Rafael Chirbes: La caída de Madrid [The Fall of Madrid]
his is something of a follow-on from Chirbes’ earlier La larga marcha [The Long March]. That novel told the stories of a group of Spaniards shortly after the Spanish civil war and then of their children. This novel is set on 19 November 1975 and tells the stories of various Spaniards on that day. The date may be meaningless to most foreigners but many Spaniards will know that early the following morning Francisco Franco will die, after nearly forty years as head of state of Spain. His death will mean a profound change for many Spaniards, for some positive, for others less so. The story starts with José Ricart (or Don José Ricart, as he is called in the novel). Ricart had, in fact, joined the Republicans in the civil war but soon switched to Franco’s nationalists. He is now the retired head of a very successful furniture firm. Though nominally retired, he is still very active in the firm. He has had two sons. One died just before his third birthday. The second, Tomás, works for the firm but he is a disappointment to his father. He does not have his father political skill and seems to lack initiative. For example, Don José points out that many of the furniture contracts the firm has with government departments were not acquired through open competition but because Don José knew people in key positions from his Falangist days. Tomás seems to feel that the firm can compete and is far less worried about the post-Francoist situation than his father. Don José is not only worried about the firm’s competitiveness but a possible takeover of the country by the Communists. Moreover, today is his seventy-fifth birthdays. He is not too keen on birthdays. Though he will have a coffee with a friend or two, what he is less enthusiastic about is the presentation at the firm and then the family event, which he wanted to avoid, not least because his wife is becoming senile.
The birthday party is organised by his daughter-in-law, Olga, and we follow her and her friends and helpers as they prepare the party. Olga is the supreme conventional bourgeois. There is a wonderful passage where she thinks about the difference between men and women. Men do things. They watch football and go to bullfights. Women like earrings, trying on skirts and, only when they are older, do they realise that high heels are uncomfortable. Though she is less concerned about Franco’s imminent death than her father-in-law, she is following the news. Far more concerned is Don José’s friend, police chief Maxi Arroyo. He is, as he says, part of Franco’s police. He has been obedient at all times but some of his deeds have not been entirely legal. Indeed, when a seventy-year old man is shot for putting up communist posters, he is somewhat concerned. He is very much worried what the future will bring for him. He has thought about going to Latin America but is not attracted by the idea, not least because he would have to take his wife but could not take Lina, his mistress, and suspects he might end up in the Portuguese police.
There are other characters as well, all somehow associated with the Ricarts. Lurditas is the maid Her real name is Maria Antonia. One day at work she fell and knocked herself out. She was unconscious for three days and then a neighbour placed a Lourdes Virgin Mary card on her and she quickly recovered. Since then, she has been known as Lourdes or, more frequently, Lurditas. She is married to Lucio. He worked for he metro but was arrested when he tried sabotaging the metro system – glue in the locks, bombs on the line – and spent some time in prison. Since he has come out, he left the Communist party and joined another left-wing group. He is sure that he is being followed and, on this day, is given a warning and has to suddenly hide. Professor Juan Bartos is a left-wing professor. He teaches both Quini, the son of Tomás and Olga, and Marga (Margarita) whose parents we will soon meet. His classes are well attended and he and his students are preparing for Franco’s death and what they will do when that finally happens. He is married to Ada Dutruel, an artist, whom Olga discovered. He has an old friend, Chacón, who went to Mexico after Franco took over, where he was a university professor. He has now returned to Spain to retire but, instead of being glad about the imminent death of Franco, he is saddened. The new Spain that is about to emerge is not his Spain but the Spain of a younger generation, which has different values and ideas. We meet this generation when we meet Tomás and Olga and their family. Quini, as we have seen, is very left-wing while his brother, Josémari, is very right-wing and this causes family disputes. Tomás, interestingly enough, does not take the side of Josémari, who considers that it is he who is defending Spain and its traditions, but, at the same time, he is critical of Quini who, he considers, is spoilt and speaks to him in a way that he would never have dared speak to his own father. Tomás is not happy in his life. He knows that Olga is still in love with Pruden, husband of her best friend, Elvira (called Elvis by everyone, including her daughter, Marga). When younger both had been in love with Pruden (though they did not know the other one was for a while) and he had picked Elvira. Olga says he only chose Elvira because of her money, to which Elvira retorted that at least he preferred her money to Olga’s. Tomás also considers that his life has only been as a shadow of his father but carries on in his own way.
Chirbes does a superb job of showing the various strata of society in Spain as Franco is dying but resists the temptation to show what actually happens when he does die. While he is clearly not sympathetic to Franco or his legacy, he is not vicious in his portrayals of the Francoists. For me, the most interesting character is Tomás Ricart, a man who has clearly benefited from Francoism, through his father’s business success, which he stands to inherit, but who feels a certain sympathy with the new generation but, like Professor Chacón, not part of it, indeed alienated from both his father’s generation and his children’s generation. Spain did change and clearly moved to the left, leaving many Francoists feeling that their successful revolution had been betrayed but it is clear, at least in this book, that most of the Franco supporters were expecting it and Chirbes shows the reasons for it.
First published in 2000 by Anagrama
No English translation