Toni Sala’s The Boys is an examination of how a tragedy affects both those closest to it and those at a further remove. It’s set in the aftermath of a car accident that kills two young men, and traces the lives of four characters who grapple with its effects. (You can read an excerpt from it at Tin House.) Sala also uses the novel to dissect a particularly toxic strain of masculinity that several of the characters channel. To learn more, I talked with Sala and translator Mara Faye Lethem about the novel.
How did the process of writing The Boys begin? Was it with the accident that sets the plot into motion? The notion of having four very different central characters? Something else entirely?
Toni Sala: Writing needs a core (at least one core) that works as a well of energy. The deaths of two young people was powerful enough to write this book. Accidents like the one in the novel are frequent. I remember reading in the newspaper about an similar accident in my town; I do not remember how many deaths, but there were three youths in the car. I changed the place of the accident out of respect for the families. The character of the banker, a man with two daughters, came first. I was interested to speak of identity in relation to the death. The other characters came later, as a way of thinking from different perspectives on the same topic.
Especially in the sections centered around Nil and Miqui, The Boys critiques a particularly toxic strain of masculinity and misogyny. What drew you to this as a subject? Was there a balance in showing these characters without making them so repulsive that a reader might stop reading?
Sala: There may be certainly readers who can stop reading because of these two characters, it’s true, but this depends on each reader, not me. I just tried to make a picture inside this type of person, his reasoning, his system of moral values. One issue that hovers over the book is morality in difficult times. Needless war for detecting extreme behaviors. Misogyny is a moral problem that occurs daily around the world and at all economic levels.
There are a few scenes in The Boys that reference efforts for Catalan independence. Was that done more to set the scene, or are there deeper thematic connections to the story being told?
Sala: The issue of independence had to be present in a book seemingly attached to reality like this. In The Boys, there is a tension between a very specific writing, a kind of reporting, and a very abstract writing, closer to, say, philosophy or even poetry. Beyond that, one of the issues I try to treat in the book is identity — death allows us to know better who we are — and the issue of identity is closely tied to independence. In terms of identity, you can see the four chapters as a concentric circles — Dantesques, if you want — towards the land, towards the bonds with the earth.
What was the process of translating the novel like? Were there any particular challenges?
Mara Faye Lethem: There was a certain point in the process where I was very grateful for Toni’s generosity and patience for — and even obvious enjoyment of, which is always wonderful — my questions. They ranged from the entomological to the philosophical, and, of course, linguistic.
Corresponding with an author always helps me to get into his or her head and is especially useful in a book like this, which has so many interior monologues and sometimes veers abruptly into the poetic and visceral. There are many things an author can clear up quickly, be it pragmatic details or shades of nuance, and even just knowing a question stumps them is ultimately valuable for my decision-making processes.
Have you found that European readers have reacted to the novel differently than readers outside of Europe?
Sala: I find it difficult to answer, because the American edition of The Boys has just come in bookstores. But it is an interesting question. The truth is that I am surprised by the welcome criticism that in the US has had for a novel set in a small Catalan village. Certainly, this should not be surprising; there are universal themes — death, violence, misogyny. Once translated, literature speaks a universal language, such as painting or music. It is true that issues such as lack of communication have been more highlighted in America, but not much, apart, of course, from the question of the independence process or Spanish crisis, which interests readers outside Catalonia… But also interests readers inside, of course, although we know it directly.