Catalan man with a van

Lost Luggage, by Jordi Punti, translated by Julie Wark, Short Books, RRP£12.99, 480 pages

The removal man as existential anti-hero? It sounds unlikely, but think about it. What other job, bar midwife or undertaker, witnesses so much profound change and offers, daily, so much evidence of life’s transience? The removal man may work in the intimacy of other people’s homes but he will never be anything but an outsider, pushing his nose up against the glass of strangers’ dreams.

All that symbolic heavy-lifting could be as crushing as an untethered piano slipping down a stairwell. But for Gabriel Delacruz, the enigmatic central figure of Jordi Punti’s debut novel Lost Luggage, the job has compensations, not least four women and four sons born in the 1960s in different cities: London, Frankfurt, Paris and his hometown, Barcelona.

Impermanence runs in Gabriel’s veins, as well it might for a foundling brought up by nuns in a Franco-era orphanage. Under his bed, in the modest pensión where he rents a room, sit two suitcases, his life’s possessions, packed as if for flight. His real home is on the road, in the cab of the mythologically resonant Pegaso van he shares with his beloved fellow orphan Bundó and their colleague Petroli as they criss-cross Europe.

For Gabriel, travel offers a break from the oppressive austerity of Franco’s Spain. But there is also a hint of the pathological about his refusal to stay still, evidence perhaps of the loneliness of the long-distance lugger. Even his love life suggests a lost soul: while Bundó falls headlong in love with a prostitute and courts her, Gabriel – to quote a colleague of his – is a “passive Don Juan”.

That passivity defines his character. Gabriel isn’t so much a presence in the novel as the absence towards which everyone else is drawn. Indeed, he’s a one-man vanishing act: absent father, semi-detached lover and, as the novel begins, missing person. For the father’s story, we must rely on his sons: Christof, Christopher, Cristophe and Cristòfol. Now adults, and previously unaware of one another’s existence, the half-brothers come together to find their old man, tracking down those who knew him, while recounting how their parents met.

In a striking stylistic flourish, Punti lets the Christophers tell much of this story in the first-person plural. Make of that “we” what you choose. Is it a testament to the power of shared genetics or shared experience? Does it suggest the power of family to overcome mere proximity? All of the above, perhaps. Certainly, it helps simplify a narrative that has a tendency to sprawl. But it also highlights Lost Luggage’s weakest point.

The four Christophers, with their subtly different names, are imagined as inflections of a single noun. They’re a poker hand, with their card-sharp father playing the role of joker in the pack. What they are not are fully fleshed individuals. In Punti’s hands, personalities are shrunk to tics: the Camden Market record seller with an excruciating habit of quoting Beatles lyrics; the German actor who speaks most openly through a ventriloquist’s doll; the French physicist whose study speaks to parallel universes in which family life might have turned out differently; and, finally, the Catalan translator who makes sense of the Babel of his father’s life.

In itself, this kind of broad-brush characterisation doesn’t matter (apart from the references to Camden Market and quoting The Beatles, which are horrible). The trouble is there is hardly anything else to go on. Where exactly do the half-brothers live? With whom do they share their lives? Why are they so forgiving of a man who has abandoned them and their mothers? For a tale about an absent father, Lost Luggage is curiously incurious about the effects on the next generation or, for that matter, on the women who fell under Gabriel’s spell.

These omissions are surprising because Lost Luggage isn’t without subtlety. Punti – a regular contributor to the Spanish and Catalan press – is a sprightly writer, delighting in taking us down byways and through backwaters as the novel circles Gabriel’s disappearance. But the big, bold self-consciously picaresque storytelling never completely loses sight of the book’s central theme, the ways in which family, and its lack, can shape a life.

“Lost luggage” comes to represent not only the boxes the removal men ritually remove from each client, nor the abandoned Christophers, but most movingly Gabriel himself. The ambiguous ending leaves readers to make up their own mind on whether he has finally been found.

Adrian Turpin is director of the Wigtown Book Festival

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