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Jaume Cabré: Jo confesso (Confessions)

This is nominally the story of Adrià Ardèval, whose life we follow from before his birth to, more or less, his death. I say more or less because, though this novel is some thousand pages long, Cabré says, in an afterword, that it is not finished. However, though we do follow the life of Adrià Ardèval, Cabré packs a whole lot more into this novel.

We start (more or less – there is lot of more or less in this novel) with the story of Felix, Adrià’s father. Felix was a highly intelligent young man. He was born in Tona, near Barcelona. At six years old he already possessed the academic preparation and the accordant resolve to commence his ecclesiastical studies. He learns languages and is well ahead of his classmates, so much so that he is sent off to a seminary in Rome. It is while he is there that he discovers the two things that will take him away from the priesthood and to the less than exemplary life he will lead. The first, of course, is the opposite sex. He meets a young woman, Carolina, they have an affair, she gets pregnant and Felix flees Rome the next day.

The second thing that changes the course of his life is the discovery of rare manuscripts. He sees many of these at the seminary and becomes deeply fascinated with them. He will eventually devote his life to the acquisition and sale of manuscripts and other antiquities. By the time that Adrià is born, he runs a highly successful business in Barcelona, buying and selling antiques, including manuscripts. Many of the finest items, he keeps for himself but makes enough money to have a fine life style.

The shop is run by Mr Berenguer (everyone calls him Mr. Berenguer). Felix and Berengeur are morally challenged. They do not care how they get hold of the finest items as long as they get them. During the 1930s and 1940s, they have two main sources. The first is buying items on the cheap from Jews fleeing the Nazis. Both men frequently travel all over Europe to acquire such items and strike a hard and, often dishonest bargain. Later, when the war is over, they acquire items from fleeing Nazis, who need money quickly. Felix and Berenguer are well aware that most if not all of the items being sold by the Nazis have been acquired illegitimately. This is how they acquire the Storioni violin.

The Storioni violin is key to the story. It was made by Lorenzo Storioni in Cremona and is, allegedly, the first violin he made. (We follow the story of how it was made.) It even has a name – the Vial violin (and we follow the story of how it acquired that name.) This violin is as much a key character as the Ardèvals. We follow the stories of many of its owners and most of them end up dying a particularly nasty and violent death, Felix included. Most of them, including Felix, acquire the violin by dubious means.

As well as being the source of many stories and of the evils of the acquisition bug, the violin plays another key role in this book. One person who does acquire the violin is one of the Nazi doctors at Auschwitz, who took it from a Jewish prisoner. We follow in some detail the activities of this doctor and of his colleague as well as, briefly of Rudolf Höss, the Auschwitz commandant. We follow both what they do at Auschwitz, how they escape and their subsequent life, as well as the attempts by Jewish organisations to track them down and bring them to justice. Cabré uses the Holocaust, and the three Auschwitz men mentioned, to illustrate one of his key themes, the nature of evil.

Felix does later marry and the couple have only the one son, Adrià. Adrià is not a happy child. He feels, with considerable justification, that his parents do not love him. He spies on them, learning about the things they do and the fact that they do not seem to love one another. They try to force him to do what they want. His father wants him to learn many languages, as he did, while his mother wants him to play the violin, which he is not terribly keen on. Nor does he want to run the shop after his father dies or, indeed, after his mother dies. However, like his father, he does – eventually – get the acquisition bug and seeks out rare manuscripts to collect, some of which are possibly forged. At the same time, he gradually learns the story of the violin and it hangs over him for much of the book.

We follow his career – he aims to be an academic and author, specialising in aesthetics and the history of culture. His books do well. They are praised by Isaiah Berlin, amongst others. He studies at Tübingen and teaches in Barcelona. He has a complicated and messy love life, with the violin playing a role there, as well. He has a best friend, Bernat, who is a violinist and a failed author. He is horrified, during his teaching, at how little his student know about culture (history and the Bible, to give just two examples). Both Adrià and Bernat, though seemingly decent people, commit morally dubious acts.

While we are follow the story of the Ardèval family and of Bernat, we frequently slip off into tangents, as Cabré regales us with numerous stories from the past. Some of these stories seem initially irrelevant till we find out their relevance. Some of them merge with the ones about the present, with characters from both eras having the same names or even having similar experiences. Nearly all of these stories illustrate similar things, namely that most people commit morally dubious acts and, at the same time, that evil – the Spanish Inquisition, the Franco government, the Nazis – stalks the planet and this has not really changed throughout the years. Related to this, is the condemnation of the acquisition bug or, perhaps to put it more bluntly, greed, which many of the characters have.

Cabré jumps backward and forward in time, even within the same paragraph. He also switches from the first to the third person
narrative, again often in the same paragraph and even the same sentence. All of this is to show that everyone is culpable and that everyone has some moral flaws, even if some are clearly much worse than others.

Cabré’s intention is clear. Even seemingly thoroughly decent and respectful people are likely to have moral flaws. Some of them are driven to terrible behaviour by the system, be it the Spanish Inquisition or the Nazis, others by greed or lust or, quite simply, because they can get away with it. We all want things, we want recognition and fame, we want love and admiration and we are prepared to pay a price – a moral price – to get these things if we cannot get them any other way.

Cabré ends the book saying I deemed this novel definitively unfinished on 27 January, 2011, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.

First published by Proa in 2011
First published in English by Arcadia in 2014
Translated by Mara Lethem