Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Book review: On The Edge

On the Edge
(HARVILL SECKER, 421 PP, £16.99)

The final novel by Rafael Chirbes, who died two years ago, is ostensibly a bleak portrayal of a Spain ravaged by recession and plunged into despair. It is set in the seaside town of Olba, one of thousands of towns throughout the country devastated by the financial crisis, a land now left strewn with half-finished construction sites, debt and corruption. Laid-off workers sit idle at home on shabby sofas or wile away the time playing dominos in bars, while their wives wonder what they will fill their children's lunchboxes with. Everyone, so to speak, is on the edge.

The main protagonist of the novel, Esteban, was until recently the owner of a carpentry business, but is now penniless and living with his selfish, senile father - now mute and in nappies. The majority of the novel consists in relating his inner dialogue, often in paragraphs that go unbroken for pages, in which he wonders why it all went wrong and who is to blame. It is interspersed with italicized passages from those around him, including those of the staff he had to lay off, each also reflecting on their wretched predicament.

It is an intriguing and entrancing experiment. Esteban's stream of consciousness is rambling and meandering yet lucid: think Finnegans Wake with real words and normal syntax. The prose is thick and relentless, the seaside town is unrelentingly putrid and grubby. There are some wonderful turns of phrase: “Lagoons don’t get a very good press: fever, malaria, filth”; “Work? Only if you want a job digging graves for suicides.” It is a turbulent, tormented affair. “Economics in its purest form,” reflects Esteban, is about “how to stick the knife in the pig’s gullet so that it makes as little fuss as possible when it dies.” 

Although superficially a searing indictment of a system that brought a country to its knees, On The Edge is a far more ambiguous and nuanced story than first impressions might suggest. There is the nagging feeling that Estaban believes the town and the country has brought such calamity on itself, what with betrayal and disloyalties exhibited by the characters themselves in response to their plight. Estaban himself is a victim of his own weakness for cheap credit.

If On the Edge is a tale of embitterment, resentment and regret, it is as much Esteban's than the town of Olba or Spain's. His whole bungled life, he feels, has been frustrated by his father's contagious rancour. He reflects on ending as a bog-standard carpenter, unable even to have aspiration. "Perhaps, if I'd had ambition, I would have been even more bitter, would have become impregnated with the bile that has always filled my father". Esteban retreats for the most part into lurid sexual fantasies, before, in the end in seeks refuge in a vortex of childhood memories, to a time before death and money.


(This book review was due to appear in a publication, but for administrative reasons did not)

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