By Jon Bilbao
Translated by Katie Whittemore
Publication Date: 2/21/23
A Spanish-gothic version of a Patricia Highsmith novel
Jon and Katharina spend the winter in Jon’s childhood home on the Cantabrian coast, lonely and bored, ambivalent about their precarious freelance jobs and disconnected in their relationship. Yet the couple’s routine will soon be disturbed when one rainy night, they witness strange lights in the sky over the village. The next morning, ufologists begin to arrive in the village, anxious to make extraterrestrial contact. The morning brings other unexpected guests: Jon's distant cousin, Markel, and his companion, the silent, alluring Virginia. The visit becomes increasingly uncomfortable as—like the ufologists camped out in view of the house—the strangers stay on and show little sign of planning to leave. Days stretch into weeks, even as the cousins can't remember ever having met, Virginia’s behavior becomes subtly threatening, and Jon begins doubt that Markel is who he says he . . . A deliciously tense and darkly humorous novella that explores the border that separates love from routine and offers a twist on theme of “the other” and how to live with the unknown, The Strangers introduces English readers to singular talent.
Jon Bilbao is the author of the short story collection Como una historia de terror (Ojo Critico Prize for Narrative), Under the Influence of the Comet (Tigre Juan Prize and Euskadi Prize for Literature) and Family Physics, and Stromboli; as well as the novels The Brother of the Flies, Parents, Children and Primates (Other Voices Award, Other Areas), Shakespeare and the White Whale, and Basilico (Navarra Bookstore Prize). The Strangers is his latest novel. He currently resides in Bilbao, where he works as a translator.
Katie Whittemore translates from the Spanish. She is a graduate of the University of New Hampshire (BA), Cambridge University (M.Phil), and Middlebury College (MA), as well as a 2018 Bread Loaf Translators Conference participant. Her work has appeared in Two Lines, The Arkansas International, The Common Online, Gulf Coast Magazine Online, The Brooklyn Rail, and InTranslation. Her current projects include novels by Spanish authors Sara Mesa, Javier Serena, Aliocha Coll, Lara Moreno, Juan Gomez Barcena, and Aroa Moreno Durán. Whittemore lives in Valencia, Spain, and received an NEA Fellowship for Translation in 2022.
“To speak of Jon Bilbao is to speak of one of the most important figures in Spanish narrative of the twenty-first century and, in particular, of the short distances of the story.”—Marcos Gendre, Mondo Sonoro
“Mixing the everyday with the extraordinary doesn't always work, but Jon Bilbao manages to do it without having to write 400 pages . . .”—Pilar Martin, Hola News
“. . . Bilbao dominates like few others in Spanish letters.”—Paula Corroto, El Confidencial
Want to watch a real movie? Jon says.
Katharina doesn’t respond. She is staring over at the window, alarmed. The window looks out over the estuary and the town.
What is that?
They stand up. He stumbles against the coffee table, almost knocking over the laptop.
I can’t tell, he says. Turn off the light. Katharina obeys.
Lights. In the sky over the town. They aren’t blinking, not like the navigation lights on airplanes. The lights belong to three objects, defining the shape of each: triangular, oblong, and circular. Red, blue, and green, respectively. It’s impossible to judge the objects’ size, or their distance away. When Katharina first saw them, they weren’t moving. They remain motionless for a few moments before beginning to glide: alternating, zigzagging, as if performing a sort of choreography, or chess moves on an invisible board. Possibly an effect of the fine rain still falling, the movements leave behind a trace of light blue, as if the objects had wiped away the night and allowed a fleeting glimpse of daytime sky. Then, the three move in unison; the circular and oblong objects chase the triangle, which evades them, small, speedier, swerving and dodging to get away. This maneuver, or game, lasts just seconds, after which the objects reconvene and fly together over Monte Corbero, toward the sea, and disappear out of sight.
Pressed to the window, Katharina and Jon wait silently for something else to happen: for the objects to return or some kind of reaction to be produced. Across the estuary, the town appears unfazed. No more lights on in windows than before, no fewer. No extra cars driving out on the bridge or down the streets they can see. Jon opens the window to check if they can hear something: voices of alarm, sirens. Nothing.
It’s cold, she says. Close the window, please.
Katharina switches the lamp back on. With the lights in the sky gone, the darkness in the living room is unbearable.
When she falls asleep, Jon gets out of bed. He pats the chair where he leaves his clothes and pulls a thick sweater on over his pajamas. He avoids the creaky boards in the hall. He goes down to the living room. Before anything else, he looks out the window. The only change is that the rain has stopped. The sky is calm. He picks up Katharina’s phone, left behind on the coffee table beside the computer. He unlocks the screen and checks her call history. He heard someone ring her this afternoon while he was working. Her father. To insist again that she return to Munich, surely. That she rejected the call does little to soothe him. He goes through her messages and emails. Almost all of it is in German, a language he understands but little. There are a few emails in English from audiovisual production companies; none of them need anyone at the moment, but they’ll keep her resume on file.
At the kitchen table, he records in a notebook what he saw in the sky. Writing it down prolongs the experience. At the same time, it tempers the effect the lights have produced, an effect which keeps him awake. He feels more excitement than when Katharina told him she was pregnant. It happened right after they’d gotten settled in the house; it hadn’t been planned.
Out of the corner of his eye, he sees a light in the sky. He runs to the living room, where the view is better. A helicopter flies in circles over the town. A short time later, it too heads off in the direction of the sea, following the route taken by the objects. Before they’d gone to bed, he and Katharina turned on the radio. They had spent a long time discussing what they’d seen in the sky. The town still looked unchanged. The local radio station closed the midnight news broadcast with a note about a case of some strange lights seen over Ribadesella. That was all. A few newspapers published photos, sent in by witnesses, in their online editions. The images were all disappointing: the night sky and a few colored dots, insignificant, trivial, easily confused with a reflection off the lens. None of the photos did justice to what Jon and Katharina had witnessed: something unprecedented, superimposed—for a few seconds—on reality; something Katharina could interpret as the sign to leave she’s been waiting for.