Short Story Review – Mercé Ibarz – Nela and the Virgins

This short story review has been imported from my now-defunct review website.  I will progressively import the remaining and available reviews throughout the coming months, all of which can be found here.


Mercé Ibarz’ Nela and the Virgins links virginity and youth to protest and rebellion. In this there are certain sparks of truth, for what are revolutions made of it not the excitable young, those still able to heed the call of the righteous, the just, the outraged, the weak. The bulk of Nela and the Virgins is taken up with the events and stories before the revelation of the sisters’ virginity – afterward the reveal the story describes virginity briefly, then ends. Is it an accident that peppered throughout are subversive writers, counterculture musicians, and revolutionary movements? No.

“The world reveals itself one way or the other, but the difference is in the things you see in it.”

Ibarz’ narrator is difficult to place. They (I shall use “she” in future for ease) seem to exist as both participant and observer, without being explicitly defined. She is not Nela – but nor is she ‘the Virgins’ – the sisters. At times, she interacts with other characters, but sometimes she observes from so high and so clearly that she can’t be real. The narrator is able to zoom into the thoughts of each character at one moment, and then provide a snapshot of the years as they past the next. A chronicler, then, and not a character.

The events being chronicled are the lead-up to the virgin’s being revealed as virgins. Before this they are sisters, heady with the times, swept up in the power of involvement as the student revolts of 1960s and 70s Spain rage and cities burn.

The young women met on the island called the past, poured out into the city from the greater countryside. That first year in the city they didn’t live together but given the frequency with which they met at some of the many small and clandestine meetings they attended, they decided to live together. They were seventeen years old.

These girls come together as symbols of the generation growing up firmly under Franco’s yoke, unwilling to remain shackled but unable to determine exactly how best to attain their freedom. For them, everything is exciting, and dangerous, and the possibility that something new and honest could possibly not involve subversion or rebellion is an impossibility.

Ibarz touches on literature and popular culture, but she avoids using her references to add meaning to the text. Instead of allowing a mention of Kafka to embellish the intent of a paragraph she hangs him there, suspended, hovering above the words while remaining apart from them. Add to that Joyce’s Ulysses, Virgil, and the songs of Gloria Gaynor and Jimi Hendrix. These artists acts as faraway balloons, heavenly marking points existing as standards for the characters, not concepts to become involved with.

As the story continues, the narrator shifts the time ahead to the eruptions of the 1970s, when Franco’s grip finally seems to be relaxing. Now, the story turns to sex. Now, the story shifts to focus on the rather blunt theme of a woman losing her innocence (virginity) at the hands (penis) of a man. Ibarz changes register, becoming cruder with her metaphors, though her strength in composition remains. The importance here is that Franco was not ousted. He was not replaced. All the revolutions were for nothing; all the dead students came to naught.

Theirs was a narrow path that had to be followed. Given all of that, the most hygienic way to lose one’s virginity was to look for someone who would do it to you with no strings attached and that’s it. Some asked their neighbor to do it or the first guy who passed on the street, which was an elegant and distanced sort of attitude that the oh-so-ironic postmodernists of today would have loved.

Similarly, when the girls lose their virginity, it’s nothing. It’s a joke, a throwaway thing. Franco is still around, and the girls are still the girls.

But then, in the end, during the last paragraph, things settle. Ibarz makes the story into a fairy-tale, allowing a character to wind up happy and content, with a home, a husband, and a career. It goes without saying (and it does go without saying) that Franco is gone. A new beginning, and the loss of something. What? Metaphorically, virginity. In more concrete terms? The youth who fought so hard to beat Franco had lost their youth, failed to win, and secured nothing more than continuation.

Nela and the Virgins by Mercé Ibarz is a short story from the Dalkey Archive Press’ anthology, Best European Fiction 2011


Author Mercé Ibarz
Title Nela and the Virgins
Translator Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Nationality Spanish
Publisher Dalkey Archive Press

See Also

Other stories from the Dalkey Archive Press’ anthology, Best European Fiction 2011, include:
United Kingdom: Welsh: Roberts, Wiliam Owen – The Professionals
United Kingdom: British: Mantel, Hilary – The Heart Fails Without Warning
Turkish: Üldes, Ersan – Professional Behaviour
Swiss: Stefan, Verena – Doe a Deer
Spanish: Castilian: Vila-Matas, Enrique – Far From Here
Slovenian: Jančar, Drago – The Prophecy
Serbian: Arsenijević, Vladimir – One Minute: Dumbo’s Death
Russian: Gelasimov, Andre – The Evil Eye
Romanian: Teodorovici, Lucian Dan – Goose Chase
Portuguese: Tavares, Gonçalo M. – Six Tales
Polish: Tokarczuk, Olga – The Ugliest Woman in the World
Norwegian: Grytten, Frode – Hotel by a Railroad
Netherlands: Uphoff, Manon – Desire
Montenegrin: Spahić, Ognjen – Raymond is No Longer with Us – Carver is Dead
Moldovan: Ciocan, Iulian – Auntie Frosea

Please visit the Short Story Reviews page to see all of the available reviews.


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