Rafael Chirbes - Devastating, desolate, and disquieting, one of the decade’s finest novels. On the Edge offers an unflinching glimpse of a nation despoiled and reeling

Rafael Chirbes, On the Edge, Trans. by Margaret Jull Costa, New Directions, 2016.

On the Edge opens with the discovery of a rotting corpse in the marshes on the outskirts of Olba, Spain―a town wracked by despair after the burst of the economic bubble, and a microcosm of a world of defeat, debt, and corruption. Stuck in this town is Esteban―his small factory bankrupt, his investments stolen by a “friend,” and his unloved father, a mute invalid, entirely his personal burden. Much of the novel unfolds in Esteban’s raw and tormented monologues. But other voices resound from the wreckage―soloists stepping forth from the choir―and their words, sharp as knives, crowd their terse, hypnotic monologues of ruin, prostitution, and loss.
Chirbes alternates this choir of voices with a majestic third-person narration, injecting a profound and moving lyricism and offering the hope that a new vitality can emerge from the putrid swamps. On the Edge, even as it excoriates, pulsates with robust life, and its rhythmic, torrential style marks the novel as an indelible masterpiece.

One of Spain’s leading novelists, who died in August 2015, tackles the malaise that has swept his country in the wake of the Great Recession.
Avenida de La Marina is on the edge of the sea in a town on the edge of Spain, a nation on the edge of Europe. Its people are on the edge, too, of desperation and poverty. Ahmed and Rachid, the first characters we meet, have been on that edge since Esteban closed his carpentry shop for lack of business. Ahmed, who makes a little money as a busboy, has been listening to fundamentalists who are convinced that the Spanish are out for Muslim blood: “Abdeljaq had celebrated the bombings at Atocha station. He said he could see the face of Allah more clearly in the sky.” Ahmed is just as resentful of rich Muslims as he is of the Europeans all around him—indeed, everyone in this book is resentful of anyone who has it better than they do. Meanwhile, the little town also swarms with Latin Americans, searching as well for better lives and certainly not finding them. There’s some small common cause, but it’s tentative and tenuous: “Because it’s on my way,” says one, “I usually buy coriander in that Arab greengrocer’s next to the halal butcher. I would never buy meat from that butcher, of course.” Esteban seethes with resentment of the newcomers, as do other españoles who tolerated them when things were good. Says one, queuing up for the dole, “just take a look at them—it’s frightening. Gypsies, Romanians, Colombians, Italian mafia, Russians. Riffraff the lot of them.” Prostitution, drug addiction, alcoholism: not much happens in Chirbes’ pages, which are long instead on atmospherics, vitriol, and an attention to journalistic detail worthy of Orwell. There’s a Spoon-River-with-flamenco quality to the proceedings as characters well up to talk, mostly indignantly and unhappily, mostly in monologue; from time to time their stories intersect, but more often they simply talk past one another.
A moving, densely detailed portrait of people without hope. - Kirkus Reviews

Midway through this novel, narrator Esteban says, “It’s all hot air.” He’s talking about Internet sex chat rooms, but the phrase could also be deployed for the tone of the book—hot, angry, sweaty—which unfurls over nearly 500 pages. Chirbes, who passed away in August 2015, is one of Spain’s premier writers, and he is at his best when fully immersed, as he is in this novel, in the enormous economic fallout of Spain’s recession. The book loosely follows Esteban, who has been forced to close his carpentry shop due to a lack of business, and leaps between his feelings of failure and monologues in which he lashes out at his father, a former political dissident (and, it seems, a generally bad father) who is now in the care of his son due to his vegetative state—which Esteban describes as looking like “shop-window mannequin.” The book occasionally loops in third-person narratives of townspeople; the first few pages begin with the story of Ahmed and Rachid, two men left unemployed following the closure of Esteban’s carpentry shop. Each small narrative embroidering Esteban’s blurs in and out confusingly—this is a book with only three chapters, and the middle chapter itself is more than 400 pages. Esteban’s tone is wrathful and relentless as it seizes upon sex, race, and money (“Money, among its other virtues, has a detergent quality”). If Proust and an Old Testament prophet had collaborated to write about Spain’s recession, it might have been something like the writing here—agonized, dense, full of rage, and difficult to forge. - Publishers Weekly

Let’s not deceive ourselves, man is nothing very special. In fact, there are so many of us that our governments don’t know what to do with us at all. Six billion humans on the planet and only six or seven thousand Bengal tigers: tell me—who needs protecting most? Yes, you decide who needs most care. A dying African, Chinaman, or Scotsman or a beautiful tiger killed by a hunter. A tiger with its pelt of matchless colours and its flashing eyes is far more beautiful than a varicose-veined old git like me. What a difference in the way it carries itself. How elegant the one and how clumsy the other. Look how they move. Put them next to each other in a cage in the zoo. The children gather round the old man’s cage and laugh as they watch him delousing himself or crouching down to defecate; outside the tiger’s cage, though, they open their eyes wide with admiration. The sleight of hand that made man the centre of the universe no longer convinces.
Devastating, desolate, and disquieting, Rafael Chirbes’s On the Edge (En la orilla) ought to rank as one of the decade’s finest novels. First published in its original Spanish in 2013, On the Edge was awarded both Spain’s National Prize for Literature and the Critics Prize the following year. The Spanish novelist (who passed away in August at the age of 66) is the author of nine published novels—with a tenth due out posthumously. While billed as his English language debut, On the Edge was actually preceded in translation by Mimoun, Chirbes’s first novel, published some 22 years ago by Serpent’s Tail (and out of print since).
Set in late 2010, following the economic crisis that ravaged the Spanish economy (as well as many others around the world), On the Edge offers an unflinching glimpse of a nation despoiled and reeling. An unemployment rate of 20% (and rising), poverty, prostitution, xenophobia, Islamophobia, immigration fears, human trafficking, violence, corruption, and environmental decay are the real-life milieu upon which Chirbes situates his unforgiving tale. Septuagenarian Esteban, tasked with end-of-life care for his terminally ill father and burdened with the stresses of his recently bankrupted carpentry workshop (and impending legal charges resulting therefrom), recounts his life, as well as his myriad failures, disappointments, and betrayals, through an unrelenting series of recollections and dirge-like soliloquies.
Taking life is easy, anyone can do that. They do it every day all over the world. just read the newspaper and you’ll see. Even you could do it, take someone’s life I mean, obviously, you’d have to improve your aim a little (and then he did smile teasingly, the corners of his lively grey eyes etched with a web of delicate lines). Mankind may have constructed vast buildings, destroyed whole mountains, built canals and bridges, but we’ve never yet succeeded in opening the eyes of a child who has just died. Sometimes it’s the biggest, heaviest things that are easiest to move. Huge stones in the back of a truck, vans laden with heavy metals. and yet everything that’s inside you—what you think, what you want—all of which apparently weighs nothing—no strong man can life that onto his shoulder and move it somewhere else. No truck can transport it. Loving someone you despise or don’t really care for is a lot harder than flooring him with a punch. Men hit each other out of a sense of powerlessness. They think that by using force they can get what they can’t get by using tenderness or intelligence.
With shifting narratives and a chorus of other voices (including those of Esteban’s equally-ravished employees, business partners, barmates, and his father’s one-time palliative nurse), On the Edge teems with fear, frustration, anxiety, and despair. Esteban, challenged (and nearly defeated) not only by the plundering economic state, but also by decades of personal degradation (failed romance, compromised loyalties, allegiances upended, and the legacy of his father’s generations’ attitudes following the war), is forced to confront perdition—familial, social, financial, physical, emotional, and even spiritual.
Chirbes, perhaps like a detached reporter chronicling horrors and atrocities espied from the front lines, infuses an abundance of feeling into characters and setting—despite each being startlingly paralyzed by an unyielding torpor. With gifted prose and a confident style, Chirbes deftly (re)creates a world teetering on ruin and irreconcilability (however hopeful certain characters remain). Like the fetid, rancid lagoon which figures so prominently into the story, On the Edge brilliantly captures the collapse of a system once-thriving and supportive, but left in wreckage resulting from avarice, disregard, and myopia.
Rafael Chirbes, called “the best writer of the twenty-first century in Spain” by the Spanish newspaper ABC, tears asunder whatever illusions may have endured after the global economic collapse. Without didacticism or a moralizing tone, Chirbes stands amid the debris and destruction, and, with an unflinching gaze, attests to and confirms the harrowing aftermath wrought in the wake of international recession and crises. A remarkable portrait of one man’s struggle to make sense of an encompassing personal, economic, and social decay, On the Edge breathes life into an otherwise asphyxiating scene. Chirbes’s On the Edge may lack in redemption (and propelling plot) what it makes up for in cautionary storytelling, but pillaged lives and economies both have never seemed so imaginatively conceived nor richly executed. Even the barrenest of wastelands may lay forlorn and neglected, but, if nothing else, Chirbe’s incomparable novel assures that great art may one day rise from even the most polluted locale.
Of course times have changed, Francisco. Life is constantly changing, it is change. It has no other purpose but to change and to keep changing, the Greeks knew this and I imagine even their ancestors knew it too, you never bathe twice in the same stream, you don’t even bathe the same body, today there’s a pimple that didn’t exist yesterday, nor did this varicose vein which, for long hours, has been making its way to the surface, or this ulcer in my groin or on the sole of my foot, and which my hyperglycemia won’t allow to heal; they are all lying, those utopians who say that this troubled life of avarice and lust will be succeeded by a peaceful world in which we will all be brothers, and where, as in the golden age Don Quijote described, we will, in a spirit of fraternal love, dine on a shared meal of acorns. There is no heavenly peace possible beneath the sheltering sky, only a permanent state of war in which everyone is pitched against everyone and everything against everything. The problem is that with so much change, everything somehow ends up pretty much the same. - Jeremy Garber

The Spanish novelist Rafael Chirbes died of lung cancer in August. Born into a Republican family and raised in orphanages during the dark days of Franco’s dictatorship, Chirbes educated himself in a leftist milieu in Madrid of the 1960s and 70s, spending some time in prison for his activities. Originally published in 2013, On the Edge was the capstone of his prolific career as a writer and public intellectual. It won the Spanish National Literature prize, and has now been translated into English by Margaret Jull Costa and will be published by New Directions.
In her foreword to the new translation, the scholar Valerie Miles called Chirbes’s body of work “the most renegade and uncomfortable literary testaments of Spain,” combining biting social realism with the experiments of idols like William Faulkner or John Dos Passos. On the Edge has been lauded as a stark portrait of Europe in the depths of its late economic malaise, called “the great novel of the crisis” by El País.
Chirbes indeed has something important to tell us about the present day. Some writers have found a despairing kind of humor in the sudden collapse of the world economy. Paul Murray’s The Mark and the Void, for example, described a tragicomic ouroboros of national and international interests as they play out in the Irish banking sector.
But Chirbes isn’t much for flinty satire. There is nothing facetious about his rich, naturalistic style, or his grim outlook on human nature and the dire conditions of his bewildering array of characters. On the Edge traffics in acute descriptions of the failed economy of the Spanish coast: housing developments sitting half-finished with exuberant banners flapping mournfully in the wind, unemployed men despairing on couches in dingy homes while their wives consider how they will feed and clothe their children. In his opening scene, a Moroccan immigrant named Ahmed fishes for his dinner, and takes the reader through the complex petrol calculations required by the daily commute to low-paid jobs in a seaside Spanish town. Later we see a gaggle of roadside prostitutes in plastic chairs, underdressed and shivering in the weak winter sun.
Although the novel opens from the perspective of Ahmed, our real guide on this long, bleak tour through coastal Spain is Esteban, an ageing, self-described “lugubrious bat” who has the sole care of his ancient father, a similarly thwarted and joyless man. Esteban and his father have shared a home, a modest woodworking business, and a chilly relationship for half a century. As the novel begins, we learn that Esteban has secretly put up the home and business as collateral for an investment in housing developments, gripped by the fever for cheap credit and easy money that spread over the globe. The results of his ill-advised investment are predictable, and the book follows him as he formulates a dramatic plan to make restitution.
Chirbes wants to show us the sprawling, kaleidoscopic effect of the crisis, which means he gives us several narrators, all linked by the economics of the fictional Spanish villages in which they live. The Moroccan in the opening scene is a former employee of Esteban’s workshop. Quickly, he discovers several corpses in the marsh that forms a major symbolic and narrative force in the novel. We also hear from Liliana, the Colombian woman who assists Esteban in the intimate eldercare of his father, and Francisco, Esteban’s major foil, the successful friend with whose dead wife Esteban had his sole love affair.
Chirbes structures the book as a mosaic, which can be intensely disorienting. Characters sometimes speak in overlapping voices. In one typical moment, Esteban’s narrative abruptly meets Liliana’s: “I won’t even be able to want to see you; I won’t hear your voice, I won’t inhabit any memories: I collect my little girl from the nursery and then pick up my youngest boy from school, because I can’t be sure he’ll make it home on his own.” (The first half of the sentence is Esteban’s voice; the second is Liliana’s.)
Narrative experiments notwithstanding, On the Edge really has a single subject, Esteban’s disappointment. He lingers on the saturninity of his father, the goodness of his uncle, the indignities of the Spanish civil war for his leftist family, the phoniness of his old friend and rival Francisco. And when he is speaking Esteban’s voice, Chirbes has a knack for poignant and memorable phrases. “I was like the residue of what had once been a family,” Esteban says of his role in the household once his siblings have flown the nest.
But Chirbes descends into flat parody when he has to speak in the voices of the super-rich, corrupt men who serve as contrast to Esteban’s financial ruin. They speak with the cliches of leftist cartoons, living decadent lives without “a thought for my wife or the kids, who’ll be off doing what they do best, namely spending money”. Laborers, meanwhile, are given angelic, dreamy monologues while they sit on park benches, brooms in hand.
But while the cartoonish reveries of fat cats for yachts and prostitutes can seem cartoonish, they form an important part of Chirbes’s fierce moral vision. English-language readers are accustomed to a news-hour view of Spain as one of the hapless and unfortunately named “PIGS” of the financial meltdown. We benefit greatly from this rangy, relentless and damning view from below. -

“On the Edge” is not a book you want to read in fits and starts. It is an anti-tweet, a brick of dense prose, that 70-year-old uncle who corners you at a holiday party, grabs you by the lapels and demands you hear him out. Your eyes sometimes glaze over, and you occasionally have to wipe a fleck of whitish spit off your face, but once you give yourself over to his story, you find there are plenty of rewards.

Rafael Chirbes is a master of the kind of Spanish literature that shines most brightly in lyrical descriptive passages and powerful metaphors steeped in the lessons of a classical education, and that falters with tone-deaf dialogue and intense self-importance. Like that uncle, the narrator of “On the Edge,” Esteban, is much more interested in talking than in listening. Conveniently, he has tossed his cellphone into the marsh. The bar and its repertory-theater Greek chorus of domino players stand in for the town he wishes he had left behind and could merely visit with an anthropologist’s curiosity. His tale is an elaborate mosaic that interweaves reflection with vivid memories — both inherited and his own — and a cacophonous medley of voices he is hard-pressed to filter out, which plague him as he works out his grim endgame.
Conceived during the very last days of the Spanish Civil War, Esteban was born in 1940, just before his Republican father went to prison. The wounds from that conflict still smart, yet Esteban was also a bystander to Spain’s more optimistic phases. When the book opens in 2010, the nation is in the throes of the hangover that is the recession, which — at his age — ­Esteban knows he will never see the end of. He took the bait of the boom years and has just lost the family carpentry business built by his grandfather. Esteban’s father is so old he is little more than a prop in diapers against which Esteban’s venom-tinged resentments reverberate, though his redemptive maxim — “We don’t live off other people’s work, but our own” — still rings in his son’s ears like a Marxist curse. In the light of Esteban’s bankruptcy, the weight of the accusations made against him by the workers he must let go is compounded by the knowledge that his botched attempt at ambition was also a paternal betrayal. Ultimately, father and son are inextricably bound by their pessimism, “the same idea that all men are nothing” but a bag of human waste “tied up in the middle.”
Esteban’s regrets mirror Spain’s: the trickle-down effects of corruption on a small-town carpenter. He rails against his thwarted aspirations and inability to transcend his hometown, Olba, set on a marshy lagoon in the shadows of abandoned construction projects. The marsh is beautiful and polluted; it has been a hunting ground for both animals and resistance fighters, a dump, a graveyard, the primordial sludge whence we all emerged and to which we must return — or in Esteban’s words: “the sole surviving nucleus of a timeless world that remains both fragile and forceful.”
“On the Edge” is the culmination of Chirbes’s work, a dizzying survey of the last 90 years of Spanish history, his ninth novel published before his death this past August, and his first to appear in America in more than 20 years. Margaret Jull Costa’s incandescent translation carries along Esteban’s turbulent torrent, which maintains an extended fever pitch as the various streams of the narrative come together in more of a nadir than a climax. When this book finally releases its grip, you may find your lapels sullied by grubby fingerprints you are in no rush to scrub out. -

In 2013, an up-and-coming Spanish author named Iván Repila published a surrealist allegory about two boys trapped in a well. This short novel was a clear response to his nation's punishing recession, as it was prefaced by a coal-in-your-stocking epigraph from Margaret Thatcher about the inevitability of poverty, as well as one from Antonin Artaud that spoke to the disaster courted by such callousness. Though Repila’s novel was a bleak tale that probed the disturbed minds of two destitute children, it also celebrated the resilience of the human spirit. This book, The Boy Who Stole Attila's Horse, was published in Sophie Hughes’s chilling, nuanced English translation last year and has gone to markedly favorable reviews, finding a sizable readership. Short and allegorical as it is, it has posed a psychologically rich, authentic response to the economic forces that have left so many in Spain disempowered, angry, and destitute.
Three years before that book’s original publication, Repila’s countryman Rafael Chirbes won his nation’s highest literary honor with a very different book of the Spanish recession. As much as Attila’s Horse was a taut, clear-eyed tale of resilience from a developing writer, On the Edge proved to be a chaotic, misanthropic opus from a literary heavyweight. Published earlier this year in a polished English translation by veteran Margaret Jull Costa, it is a book that demands attention. It is a major statement about contemporary Spain, one that is almost unbearably cynical and bitter, at times less a literary novel so much as a catalog of indignities, regrets, wrongdoing, decay, and general human awfulness. In contrast to Repila’s allegory, it is a book that offers the reader no hope, a book that may very well suggest that hope itself is an emotion that is simply naive in a Spain that has been crushed by malaise and taken captive by oligarchs.
The misery and decay that will be Chirbes’ dominant key is clear from the very beginning. On the Edge opens with a taut 16 pages of noir-like plotting in which, on the day after Christmas, an African migrant named Ahmed discovers three bodies in a swamp. Panicked that he will be blamed, he flees the scene. These 16 pages are everything one might want out of good literature: evocative, vivid scene-setting, perfect pacing, keenly observed, nuanced, and providing a gripping hook.
From here the book jumps backward to December 14 and into an entirely different mode: a massive 400-page middle that almost entirely eschews plotting and scenes for a series of rant-like monologues that put the book into a claustrophobic stasis. We are mostly trapped within the mind of the 70-year-old Esteban, who spends his days languishing at the brink of poverty and monitoring the bodily waste of his enfeebled father. Although Esteban’s is the main voice, the book also abruptly switches into the voices of other people inhabiting his milieu. He and his fellow derelicts are the sort who seem compelled to state out loud every detail that we generally elide for the sake of civility—or, perhaps, for the sake of hope. They spend their days blowing upon the embers of wasted lives, and their existence is that of tired old men filled with regrets and resentment. Page after page, the reader is confronted by rectangular, single-paragraph blocks of text, scores of pages consumed at once in stream of conscious rants on the many forms of misery.
Chirbes’ vision is bracing, and it must be said that he is steadfast in pursuit of it. Particularly depressing are the many scenes of the son caring for his father, who is generally tied up to a chair and set before a roaring television set. There is seemingly no end to Chirbes’ capacity to linger over the details of this decrepit man’s bodily disintegration, the adult diapers that Esteban changes regularly, the nurse-like washings, the smell of shit and death that the old man fills the house with. There is a feeling of late Philip Roth here, of an author who has found old age to be horrifying and is letting the world know through his fiction. The father-son relationship also serves a greater thematic end: in a too-neat parallel with how Spain’s boom years have saddled the younger generations with debt, Esteban laments how the need to ceaselessly watch over his father effectively chains him to a lonely, depressing house and a sad life. When not encumbered by his miseries, Esteban spends a good deal of time lusting creepily after anything young and pretty; he is a man with enough self-awareness to realize how grotesque this must appear to the outside world, and yet, with an utter lack of restraint that epitomizes On the Edge as a whole, Esteban simply follows his basest impulses and wallows in these sexual fantasies.
On the Edge fights hard to be many things at once, and it often succeeds: it aspires to be a state-of-the-nation novel of a Spain shuddering beneath its terrible recession. It frequently berates the new aristocrats that have plundered a globalized world by ruining the environment and exploiting the disempowered. It is also a novel about how Spain's politics (and those of Europe more generally) have lost their way; this historical narrative is told through the many generations of Esteban's family, which has gotten caught up in the tumultuous swings taken by Spain's politics and economy in the 20th and 21st centuries. It is also an up-to-the-moment book about the streams of migrants coming to Spain in hopes of a better life across the Mediterranean.
In many ways On the Edge is masterful. In its heft and its ambitious reach, it comes across as the novel of the Spanish recession. But as the bitterness and recriminations mount, as the filth and shit and despair saturate these pages, Chirbes’ elegant sentences begin to feel like a quagmire. It should also be noted that while Chirbes is skilled at entering the minds of the downtrodden, his master class comes across as a caricature. This may be true to the minds of Esteban et al., but it fails to give the reader that insight that Chirbes seems to promise us.
And then there is the plot. There are the beginnings of one here: those three dead bodies, as well as the gradual dissolution of Esteban's financial stability after an ill-advised loan made with a greedy investor. But this is an extraordinarily thin plot to stretch over nearly 500 dense pages. Without much narrative momentum, the book is forced to find its tension in the voluminous descriptions of a world that everyone knows is slowly crumbling to pieces. In a foreword to this book, the talented and immensely well-read editor and translator Valerie Miles has described On the Edge as resembling the work of one of Chirbes’ idols, John Dos Passos. It’s an apt comparison, as both authors enlisted legions of voices in an attempt to create vast books that might sum up the societies they sprang from. One of the key differences, however, is that with the U.S.A. Trilogy Dos Passos described a utterly dynamic nation: his interwar America was filled to the brim with industrialists profiting off a frenetic economic, socialists scheming to bring down capitalism, a world-shattering war, workingmen, indigents, politicians, poets, lovers—all of them caught up in the massive sway of a feverous economy that collapses spectacularly. By contrast, in On the Edge all of the fervid economic growth, all of the political wars, all of the living has already occurred. Instead of telling that tale, Chirbes forces us to watch the dust that settles long after the explosion has passed. We are left with the listless lives of the stalemated, those who remain not out of inclination but because there is no other option.
- Scott Esposito

The original Spanish title of Rafael Chirbes’s penultimate novel can be translated a few different ways. On the one hand, En la Orilla could become On the Shore – which makes sense, given the novel’s setting in the small seaside town of Olba. But you could also go with, as Chirbes’s translator Margaret Jull Costa has, On the Edge. This turns out to be an even better fit. The only characters who aren’t teetering atop some kind of precipice in this tough, obsessive novel about post-recession Spain are the ones who’ve already jumped.

We open in 2010, on the beach, as a recently laid-off carpenter’s assistant stumbles across a trio of corpses. Readers should get used to that scent of death and decay in their nostrils, because it isn’t going anywhere. Olba is one of a thousand small towns that’s been gutted by the financial crisis, its half-finished construction sites and garbage-filled lagoon seeming more like the new normal with each passing day. And, really, given enough perspective, what’s so bad about a few anonymous bodies? It beats discarded plastic: “If you throw a corpse into the sea, you’re doing the environment a favour, supplying food for the fish to nibble on with their small cold mouths.”
That voice, by the way, belongs to Esteban, until recently the owner of said carpentry business and now an angry old man with a drifting moral compass. The bulk of the novel takes place inside Esteban’s head as he tries to solve a mystery of his own, namely, who is responsible for the entire town’s slide into what feels like a permanent recession? What far-off machinations, hatched abstractly by idiot millionaires and politicians, have trickled down onto his head (and so many others like him) and ruined their lives sight unseen? Or have they, somehow, brought all this upon themselves?
Chirbes wrote more than a dozen books, including an acclaimed fiction trilogy about post-war Spain and four volumes of essays, but so far just one – his 1988 debut novel Mimoun – has made it into English. And that was 20 years ago. (Chirbes died last year, of lung cancer, at the age of 66.) For most anglophones, On the Edge is the first chance to get acquainted with Chirbes’s dense, winding prose, his slab-like paragraphs, and the way he threads disparate voices into an overwhelming chorus of poverty and anguish.
Esteban’s internal monologue is broken up by a series of italicized passages where peripheral characters give dispatches from their unravelling lives. Some are fending off abusive spouses (“The prospect of widowhood has been woman’s one great consolation”); others lose sleep over no longer being able to put juice boxes in their children’s lunches. At every turn, Margaret Jull Costa’s translation brings the same crisp, sharp precision to Chirbes’s prose that readers have come to expect from her work with Javier Marias and Jose Saramago, among others.
Esteban’s attention, meanwhile, is focused on a group of locals he plays cards with. The recession has hit them all, but, Chirbes argues, sometimes poverty doesn’t so much unite people as it does divide them along further lines of suspicion. Esteban is, truly, dead broke – more broke than even his siblings and senile father know – and while giving potted biographies of each man around the table, from the con man to the bank manager to the international wine expert, he privately wonders whether they aren’t each to blame for the town’s collapse. Or, even worse, if they are secretly better off than they’re leading on. “People are very ready to demand that others act responsibly,” Esteban thinks. “Very keen to point out other people’s obligations and very reluctant to take on their own.”
If the novel has an overall sense of futility, that’s entirely by design – what Valerie Miles, in her afterword, calls the novel’s “centrifugal” force. Chirbes, nearing the end of his life, didn’t see much in the way of redemption on the horizon, at least as long as capitalism still calls the shots. That might explain why, as On the Edge winds on, Esteban retreats into a handful of memories from childhood, before money turned everything into pain: his mother gently tying his scarf before school, or a proud family dinner of fish caught by Esteban himself – and pulled from waters not yet contaminated by suntan lotion and laundry detergent. Back in the present, old, angry, and fundamentally alone, Esteban finds the beach calling to him once more. - Michael Hingston

On the Edge (New Directions; paper $16.95) is only the second of Rafael Chirbes’s many novels to be translated into English (by Margaret Jull Costa), and the first since Mimoun in 1993. Chirbes, who died last August, was one of the leading lights of contemporary Spanish literature, but if On the Edge is the most palatable of his works, then it’s easy to understand the hesitation to translate them.Money, greed, business, whatever—­capitalism comes in for a lot of justifiable criticism in the novel. “Economics in its purest form,” Esteban muses, is about “how to stick the knife in the pig’s gullet so that it makes as little fuss as possible when it dies.” Or else: “Being spotted haggling with a whore by the roadside means being accepted as a companion in the last circle of hell, a being unable to control his lust—or, far worse, a wretch unable to control his money.” But this trouble with money is for Esteban just a symptom of the deeper evil. Something is wrong with the world. And something is wrong with him, too, as he’s perfectly willing to acknowledge. He complains that everyone these days is “keen to denounce anyone committing some offence, however minor,” but he’s singularly unable to imagine an alternative. His notion of community consists of the freedom “to ask a neighbor to lend him his van to transport the body of a dead horse or dog.”
Nothing is good. Nothing is tolerable. And nothing escapes Esteban’s rancorous attention. Old people jogging have chosen to “risk their lives—which are, after all, already lost and, for the most part, wasted.” The Styrofoam tray in which meat is packaged at the supermarket is “the small coffin of something that died a violent death.” Telephone numbers and e-mail addresses are “the cat-flaps through which modern-day intruders creep.” Love is often just a matter of “possessing that flesh, defending it from other men’s desires.” And don’t get him started on the Mediterranean: “[My] sense now is that it’s impregnated by the kind of sticky muck that remains in a body after it’s been violated.” But why should it be otherwise? We live in “a world that’s constantly changing and constantly growing more corrupt.” “Today is worse than yesterday, but better than tomorrow.” Man is just “a factory for shit in various stages of preparation,” he declares. “Every human being is guilty as charged.” Occasionally the rant skews comic, and at precious few moments it recalls the anguished hilarity of Samuel Beckett or Thomas Bernhard. “Sometimes,” Esteban laments, “with old men, our feet turn gangrenous and have to be amputated.” There is the same faint air of allegory as well. Esteban’s father sits in the house, mute and recriminatory and unforgiving—impossible to ignore, impossible to live with, a breathing, defecating reminder of the Spanish Civil War and the Franco dictatorship, which ruined his life. Esteban himself is a figure for modern Spain—the boss whose employees hate him for laying them off, but who is himself bankrupt and miserable. And the whole catastrophe, financial and spiritual, is somehow manifest in the nearby lagoon to which they all seem irresistibly drawn. (The “edge” of the title is orilla in Spanish, the “shore”: not a firm boundary line but a liminal space—a zone of indecision.) It’s in this place, literally and metaphorically, that Esteban’s life has unfolded; he’s been on the margins of things. It’s where he played as a boy. It’s where his uncle taught him to fish, a memory that inspires an upsetting digression about bait. It’s where he brought his only real girlfriend, long ago, and where he now brings prostitutes. It’s where he imagines killing his father and committing suicide. And it’s not only Esteban who haunts the lagoon. This is where resistance fighters hid for years during and after the war. So the lagoon is Spain, too, or the crisis of Spain’s modern history—not a cliff from which you plunge to your death, but a soft wallow into which you sink forever. Is On the Edge worth reading? Certainly it gives no pleasure. But it does seem to operate like a psychological health tonic. It has to be swallowed to take effect, it’s corrosive going down, you wonder if he had to add quite so much vinegar and horseradish, but afterward the effect is invigorating. Life might be bad, but you’re not Esteban, thank God. And, at the very least, you’re no longer reading On the Edge. - Aaron Thier

On the Edge is the first novel by the Spanish writer Rafael Chirbes to appear in English. As befits an award-winning writer, the book has an award-winning translator – Margaret Jull Costa.
Sadly, Chirbes did not live long enough to appreciate Jull Costa’s efforts or be feted by Anglophone readers and critics: he died last year at the age of 66. But if this intense and incisive novel is any indication of Chirbes’s greatness then it is surely only a matter of time before we get more of his back catalogue in English and hear Roberto Bolaño-esque posthumous acclaim.
The novel benefits from a short but truly arresting opening section. Ahmed is a jobless Moroccan immigrant trying to stay afloat in the Spanish town of Olba. The economic crisis has taken hold: banks have gone bust, unemployment stands at 20 per cent and Ahmed and others like him make do on benefits.
When he tells a friend he is seeking work he is laughed at. “Work? Only if you want a job digging graves for suicides.” One day, while out fishing at a nearby lagoon, Ahmed notices two dogs fighting over a lump of meat, which on closer inspection turns out to be a gnawed, putrescent human hand. His horror is compounded on spotting three mutilated bodies in the muddy water and a burnt-out car in the undergrowth.
Having imprinted these images on the reader’s mind, Chirbes leaves Ahmed and starts his main section of the book which takes the form of a series of long, meandering monologues.
His speaker is Esteban, another Olba resident, and Ahmed’s previous employer. His raw, caustic and occasionally cryptic rants reveal, in instalments, the many trials and upheavals that have shaped and scarred him.
We hear of family strife and subsequent rifts, the country’s civil war and his relatives’ dark pasts.
However, there has been more recent turmoil. The family carpentry business has gone to the wall. A dodgy acquaintance has vanished with Esteban’s investments – “my account with the savings bank is no longer an account but a black hole”.
He lays off workers, some of whom were employed illegally, and spends evenings in Bar Castañer moaning and philosophising about money while losing more of it in card games and domino matches.
When he isn’t half-heartedly caring for his 90-year-old dementia-addled father he is making mechanical trips to the Lovely Ladies Club, hunting small game on the “putrid, life-giving” marsh, or replaying fond conversations with his father’s former nurse Liliana.
Esteban’s free-flowing tormented thoughts and painful memories are regularly intercut with other, italicised disquisitions from unnamed narrators, each of them different victims of the financial crash.
One of them is a refuse collector who is coaxed by his boss into being a road sweeper: “a better job, they said, cleaner, more gentlemanly, ballroom dancing with a broom: that’s what they tried to fob us off with”.
The book’s voices are either blunt and tinged with despair or bitter and drenched with bile. Esteban bewails his money troubles, his decaying body and his demanding father. Human behaviour is “neither exemplary nor encouraging”; human life is “nature’s biggest waste of time and energy”.
Gripes are spun out for maximum effect: “Lagoons don’t get a very good press: fever, malaria, filth”; one gambling friend is “The slave-driver, the gang-master, the exploiter of the workforce.”
All of which sounds forbidding. And yet the novel’s bleak or seamy settings are morbidly inviting, and its narrator’s sour and cynical discourses have a mesmerising, incantatory power. Even Chirbes’s two main unsavoury themes – death and money – are explored in fascinating ways.
Esteban gets over the loss of his savings and becomes ambivalent about money, seeing it as either inconsequential (“Money doesn’t matter”) or beneficial (able to “bring together so many apparently incompatible lives”). Death (or as Esteban calls it, “definite disappearance”) also arouses different feelings, depending on whether Esteban is dilating on declining industry, dying patriarchs, hunted animals or moribund prospects.
Early on, Esteban makes reference to Ahmed’s grim discovery: “If you throw a corpse into the sea, you’re doing the environment a favour.”
We read on, in thrall to this mordant voice, anxious to see just how far one man has sunk and the lengths he will go to get out of his rut. - Malcolm Forbes

For the Spanish writer, Rafael Chirbes, there was no room in the creative process for an aesthetic devoid of ethics. As a documentarian of his native country, from the post-war years through the transition to democracy in the 1970’s, and on into the opening decade of the 21st century, the late author offered a defiant chronicle of the point where social, economic, and political dynamics intersect with the harsh realities of the human condition. He argued that if the artistic endeavour aims to stand at that intersection, no perspective could remain neutral:
A point of view situates you somewhere, in a location where potentialities—ways of being—battle one another. When you write, or paint, as when you read or look at something, you have to be conscious of the fact that the author wants to invite you to look where he’s looking. Your mission is to protect yourself. Know that they want to seduce you.
This advice, from a brief interview segment in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn: An Anthology of Spanish-Language Fiction, should serve as fair warning before one enters into the emotional labyrinth that is Chirbes’ lauded ninth novel, On the Edge. Recently released by New Directions, in a measured yet lyrical translation by Margaret Jull Costa, this book will serve as highly anticipated introduction for English language readers, to a writer at the height of his powers: a writer who has chosen, in this instance, to stand on the rapidly shifting ground of a country in the throes of economic collapse.
Born in 1949, in a small town in the province of Valencia, into a family with republican roots—that is, on the losing side of the Spanish Civil War—Rafael Chirbes would be influenced and shaped by the post-war environment in which he was raised and educated. When he was four years old, his father committed suicide, but not before teaching his precocious son to read. His mother, who worked as a switchman until she herself was detained by the authorities, was unable to afford to support him; so young Rafael was sent to an orphanage for the children of railway workers. His schooling would soon take him away from the Mediterranean coastal community of his birth; he spent his childhood and adolescence in the landlocked Castile region of Spain during one of the bleakest eras of the dictatorship. At the age of sixteen, he moved to Madrid to study Modern and Contemporary History. There he became involved in underground anti-Franco activities that would see him spend time in prison.
Always a voracious reader, Chirbes supported himself working in bookstores and writing literary criticism prior to heading to Morocco to teach Spanish. Returning to Europe he spent time in Paris, Barcelona, La Coruña, and Extremadura before ultimately making his way back to Valencia. He engaged in a variety of journalistic activities until 1988 when, at the age of 39, he released his first novel, Mimoun. From that point on, he would produce a series of novels that merged elements of realism and introspection with history and storytelling to fashion caustic portrayals of modern Spain.
Chirbes’ literary guides, the ghosts he claimed to regularly engage with, formed a personal pantheon of deceased writers that included Cervantes, Tolstoy, Montaigne, Yourcenar, Lucretius, Virgil, Faulkner, Proust, Balzac, Eça de Queiroz and others. It is perhaps fitting that he relied so heavily on this collection of dead authors for guidance, because as a novelist he saw the past— more specifically, history—as a necessary catalyst for the development of a literature that would allow him to “bear witness” to his time. And through Esteban, the anguished protagonist at the heart of On the Edge, the last of his novels to be published before his death from cancer in August of 2015, he has created a powerful testimony to the devastating personal impact of the economic crisis on his fellow countrymen. And, without preaching, he deftly sheds light on the broader currents flowing through a society plagued by concerns about poverty, violence, xenophobia, Islamophobia, human trafficking, prostitution, moral corruption, and environmental degradation.
Originally published as En la orilla in 2013, On the Edge opens with a gruesome discovery on the morning of December 26, 2010. Ahmed, a Moroccan migrant worker, presently unemployed, spends his days fishing in the marshlands outside the fictional communities of Olba and Misent where, as in other regions of the country and the continent, the economic collapse of 2008 has left its mark. Unemployment is high and climbing higher, while the detritus of the burst housing bubble can be seen along the roads lined with building projects left abandoned in various stages of conception and construction. Two dogs fighting over a piece of carrion attracts Ahmed’s attention, disturbing his quiet interlude; but when he realizes, to his horror, that the contested meat is, in fact, a human hand, he panics, making a hasty retreat lest he be wrongly connected with the scene of a possible crime. The lagoon, he knows, hides a decaying legacy of discarded goods, the spoils and evidence of all manner of legal and illegal activities.
Moving back almost two weeks in time, the majority of Chirbes’ novel will unfold over the course of a single winter day. Seventy year-old Esteban is a man at the end of his rope. Swept up in the euphoria of greed when it seemed there was no end to the burgeoning property explosion, he mortgaged all his father’s land and possessions, including the carpentry workshop and the family home above it, to enter into a partnership with Pedrós, a local developer with grand schemes—a man who has now suddenly disappeared leaving his creditors in the lurch and Esteban completely bankrupt. Forced to lay off his employees and say good-bye to Liliana, his cherished Colombian housekeeper, he is left with the thankless task of attending to his aged father’s personal care while awaiting imminent foreclosure and the loss of absolutely everything.
On the crisp, clear day in question, Esteban leaves his father secured to a chair in front of the TV, and heads out to the marshlands with his dog. As he makes his way through the reeds, along wet, obscured trails, ripe with the pervasive smell of rot and decomposition, he engages in a long and convoluted series of melancholic soliloquies. He recalls his Uncle Ramón, his father’s younger brother, who taught him to hunt and fish, made him toys and was more of a true father figure than the cold, gruff man, now aged and decrepit, presently tied to into an armchair at home. The blunt lessons about life and death that Ramón passed on to his young nephew on their hunting and fishing expeditions to the marshes will haunt Esteban’s own reasoning to the very end:
[T]he fisherman who fails to choose the right bait does so because he doesn’t know how fish think, and a fisherman or a hunter has to become the thing he’s hunting, the real fisherman falls in love with his victim: he’s hunting himself. Hold the hook like this, no, we’re not going to use the dough we normally use for bait, today we’ll use this stuff. Smell it. Disgusting, isn’t it? What a stink! Well, fish love that smell. And so do crabs. Everything rots. We’ll end up rotting as well and we’ll smell quite a lot worse. Many years from now, you’ll rot too—and it’s that rotten smell that the fish like. When you get older, you’ll realize that they’re like humans in that respect. Don’t go thinking you’re not going to end up smelling like a dead fish, Esteban.
Some sixty years on from these marshland lessons, Esteban is, as he combs the area—the lagoon, the canals, and the muddy pathways—closer to being both hunter and his own prey than he has ever been.
Another ghost that inhabits his retrospective musings is Leonor, his first love; the woman for whom he had returned to the town of his birth after a brief attempt to flee. She would soon abandon him, in effect condemning him to a lonely life of sawdust and wood glue, beside his father in the family carpentry workshop while she headed off to Europe to marry his best friend, Francisco—a man who did manage to escape and would, for decades, lead a life of glamour and prestige, before returning, after Leonor’s death, to assume an existence of cultured semi-seclusion in the finest house in town.
Lack of ambition, environmental factors—I used to think: I am the owner of my own deficiencies. The only thing I own is what I lack, what I cannot reach, what I’ve lost, that’s what I have, what is actually mine, the empty vacuum that is me. I have what I don’t have. And I felt infinitely sorry for myself, filled with a bitterness that sometimes verged on hatred of her, a false hatred (no, I don’t think I ever hated her, I still felt aroused whenever I saw her, I desired her, yes, I desired her right up until the end, she was the only woman for me), and a false hatred of Francisco which extended to my father (and did I really hate him, do I still hate him?), or vice versa: love in absentia. They were two sides of the same coin—on one side, what seemed to me unattainable and, on the other, what was denied to me: Francisco showing me what could have been, and my father showing me the depths of the nothingness that had become my sole property.
Chirbes allows his protagonist ample space for extended, rambling rants and remembrances—long sentences unwind in single paragraphs that stretch on for pages—peppered with asides, often directed at his father, who is silent, or to Liliana, from whom he imagines and integrates affectionate responses. Rhythms of resentment, nostalgia, and regret play out against each other, driving Esteban’s restless inner monologues forward as he catalogues and re-catalogues his history of failures and betrayals. Repetitiveness often arises, one part perseveration, one part forgetfulness; balanced by a healthy measure of witty observation and philosophical musings. In spite of himself, Esteban is a captivating narrator.
He is however, no less a complicated, conflicted and paranoid human being. Over the course of more than 400 pages we spend so much time inside his ruminations that it can be tempting, as Chirbes himself might warn us, to only see what our protagonist is choosing to see. And this is where On the Edge is so much more than the claustrophobic internalized ravings of one isolated man. No social situation is ever that simple. And the stage on which Esteban stands, in fact where he is planning to orchestrate and perform his own denouement, is inextricably bound to, and echoes, the whirlpool of rapidly declining economic circumstances around him.
So, other voices are invited to contribute. First there is a recurring Greek chorus of sorts, mediated by Esteban, mind you, who take turns speculating on the present state of social and economic affairs (Where could Pedrós have disappeared to?) over nightly card games at the local bar. These are, for the most part, Esteban’s peers—old friends—each carrying their own baggage, secrets and culpabilities. Yet, are their pasts really as shady as our guilt ridden and suspicious narrator imagines?
Then there are the recurring passages where otherwise silent supporting characters are granted an opportunity to step up and own the stage for a moment. Background stories briefly surface. We hear from disgruntled former employees of the carpentry shop, or their beleaguered spouses; their lonely, frustrated, and weary accounts cut through Esteban’s monologue. His father even speaks from the past through reflections recorded on the pages of an old calendar, and, eventually, his precious Liliana is allowed to offer her own brutal perspective. But perhaps even more revealing is the fact that some of the most important players—Ramón, Francisco and Leonor—essentially remain silent, known primarily through our protagonist’s memories and perceptions.
Esteban’s small corner of Spain, the one in which he finds himself in late middle age, belongs to the ordinary man, the small town resident—running a business on the bright or shady side of the law, or perhaps both. One imagines that it would have been almost impossible not to get caught up in the excitement of economic promise; an excitement that might have sounded more loudly for a the citizens of a nation that had come, relatively speaking, late to democracy. Here our narrator stands divided between his resentment of his father’s stubborn adherence to the socialist values that restricted his expansion of the carpentry business; and his bitter envy of Francisco, the son of a family with a dark fascist past, who fled Olba to ride the coattails of a world enamoured with the pleasures of fine wine and dining (with a line of coke and a beautiful escort on the side, of course). But as he nurses his regrets and calculates the sum of the injustices life has dealt him, Esteban’s strongest emotion is one of resignation to his fate, the one last thing over which he can exercise any control.
In her Afterward, Valerie Miles describes On the Edge as a “poetic spasm, an epic of the garbage dump written by a witness who breaks the underclass’ legacy of silence during a crisis that is not merely economic, but social and acutely moral.” The setting reinforces this reality most vividly: the fetid, polluted marshes, with the blue glint of the sea shining in the distance. Here the solidity of the ground can be dangerously deceptive and even the beautiful blooms betray their origins in their scent. Chirbes’ Mediterranean is no romantic playground—it is harsh, unforgiving, and unforgettable—like the monumental novel that he anchors in this desolate wasteland.– Joseph Schreiber

On the Edge begins on 26 December 2010, and with a solid first line-hook: 
     The first to spot the carrion is Ahmed Ouallahi.
       Here -- and throughout -- Chirbes is in no hurry: that's the entire first paragraph, and the next steps back slightly, beginning the account of what Ahmed finds, and how. Ten pages of how, since he lost his job in a carpentry workshop, he's been coming to this lagoon to fish while his friend works at a nearby restaurant, quickly immersing the reader in a Spain still in the spiral of the recent financial crisis. Eventually we get to the bodies -- three of them -- but just as quickly they are abandoned:
Ahmed knows that he must leave at once. Just having seen them makes him an accomplice to something, impregnates him with guilt. His first impulse is to run, but that would make him look even more suspicious: he starts walking quickly, brushing aside the leaves of the reeds that strike his face.
       With their "pestilential odour" the trio has clearly been dead a while, so no one would think Ahmed had just killed them -- but he knows better than to get involved. Aside from the fact that he frequents the locale, as an unemployed foreigner he's automatically suspicious, and in a time where everything has gone to hell it's better not to be involved.
       As to the human remains: even without knowing who they are, or why they're half-buried here, it's easy to see them as, one way or another, representative of the pervasive rot that has overwhelmed Spain.
       This first section, of less than twenty pages, gives a nice initial tension to the novel, a murder-mystery air to it, but On the Edge isn't a thriller. In the next, and by far the longest part of the novel Chirbes jumps back slightly in time, to 14 December, and the narrative switches to the first person, old Esteban -- of the carpentry business that Ahmed worked for -- telling his story. He's not the only one to speak up in this section, as others' stories are interspersed here too, but his is the dominant voice and story
       Esteban's account begins with the seventy-year-old man settling in his demented and mute nonagenarian father for the day -- securing him to a chair in front of the TV. Esteban's world has collapsed, the Colombian caretaker he and his father had, Liliana, the last to go -- but really, it's all gone. Esteban has siblings, but from Carmen -- "my father's beloved daughter, his favourite, she doesn't even phone any more" -- to no-good Juan, they've pretty much abandoned the old homestead, cut their ties (the other brother, Germán, died).
       Esteban won't admit it openly yet, but he knows that what little is left of his world is about to come crashing down on him. He invested everything he had with friend and construction magnate Tomás Pedrós, and Pedrós' business has gone bankrupt (and Pedrós done a runner). Everyone is talking about Pedrós' rise and fall, but they're unaware just how deep in Esteban is, but Esteban had to close up shop -- the family business of many decades -- and let his employees go, and now he's just ignoring all the financial demands on him until they come and take everything ("I got so tired of creditors ringing me up, I decided to rip out the landline and throw my mobile in the lagoon").
       On the Edge describes the ripple-effects of the Spanish financial crisis. Pedrós is one of the opportunists who as able to take advantage of the situation -- and bail himself (if not his companies) out in time, but Esteban and most of those left around him are collateral damage, pulled apart in the swirl of the inevitable collapse. As one person suggests: "The last fifteen or twenty years have been a complete illusion".
       On the Edge takes place in a very small town:

Olba's a nice, quiet place, and if you want a bit of excitement, you've got Misent about ten kilometres away, Benidorm fifty kilometres away and Valencia a mere hundred kilometres. 
       Esteban fills in a lot of his backstory, from his father -- a harsh man, on the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War, and imprisoned afterwards (expecting to be condemned to death, but pardoned) -- to the love of his life, Leonor, who abandoned him and married the more successful Francisco. Leonor died a few years earlier, and Francisco returned to the fold (though with the trappings of the lifestyle he's become used to: "acquiring the best house in Olba, owned so long by the former lords of the village", and mooring a yacht nearby), and Esteban plays cards with him and a few other old-timers at the local bar. Much of Esteban's account is in this setting, and the conversations between the old men -- with Esteban not letting on just how far he's fallen.
       There are also the brief shifts to other perspectives, as the stories and fates of Liliana and Esteban's now unemployed workers are also addressed. All their lives have been upended -- after so long where: "It never occurs to you that things aren't eternal, that they could change from one day to the next."
       In looking back on his life, Esteban covers a lot of recent Spanish history and transitions, offering glimpses of different human horrors from the Civil War and Francoist times. More recently, even sleepy Olba rode the tide of Spain's explosive growth -- and then suffered just like the rest of the country when the bubble burst, so that:

"Business" is a dirty word these days; a century ago it signified action and progress, but now it's a synonym of other words heavy with negative energy: exploitation, egotism, wastefulness.
       It's all come to a head for Esteban these days, and he's beyond panic. He sees and knows all is lost, and if he hasn't given in solely to despair, all he does is he go through the motions of maintaining some normality even has mind angrily roils about life's disappointments (settling in Olba, in a business he didn't really want to take over; the loss of the love of his life) and now this final horrible flourish of it all going to hell.
       Chirbes' novel is a powerful account of Spain savaged by the recent financial crisis, a state of the nation novel that also looks beyond the immediate, to the larger picture, placing events also in historical context, making the connections with the past as well. It is a grand if bleak novel of contemporary Spain, sustained in an impressive achievement by a powerful voice that pulls -- drags -- readers through this bleak mire. The other voices -- those that briefly tell of their experiences, or also Esteban in conversation with his circle of acquaintances, family, and employees -- generally aren't quite as successful, but provide some relief from Esteban's near-overwhelming account (which is far from a rant, yet speaks with a deep, deep anger and sadness).
       On the Edge is a very good novel, a very powerful piece of work that, despite its length, almost doesn't flag at all. Yet it's also that sustained power that makes the novel hard going, because of its very bleakness, almost unalleviated throughout. - M.A.Orthofer

What the chilling steppe is to Sorokin, the hot swamp is to Rafael Chirbes: the inhospitable symbol of his nation, and of his work. The Russian freezes his emotions, the Spaniard lets them rot. Chirbes was born in Valencia in 1949, and died this past summer of lung cancer, leaving behind ten novels and four volumes of essays that have been acclaimed and reviled in the Hispanophone world. Or rather, they have been acclaimed for their revulsion — at the desecration of Europe by the E.U., at Spain’s abasement of itself and of the Maghreb. ON the Edge, published in Spanish in 2013 and immediately declared Chirbes’s masterpiece, is the first novel of his to have reached the shores of English, and arrives as a message in a bottle among all the cans, rusting appliances, and tangled tackle.
In 2010, in the seaside town of Olba, the fumes of the lagoon mix with the lingering sulfur of the Atocha railway-station bombing; the Spanish economy has all but collapsed. The construction sites stand idle, and each foundation pit dug out of the muck now seems like the grave of neoliberalism. Natives vie with foreigners for whatever jobs remain: la crisis is even worse in Arabic. The book opens with Ahmed Ouallahi, a Moroccan laborer, fishing for his supper in the lagoon — “an unhealthy, fetid place, stagnant water that can’t be trusted, liquid that grows warm and putrid in the spring sun and is only washed clean again when the first cold drops of rain fall in the autumn.” About to cast his net, he finds a severed human hand, which points the way to three bodies half-buried in the pollution — and the beginnings of a plot:
Probably immigrants like him, people just passing through, or maybe mafiosi fallen victim to some settling of scores: Moroccans, Colombians, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians. Perhaps a couple of prostitutes, their throats cut by their pimps, women nobody will take the trouble to look for.
Who, or what, is to blame for these murders? Chirbes’s novel accuses everyone, from Barcelona financiers to Brussels bureaucrats. At the center of the investigation is a family without a mother. One son, Germán, who before his death was an underemployed mechanic, fixed things; Juan, a failed entrepreneur, sells things; the third son, Esteban, an unemployed carpenter and the novel’s principal narrator, makes things, or did. He’s also the sole caretaker of his father, an elderly mute who was imprisoned for his soft socialism during Franco’s regime and now contents himself with providing incontinent commentary in italics. A prodigal sister sends letters with photos of her own children, like reminders to pay a bill: the meek may inherit the earth, but they always get screwed out of the real estate and the furniture. As for Esteban’s own assets, they were invested, and lost, in a property-development scheme perpetrated by a childhood friend who’s now on the lam from creditors and the Moldovan — or maybe the Bulgarian — mob. Esteban wastes what’s left on whores and low-stakes tute. The whores he picks up on the roadside, the tute he plays in a pickup game at Bar Castañer, where the news is either Merkel’s austerity or Muslim rage. When Ahmed is reintroduced as Esteban’s former assistant, the tides begin to turn, in a brackish confluence of chronologies and regrets:
In its neglected state, the marsh restores some sense of privacy to me, makes me think of the “houses” we used to build as children to shield us from the eyes of our elders, places safe from prying adult eyes, where we could set up our own system of laws, play more or less forbidden games under the tablecloth, under the bed, or inside a large wardrobe. In the marsh, you can create your own world outside the real one. - Joshua Cohen

The Modern Novel review

Rafael Chirbes. Photo: Editorial Anagrama © Antonio de Benito

Rafael Chirbes was born in Tabernes de Valldigna (Valencia) in 1949. At the age of eight he began his studies in the Railway Orphan's School. At 16 he moved to Madrid, where he studied Modern and Contemporary History. He subsequently travelled to Morocco where he worked as a Spanish teacher. In the year 2000 he returned to his birthplace of Valencia. His first novel, "Mimoun" (1988), was shortlisted for the Herralde Award. In 1996 he published "La larga marcha" (1996) which won the SWR-Bestenliste Award in Germany. This novel was the start of a trilogy on Spanish society which continued with "La caída de Madrid" (2000) and "Los viejos amigos" (2003). The television adaptation of his work "Crematorio" (2007) –which earned him the National Critics Award and the 5th Dulce Chacón Award– brought him reluctantly into the spotlight. In 2014 he received the National Narrative Award for "En la orilla", which has been dubbed "the great novel on the crisis". He died on 15 August 2015.


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