On the Edge (New Directions; paper $16.95) is only the second of Rafael Chirbes’s many novels to be translated into English (by Margaret Jull Costa), and the first since Mimoun in 1993. Chirbes, who died last August, was one of the leading lights of contemporary Spanish literature, but if On the Edge is the most palatable of his works, then it’s easy to understand the hesitation to translate them.
The narrative consists almost entirely of a rambling, discursive monologue delivered by a 70-year-old carpenter, soon to be an ex-carpenter, named Esteban. He lives in the town of Olba, near Spain’s Mediterranean coast, with his mute, ancient father, and he’s just lost his business and all of his property in an idiotic investment. As he explains: “I have adorned my old age with bankruptcy, a little twist of angostura bitters to spice up my last drink.” Other voices—mostly those of the employees he’s had to lay off—make up a kind of chorus, but they’re often indistinguishable from one another and tend to be as despairing as Esteban himself. Everyone is having the same problem: The boom years are over, Spain is in economic free fall, and the survivors stagger about in the ruins, berate one another, and lament their ill fortune. Their brief prosperity was an illusion, says one of Esteban’s friends: “Spain…is still the Africa that begins at the Pyrenees.”
Money, greed, business, whatever—capitalism comes in for a lot of justifiable criticism in the novel. “Economics in its purest form,” Esteban muses, is about “how to stick the knife in the pig’s gullet so that it makes as little fuss as possible when it dies.” Or else: “Being spotted haggling with a whore by the roadside means being accepted as a companion in the last circle of hell, a being unable to control his lust—or, far worse, a wretch unable to control his money.” But this trouble with money is for Esteban just a symptom of the deeper evil. Something is wrong with the world. And something is wrong with him, too, as he’s perfectly willing to acknowledge. He complains that everyone these days is “keen to denounce anyone committing some offence, however minor,” but he’s singularly unable to imagine an alternative. His notion of community consists of the freedom “to ask a neighbor to lend him his van to transport the body of a dead horse or dog.”
Nothing is good. Nothing is tolerable. And nothing escapes Esteban’s rancorous attention. Old people jogging have chosen to “risk their lives—which are, after all, already lost and, for the most part, wasted.” The Styrofoam tray in which meat is packaged at the supermarket is “the small coffin of something that died a violent death.” Telephone numbers and e-mail addresses are “the cat-flaps through which modern-day intruders creep.” Love is often just a matter of “possessing that flesh, defending it from other men’s desires.” And don’t get him started on the Mediterranean: “[My] sense now is that it’s impregnated by the kind of sticky muck that remains in a body after it’s been violated.” But why should it be otherwise? We live in “a world that’s constantly changing and constantly growing more corrupt.” “Today is worse than yesterday, but better than tomorrow.” Man is just “a factory for shit in various stages of preparation,” he declares. “Every human being is guilty as charged.”
Occasionally the rant skews comic, and at precious few moments it recalls the anguished hilarity of Samuel Beckett or Thomas Bernhard. “Sometimes,” Esteban laments, “with old men, our feet turn gangrenous and have to be amputated.” There is the same faint air of allegory as well. Esteban’s father sits in the house, mute and recriminatory and unforgiving—impossible to ignore, impossible to live with, a breathing, defecating reminder of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship, which ruined his life. Esteban himself is a figure for modern Spain—the boss whose employees hate him for laying them off, but who is himself bankrupt and miserable. And the whole catastrophe, financial and spiritual, is somehow manifest in the nearby lagoon to which they all seem irresistibly drawn. (The “edge” of the title is orilla in Spanish, the “shore”: not a firm boundary line but a liminal space—a zone of indecision.) It’s in this place, literally and metaphorically, that Esteban’s life has unfolded; he’s been on the margins of things. It’s where he played as a boy. It’s where his uncle taught him to fish, a memory that inspires an upsetting digression about bait. It’s where he brought his only real girlfriend, long ago, and where he now brings prostitutes. It’s where he imagines killing his father and committing suicide. And it’s not only Esteban who haunts the lagoon. This is where resistance fighters hid for years during and after the war. So the lagoon is Spain, too, or the crisis of Spain’s modern history—not a cliff from which you plunge to your death, but a soft wallow into which you sink forever.
Is On the Edge worth reading? Certainly it gives no pleasure. But it does seem to operate like a psychological health tonic. It has to be swallowed to take effect, it’s corrosive going down, you wonder if he had to add quite so much vinegar and horseradish, but afterward the effect is invigorating. Life might be bad, but you’re not Esteban, thank God. And, at the very least, you’re no longer reading On the Edge.