Review by Hayden Thorne
A brilliant, lunatic tale filled with black humor and decadence, The Carnivorous Lamb is a compelling family saga of power, love, and politics. Into a shuttered house, haunted by ghosts of past rebellion and Franco’s regime, Ignacio is born. His mother despises him; his failed father ignores him; his older brother becomes his savior, his confidant…his lover. Shocking, irresistibly erotic, their forbidden relationship becomes the center of exiled Spanish author Agustin Gomez-Arcos’ savagely funny, stunningly controversial novel – and a damning indictment that neatly spears Franco, family, Church, and the modern world.
Ignacio and Antonio are brothers. They’re also lovers. Priests are hebephilic perverts, and they stink of incense and shit. Franco’s regime drips from every corner of a decaying house that’s literally, emotionally, and psychologically cut off from the rest of Spain. Within this household, religion and politics play themselves out day after day, shaping Ignacio’s birth, childhood, and adolescence, offering us a bizarre tableau of family dysfunction and oppression.
The novel might sound like an erotic melodrama, but it isn’t. What Gomez-Arcos does – and does magnificently – is take Spain, the Catholic Church, Franco, and notions of family by the hair, and skewer them through with a knife. Again. And again. And again. His tone is brazen, defiant, and angry, with Ignacio telling his story with a dark, biting humor that kept me enthralled from start to finish. I have, I must admit, a special fondness for angry, subversive fiction that takes no prisoners, and The Carnivorous Lamb does so with wit and a vicious satire that would make Juvenal weep with pride (sort of). Like Lindsay Anderson’s If…, the novel, in a nutshell, is one big “Fuck you!” from start to finish.
To say that the characters are fascinating would be an understatement. Because Gomez-Arcos limits his scope to Ignacio’s family, bringing in an occasional outsider in order to place the family within a certain social context or, in the case of Don Gonzalo (the priest) and Don Pepe (the tutor), to just plain tear apart, the characters are explored to near minute detail in a kind of vacuum. Their complicated relationships, their ambivalence toward each other (in the case of Ignacio and his mother, a mutual hatred), and their ties to the past (notably the Spanish Civil War) play out like a surreal stage production.
Of all the characters, Matilde (Ignacio’s mother) is the most interesting and the most complex. She’s born into wealth, and her family’s aligned with Franco’s Nationalists, but she loves and marries a Republican, whom her family saves from imprisonment. Her conflicting allegiances show themselves again and again, and at times, we’re left wondering which side she truly belongs. She starts out as a satirical figure, representing the Catholic church in many ways, but as the novel progresses and Ignacio begins to touch on the more “hidden” corners of her character, she grows into a much more fascinating and exasperating figure.
Carlos (the father) and Antonio are the least developed of the major players. Carlos, a former Republican soldier and failed lawyer, spends his days hiding in his study, listening to old propaganda records that talk about peace and victory while locals consult with him over legal matters. He wastes away slowly, practically dead well before he dies. Antonio’s given more room for development, but though he remains a constant in Ignacio’s life – a strong, erotic, protective figure who exerts a remarkably strong influence on Ignacio – he still remains largely in the periphery.
Ignacio’s anger – simmering and sustained throughout the novel – colors our views of Spain, but we’re also made to laugh (maybe in shock, maybe in sympathy) at the occasional wry observation and simply out-and-out hysterical commentaries and exchanges he makes with the other characters. The scenes involving his baptism, confirmation, and first communion, for instance, are classic. Even America, represented by Evelyn (the graduate with a degree in Home Economics), isn’t spared a vicious tongue-lashing. Some readers might find Ignacio’s loathing of his mother and of Evelyn a blatant show of misogyny, but I think that’s limiting one’s reading of the text to a surface level. The nature of the story itself is so bizarre and outlandish that to read on a literal level would be doing the book a bit of injustice.
As the novel progresses, and Ignacio’s rage escalates, the scenes turn more and more surreal. Even Evelyn, who plays a small but effective part near the end of the book, becomes less of a character and more of a metaphor, and it’s clear that it isn’t because she’s a woman that Ignacio learns to despise her. It’s what she represents in addition to her role in the family, what with all his contemptuous observations of her diploma and her American bacon-and-eggs efficiency in the kitchen.
Gomez-Arcos’s novel can be taken apart in so many ways, given its subject and its narrative approach. It’s the kind of novel that’s memorable in its in-your-face subversion and celebration of anarchy. Darkly funny, incredibly erotic, I give this book four stars for the writing and one extra star for the damned fine cojones.