Chirbes’ literary guides, the ghosts he claimed to regularly engage with, formed a personal pantheon of deceased writers that included Cervantes, Tolstoy, Montaigne, Yourcenar, Lucretius, Virgil, Faulkner, Proust, Balzac, Eça de Queiroz and others. It is perhaps fitting that he relied so heavily on this collection of dead authors for guidance, because as a novelist he saw the past— more specifically, history—as a necessary catalyst for the development of a literature that would allow him to “bear witness” to his time. – Joseph Schreiber
For the Spanish writer, Rafael Chirbes, there was no room in the creative process for an aesthetic devoid of ethics. As a documentarian of his native country, from the post-war years through the transition to democracy in the 1970’s, and on into the opening decade of the 21st century, the late author offered a defiant chronicle of the point where social, economic, and political dynamics intersect with the harsh realities of the human condition. He argued that if the artistic endeavour aims to stand at that intersection, no perspective could remain neutral:
A point of view situates you somewhere, in a location where potentialities—ways of being—battle one another. When you write, or paint, as when you read or look at something, you have to be conscious of the fact that the author wants to invite you to look where he’s looking. Your mission is to protect yourself. Know that they want to seduce you.
This advice, from a brief interview segment in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction, should serve as fair warning before one enters into the emotional labyrinth that is Chirbes’ lauded ninth novel, On the Edge. Recently released by New Directions, in a measured yet lyrical translation by Margaret Jull Costa, this book will serve as highly anticipated introduction for English language readers, to a writer at the height of his powers: a writer who has chosen, in this instance, to stand on the rapidly shifting ground of a country in the throes of economic collapse.
Born in 1949, in a small town in the province of Valencia, into a family with republican roots—that is, on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War—Rafael Chirbes would be influenced and shaped by the post-war environment in which he was raised and educated. When he was four years old, his father committed suicide, but not before teaching his precocious son to read. His mother, who worked as a switchman until she herself was detained by the authorities, was unable to afford to support him; so young Rafael was sent to an orphanage for the children of railway workers. His schooling would soon take him away from the Mediterranean coastal community of his birth; he spent his childhood and adolescence in the landlocked Castile region of Spain during one of the bleakest eras of the dictatorship. At the age of sixteen, he moved to Madrid to study Modern and Contemporary History. There he became involved in underground anti-Franco activities that would see him spend time in prison.
Always a voracious reader, Chirbes supported himself working in bookstores and writing literary criticism prior to heading to Morocco to teach Spanish. Returning to Europe he spent time in Paris, Barcelona, La Coruña, and Extremadura before ultimately making his way back to Valencia. He engaged in a variety of journalistic activities until 1988 when, at the age of 39, he released his first novel, Mimoun. From that point on, he would produce a series of novels that merged elements of realism and introspection with history and storytelling to fashion caustic portrayals of modern Spain.
Chirbes’ literary guides, the ghosts he claimed to regularly engage with, formed a personal pantheon of deceased writers that included Cervantes, Tolstoy, Montaigne, Yourcenar, Lucretius, Virgil, Faulkner, Proust, Balzac, Eça de Queiroz and others. It is perhaps fitting that he relied so heavily on this collection of dead authors for guidance, because as a novelist he saw the past— more specifically, history—as a necessary catalyst for the development of a literature that would allow him to “bear witness” to his time. And through Esteban, the anguished protagonist at the heart of On the Edge, the last of his novels to be published before his death from cancer in August of 2015, he has created a powerful testimony to the devastating personal impact of the economic crisis on his fellow countrymen. And, without preaching, he deftly sheds light on the broader currents flowing through a society plagued by concerns about poverty, violence, xenophobia, Islamophobia, human trafficking, prostitution, moral corruption, and environmental degradation.
Originally published as En la orilla in 2013, On the Edge opens with a gruesome discovery on the morning of December 26, 2010. Ahmed, a Moroccan migrant worker, presently unemployed, spends his days fishing in the marshlands outside the fictional communities of Olba and Misent where, as in other regions of the country and the continent, the economic collapse of 2008 has left its mark. Unemployment is high and climbing higher, while the detritus of the burst housing bubble can be seen along the roads lined with building projects left abandoned in various stages of conception and construction. Two dogs fighting over a piece of carrion attracts Ahmed’s attention, disturbing his quiet interlude; but when he realizes, to his horror, that the contested meat is, in fact, a human hand, he panics, making a hasty retreat lest he be wrongly connected with the scene of a possible crime. The lagoon, he knows, hides a decaying legacy of discarded goods, the spoils and evidence of all manner of legal and illegal activities.
Moving back almost two weeks in time, the majority of Chirbes’ novel will unfold over the course of a single winter day. Seventy year-old Esteban is a man at the end of his rope. Swept up in the euphoria of greed when it seemed there was no end to the burgeoning property explosion, he mortgaged all his father’s land and possessions, including the carpentry workshop and the family home above it, to enter into a partnership with Pedrós, a local developer with grand schemes—a man who has now suddenly disappeared leaving his creditors in the lurch and Esteban completely bankrupt. Forced to lay off his employees and say good-bye to Liliana, his cherished Colombian housekeeper, he is left with the thankless task of attending to his aged father’s personal care while awaiting imminent foreclosure and the loss of absolutely everything.
On the crisp, clear day in question, Esteban leaves his father secured to a chair in front of the TV, and heads out to the marshlands with his dog. As he makes his way through the reeds, along wet, obscured trails, ripe with the pervasive smell of rot and decomposition, he engages in a long and convoluted series of melancholic soliloquies. He recalls his Uncle Ramón, his father’s younger brother, who taught him to hunt and fish, made him toys and was more of a true father figure than the cold, gruff man, now aged and decrepit, presently tied to into an armchair at home. The blunt lessons about life and death that Ramón passed on to his young nephew on their hunting and fishing expeditions to the marshes will haunt Esteban’s own reasoning to the very end:
[T]he fisherman who fails to choose the right bait does so because he doesn’t know how fish think, and a fisherman or a hunter has to become the thing he’s hunting, the real fisherman falls in love with his victim: he’s hunting himself. Hold the hook like this, no, we’re not going to use the dough we normally use for bait, today we’ll use this stuff. Smell it. Disgusting, isn’t it? What a stink! Well, fish love that smell. And so do crabs. Everything rots. We’ll end up rotting as well and we’ll smell quite a lot worse. Many years from now, you’ll rot too—and it’s that rotten smell that the fish like. When you get older, you’ll realize that they’re like humans in that respect. Don’t go thinking you’re not going to end up smelling like a dead fish, Esteban.
Some sixty years on from these marshland lessons, Esteban is, as he combs the area—the lagoon, the canals, and the muddy pathways—closer to being both hunter and his own prey than he has ever been.
Another ghost that inhabits his retrospective musings is Leonor, his first love; the woman for whom he had returned to the town of his birth after a brief attempt to flee. She would soon abandon him, in effect condemning him to a lonely life of sawdust and wood glue, beside his father in the family carpentry workshop while she headed off to Europe to marry his best friend, Francisco—a man who did manage to escape and would, for decades, lead a life of glamour and prestige, before returning, after Leonor’s death, to assume an existence of cultured semi-seclusion in the finest house in town.
Lack of ambition, environmental factors—I used to think: I am the owner of my own deficiencies. The only thing I own is what I lack, what I cannot reach, what I’ve lost, that’s what I have, what is actually mine, the empty vacuum that is me. I have what I don’t have. And I felt infinitely sorry for myself, filled with a bitterness that sometimes verged on hatred of her, a false hatred (no, I don’t think I ever hated her, I still felt aroused whenever I saw her, I desired her, yes, I desired her right up until the end, she was the only woman for me), and a false hatred of Francisco which extended to my father (and did I really hate him, do I still hate him?), or vice versa: love in absentia. They were two sides of the same coin—on one side, what seemed to me unattainable and, on the other, what was denied to me: Francisco showing me what could have been, and my father showing me the depths of the nothingness that had become my sole property.
Chirbes allows his protagonist ample space for extended, rambling rants and remembrances—long sentences unwind in single paragraphs that stretch on for pages—peppered with asides, often directed at his father, who is silent, or to Liliana, from whom he imagines and integrates affectionate responses. Rhythms of resentment, nostalgia, and regret play out against each other, driving Esteban’s restless inner monologues forward as he catalogues and re-catalogues his history of failures and betrayals. Repetitiveness often arises, one part perseveration, one part forgetfulness; balanced by a healthy measure of witty observation and philosophical musings. In spite of himself, Esteban is a captivating narrator.
He is however, no less a complicated, conflicted and paranoid human being. Over the course of more than 400 pages we spend so much time inside his ruminations that it can be tempting, as Chirbes himself might warn us, to only see what our protagonist is choosing to see. And this is where On the Edge is so much more than the claustrophobic internalized ravings of one isolated man. No social situation is ever that simple. And the stage on which Esteban stands, in fact where he is planning to orchestrate and perform his own denouement, is inextricably bound to, and echoes, the whirlpool of rapidly declining economic circumstances around him.
So, other voices are invited to contribute. First there is a recurring Greek chorus of sorts, mediated by Esteban, mind you, who take turns speculating on the present state of social and economic affairs (Where could Pedrós have disappeared to?) over nightly card games at the local bar. These are, for the most part, Esteban’s peers—old friends—each carrying their own baggage, secrets and culpabilities. Yet, are their pasts really as shady as our guilt ridden and suspicious narrator imagines?
Then there are the recurring passages where otherwise silent supporting characters are granted an opportunity to step up and own the stage for a moment. Background stories briefly surface. We hear from disgruntled former employees of the carpentry shop, or their beleaguered spouses; their lonely, frustrated, and weary accounts cut through Esteban’s monologue. His father even speaks from the past through reflections recorded on the pages of an old calendar, and, eventually, his precious Liliana is allowed to offer her own brutal perspective. But perhaps even more revealing is the fact that some of the most important players—Ramón, Francisco and Leonor—essentially remain silent, known primarily through our protagonist’s memories and perceptions.
Esteban’s small corner of Spain, the one in which he finds himself in late middle age, belongs to the ordinary man, the small town resident—running a business on the bright or shady side of the law, or perhaps both. One imagines that it would have been almost impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of economic promise; an excitement that might have sounded more loudly for a the citizens of a nation that had come, relatively speaking, late to democracy. Here our narrator stands divided between his resentment of his father’s stubborn adherence to the socialist values that restricted his expansion of the carpentry business; and his bitter envy of Francisco, the son of a family with a dark fascist past, who fled Olba to ride the coattails of a world enamoured with the pleasures of fine wine and dining (with a line of coke and a beautiful escort on the side, of course). But as he nurses his regrets and calculates the sum of the injustices life has dealt him, Esteban’s strongest emotion is one of resignation to his fate, the one last thing over which he can exercise any control.
In her Afterward, Valerie Miles describes On the Edge as a “poetic spasm, an epic of the garbage dump written by a witness who breaks the underclass’ legacy of silence during a crisis that is not merely economic, but social and acutely moral.” The setting reinforces this reality most vividly: the fetid, polluted marshes, with the blue glint of the sea shining in the distance. Here the solidity of the ground can be dangerously deceptive and even the beautiful blooms betray their origins in their scent. Chirbes’ Mediterranean is no romantic playground—it is harsh, unforgiving, and unforgettable—like the monumental novel that he anchors in this desolate wasteland.
– Joseph Schreiber
- Valerie Miles, A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction (Rochester, NY: Open Letter Books, 2014), electronic edition.↵