In 2013, an up-and-coming Spanish author named Iván Repila published a surrealist allegory about two boys trapped in a well. This short novel was a clear response to his nation's punishing recession, as it was prefaced by a coal-in-your-stocking epigraph from Margaret Thatcher about the inevitability of poverty, as well as one from Antonin Artaud that spoke to the disaster courted by such callousness. Though Repila’s novel was a bleak tale that probed the disturbed minds of two destitute children, it also celebrated the resilience of the human spirit. This book, The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse, was published in Sophie Hughes’s chilling, nuanced English translation last year and has gone to markedly favorable reviews, finding a sizable readership. Short and allegorical as it is, it has posed a psychologically rich, authentic response to the economic forces that have left so many in Spain disempowered, angry, and destitute.
Three years before that book’s original publication, Repila’s countryman Rafael Chirbes won his nation’s highest literary honor with a very different book of the Spanish recession. As much as Attila’s Horse was a taut, clear-eyed tale of resilience from a developing writer, On the Edge proved to be a chaotic, misanthropic opus from a literary heavyweight. Published earlier this year in a polished English translation by veteran Margaret Jull Costa, it is a book that demands attention. It is a major statement about contemporary Spain, one that is almost unbearably cynical and bitter, at times less a literary novel so much as a catalog of indignities, regrets, wrongdoing, decay, and general human awfulness. In contrast to Repila’s allegory, it is a book that offers the reader no hope, a book that may very well suggest that hope itself is an emotion that is simply naive in a Spain that has been crushed by malaise and taken captive by oligarchs.
The misery and decay that will be Chirbes’ dominant key is clear from the very beginning. On the Edge opens with a taut 16 pages of noir-like plotting in which, on the day after Christmas, an African migrant named Ahmed discovers three bodies in a swamp. Panicked that he will be blamed, he flees the scene. These 16 pages are everything one might want out of good literature: evocative, vivid scene-setting, perfect pacing, keenly observed, nuanced, and providing a gripping hook.
From here the book jumps backward to December 14 and into an entirely different mode: a massive 400-page middle that almost entirely eschews plotting and scenes for a series of rant-like monologues that put the book into a claustrophobic stasis. We are mostly trapped within the mind of the 70-year-old Esteban, who spends his days languishing at the brink of poverty and monitoring the bodily waste of his enfeebled father. Although Esteban’s is the main voice, the book also abruptly switches into the voices of other people inhabiting his milieu. He and his fellow derelicts are the sort who seem compelled to state out loud every detail that we generally elide for the sake of civility—or, perhaps, for the sake of hope. They spend their days blowing upon the embers of wasted lives, and their existence is that of tired old men filled with regrets and resentment. Page after page, the reader is confronted by rectangular, single-paragraph blocks of text, scores of pages consumed at once in stream of conscious rants on the many forms of misery.
Chirbes’ vision is bracing, and it must be said that he is steadfast in pursuit of it. Particularly depressing are the many scenes of the son caring for his father, who is generally tied up to a chair and set before a roaring television set. There is seemingly no end to Chirbes’ capacity to linger over the details of this decrepit man’s bodily disintegration, the adult diapers that Esteban changes regularly, the nurse-like washings, the smell of shit and death that the old man fills the house with. There is a feeling of late Philip Roth here, of an author who has found old age to be horrifying and is letting the world know through his fiction. The father-son relationship also serves a greater thematic end: in a too-neat parallel with how Spain’s boom years have saddled the younger generations with debt, Esteban laments how the need to ceaselessly watch over his father effectively chains him to a lonely, depressing house and a sad life. When not encumbered by his miseries, Esteban spends a good deal of time lusting creepily after anything young and pretty; he is a man with enough self-awareness to realize how grotesque this must appear to the outside world, and yet, with an utter lack of restraint that epitomizes On the Edge as a whole, Esteban simply follows his basest impulses and wallows in these sexual fantasies.
On the Edge fights hard to be many things at once, and it often succeeds: it aspires to be a state-of-the-nation novel of a Spain shuddering beneath its terrible recession. It frequently berates the new aristocrats that have plundered a globalized world by ruining the environment and exploiting the disempowered. It is also a novel about how Spain's politics (and those of Europe more generally) have lost their way; this historical narrative is told through the many generations of Esteban's family, which has gotten caught up in the tumultuous swings taken by Spain's politics and economy in the 20th and 21st centuries. It is also an up-to-the-moment book about the streams of migrants coming to Spain in hopes of a better life across the Mediterranean.
In many ways On the Edge is masterful. In its heft and its ambitious reach, it comes across as the novel of the Spanish recession. But as the bitterness and recriminations mount, as the filth and shit and despair saturate these pages, Chirbes’ elegant sentences begin to feel like a quagmire. It should also be noted that while Chirbes is skilled at entering the minds of the downtrodden, his master class comes across as a caricature. This may be true to the minds of Esteban et al., but it fails to give the reader that insight that Chirbes seems to promise us.
And then there is the plot. There are the beginnings of one here: those three dead bodies, as well as the gradual dissolution of Esteban's financial stability after an ill-advised loan made with a greedy investor. But this is an extraordinarily thin plot to stretch over nearly 500 dense pages. Without much narrative momentum, the book is forced to find its tension in the voluminous descriptions of a world that everyone knows is slowly crumbling to pieces. In a foreword to this book, the talented and immensely well-read editor and translator Valerie Miles has described On the Edge as resembling the work of one of Chirbes’ idols, John Dos Passos. It’s an apt comparison, as both authors enlisted legions of voices in an attempt to create vast books that might sum up the societies they sprang from. One of the key differences, however, is that with the U.S.A. Trilogy Dos Passos described a utterly dynamic nation: his interwar America was filled to the brim with industrialists profiting off a frenetic economic, socialists scheming to bring down capitalism, a world-shattering war, workingmen, indigents, politicians, poets, lovers—all of them caught up in the massive sway of a feverous economy that collapses spectacularly. By contrast, in On the Edge all of the fervid economic growth, all of the political wars, all of the living has already occurred. Instead of telling that tale, Chirbes forces us to watch the dust that settles long after the explosion has passed. We are left with the listless lives of the stalemated, those who remain not out of inclination but because there is no other option.
Scott Esposito is the co-author of The End of Oulipo? His book The Surrender is available in March from Anomalous Press. He is currently working on a book about film.