Tag Archives: Jordi Sierra i Fabra

A subtle case of the subjunctive

Today I’ll start by sharing a gorgeous example of the subjunctive/indicative contrast that I recently noticed in one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero. Then I’ll circle around and explain what makes it so gorgeous.

Lo ha matado al salir de aquí, después de estar contigo….El objetivo eras tú [Patro], por lo que sabes o puedas contar.
‘They killed him when he left after seeing you. The real target was you [Patro], for what you know or might say.

A bit of background: I like to tell my students that the subjunctive/indicative distinction is easier to master than the the preterite/imperfect distinction. The contexts, or triggers, that require the subjunctive are usually clear-cut, whereas there’s often a lot of subjectivity in deciding whether a given past tense context triggers the preterite or the imperfect. For example, Ojalá ‘God willing’ always triggers the subjunctive, whereas ayer ‘yesterday’ can be followed by either the preterite or the imperfect, depending on how the speaker perceives what happened yesterday.

For this reason, I’m intrigued by subjunctive/indicative contexts that allow more flexibility. Certain triggers are famously ambiguous. For example, tal vez and quizás, both meaning ‘maybe’, can be followed by either the subjunctive or the indicative, depending on whether you are pessimistic or optimistic:

  • Tal vez venga ‘He might come, but probably won’t’ (subjunctive)
  • Tal vez viene‘ He might come, and probably will’ (indicative)

Most Spanish grammar guides (e.g. here) cover in depth a second flexible context: so-called “adjective clauses”, or relative clauses that describe (give more information about) a noun, i.e. a person, place, or thing. A subjunctive In an adjective clause indicates that the clause describes a hypothetical person, place, or thing while an indicative indicates that the noun is real. Consider, for example, the sentence pair below, which I remember from tenth grade (!!), and which distinguishes between a hypothetical and an actual secretary:

  • Busco una secretaria que sepa escribir a máquina ‘I’m looking for a (hypothetical) secretary who can type’ (subjunctive)
  • Busco una secretaria que sabe escribir a máquina ‘I’m looking for an (actual, specific) secretary who can type’ (indicative)

Not all flexible relative clauses are adjective clauses. This brings us back to the example I started this post with, in which the relative clause functions as a noun.

Lo ha matado al salir de aquí, después de estar contigo….El objetivo eras tú, por lo que sabes o puedas contar.
‘They killed him when he left after seeing you. The real target was you, for what you know or might say.

I love this example because it contains both an indicative and a subjunctive within a single relative clause! This combination subtly mirrors the progression of the speaker’s thoughts: from the murderer’s certain motive for killing Patro — what she knew — to the murderer’s hypothetical motive — what Patro might say. As with the venga/viene and sepa/sabe examples, the subjunctive and indicative forms of the verb provide a compact and elegant way to achieve this distinction.

Frankly, having looked through my collection of grammar books and websites, I’m not sure what category the puedas subjunctive falls into. The noun clauses with the subjunctive presented in grammars typically follow classic WEIRDO triggers like Espero queEs triste que, Ojalá que, and Dudo que. Nevertheless, the puedas example strikes me as splendid Spanish. Any ideas?

Curiosas y curiosos

When rereading one of my favorite Spanish novels, Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s Cuatro días de enero, which I’ve written about previously here and here, a sentence I’d missed the first time caught my eye:

El cadáver de Reme y el círculo de curiosas y curiosos, hablando en voz baja, observando aquel quebranto de la vida en forma de muerte inesperada.

‘Remy’s corpse and the circle of curious women and men, speaking in soft tones, observing that devastation in the form of unexpected death.’ (my translation)

The interesting Spanish here is curiosas y curiosos. It’s noteworthy because mixed-sex groups are usually described using the masculine gender only; the expected wording here, then, would simply be curiosos. (I occasionally tell a girl student that in Spanish, “boys have cooties”, so that a single masculine item in a group contaminates the whole group.) Sierra i Fabra is obviously circumventing this rule in order to emphasize that there were more woman than men ogling the dead body. This may sound like a minor detail, but the story is set in Barcelona in the waning days of the Spanish Civil War, and this is one of many instances where Sierra i Fabra calls attention to the lack of men after years of fighting.

My English translation gets the same message across by mentioning “women and men”, where the usual expression is “men and women”, but curiosas y curiosos is an even more striking — and attention-calling — deviation from the norm.

I love to find examples, such as this one, where a grammatical feature of Spanish adds to its expressive power.

Mirar with ‘a’

I recently finished Las chicas de alambre, one of Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s top-selling novels. It is about a reporter’s investigation of a top model’s disappearance; the alambre ‘wire’ in the title is a reference to the model’s anorexia. This was my first Sierra i Fabra novel outside of the author’s Inspector Mascarell series, and actually read a lot like a detective novel. It was a good story though I prefer the Mascarell books.

The second person the reporter interviewed for his story was the photographer who took the model’s first photographs. His description of the session included a use of the verb mirar that truly threw me for a loop.

Mirar is one of those verbs that often puzzles English speakers learning Spanish because its English translation, ‘look at’, includes a preposition (at). My students always want to add an explicit (and incorrect) preposition, Spanish a ‘at’, to the verb, as in Juan mira a la pintura ‘Juan looks at at the painting’. Spanish has plenty of verbs of this sort, mostly involving perception or motion, simply because English, as a Germanic language, favors two-part verbs, whereas Spanish, as a Romance language, does not. Other examples are buscar ‘look for’, escuchar ‘listen to’, subir ‘go up’, and sacar ‘take out’. (It’s worth noting that a few Spanish verbs require prepositions whereas their English equivalents don’t — salir de ‘leave’ and entrar en ‘enter’ come to mind — but these are clearly outnumbered.)

Mirar is especially challenging because it is correctly followed by a when its object is a person, as in Pablo mira a Juan ‘Pablo looks at Juan.’ But the a in such sentences is an instance of the untranslatable “personal a” required before human objects — also seen in sentences such as Pablo visita a Juan or Pablo ayuda a Juan ‘Pablo visits/helps Juan’ — rather than a verbal complement (if that’s the right term).

The relevant sentence in Las chicas de alambre was nadie puede enseñarte a mirar a una cámara ‘nobody can teach you how to look at a camera’. Assuming that this wasn’t a typographical error, I wondered whether this could be a most intriguing use of the personal a. Could looking at a camera be like looking at a person, since a camera, like a person, has an eye?

To investigate this question I consulted one of my favorite resources, the website wordreference.com. Its listing for the verb mirar included the specific phrase mirar a la cámara but also other uses of mirar a without a human object:

  • mirar a ambos lados antes de cruzar ‘look both ways before crossing’
  • mirar a las musarañas ‘look at the bugs’, i.e. daydream
  • mirar a otro sitio ‘look away’
  • mirar al futuro ‘look to the future, think ahead’
  • mirar al vacio ‘stare off into space’

In all these cases, including mirar a la cámara, a clearly acts as ‘toward’ rather than just ‘to’, expressing the direction of one’s gaze.

In sum, the possible personal a interpretation turned out to be a red herring, but I ended up learning more than I expected about the use of this ubiquitous Spanish verb.

The joy of diminutives

I just checked, and was surprised to see that this is my first blog post about Spanish diminutives (unless you count a passing reference in my all-time second-most-viewed post on Spanish nicknames). Diminutives are word endings, such as -ito and -illo, that make a ‘little’ version of the word they are attached to. For example, a cucharita is a little spoon (cuchara) and a cigarrillo ‘cigarette’ is literally a small cigar (cigarro). Diminutives often convey affection rather than size. Pobrecito is equivalent to ‘poor thing’, and mamacita, while it has no true English equivalent, is similar to ‘dear mother’.

Spanish speakers use diminutives deliberately and even with relish, often piling them on as in chiquitillo ‘little boy’, which adds both -ito and -illo to chico ‘boy’. In this way, diminutives are different from inflectional endings, such as plural -s and -n, which speakers use without thinking. The same is true for other affective endings, such as -azo and -ón, which both mean ‘large’ and often bear an insulting tinge.

One of my favorite examples of Spanish diminutives in action comes from (where else?) Jordi Sierra i Fabra’s “Inspector Mascarell” book series, my current Spanish literary obsession. In Seis días de diciembre, the fifth book in the series, Mascarell has lunch with a customs official, Martín Centells, at Centells’s favorite restaurant near the port of Barcelona. As a regular patron, Centells receives the best treatment from Quique, the chef/owner. Quique uses diminutives to describe the specialties of the day with loving pride:

¿Qué tienes hoy, Quique?
Una sopita de pescado de las buenas. Y de segundo sardinitas pero de las que anoche estaban en el mar tan tranquilas que las ha pescado mi suegro.

— What do you have today, Quique?
— A terrific fish soup, and as a second course, sardines that were relaxing in the ocean until my father-in-law caught them last night.

Interestingly, Sierra i Fabra maintains the diminutive when describing how Quique serves the food (Ya traía las sardinitas), but drops it when Mascarell and Centells eat: Probó la sopa ‘He tasted the soup’, atacando la primera sardina ‘attacking the first sardine’.

Darn it, now I’m hungry.