Manuel Pérez Subirana - A moving, tragicomic novel about defeat, memory, and the seductive prospect of losing it all.
Manuel Pérez Subirana, Losing Is What Matters, Trans. by Allen Young, dalkey Archive Press, 2017.
When his marriage and career fall apart, a young lawyer sets out on a desperate mission to recapture the promise of his youth. His attempt leaves him stranded between a past he no longer recognizes and a life that’s no longer his—and he soon begins to suspect that the surest path to happiness lies in simply giving up. A moving, tragicomic novel about defeat, memory, and the seductive prospect of losing it all.
“Mature, free-flowing prose with Proustian comparisons and images—very rare for a first novel. An author endowed with a style in the tradition of the finest narrative, with a densely personal world.”
A Spanish lawyer’s life falls apart in the days after he’s dumped by his woman.
Spanish novelist Subirana plumbs the depths of despair in this philosophical portrait of a man whose life is becoming undone. We meet 33-year-old attorney Carlos Mestres Ruiz in the hours after his lover, Elisenda, has broken off their yearslong relationship, and he’s a mess. In alcohol-fueled waves, he wanders the streets of Barcelona, wondering where and when things went wrong. “Love is a promise that is never wholly kept,” he tells us. “Strangely, its failure hardly hurts at all. There’s no precise moment, for instance, when we confront disappointment, no precise moment when the illusions are shattered. We give up on love and barely realize it, like someone who grows tired of waiting for a letter and eventually forgets to check the mailbox each morning.” After Carlos misses a courtroom date in the midst of a hangover, his professional life starts to unravel as well. Ruiz’s companion in his mourning is Alberto Cisnerroso, a long-lost friend from university with whom he reconnects and whose nihilistic cynicism he eventually shares. Pulling on a slot machine in yet another bar, Alberto sets Carlos straight. “You pull here and set the universe in motion,” he says. “A simple, straightforward universe, with fixed rules. And you lose: of course you lose, you always lose. That’s the point. To play to lose, to give yourself over to defeat, to fulfill your destiny in a perfect, known, comprehensible microcosm free of lies and deception.” It’s a jaundiced and familiar tale of boy loses girl, but in Subirana’s talented grasp, the novel becomes a more serious and elegant cautionary tale about the importance of being true to one’s real self and the damage that reverberates around us when we try to be who we’re not.
A wonderfully written portrait of a man who must lose everything before he can be free. - Kirkus Reviews
At thirty-three Carlos Mestres Ruiz, the narrator of Losing is What Matters, is a bit young to be going through a mid-life crisis, but that is essentially what is chronicled in this novel. He's puttering along comfortably enough, living with a woman in a long-term relationship and working, reasonably successfully, as a lawyer in small firm -- and then suddenly he's not: out of the blue Elisenda dumps him and clears her things out of the apartment they've shared for more than three years.
It's a shock, and it hits him hard. Suddenly completely at sea, he looks for a hold in the past: he gets in touch with a former university friend whom he had lost touch with, Alberto Cisnerroso -- an indifferent student (and ultimately drop-out) who came from a wealthy family and offered, back in those days, a glimpse of an entirely different, carefree way of living:
a way of life that I myself had, of course, at one point judged misguided, but which now struck me as the only true and authentic way to live.
Alberto's dissolute lifestyle had appealed to the young Carlos, and for three years he happily indulged -- but the course-correction, getting him back on track, came soon enough as Carlos did what parents and society expected from him: complete his studies, get a job, find a life-companion. Now, a decade or so later, Carlos sees and seeks escape there again: he doesn't turn to any of his contemporary friends -- and it's unclear that he actually has any -- but rather gets in touch with Alberto again. As it turns out, Alberto is still as aimless and debauched as ever, never having changed his ways, and so Carlos can almost seamlessly pick up where they left off. However, while the alcoholic excess and well-into-the-morning carousing maybe a return to the good old days (though times, and their old haunts, have changed ...), it's also kind of tired and old, providing some escape for Carlos but only in the moment.
There are other consequences too: going on a bender means he misses an important hearing the next day, an unprofessional lapse that leads to a very upset client. His boss is quite understanding, but it's still a problem and seems likely to lead to the client making a complaint to the Bar Association -- probably only leading to a slap on the wrist, but still an annoyance.
Carlos can't get his head back in the game, but at least the weekend is approaching. Another long night out with Alberto doesn't get him anywhere either, nor can he clarify matters with Elisenda -- and so he takes regression a step further, heading back to his hometown:
I was set on recovering my past. I wanted to reconnect with the boy who lived in that town years ago, and i had the feeling that if I succeeded, if I managed to rekindle inside me some of the happiness the town had given me as a child, I could face the future with renewed strength.
Of course, it comes as little surprise that... you can't go home again. With no family still there, and staying at a hotel, it seemed an unlikely plan anyway, but Carlos gave it a shot.
Increasingly battered and bruised, and indulging in rather too much alcohol, Carlos does find some clarity. It becomes clear to him that his relationship with Elisenda was doomed -- that he was fooling himself about their life together, and that the crash had to come sooner or later -- and also that he isn't really cut out to be a lawyer. He's fine at his job -- if little more than that --, but he doesn't find it very rewarding, and can't imagine he ever will.
Carlos doesn't exactly bottom out, but he comes to realize he was aspiring to wrong heights. He followed the standard blueprint, but he realizes he's quite unremarkable and that even this traditional not-quite-fast-track wasn't his speed. Admirably, he's willing to throw it all overboard -- helped by Elisenda's push -- and let his life drift elsewhere. Where that will lead isn't entirely clear -- though he has been writing this story, and one can't help but see some similarities (age, profession) between protagonist and aithor ... -- but he's accepted mediocrity and found he doesn't need ambition.
It's an interesting life-lesson novel, especially given where Carlos has made it in life -- not very far, and still far from the end. Capitulation-to-life novels usually involve younger protagonists -- university age -- or much older ones, who have been through it all. Carlos hasn't seen or done that much, but he also admits defeat -- and he's fine with it. (It's also not a generational thing -- Carlos is an odd man out in the 2003 novel, in a still vibrant Spain that hasn't been bludgeoned by the financial crisis yet.)
Carlos' limited adventures -- generally in an alcohol-daze -- can get to be a bit much, and his bumbling can annoy, but Pérez Subirana has a fine writing-touch, and in Allen Young's smooth translation there's a controlled feel to the narrative that supports the otherwise potentially too full-of-abandon tale. There's some fine and well-put reflection here; Carlos may act immaturely -- and wallow in childish and youthful memories -- but the writing is entirely adult. Indeed, the writing is thoughtful -- as is, ultimately, Carlos (though certainly not always in the moment) -- and with its interesting antiheroic conclusions Losing is What Matters is an appealingly different (accepting and) finding-one's-way-in life novel. - M.A.Orthofer