On The Edge by Rafael Chirbes | Harvill Secker, 521pp, £16.99
Rafael Chirbes, who died last year, was eventually recognised as one of the finest Spanish novelists of his generation. On the Edge, his last book, is not an easy novel. It is written in swirling prose, with long, conversational sentences and long paragraphs, and in different voices, not always easy to identify at first. You have to listen to it, as you have to listen to William Faulkner, a novelist Chirbes admired and was evidently influenced by. Chirbes is a writer who was at once angry and tender, coarse and surprisingly delicate.
Born in 1949, ten years after Spain’s ghastly civil war, he came from a family on the losing Republican side, brutally oppressed in the early years of the Franco dictatorship. Like Javier Marías and Javier Cercas, he was obsessed by the war and the divisions of Spanish society. His Republican father committed suicide and, orphaned, he was taken from his native Valencia to a grim residential school in Castile. Estoban, the chief voice or character in this novel, has a father imprisoned after the war and a grandfather shot by the Falangists.
This is a novel of our own more immediate time, its subject the aftermath of the banking crisis and the financial crash. Estoban is on the point of bankruptcy. Thirty years ago, after a wandering youth, he abandoned his ambition to be an artist, and returned to his home village of Olba to work for his father in his carpenter’s shop. The once dominating father is now senile, a burden to Estoban who has never liked him, and Estoban’s attempt to expand the business during the property boom has gone sour. He tracks back over his life, wondering how he comes to be what he is now.
The controlling image in the novel is the lagoon at the edge of the village, a sordid, stinking marsh, where rubbish is dumped and the local mafias dispose of corpses, just as the Falangists used to. In the first chapter, Ahmed, a young Moroccan who works for Estoban, sees a stray dog chewing on something there. Other dogs try to snatch it from him, and Ahmed sees it is a hand. Human beings can be discarded as easily as rubbish. For Estoban, and it’s probably fair to assume, for Chirbes too, the “one real evil. A truly terrible evil, one that anyone with any intelligence should avoid at all costs, is poverty”.
Estoban’s world is one where the money has run out, and with it the possibility of belief in the future or a better life.
These quotations make the novel sound gloomy, a grim read. It isn’t. Once you surrender to the galloping prose, it’s exhilarating. Chirbes gives us glimpses, often more than glimpses, of a complete society, from the Arab migrant workers, the prostitutes who line the road leading to the lagoon, crooks, layabouts and swindlers like Estoban’s younger brother, bankers and property developers, to Estoban’s boyhood friend, Francisco, who was ashamed of his Falangist father, set out to be a novelist and prospered by running a glossy magazine directed at Spain’s New Rich, flourishing in the days of easy money.
The novel is full of talk, sometimes wayward – talk for talk’s sake, as people speak randomly, it seems, in bars and cafes, because talking is preferable to the silence in which you may find yourself thinking. Sometimes the talk is melancholy and self-pitying, as when Francisco complains that his life has been a failure and Estoban thinks what else can you expect to be when you’re 70: “today is worse than yesterday, but better than tomorrow.” There are moments of joy in this novel, moments of beauty, moments of horror and many of self-disgust, that most honest and hard to bear of feelings.
Chirbes is a novelist who asks a lot of his readers. He may not be quite as demanding as Joyce, who was happy to say – joke? – that his readers should be ready to devote their life to his work, but he is unquestionably very demanding. The good thing is that, if you meet the demand, you are richly rewarded.