremes—which was part of the reason the scene descended into violence, especially in the UK, where fascist punks clashed with leftwing punks, sometimes with fatal consequences at shows. (In Revenge of the Mekons, Jon Langford recalls that the band’s first incarnation broke up after a stabbing at a concert where they shared a bill with Gang of Four.) While punk’s history centered on New York and London, the music and the culture flourished in places as far flung as Cleveland, Ohio and Soweto, South Africa. In Spain, as it emerged from Francisco Franco’s dictatorship in the late 1970s, punk briefly exploded, giving voice to impulses that had been brutally suppressed for three and a half decades.
That culture forms the backdrop for Gabrielle Lucille Fuentes’s The Sleeping World, which tells the story of four left-identified radical teenagers who flee the university town of Casasrojas after assaulting a cop during a protest. The narrator, Mosca (the name means fly), is looking for her brother Alexis, who was disappeared by fascist police two years ago and is presumed dead. Clinging to the hope he might be alive, intent on following his trail, she seeks both closure and absolution for her own survivor’s guilt. Each of her three companions—her ex-boyfriend Grito, Grito’s new girlfriend La Canaria (who is also Alexis’s ex), and Alexis’s best friend Marco—has similarly mixed motives. Blowing off exams, they make it to Madrid, where they fall in with militant leftwing punks. The police catch up to Mosca and her friends, and they move on, but not before relationships in the group begin to sour.
The major turning point comes during the winter in the French countryside. After working on a farm for a family of hippies, Mosca and her friends get lost in a snowstorm, during which Grito falls through the ice into a river and presumably drowns. (As with Alexis, there’s no body, hence no closure.) Thereafter, Mosca, La Canaria, and Marco live an increasingly desperate existence on the streets of Paris. Compromise follows upon compromise, degradation upon degradation as the group fractures and Mosca experiences a breakdown. She undergoes what might be a literal or a metaphorical rebirth, coming to terms with the complicity she feels in her brother’s demise.
The lyrical qualities of the prose make for one of the book’s principle pleasures. Telling the story in Mosca’s voice, Fuentes captures the chaos of these transitional years in Spain’s history. Scarred by the brutality of the regime they’ve grown up under, navigating a world in which no one can be trusted, Mosca and her friends reel from one decision to another as circumstances goad them into continuing their flight. Just as the assault that sets the plot in motion happens without forethought, in the middle of a protest, so does the decision to go to Madrid, which they make after fleeing Casasrojas and burning their clothes: “The fire was a dare, and though it had seemed like the summit at the time, it was only a few dusty crags on the shore of what the real dare would become.”
Yet though the narrative’s lyrical qualities might draw us closer to Mosca, they have the opposite effect. Does she actually believe her brother is alive, or is she aware that her quest to find him is doomed? Grief-stricken, in denial, obsessed with the idea she is somehow to blame for his death, she doesn’t seem to know. Have facha cops actually followed Mosca and her crew from Casasrojas to Madrid, or are they paranoid? Again, it’s hard to tell. The arbitrariness of state violence warps the characters, causing them to sense danger everywhere. When Marco reveals himself to be not a member of the proletariat, but an aristocrat with family ties to a higher-up in Franco’s regime, the other members of the group turn on him, and he never regains their trust. Like Marco, Mosca seems to be hiding her motivation from her friends, and sometimes even from herself. Of the places where Alexis might be, she says, “I traced the cities lodged in my throat. Madrid, as good a place to start as any.” But she never articulates her rationale for not telling her friends she’s searching for him.
That narrative approach has its disadvantages. A significant part of the book’s effect depends upon Mosca withholding information, and the arm’s length at which she keeps the reader risks making her unsympathetic. Moreover, even at the beginning of their journey, none of these four characters seem to like each other very much, and it’s hard not to wonder what, beyond shared suffering, binds them. Not that shared suffering isn’t enough, especially given the world the novel depicts. But unless they hate with entertaining zeal (they don’t), it’s hard to root for people who dislike each other so intensely.
Yet perhaps that’s the point. Rather than representing state violence, The Sleeping World evokes its aftermath, exploring the ways in which brutality erodes personal relationships, causing groups formed in opposition to collapse. Fuentes writes about the scars that linger once physical wounds heal, and about the psychological wounds that refuse to heal: the most devastating act of violence in the book—the death of Mosca’s brother—happens before the action starts. Though the United States in 2017 seems a far cry from post-Franco Spain, as the language of totalitarianism becomes woven into our political discourse, hate crimes a familiar part of the news cycle, and “resistance” embedded in the popular culture, the novel seems especially relevant.
Punk’s ethos might be construed as anti-fascist, but also (at least in its initial incarnation) anti-capitalist. The end of Franco meant the beginning of parliamentary democracy and consumer capitalism in Spain. Yet for all that Mosca and her friends identify as communists, they don’t talk much about politics, and the book seems to take a dim view of collectivization, those leftwing punks and those French hippies coming off as smarmy and self-involved, at best. In keeping with a truism about historical fiction, The Sleeping World perhaps tells us more about our time than it does about the time in which it’s set, insofar as it relates the story of personal, as opposed to collective transformation.
In that regard, one sometimes wishes Fuentes offered a few more answers. It might be nice to see what utopia looks like to these self-professed communards, for instance. That would provide a welcome glimmer of hope.
Nevertheless, The Sleeping World powerfully evokes the chaos of a transitional moment ripe with danger and possibility. As different as Mosca’s time might be from ours, it shares that quality of uncertainty: no one knows what to do. To sit on the sidelines is to risk complicity. Yet Mosca might not do better to take up arms. Struggling to find a way forward when inaction seems increasingly untenable, she faces a dilemma that ought to resonate with readers forty years later on the other side of the Atlantic.