Manuel Vilas: Ordesa
Since the financial crisis in 2008, there have been quite a few books published in Spain on the topic, both fiction and non-fiction, and about the effect of the crisis on Spain and the Spanish people. This one has made a particular mark. It was first published in early 2018 and was both criticality and commercially acclaimed, appearing on many end of the year best-of lists in Spain.
The story seems to be primarily autobiographical, as Vilas tells his tale of woe, which is linked to the tale of woe of Spain and the Spanish. As he points out early on, he is, like his mother a chaotic story-teller. He jumps all over the place, backward and forward in time. However, above all, it is not a happy tale he tells. He starts off as he means to go on:
He sido un eccehomo. No entendí la vida. Las conversaciones con otros seres humanos se volvieron aburridas, lentas, dañinas. Me dolía hablar con los demás: veía la inutilidad de todas las conversaciones humanas que han sido y serán….La caída antes de la caída. [I have been a sorrowful person. I did not understand life. Conversations with other human beings became boring, slow, hurtful. It pained me to talk to others: I saw the uselessness of all human conversations that have been and will be… The fall before the fall.]
He looks in a mirror and sees old age, not his own old age, but his father’s old age. Every time he looks in the mirror he sees his father as if in an unknown liturgy. It gets worse. No había ninguna alegría ni ninguna felicidad en el reencuentro con mi padre en el espejo, sino otra vuelta de tuerca en el dolor, un grado más en el descendimiento, en la hipotermia de dos cadáveres que hablan. [There was no joy or happiness in meeting my father again in the mirror, but one more turn of the screw in my misery, one step more downwards, the hypothermia of two corpses that can talk.]
He will continue to come up with these statements throughout the book, which shows his somewhat gloomy view of the world and his life. You will find a few of them in pull quotes throughout this review.
He visits a neurologist who examines him and carries out tests. He can find nothing wrong. Accordingly, as he says, he wrote this book. He thinks that the state of his soul was a vague memory of something that happened in Ordesa. Era un recuerdo amarillo, el color amarillo invadía el nombre de Ordesa [It was a yellow memory, the colour yellow invaded the name of Ordesa]. He will later tell us Yellow is a visual state of the soul/. Yellow is he colour that talks of the past…, of penury which is the moral space which leads to poverty
We learn a little bit about him. He is 52. He lives on the avenida de Ranillas (a variation of his father’s middle name Arnillas, though the road will change its name, a change he does not accept) but cannot remember the name of the town where it is located (it is actually Zaragoza). He is divorced with two sons. His flat is in a state of chaos. He has the air conditioning turned up high as he hates the heat. Climate change he states, is nothing more than an update of the apocalypse. We like the apocalypse. We carry it in our genes. This cynicism will spill over throughout the book.
He looks back at his parents. They were poor as, he says, everyone in Spain was then. He never knew his grandparents, all four of whom died before he was born. There is no surviving photo of any of them (though he will later actually show us one of his paternal grandmother) and his parents refused to talk about them, though we do know that his paternal grandfather had been on the wrong side in the Civil War and he spent some time in prison. Not only would his parents not talk about their parents, his mother would not talk about his father after he died. His mother has since died. Abolir el pasado es abyecto. La muerte de tus padres es abyecta. Es una declaración de guerra que te hace la realidad. [Abolishing the past is abject. The death of your parents is abject. It is a declaration of war that reality makes on you.]
A good part of the novel is taken up with his parents – what their lives were like, his relationship with them, their interests and jobs, their wedding (which, apparently, was secret and took place on 1 January, though he did not know that till much later), their Christmases (more important for his father than his mother), their aspirations and, of course, his guilt that they have gone, that he had his father cremated and how he misses talking to his father or, at least, his living father, as he still talks to his dead father.
We learn about his alcoholism. We learn how his life as a schoolteacher, which he generally hated. The day he quit teaching was a happy day for him. He thinks that there is madness in the family and cites the case of his uncle Alberto, whom he calls Monteverdi. (He ends up calling all the people he likes by the names of classical composers; his children become Brahms and Vivaldi (we never know their real names); his parents Bach and Wagner and the King of Spain Beethoven). Alberto/Monteverdi tries to attack him with a knife once but he still liked him.
The Spaniard wants all Spaniards to die so that he can remain alone on the Iberian peninsula and thus go to Madrid and see nobody and go to Seville and see nobody and go to Barcelona and see nobody. The last Spaniard, when all the other Spaniards are already dead, will finally be happy.
On a wider note, he laments some of the changes in Spain and then proceeds to say that 1980 is identical to 2015. Everyone wants to triumph. That’s the same. Success and money, it’s the same. You [speaking to his father] spent your time watching TV. I spend my time on the Internet. It’s the same. Spain is to blame, I don’t like what Spain did to my parents and what it is doing to me. I cannot do anything about the alienation of my parents, it is irredeemable. I can only try to make sure that it does not happen to me but it already has happened.
He does, finally, tell us about Ordesa. He goes there as a child with his family and, just as they are entering the valley, they have a puncture. He goes later with his sons and he tries to find the exact spot where they had the puncture, an event he clearly remembers. He is impressed, they less so. However, he does invent the Law of Ordesa: solitude is a law of physics and matter… The law of the mountains. The law of Ordesa.
What makes this book interesting is the forensic examination of his life and, more particularly, of his parents’ life and how their respective lives intersect with what has been going on in Spain since the Civil War. When I say forensic examination, this not the forensic examination of a scientist but of a poet and of an ordinary but very disgruntled Spaniard. If anyone comes out well, it is his parents, despite their faults, who are seen more as victims of Spain than anything else. Spain does not, of course, come out well. It has never been a good place and now it is worse, quite simply because, as he says money is more powerful than life and death and love. This is a view, I feel, that would be shared by people from many parts of the world even if the rest – the self-flagellation – may be more peculiarly Spanish.
First published in 2018 by Alfaguara
First published in English in 2020 by Canongate/Riverhead
Translated by Andrea Rosenberg