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Rafael Chirbes: En la orilla (On the Edge)

This book was hailed as the best Spanish book of 2013 by many Spanish critics and also hailed as the best book on the Spanish economic crisis. I am not competent to judge how valid these comments are but I can say that it is still a very fine book, with one caveat. As with his other books, plot is not a key feature of this book. Indeed, to all intents and purposes, there is no plot. At the very beginning, Ahmad, a Moroccan immigrant, who has recently lost his job, is wandering along the wetlands in Olba, by the shore of the title, when he sees two dogs fighting over what looks like a piece of meat. He approaches the dogs to scare them off and sees that the piece of meat is, in fact, a human hand. Further examination reveals two, possibly three human bodies (he is not sure about the third – it could be an animal and he does not stay long enough to examine it). He is scared that he might be accused of being involved in the deaths and hurries away, without reporting it. In any other book, this would be the start of an investigation. But in this book, this discovery seems to be entirely irrelevant, except, as we shall, as a symbol of what Spain has become.

The main character is Esteban who has spent all but his university years in Olba, having rarely travelled. Esteban is seventy and the novel consists mainly of his telling of his life, the current situation and what he thinks and feels, together with our listening into in his conversations with his friends in the local bar, as well as a few first person accounts by other key characters, such as Esteban’s father and Liliana, a Colombian, who is looking after his father. Esteban has just closed his carpentry business, inherited from his father, who inherited it from his father. (Asked what he wanted from life, he replied Yo ni quise escribir novelas, ni quise esculpir, ni por nada del mundo quería ser carpintero, y menos en casa de mi padre. Quería vivir, [I did not want to write novels or sculpt and there was no way in the world that I wanted to be carpenter, particularly in my father’s firm. I wanted to live.]) The business had gone bankrupt. He is not alone. The local savings bank has also gone bankrupt. Tomás Pedrós had set up a series of businesses – he had thought that he could grow like El Corte Inglés, Inditex or Mercadona (respectively a large Spanish department store chain, fashion chain and supermarket chain) – but now his businesses have failed, leaving suppliers owed money, unpaid employees and debts everywhere. More importantly, Pedrós has disappeared and Esteban and his friends wonder where he has gone. He may have gone to Brazil or Indonesia, which do not have extradition treaties with Spain, or maybe even to somewhere nearer, like Switzerland, where he can hide. Esteban is not married and has never been married. At one time, he thought he might marry Leonor but it did not work out and, in the end, she married his friend, Francisco. They moved off to Madrid but, after Leonor died, Francisco returned to Olba, where he is now one of Esteban’s drinking companions.

With the help of Liliana, Esteban takes care of his father, who is over ninety years old. Much of the time, Esteban sits him in front of the TV, where he watches westerns and films about terrorists. As this is a contemporary Spanish novel, the Civil War comes into it. Esteban’s father was involved in the Civil War on the Republican side and spent three years in prison for it. As he was Republican, the carpenter’s shop was raided by the Fascists and they took or destroyed everything that the family had not managed to hide. Esteban has two brothers, Juan and Germán, and a sister, Carmen. Carmen was the darling of her father when young but she moved away and now has very little contact with Esteban and their father. Juan only phones up to see if their father has died and he can collect the inheritance, while Germán, the youngest, continues the way he was as a boy, spoilt, and badly behaved. He always seem to be involved in some easy way to make money and is currently living with a Ukrainian woman, thirty years younger than he is, initially claiming that they are married, though Esteban finds out that they are not.

All of this feeds Esteban’s essentially negative view on his own life, Olba, Spain and the world at large. The wetlands by the shore are symbolic of the mess the country is in. It has been used as a dumping ground since time immemorial. Rubbish, chemical waste from local companies, dead animals and, as we have seen, dead humans are dumped there and allowed to sink into the marshy land and pollute it. While there has been some sort of green movement and an attempt to protect it, as Esteban points out, no-one polices it and people still dump there. But it is Esteban’s view on Spain and the world that shows the grim situation. He weighs in on all current evils – the economic situation, globalisation, immigration (North African, Eastern European and Latin American, all equally as bad in his eyes), the politicians, unemployment, Internet porn, the breakdown of morality, corruption, prostitution (there is plenty in Olba, with foreign, probably underage prostitutes lining the main road) and greed. He remembers when he was young, Russia was seen as both the workers’ paradise but also the source of quality literature. Now it is the source of corruption, the trafficking of human flesh and the Russian mafia. He has a go at Islam, of course, complaining that Muslim workers expect there to be no lunch break during Ramadan so that they can get home early, thereby depriving the Spanish of their lunch break and also complaining that many of the halal butchers are acting illegally. As he himself says, he expects only the worst of human beings and is not surprised to find it.

It is a grim, dark novel about a grim and dark period in Spain’s history. The soundtrack, of course, is provided by Lou Reed and David Bowie. Esteban does not let up with his damning criticism with what is wrong and how Spain got there. He offers no solution, no way out. He is approaching death and he knows it and does not really seem to care. It is very clear that this touched a chord with Spanish readers. It has been translated into German and I wonder whether the Germans will feel the same way. I am not sure English-speaking readers will do so, though maybe those living in the bleaker parts of the UK and USA might feel a sense of familiarity. I preferred his earlier work but I can appreciate the quality of this novel. However, I am glad that it is finally making it into English.

Publishing history

First published in 2013 by Anagrama
First English translation in 2016 by Harvill Secker
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa