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Rafael Chirbes: Crematorio (Cremation)

Just as we had had a portrait of Spain after the civil war in La larga marcha [The Long March] and Spain the day Franco died in La caída de Madrid [The Fall of Madrid], Chirbes now gives us a portrait of Spain in the 1990s and early 2000s. It is centred around corruption in the construction industry and, of course, we now know what that led to. When this book was first published the Spanish economy was booming, thanks in part to corruption.

Matías Bertomeu has died. Matías had been an anti-Franco rebel and had now become a proponent of green issues. The novel, told in a continuous stream-of-consciousness, style is the reactions, feelings and concerns of those associated with Matías. The main character, and the one with whom we start, is his older brother, Rubén who dreams, as a young man, of becoming an architect but has grown up to be a property developer. He is a man totally without scruples. Quite apart from the fact that, from his base in the (fictitious) town of Misent (a sort of Benidorm/Malaga type place), he has managed to ruin the coastline by building, building, building, he has done it dishonestly. Chirbes gives us a grim picture of a town with permanent traffic jams and failing public services as well as uncontrolled growth. Rubén has been involved in every sort of corruption, money laundering and sharp practice. He has made deals with a shady Russian character called Traian. He is, of course, proud of what he has done, bringing in tourism and jobs.

There are various other characters who give us their perspective. Mónica is Rubén’s trophy wife, his second and much younger spouse. She is portrayed as a woman who enjoys the luxuries of being the wife of a rich man – smart clothes, beauty salons, lunches with her friend Menchu. Chirbes mocks Mónica and Menchu. For example Menchu’s husband buys art which is expensive but vulgar, as he has no taste or judgement. Rubén has a daughter by his previous marriage, Silvia. Silvia, an art restorer, is critical of her father and his activities and has been supportive of her uncle Matías and his green stance. However, she is not averse to taking Rubén’s money. Silvia is married to Juan Mullor, a professor who is writing a biography of Federico Brouard, a writer who is now an alcoholic and and dying who is also critical of Rubén’s works. Finally, Ramón Collado is Rubén’s right-hand man who does all his dirty work for him. Through all of these characters, we learn of a society that is totally corrupt, totally shallow and totally without values. We have the advantage of knowing what will happen to Spain as a result.

Of course, this novel is not available in English and is probably not likely to be. Dealing as it does with the political and economic situation in Spain, publishers have assumed, probably correctly, that this would be of limited interest to English speakers. You can read it in French, German, Italian, Dutch or Serbian. In Spain it was so successful that it was made into an eight-part TV series (also not available in English). Sadly, it seems that you will be unlikely ever be able to read it in English. This a pity as it is first-class exposure of the corruption of Spain. Of course, such corruption is not unique to Spain. Chirbes shows through his characters – the ones mentioned and others – that not only is Spain not just sunshine, as one of the characters says, but is much more and that much more is not pretty. Another first-class novel from Spain not available to English speakers.

Publishing history

First published in 2007 by Anagrama
First English translation in 2021 by New Directions
Translated by Valerie Miles