In Ribadesella, Spain, along the Cantabrian Sea, a man and his wife house-sit for his vacationing parents. The couple, freelancers by trade, winter in the seaside town as they try to settle their lives. They’re impatient with each other; their relationship has become familiar and hollow; something is off between them, within them. And then a surprise: a few pages into this domestic narrative about the subtleties of their relationship, three UFOs—lighted, colored objects—appear, dance in the sky over the sea, and vanish. Jon Bilbao’s three-part novella The Strangers, translated from Spanish by Katie Whittemore, puts several disparate plot elements in apposition: the unhappy marriage, the UFOs, and an unexpected set of visitors who enter the couple’s personal space. By doing so, Bilbao can explore the nature of beginnings, endings, appearances, and truth in only 128 pages. Between its neatly conceived cast of characters, The Strangers has the tension of a tightly-drawn drum.
The couple, Jon and Katharina, are early in a pregnancy. Jon is unhappy in his freelancing career and Katharina is feeling isolated in Ribadesella, hungry for social life. Following the UFO appearance, several strange things happen. A steady stream of ufologists move into the meadow across from Jon’s childhood home and set up camp, looking for meaning in the sky. Then, Jon’s long-lost cousin, Markel, shows up with a mysterious woman named Virginia. They move in. The problem? Jon has no recollection of this cousin ever existing.
Whittemore’s translation features tight, straightforward, unadorned sentences that let the tension rise from these characters’ actions rather than complications of language. As soon as Markel and Virginia arrive, their motivations seem suspect. Markel knows too much about the house and the family. He’s too familiar with Jon. He fulfills the social role that Katharina was craving. Whittemore uses simple syntax and repetition to mark the entrance of a character who feels slick, too easy, and too sure:
[Katharina] finally has someone with whom she can waste time in bars. She orders tea for herself but takes sips of Markel’s wine. Sometimes they’re the bar’s only customers. Sometimes the owners get lost back in the storeroom. Sometimes nobody walks by outside for minutes on end. Just the shrieking of the gulls. Crates of cider and beer stacked to the ceiling, as if prepared for a siege. It smells like bleach and sawdust, which is sprinkled on the floor. She pushes him to talk about himself. Markel’s stories are vague. It’s rarely clear when and where the events took place, or if it is clear, it’s not clear what he was doing there, in those places populated by people with first names only, names that sometimes come up again but don’t seem to correspond to the same people.
As she has done in other Spanish-language translations like Sara Mesa’s Four by Four, Whittemore allows a dark shadow to hang over the prose. While the two works differ in tone, the clarity of Whittemore’s translation serves the same function. Her words allow Bilbao’s manufactured unease—the kind that comes from something that feels too calculated—to rise to the top. Jon Bilbao is an acclaimed Spanish writer of multiple short story collections and novels that focus on suspense and interpersonal tension. The novel is set in his birthplace.
The Strangers’ success and strangeness rests in Bilbao’s use of contrasts. Between Jon and Katharina: imbalances of temperament and desire. Between the two house sitters and the visitors: imbalances of class and characterization. Markel is described as a Robert Redford-type, and his partner Virginia is described as a leggy model in a fur coat. Bilbao’s use of these clichés serves to highlight the ordinary domesticity of the original couple and the everyday nature of their disagreements. Still more imbalance exists between the otherworldly appearance of the UFOs and the natural beauty of Ribadesella. The objects in the sky exist only momentarily as though “superimposed on reality,” and once they vanish, “the gloom . . . is unbearable.” Katharina and Jon, like us, wait for something else to occur. We’re all in want of meaning. Bilbao relies on implied truths to propel the story forward, forgoing interpretation for his reader. The inclusion of the ufologists, who are sure that the flying objects represent a second coming, illustrates the futility of attempting to define such a happening with any degree of truth.
The novella’s depiction of Ribadesella is of a place out of time. Bilbao creates the sense of a town holding its breath. The ufologists wait for answers in the field while Katharina and Jon wait to see what will happen inside the house. The ufologists say, “We’ll be here for as long as it takes,” but when the UFOs don’t immediately reappear, they grow angry. Inside the house, Katharina picks at Jon. It’s the off-season, it’s rainy, and the natural world seems undone. Markel suggests that Virginia take over the housekeeping. He and Virginia also take over an entire floor and lock Jon and Katharina out. They refuse to leave the house unless it’s with Jon and Katharina. They bring in large suitcases, a TV, two dangerous dogs. The outside world mirrors the disquietude in the house—a viper weaves its way through the grass; the power goes out—as Bilbao builds to a Shakespearean climax.
The Strangers is Highsmithian. Sure. It’s a story of what we allow ourselves to believe and the ways that characters take advantage by entering into our close circles. Bilbao’s narrative is a strange layering; the edges don’t quite match up, which is exciting. As each of his characters undergoes their arc of change, Bilbao is challenging us—me, you—to think about not just each of the novel’s disparate ideas but how we feel about them coexisting. I would argue that he doesn’t want us to know what the UFO or Markel’s ambiguity mean, that his work is rooted in capability rather than certainty. What he doesn’t explain is as thrilling as what he does.
Markel makes Jon suspect his own memory’s truth, leaving room for himself to take advantage. Everything he says to and around the house is calculated. He tells Jon that their two grandfathers built the home together, rather than Jon’s grandfather alone, as he’s always been told. By the time Jon is able to view old photographs of himself from his childhood to check his memory, he’s doubting everything. One particular picture of himself and another boy on the beach leaves him feeling haunted:
The face of Jon’s companion is blurred. A friend? It doesn’t look like his cousin. And yet, the photograph has evoked that specific day in detail . . . Could it be Markel, in the same way that he has appropriated the downstairs, is now taking possession of Jon’s memories, replacing images of other people? He strains to remember.
By the time he considers this image, he (and Bilbao’s readers) have been trained to question everything. Maybe his memories are being replaced. Maybe there is some kind of supernatural force at work.
Memory, Bilbao implies, is a fallible, malleable record. Just like fiction, another framework we superimpose on time to make sense of it. The novella’s title draws immediate and recognizable connections to Camus’s interpretation-resisting Meursault, whose relationship with Marie Cardona rests only on the fact that she is present, rather than on his preference for her. Bilbao challenges us to ponder an autofictional conclusion by naming his protagonist after himself and setting the story in his own birthplace, yet he challenges the idea that truth or certainty are even possibilities. What does it mean, then, to suggest that kind of truth in a story with UFOs and a (possibly) fake cousin? Bilbao has us doubting in the same way that Jon does.
The Strangers relies on a turn at the end of Part I and a climactic finish in Part III. The author unspools details carefully, hanging his narrative upon the latticework of his three-part structure, encouraging us to look at the “how” rather than the “why.” Some readers will be disappointed by the amount of truth revealed in The Strangers’ final pages, by how much negative capability remains. I am not one of them. What The Strangers offers us is both a glimpse at a mystery and of our human struggle to assign meaning. What does it all mean? Does any of it matter? The point is in the asking.
The Strangers by Jon Bilbao, translated from the Spanish by Katie Whittemore (Dalkey Archive Press, 2023).
© 2023 by Heather Scott Partington. All rights reserved.