A Masterpiece from the Muck

On the Edge

by Rafael Chirbes, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, with an afterword by Valerie Miles
New Directions, 410 pp., $16.95 (paper)

1.

Poverty in the West is suddenly, inescapably, around. It’s turning up as a deep problem here and there, even in electoral politics, and, clearly, dealing with poverty by the practice of ignoring it is reaching the limits of its usefulness. People at all levels are forced to deal with poverty in one way or another: in Paris recently I saw bands of distressingly shabby homeless people forming groups in front of monuments that tourists were attempting to photograph. They refused to get out of the way until they were given some money. And of course poverty and its cousins, inequality and corruption, are making their way into literature—as has been the case in earlier crisis periods of capitalism. Rafael Chirbes’s On the Edge is a novel for our time.

Gathering almonds in the Valencian town of Guadalest, Spain, September 1971; photograph by Guy Le Querrec
Magnum Photos
Gathering almonds in the Valencian town of Guadalest, Spain, September 1971; photograph by Guy Le Querrec

The 2008 financial crisis was particularly shattering in southern Europe. Its reach was broader there than elsewhere, its effect more instantaneous. On the Edge trenchantly explores the complex life of a young man who lived through Spain’s years of social catastrophe. The setting is the coast of Valencia, in the small towns of Olba and Misent, which lie across from the island of Ibiza.

On the Edge consists essentially of an unending soliloquy, a special case of the standard modernist stream-of-consciousness form. The main character’s soliloquy features an element of performance unlike the raw associative stream-of-consciousness usual in much fiction. Through the recollections of Esteban, the second son of a Communist furniture-maker and ex–political prisoner, we learn of lives that have been intimidated, weakened. In the telling, Esteban’s family, friends, and associates are brutally illuminated. (There are a few instances in which the author attaches soliloquys of other minds.)

The year is 2010—the direst year of the crisis, the year when economic, cultural, ecological, and moral failures came together. Esteban, in addition to running the small furniture factory founded by his father, is now caregiver to the mute, unresponsive invalid his father has become. A fine-grained appreciation of the complicated relationship between father and son emerges from the story. Esteban shares caregiving responsibilities with Liliana, a young Colombian migrant. This work is Gogolesque, but without Gogol’s humor. The conditions of life dramatized through Esteban include those of what might be called the nouveau pauvre classes as well as those of the growing population of the lumpenproletariat.

2.

In 2010 Esteban is seventy. He has never been married. The wood furniture factory is headed for bankruptcy, as is the construction firm into which he has sunk his father’s savings without his knowledge. Esteban has few interests, a social life limited to weekly card games at the Bar Castaner with a few old friends. He has…


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