Four By Four

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

The world is a Gothic nightmare in FOUR BY FOUR, by the Spanish novelist Sara Mesa (translated by Katie Whitemore).

The action takes place in a strange, creepy private school called Wybrany College--known colloquially as the "colich." The book is divided into three sections, each one of which has a different protagonist.

Fifteen-year-old, scholarship-student Celia is prominent in section one, which opens with her leading a small group of classmates through the woods in an attempt to escape from Wybrany. Problem is, nobody knows which way to go--or even where to go. The teenagers argue over strategy and eventually get into a fist-fight, making it easy for the authorities to round them up. Celia isn't much bothered; she's known all along that escape was impossible. She also knows she's destined to a life of failure and unhappiness. Eventually, this bright, sensitive girl commits suicide.

Section two is narrated by a substitute teacher who arrives at Wybrany right after Celia's death. Isidro Bedragare is not only a bit of a shnook but a fraud. When his brother in law, the real teacher, suddenly disappeared, the unemployed Isidro assums his identity and shows up in his place.

"My lack of teaching experience should be obvious," he thinks, "but maybe I can hide it by staying quiet, going with the flow, doing what they do, smiling and expressing my concerns at the right time."

Isidro learns that it's easy to fake it at Wybrany. It's a ritzy school; most of the students' parents are "government ministers, big businessmen, actors--members of the mob." Mixed in with them are the "Specials," children of the school's workers, plus a handful of poor kids on scholarship. They live in segregated dorms administered by the faculty, a bunch of blackly-comic, whacked-out (on booze and cocaine) pedants who know that Wybrany is a badly-run, third-rate institution but grimly refuse to do anything about it. Rebelling could cost them their jobs--and force a return to the dystopian, brutal, crime-ridden world out there.

Much of FOUR BY FOUR is taken up with Isidro's struggle to keep from being discovered as an imposter. He must also cope with the chaos and craziness of life on the well-tended grounds of Wybrany, a life built on a "succession of lies and appearances."

We all play a role here, he realizes, and "it's only the nuances in our performances that define us." A lonely, bereft man, he tries reaching out to others for companionship and love, only to be rebuffed for the loser he is. Only his maid Gabriela shows him any humanity. A woman with "bags under her eyes and dull, washed-out skin," she offers him sympathy sex but that's not enough to keep poor Isidro from breaking down and spiraling into madness.

Section three of the novel is taken up with the personal papers of the teacher Isidro has replaced, Garcia Medrano. His diaries deal with life in an imagined city and, as translator Katie Whitemore explains in a postscript, "reveal the nefarious mystery of what's really happening at the school. The book explores power and oppression, sex, the individual vs. the system. Good stuff."