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Rafael Chirbes: Paris-Austerlitz
Rafael Chirbes made his name by writing novels showing the dark side of the Spanish economic (and political and moral) crisis. While this novel makes an oblique reference to the crisis – the narrator notes the first wave of Spanish emigrants to Paris, looking for work – as the title tells us, the book is set almost entirely in Paris. Moreover, it is quite simply a semi-autobiographical homosexual love affair between a twenty-something Spanish painter of bourgeois origin and and a French working class man (of Normandy peasant stock, as he tells us more than once), some thirty years older. Chirbes started writing it in 1996 and then put it aside and came back to it much later, finally finishing it last year, a few months before he died.
The narrator, the Spanish painter, remains nameless. He has clearly had issues with his father back in Madrid, presumably because of his homosexuality or his desire to be a painter. He has tried to make his mark as a painter in Paris, as aspiring painters are often wont to do, but has so far not succeeded. Indeed, he has been unable to pay his rent and so has been thrown out of his flat. He has been looking for temporary cheap lodgings and meets Michel. Michel takes him back to his flat for sex and, when he realises that he is homeless, offers to put him up. Michel is, by his own admission, a very ordinary man. He quite likes his job, a badly-paid, boring factory job, he gets on well with most of his colleagues, he likes going out for a drink and he likes sex, particularly with darker-skinned men. (The narrator later learns that his previous relationship was with a Moroccan man, whom he found out had a wife and four children back in Morocco.)
Initially, things go well. The narrator looks for a job but cannot find one. Nor can he do much painting, as Michel’s flat is very small and very gloomy. However, Michel looks after him and gives him money. They behave like lovers do in the early stage of a relationship, doing things together, from watching TV in the nude to going out and getting drunk in the local Moroccan bar. Both seem to be happy and they seem to be in love with one another and have a happy sex life. Eventually, however, things start to change. The narrator’s father dies and he has to go back to Madrid. Michel is fearful that he will not return. He does but, when he returns, he now has an income, coming from a rental property he has inherited. He does not tell Michel about this money. Things get worse when the narrator decides to rent a flat of his own, albeit adjacent to Michel’s. He claims that this changes nothing. He has rented the flat to give him space and light to paint but Michel fears the worse. His income improves when he finally gets a job, as a designer for a furniture company. It is not a job he enjoys as he is the lowest of the low in the company but it does bring in an income.
Things change further when the narrator’s mother visits. She wants to meet Michel and Michel wants to meet her. The narrator keeps them apart. Michel berates him, feeling (quite correctly) that he is not good enough for the narrator’s mother. Michel has already introduced the narrator to his mother. Wearing his Armani jacket to dine with his mother makes the narrator feel more and more different. The couple gradually grow apart.
We also learn a lot about Michel’s background. Though he must have been around five years old when his father went off to war, he had no recollection of him. The father was captured early on and spent the war in a prisoner-of-war camp, not returning till well after liberation. During the war, his mother worked as a prostitute in the local brothel. Michel’s first memories of his father are of his return. He is a gruff, grumpy and, at times, violent man, prone to alcoholism and suffering from respiratory problems, both of which Michel claims he has inherited. He soon dies. Michel’s mother had had two boyfriends in the past but had chosen Michel’s father over another man. She now resumes her relationship with this man, even though he is in prison. He is a widower with three children. They get married, which means he avoids being sent to a prison in one of the French colonies. Michel dislikes him intensely and even nicknames him King Kong. He is aggressive and bullying and clearly still involved in criminal activities, probably with the help of his children.
We gradually learn these details over the course of the book, which is mainly told in flashback. At the beginning of the story, Michel is in hospital, clearly suffering from AIDS or an AIDS-related disease. His skin is covered in sores and he is losing his sight. It seems that after his break-up with Michel, he got tired of men from the South, as he puts it, and had an affair with an Irishman but foolishly did not use a condom. By this point, Michel and the narrator remain friends but not lovers. The narrator is reluctant to see Michel in his current state and Michel does not want to be seen in his current state. Gradually, the visits become less frequent and one of Michel’s colleagues, Jaime, takes over the duties of collecting the mail, paying bills, etc. for Michel.
What makes this book far more interesting than it might have been is not so much the story of the relationship between an older, working class Frenchman with a younger, bourgeois Spaniard but the way the narrator analyses it. Indeed, he analyses the whole relationship in great depth, looking at how relationships start, develop and then decline. In particular, the decline is not abrupt. It gradually fades away but Michel clearly still adores him and he clearly still has feelings for Michel, both of friendship and gratitude as well as of as sexual nature. Even as it fades away, the narrator examines both his own and Michel’s motivation, what each feels for another and what each one means for the other. Even after they have separated, the narrator will collect Michel from the bar where he is blind drunk and they still see another. It could have been quite a conventional love story but the mix of tenderness, analysis and awareness make it far more readable than other love stories. It is not as great as his earlier works but an interesting swan song.
First published in 2016 by Anagrama
No English translation