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Sometimes, a larger-than-life bird woman is all a book needs. In Let No One Sleep, translated into English by Thomas Bunstead, Spanish writer Juan José Millás has penned a story that is at times funny, at other times sad, but always wonderfully absurd.
Let No One Sleep follows Lucía, a computer programmer who lives in Madrid. Unfortunately for Lucía, she is made redundant from her job at the start of the novel, and the world is “full of programmers younger and better equipped” than she is. During her taxi ride home, she discovers that the driver is also a programmer. Following the collapse of his company, he decided to purchase a taxi licence – “now I’m my own boss”, he declares, and as he drives passengers around the city, he likes to imagine that he is somewhere else, such as New York, Delhi, or Mexico City. Lucia is intrigued by the prospect of being her own boss, but she is also attracted to the freedom that driving around all day can give her. Because Lucia, you see, is a “bird woman,” and birds love to be free.
Lucía does not have wings, or feathers, or a beak. But her “ghost body” does. Lucia first recognised her special affinity with birds on the morning of her tenth birthday. She had run into her parents’ bedroom and asked for her birthday present, which, incidentally, turned out to be a pet bird. As Lucía waited for her gift, her mother sat up in bed and said, “Something’s going to happen.” Later that day, during Lucía’s party, a bird mysteriously fell from the sky and crashed into her mother’s head. Lucía watched in stunned silence as both her mother and the bird fell to the ground. Then, Lucia noticed “a kind of soap bubble with smoke suspended inside it emerge from the bird’s beak before entering her mother’s mouth.” Not long after, Lucía’s mother passed away. Shortly before her mother’s death, she had again declared, “Something’s going to happen,” then “a swallow flew in through the open window, did a very quick lap of the room, and flew back out again.” Lucía recites this story to her very first taxi passenger, a woman of the theatre named Roberta.
“Sure you didn’t make the swallow up?” Roberta asks.
“Of course not.”
Or did she? Lucía is not so sure. Lucía, after all, has a delightfully inventive imagination, the essence of which is effectively captured in Thomas Bunstead’s English language translation. The writing is clear, but not clinical. The directness of the prose enhances the novel’s comedic effect. The novel works partly because its strange central character, despite her occasional doubts, chooses to trust herself. When one of her passengers tells his wife that she has “short arms,” Lucía cannot help but say, “If I were your wife, I’d have given you a couple of slaps with those hands she’s got at the end of her short arms.” There are also details that might otherwise get lost in translation. For example, when Roberta says to Lucía, “You’re so funny,” she moves “to the informal tú address for the first time,” suggesting a change in relations that may otherwise go amiss.
Let No One Sleep is, ostensibly, a comedy. However, as is the case with the best comedies, it contains an undercurrent of sadness. Lucía’s worldview inspires amusing reactions, but in her story one also finds alienation, remoteness, detachment from humanity. Losing her job as a programmer facilitates a disentanglement from the world of predictability and routine. In her taxi, Lucía discovers a freedom to explore her sexuality, her imagination, even the limits of her species. Lucía is a bird trying to break out of her cage, but her eccentric habits, her resolute otherness, can also work against her. The exotic bird is kept in captivity precisely because it is exotic, and Lucía’s exoticism routinely runs the risk of keeping her, to use a bird-inspired term, pigeonholed. She befriends Roberta, but there is a sense throughout their many interactions that Roberta sees Lucía more as a curiosity, even a freak, than an equal. At one point, Lucía reveals that when she is driving, she imagines Madrid is actually Beijing, and Roberta says, “You’re crazy.” It is unclear if Roberta means this in the literal sense, and throughout her exchanges with Lucía there is an unsettling ambiguity concerning Roberta’s true intentions. Does she care for Lucía, or is she merely interested in her, the way a botanist might take interest in a rare flower? Is Lucía a subject, or a spectacle?
Lucía may appear spontaneous and carefree, but she is more than just a wayward bird fluttering from place to place. Early on in the novel, she takes a liking to her neighbour, a thespian named Braulio Botas. When he unexpectedly moves away, she becomes obsessed with him. She starts seeing her life through the prism of Turandot, Giacomo Puccini’s 1926 opera. Indeed, the novel’s title comes from the opera’s famous aria, “Nessun dorma.” In this fantasy she is Princess Turandot, and Braulio is Calaf, the Unknown Prince. She even begins dressing like Turandot. When a passenger asks if she identifies with the Chinese princess, she replies, beaming, “I’m the real Chinese princess. The one in the opera is made up.” So convinced is she that, one day, Braulio will hail her taxi on the streets of her imagined Beijing (after all, it is “written in the stars”), that she sets about reading dozens of articles on the theatre to prepare for the momentous occasion. But even though Lucía lives for this day, she does not hold off on having other adventures while she waits for destiny to strike. Whether befriending Roberta, going on an awkward date with a writer of “not-current articles,” or becoming entangled with the corpse of a man who appears to be her old boss (“the asshole”), Lucía has enough to keep her busy as she waits for the stars to align.
The irony of Lucía is that, although she is an eccentric character, with a personality some may deem unpredictable and perhaps even reckless, she nonetheless desires permanence. She is in search of a life that is “written in the stars.” If she is a bird, flying free, she is a homing bird. And this contradiction between needing to be free and needing a deeper purpose gives the novel its “tragicomic” edge. Millás has made a touching observation: that behind the desire for adventure dwells the spectres of fear, loneliness and alienation. Lucía’s obsession with Braulio Botas reveals a need to be rooted. She feels “like a secret agent. Like a spy.” Lucía likes spy movies “because spies live in a world that isn’t their own, and nobody realizes it,” and she clearly revels in her adventures. But her zest for freedom springs from a deeper well. She may enjoy her bird woman’s wings, but she wants to be free for a very specific reason – so she can find her way home.
by Juan José Millas
Translated by Thomas Bunstead
Bellevue Literary Press, 208 pages
Robert Montero is a London-based writer whose work has appeared in South Bank Poetry and London Grip, among others. A novel he wrote was long-listed for the Exeter Novel Prize.