Stability is to the Spanish what freedom is to Americans. (This is a stereotype, but life abroad inures you to stereotypes you may have rejected as a fair-minded observer from afar.) Where American parents might advise their children to go their own way, to do whatever will make them happy, their Spanish counterparts are more likely to stress the importance of studying for oposiciones, the state-sponsored exams required to join the bloated public sector. This stability in Spain remains as tenuous as freedom in America; more than forty years after the transition to democracy, much of the population—particularly those who came of age in the 1960s, when the infrastructure of the modern European state was built—struggles to properly conceive of, let alone endorse, a nonstatist approach to the economy, and the result has been decades of lurching from one crisis to the next.
Central to the Spanish ideal of stability is the piso, what Americans call a condo. Though apartment living was already common in Madrid and Barcelona in the late nineteenth century, the piso is indelibly associated with the huge migrations from the countryside to the provincial capitals after the Spanish Civil War. Conditions at the time were squalid: people in the neighborhoods surrounding Madrid, Barcelona, Gijón, and Bilbao lived in shacks made of wood, tar paper, and corrugated tin; those fortunate enough to find steady work often resided in boardinghouses.
In the 1950s affordable-housing laws promoted the construction of large apartment blocks and obliged employers and government agencies to offer subsidized housing for workers. (The lengths one might go to for one of these units are hilariously and movingly portrayed in Luis Berlanga’s 1963 film The Executioner.) Property ownership brought prosperity to a generation of workers raised in the deprivation of the postwar era, when Spain’s economy declined to levels not seen since the nineteenth century; for the Franco regime, affordable housing was a way to buy the masses’ acquiescence. In 1957 José Luis Arrese, the first minister of housing under Franco, declared, “We want a country of owners, not of proletarians,” and his wish came true: today more than three quarters of Spanish residents own their homes, and more dwellings are empty than are available for rent. But for many, the economic benefits have been negligible. Spain currently has the highest unemployment in the EU and the fourth-highest percentage of people at risk of poverty; in 2021, more than half a million households reported no income whatsoever, and with the stratospheric rise in the cost of gas and electricity, a tenth of the population can no longer adequately heat their homes.
In the writings of Rafael Chirbes, the most important Spanish novelist of the past fifty years, brick and mortar are the supreme pretext for corruption—venal corruption, but also a spiritual rot that entered Spanish society after the death of Franco in 1975 and the subsequent transition to democracy. Power fell into the hands of a monarch handpicked by Franco; an amnesty law passed two years later, intended for political prisoners under the dictatorship, has since been construed to provide legal cover for Francoist torturers and killers; much of the country’s wealth and political influence remains in the hands of descendants of important figures in the dictatorship; and yet the prevailing consensus in the country is that the transition was a triumph of national spirit over the resentments of the past.
Chirbes, who died in 2015, was one of the few novelists to question this delusion, and he insisted that the transition “traded ideology for well-being.” The end of the dictatorship revealed the left and right’s almost familial interdependence: opposition to Franco had given the left moral legitimacy, while the right used the left to evoke the ever-fainter phantom of communism as an existential threat. With democracy, these conflicting political visions collapsed, and Spanish society embraced an ideal of prosperity and renewal that turned to hubris and greed as GDP surged, so that even a nominally socialist economic minister could boast in 1988: “In all of Europe, Spain is the country where you can make the most money in the least amount of time, and maybe one of the countries where the most money can be made in the world.”
Chirbes scrutinized the underpinnings of the image of Spain as a modernized, democratic European state and what much of the country had preferred to forget: not so much the civil war, for which adequate perspectives have long existed (among them the mawkish brother-versus-brother narrative already commonplace in Franco’s twilight years), but the transition to democracy, which he denounced as “not a pact, but the application of a novel strategy in the war of the few against the many.” Chirbes aimed at a fusion of Proust and Trotsky in his writing: the past should be summoned in singular detail, but no facet of the story should be isolated from the political and economic forces that shape it. He wrote mostly in what he called the “sympathetic third person,” representing the perspectives of the different sexes, classes, and social spheres in long stretches of free indirect discourse dense with colloquialisms, the jargon of revolutionaries, Spain’s minority languages, and the characteristic idioms of the upper and lower classes, aiming, like Hegel’s dialectic, to “demonstrate the finitude of the partial categories of understanding.”
Chirbes never courted readers—he compared them to cats and said you had to rub their fur the wrong way—and for a long time he didn’t have many. In his country, there was little profit to be had in criticizing the apparently thriving social democracy. The situation changed in 2007 with the publication of his eighth novel, Cremation, which arrived at the height of a real estate bubble that burst the following year, plunging the country into a cycle of austerity measures, chronic unemployment, and repeated bailouts from which it has never fully emerged.
Chirbes was less than sanguine about the prizes and conference invitations and the TV deal that ensued. When everyone was buying summer homes and bricklayers were earning more than professors, no one had cared to hear what he had to say. “Now that people are unemployed,” he said, “they listen.” On the Edge (2013), the last novel published in his lifetime, sold moderately well and was widely praised, but Chirbes had little time to enjoy success: he died in August 2015, just days after receiving a diagnosis of inoperable lung cancer. His entry into the canon seems to have been secured in 2021 with the publication of the first volume of his diaries, which topped many newspaper lists of Spain’s best books of the year. Still, only three of his books have appeared so far in English: his short debut novel Mimoun—written under the spell of Paul Bowles—in 1993, On the Edge in 2016, and now Cremation, in a translation by Valerie Miles.
Chirbes was born in Tavernes de la Valldigna, a small town on Valencia’s Mediterranean coast, in 1949. In 1957 his mother sent him to a boarding school for the sons of deceased railway workers in Ávila, an austere medieval city in the heart of Castile. In his long itineracy as a student, teacher of Spanish, and food and wine writer, he moved from Castile to Morocco, Galicia, Paris, and Extremadura. He spent most of his adult life in Madrid before settling in Beniarbeig, a village about twenty-five miles from his birthplace.
Cremation is, among other things, Chirbes’s reaction to the region’s systematic devastation during his absence. Valencia, a land of fishing villages, orchards, and olive groves, had become the center of the construction boom, its fields and historic architecture ravaged in the fever for prefab seaside villas and condo towers. Illegal kickbacks for building permits were the order of the day, protected lands were burned for rezoning, and foreign money poured in for laundering from sources as diverse as the Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska and Equatorial Guinea’s dictator, Teodoro Obiang.
Less a narrative than a series of character studies, Cremation offers various perspectives on the machinations of a sinister real estate developer, Rubén Bertomeu, whose brother, Matías, has just died of a brain hemorrhage and whose former associate and henchman, Collado, is lying in a hospital bed covered in burns. The two men represent the spiritual and material axes of Rubén’s development from young, idealistic architecture student to crusty, cynical mogul.
Matías was a man of principle, a dyed-in-the-wool leftist who degenerated into a crank in old age, retiring to the hills to drink himself to death and scrape out a living selling artisanal marmalades to the same tourists he complained were ruining the country. Collado is a roughneck who, unlike Rubén, never completed the transition from extortionist to legitimate businessman. He remembers Rubén’s justifications for the crimes of their youth, when they imported cocaine in the bellies of horses they’d slaughter and bury on the grounds of an abandoned racetrack:
We did what we had to do given the circumstances, what those classical economists used to call primitive accumulation of capital, the country had to establish a new class after Franco, but didn’t have the resources to do it; and now that class is closing its borders, the quota’s full, now it’s time to hinder social mobility, no more shimmying between classes, no more permeability.
Rubén moved up in the world; Collado failed to follow. While Rubén buys nicer cars, divorces the mother of his children and marries a woman forty years his junior, drinks finer wine, rubs elbows with politicians, and slowly moves from building low-grade vacation homes to luxury developments, Collado remains a goon, a drunk, and a cokehead, a penny-ante contractor with 15,000 euros to his name. He falls in love with Irina, the favorite prostitute of a Russian gangster named Traian, and when he tries to convince her to run away with him, Traian calls Rubén to remind him “that we still owe each other certain favors; maybe not even that: more like that we owe each other a little courtesy, a little consideration.” Rubén gets in touch with one of his bruisers from the old days, who torches Collado’s car with him inside.
If Rubén is an avatar of Spanish corruption at the dawn of the twenty-first century, his daughter, Silvia, embodies impotent rebellion against it. Her voice is sophisticated but petulant, high-minded but pampered. An art restorer, she reviles her father’s tacky developments and sees her own work as “corrective, a way of restoring justice, of putting things in their place.” She loved her uncle Matías, and in her teenage years listened rapt to his harangues about his glory days in the Communist Party, but her own principles are more aesthetic than political. With her passion for Paris and New York and her constant complaints about her father’s trashy friends and his trophy wife, she reveals little more than the tastes and inclinations of a new privileged class.
For Rubén, Silvia’s indignation is a luxury he’s earned for her, a dividend of his supposed vulgarity; her sanctimonious attachment to history bespeaks her inability to accept progress. He reminds her that cities have always nurtured corruption, that Paris, where she shops for necklaces and handbags, was transformed by speculative machinations and mass evictions of the poor during the Second Empire. It’s always been this way, even in the days of Augustus, Rubén affirms, and when Silvia tells him he can hardly compare his cheap concrete bungalows to the marmoreal glory of ancient Rome, he replies, “Marble is like the bread of a sandwich, what’s inside is cement.”
Silvia’s distaste for her father and his milieu never develops into a serious critique, as this would inevitably call her own way of life into question. With another character, the aging writer Federico Brouard, Chirbes depicts the inner desolation of a man who did attempt to formulate such a critique across a series of novels and now, on the verge of death, must admit the insignificance of everything he’s done. Broaurd’s voice resembles that of Chirbes in his diaries and essays; he quotes Chirbes’s favorite writers, from Fielding to Camus, and the dark tenderness of his meditations on human frailty is unmistakably Chirbes’s own. The grandson of an impoverished Belgian potter, possibly a war refugee, Brouard grew close to the Bertomeu family after his father, like Chirbes’s, committed suicide. Brouard, Matías, and Rubén were a bohemian trio before Rubén discovered the lure of easy money. Together they read Soledad Brother, debated Lukács, even coproduced a chapbook of poems and engravings entitled The Shapes of a Landscape That Belongs to Nobody.
Chirbes told interviewers that Cremation was “Chirbes contra Chirbes,” and his stand-in Brouard is a sorry, broken figure, too insignificant to be tragic. Talent waning, health destroyed (he’s just recovered from prostate cancer), Brouard runs away from his young lover and minder on a long booze-and-cocaine bender, ogling couples he pays to perform for him in sex clubs.
Like political corruption, the sex trade is a ubiquitous aspect of Spanish life that receives little attention in serious fiction. Thirty-nine percent of Spanish men surveyed admit to having paid for sex; in the business world, a last stop at the puticlub for cocaine and girls is a common way to celebrate closing a deal; in El Raval in Barcelona, on the Calle de la Ballesta in Madrid, streetwalkers solicit customers from doorways or the sidewalk. The clubs that dot the highways—instantly recognizable by their outré architecture and neon signs—are hubs of human trafficking and money laundering where immigrant women, mostly from Eastern Europe and South America, live in near bondage, with 70 percent of their income split between the mafias that bring them across the border and the generally Spanish brothel owners who rent them the rooms where they service their customers. While other authors have looked away from this unsavory aspect of Spanish culture or have made light of it by perpetuating the stereotype of hot-blooded Latins, Chirbes has followed its development in his major novels from the Franco years, when women were virtually excluded from the regular labor market, to the present, when sex work, like construction and agricultural jobs, is outsourced to immigrants from poorer countries who labor in squalor.
Chirbes treats the economics of the sex trade and its points of intersection with Spanish corruption not as dry sociological abstractions but as basic elements of a society where emotional solace is placed on the market. Through the purchase of sex, Brouard tries to recapture the rush of youth, while the lust triangle that unites Traian’s underling Yuri, Collado, and the prostitute Irina brings together three dispossessed people who compensate for their subordination by exploiting others. For Yuri, Irina will always be a “little doll,” while Collado erases her identity, renaming her Lola, “a housewife’s name and a whore’s.” The two men are scheming to run away with her, but to her they are pitiful playthings, fleeting amusements while she pursues the one form of upward mobility reserved for her. In their hearts, they both know this; for Collado, it endows her with an elusiveness that makes her more desirable even as it fuels his contempt:
As time goes by and she figures it all out, she’ll move farther away from him and into someone else’s arms, she’s too hot to go under the radar, she’ll be noticed by some businessman, factory owner, developer, anyone could get a hankering for her, take her off, buy her a flat, marry her. Back in the day nobody would think of marrying a prostitute, but now they do, now there are men who cherry-pick a girl from a club, marry her, and make her a lady. You can see them now, crossing an intersection behind the wheel of an extravagant car, flashing a scornful glance at you, all haughtiness, the newly arrived slut, and she thinks she’s better than you, a local, who’s worked here their whole life, knows everyone, and now suddenly she’s attended to before your wife in the stores, she sends her kids to private schools while yours are stuck in the public system, the piece of shit school with prefab boxes for classrooms, your son is there while hers is learning how to sail, ride horses, play tennis and golf, and spending summers abroad.
Cremation is not so much choral as cacophonous: its thirteen chapters, told from the perspectives of eight different characters, reveal the limitless bitterness of people whose desires and ambitions force them to use others and often to be used in turn. There is no plot per se; Rubén’s rise, his brother’s decline, all the grim dealings between Yuri, Traian, Irina, and Collado lie in the past. Together, their voices are an indictment of a country where the trappings of democracy and the free market conceal a never fully dismantled feudalism, and if Rubén with his smug contentment contrasts with the other characters, it’s thanks to his readiness to sacrifice principle to his ambition of becoming a modern feudal lord.
As the book draws to a close, distinctions between individuals and even between people and landscape collapse; the sensation of churn—of impressions, objects, and ideas emerging and crumbling away—reveals itself as a force inherent to all matter. Human agency recedes to disclose a sedimentary vision of historical change similar to that of the neomaterialists, who deny distinctions between organic and inorganic and view human purposes as a patina overlaying physical and chemical processes that elude understanding:
And while the economy seems to loom so large, shocking, it’s really nothing but a stage set, it’s the front curtain that hides the stage through which a stealthy animal moves, unseen, so inconspicuous it doesn’t even have a name, because it’s not power, though it participates in power; it’s not money, though it derives nourishment from money; it’s not even prestige, though it’s equally incorporeal. It’s the axis around which the great wheel turns. It is, if I may, the stoking gust, the steam that makes the boiler boil, it’s what you can’t see, nobody sees, because it’s pure energy.
To render Chirbes’s peculiar apocalyptic vision, which remains constant while modulating according to his characters’ class, political leanings, and geographical origins, is a tall order for any translator, but Valerie Miles in Cremation repeatedly fails at the task. Even readers who have no Spanish will notice things that seem wrong. She mentions “the aroma of saltpeter” on the Valencian coast—a basic dictionary error, as salitre means not just “saltpeter” but “salinity” or “salt air.” An everyday word for dick is translated absurdly as “tail.” In a tirade about her father’s dimwitted trophy wife, Silvia perplexingly speaks of her “enchanting ingenuity.” The Spanish here is ingenuidad, “naivety” or “innocence”; “ingenuity” is ingenio. Occasional mistakes are inevitable in translation, but Cremation is marked throughout by jarring inconsistencies, and there are times when one must refer to Chirbes’s original text to see what a passage actually means.
Worse, the syntax is frequently jumbled, with clear passages made tortuous and lucid thoughts smashed into rhetorical mush: a sentence that, literally translated, reads “Artists fond of portraying their work as the fruit of exertion strike us as immorally narcissistic” becomes “We find artists who seem to be trying too hard, overly narcissistic.” Chirbes’s language is carefully layered: some passages echo Quevedo or Rabelais; others are rife with the jargon of enology or Maoist dialectics; still others mimic perfectly the slurred crudities of drunks and lechers. In English, Miles has adopted a strange, stiff idiom of cheesy slang (“lickety-split”) and awkward attempts at coarseness (“some shithole place stuck up the world’s ass,” “crush the asshole of my brother”) that feels parodic, while the subtleties of the more lyrical and intellectual passages are muddied.
I may be especially sensitive to the damage done here because I lived through the housing collapse in Spain, when unemployment hit 26 percent, cities started fining people for digging through the trash, and corruption scandals engulfed every party, from the far right to the Catalan nationalists. I remember asking friends, “Why is no one writing about this?” The answer was inevitably a shrug. The novelist Germán Sierra once complained to me that “people in Spain talk about the crisis like it’s a meteorological phenomenon, and they just have to wait for it to go away.” Chirbes was the one writer willing to say that everyone in the country was complicit, that the death of Franco hadn’t wiped the slate clean, indeed that the class divisions that preceded the civil war had only worsened as democracy and economic liberalization permitted Spain’s rich to draw on credit lines from international banks and tuck their money away in offshore accounts.
As I write this, everything he railed against in Cremation is happening again: despite the joblessness, despite the tens of thousands of businesses shuttered during the pandemic, cranes rise across the skyline, and you can’t turn a corner where I live in Barcelona without hearing the rattle of jackhammers and the whine of buzzsaws. No one tried harder than Chirbes to wake this country from its collective amnesia, to remind people here that forgetting is subjugation. His insistence on the centrality of class conflicts buried by falsified versions of history holds lessons for readers in the English-speaking world, where narratives of national unity continue to suppress the realities of racism, colonialism, and economic injustice. But they will have to wait to appreciate them until someone manages to capture his range, his intelligence, and the power of his words.