The dysfunctional family is a fairly common theme in present-day literature. En presencia de un payaso [“In the Presence of a Clown”] falls into that category. We can expect to encounter a constellation of individuals joined by blood, marriage or circumstance and separated by a plethora of misunderstandings. This work by Andrés Barba explores the complexities in the relationships of husband and wife, parents and children and siblings. It is at times ponderous and slow-moving, probably too much so for the general American reading public.
One often opens a new novel by an unfamiliar author with a mixture of curiosity and hope, sort of like arriving at a foreign country for the first time. Whom will I meet, will I understand their language, will it be worth the expenditure of money and time, will I enjoy the visit? Barba's novel increasingly frustrates the reader's desire to answer these questions. At the end, when the main character, Marcos Trelles, and his elderly father methodically set about the barbecuing of two stacks of currency, a total of 5,340 euros, the reader is left wondering why. Barba’s artistic use of language is excellent; his communication, not so much.
We meet Marcos, a physics professor, right away, his wife, Nuria, and his assistant in his research work, Marta, whose brilliance Marcos is not above borrowing without giving her proper credit. Seventy long pages later, we meet Abel, who is Marcos' brother-in-law and also the clown (now retired) in the book's title. Abel’s comic creation when he dresses as a woman, Lola Perpetua, is a political satirist. “She” made him a huge celebrity at one time, and the notoriety, the fans and the threats made his life unbearable; so he had fled Spain to make a new life for himself in Colombia.
Regarding politics in the plot: There are some elements that could be universal, but others are particular to Spain and the entire novel could have been just about the clown and his political endeavors. His celebrity gave him ready access to women who were attracted to his fame, and he was quoted in an interview as saying “Uno no se puede acostar con todas las mujeres del mundo, pero puede intentarlo.” [You can't go to bed with all the women in the world, but you can try.]
At an earlier point in the novel, the mother of the clown and of Marcos' wife was introduced at length and promptly killed off in a freak accident, but her memory continues to pervade the story, in some ways more alive in death than the actual characters. The list of those characters is rounded out with Guillermina, the ex-clown's new Colombian love, whom Marcos also finds rather enticing, even though there's plenty of sex in his marriage at every opportunity, including telephone sex. Sexual activity is also subjected to minute analysis of details.