Carlos Zanon is primarily known as a poet in his homeland, but has also written three novels, of which THE BARCELONA BROTHERS is the first to be translated into English. Kudos would be in order to John Cullen, who captures Zanon’s eye for detail so pristinely in this dark, violent and occasionally grimly humorous tale of off-kilter impulses and love gone wrong --- and worse.
THE BARCELONA BROTHERS is propelled by a monumental screw-up committed by Epi, a guy who is a monumental screw-up himself. It’s over a woman named Tiffany, who gets between Epi and his occasional partner-in-crime, a Moor named Tanveer Hussein. Without any particular warning, Epi takes a hammer to Tanveer’s head one morning in Salva’s Bar --- the kind of establishment where this type of incident is not totally unexpected --- though things don’t go entirely as planned. Epi’s brother Alex, who is present when all of this occurs, blames the deed on an unnamed Pakistani immigrant who happened to be in the bar to use the restroom and who witnessed the whole event.
"The plot would be reason enough to read THE BARCELONA BROTHERS, but the manner in which Zanon shows us the hearts and minds of the principals, set against the violence and mind-numbing hopelessness of the barrio, is absolutely wonderful."
There is more to the book, though, than this haphazard murder. Before their dramatic falling out, Tanveer and Epi were involved in a project, if you will, that is revealed only gradually and by degrees, and the morning’s episode between the two erstwhile thugs is not the first to involve them and injuries to the head over the somewhat attractive but very troublesome Tiffany. A couple of bent cops named Pep and Rubin, with secrets and troubles of their own, are tasked with trying to sort things out, though they are as impeded by the truth before them as by Alex’s loyal if misguided subterfuge on his brother’s behalf. This, however, is not a police procedural by any means. It is more about a group of individuals moving at cross purposes against each other even when they are trying to work together, of missed connections and misunderstandings that result in dark deeds performed impulsively.
The narrative changes points of view several times amongst the participants, from Epi to Alex to Tiffany, who is the type of woman that wise mothers tell their sons to avoid, and we even hear from the dying Tanveer as he lies on the floor with his brains bashed in. This has the effect of moving the book right along, but not always in a darkly hilarious manner, made more so by the seriousness of the subject and the dire straits in which Epi’s impulsiveness has placed him, for what is arguably the worst of reasons. As the loyal Alex observes near the book’s conclusion, when faced with a good solution and a bad one, Epi always manages to find a third that is even worse.
The plot would be reason enough to read THE BARCELONA BROTHERS, but the manner in which Zanon shows us the hearts and minds of the principals, set against the violence and mind-numbing hopelessness of the barrio, is absolutely wonderful. This is particularly true in the case of Tiffany. As her soul is revealed to the reader in a number of ways, the issue is raised: What sort of man murders another over someone like that? As is said in AA meetings around the world, a “two” doesn’t get involved with a “ten.” Once you start reading this book, you will race to reach the end to discover the full story, which is both more and less than one might expect.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on November 2, 2012