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Carnival of Souls

The exhilarating bleakness of Rafael Chirbes’s fiction

As capital remade the twentieth century in its image, modernist fiction gamely depicted its pernicious and alienating effects. A growing disenchantment was adduced thusly: Poldy Bloom’s cacophony of newspaper ads, Gatsby’s flawed fantasia, the back-firing car in Mrs. Dalloway, Dos Passos’s Camera Eye, those devastating letters of Miss Lonelyhearts. This formalism possessed a tacit critique. Capital’s immense pageant was offered as a force inimical to human understanding, something unthinkably elastic and inevitably hostile. Could myth give such anarchic futility a frame? Only partly, though not for lack of trying. Here was money as opulent god, polluter of souls and woods and water, handmaiden to cataclysmic war (poor Septimus!), social nexus, corrupt iconography, colonial instigator—a great, mutilating machine. There were stakes in such fictions, their varied aesthetics scarred over with the crises attending them. Much of it reads like a challenge issued or met. Today an ascendant realism acts as capital’s willing companion, and decorated novelists aspire to the liquidity of brands. In lieu of struggling toward a form commensurate with the time, the prose of even our short-listed books is so frictionless as to be ignorable. The novel creeps ever closer to its final and most culturally prestigious form: bingeable content.

The works of the late Spanish novelist Rafael Chirbes offer a rebuke to what we might call lifestyle literature. Two of his final novels, Cremation and On the Edge, both published in translation by New Directions, reclaim a decayed form of modernism to castigate the late aughts’ feast of mammon. His critique is portable, though it centers on Spain. (An avowed Faulknerian, he sets these novels in or near the fictional Misent, a seaside Yoknapatawpha.) Cremation offers the cocaine-rimmed bacchanal brought on by the real-estate bubble, while On the Edge depicts the mortal hangover that attended its bursting. Reading the books together is an experience not unlike that of katabasis—the story of a descent into hell—though there is little ennobling clarity awaiting the reader upon her return to the surface. To render capital visible Chirbes relies on grotesque, fantastic, and sometimes inscrutable corollaries: disease, millenarian gesture, art history, bucolic parable, mythic association, and sexual appetite. This pliability is in some sense the point. Chirbes is repulsed and fascinated by the fluidity of the market, its ability to totalize experience. The bracing structures of his fictions nimbly evade such mercenary logic. They may be operatic and relentlessly melancholy, but they are assuredly not products.

Rafael Chirbes dramatizes the insidious prevalence of capital, the way it constricts imaginative alternatives and underwrites the despair it purports to relieve.

Chirbes was born in 1949 to a Republican family on the wrong side of the Spanish Civil War. His father, branded a traitor, committed suicide when he was four, leaving his mother too destitute to raise him. During the darkest years of the Franco regime he was brought up in an orphanage for the children of railroad workers. At sixteen he moved to Madrid to study history at Universidad Complutense, where he joined an anti-Franco student group, earning him a spell in Carabanchel prison. He worked in several Spanish bookstores in the seventies before briefly moving to Paris, where he discovered Balzac and Stendhal, Godard and Flaubert. After Franco’s death, he sought a new life in Morocco—which inspired his first novel, the debauched Mimoun (1988)—before eventually returning to Spain to settle in the tiny town of Badajoz, Extremadura, writing food and travel essays to survive. On the strength of a review from critic Marcel Reich-Ranicki, his fifth novel, La larga marcha (1996), became an overnight bestseller in Germany. At home he was slower to outgrow his cult writer status. Against the wishes of an offended establishment, Chirbes was given the prestigious National Critic’s Award for Cremation in 2007, a feat he would repeat with On the Edge in 2013. He died of lung cancer two years later.

What are his fictions like? They remind me a little of the voice-sculptures of Faulkner, though bereft of that novelist’s humor and optimism. The shortcomings of human nature are given no quarter: “Life is dirty, pleasure and pain sweat, excrete, smell. No human being is anything more than a badly stitched sack of muck.” He loved the painter Francis Bacon, and more than a few of his protean figures seem culled from that agonized world, frozen in perpetual screams or posed across hellish triptychs of their own devising. He has a penchant for torrential bombast. This can sometimes tip into machismo, the tumescence of ego that enables overwriting. His archetypal characters are familiar—the corrupt businessman, the vain trophy wife, the hardened criminal, the prickly intellectual—but they believe in themselves too fully to submit to cliché. Their voices possess the self-cancelling paradoxes of the living, a fruitless and improvisational vitality. Their guilt is presupposed—guilt being a universal condition in Chirbes’s fictions—though they defend themselves with persuasive rigor. They smooth away the sharper edges of their transgressions, mounting reasonable defenses against the phantom arbiter of conscience. They explain their behaviors to themselves so that they may go on living the lives they feel they deserve.

Like heliocentric systems whose suns have been extinguished, Cremation and On the Edge each whirl about a lost or fading paterfamilias, leaping from voice to voice until the reader apprehends each mind in some rough fullness. The transformations of financial speculation work in parallel with the more intimate shifts apparent in marriage, parenthood, and long friendship, all change trending toward the terminal. These are deeply pessimistic books, chronicles of hatred, resentment, and myopic self-delusion. But the bleak proceedings benefit from the velocity of Chirbes’s remarkable prose—thrillingly translated by Valerie Miles (Cremation) and Margaret Jull Costa (On the Edge)—a raging stream of consciousness in which bits of history, memories, hesitations, wishes, and dreams fleck the foaming surface.

The family at the center of Cremation, the Bertomeus, offer the contradictions typical of Chirbes’s fictions. An unscrupulous land developer, Rubén, considers the death of his younger brother, Matías, a former anti-Franco revolutionary turned olive farmer. Ruben’s luxury condos and ostentatious wealth were sources of shame for the late Matías, whose return to the grove was a kind of fraternal reproach. Brouard, a debauched novelist and Rubén’s one-time best friend, no longer speaks to him. His daughter, Silvia, an art restorer, is contemptuous of him, though she takes pleasure in the lifestyle his fortune affords her, as does his second (and much younger) wife, Monica. Silvia’s husband, Juan, a professor of comparative literature, writes Brouard’s biography from a perch of nihilistic abstraction. The criminal muscle of Rubén’s empire, Collado and Yuri, also make appearances, their barbed monologues marking the transformation of their boss from paternal leader to ruthless devourer.

Beneath the lives of the Bertomeus, Chirbes tells a more expansive story about contemporary European existence, something like the mythic life of capital. He seeks historical, cultural, and imaginative parallels that approximate the awe and terror of Misent’s rapid transformation, sampling the language of eschatology (“The beast of Revelations isn’t coming because it’s already here”), medical diagnoses (landfills rise “like a constellation of tumors”), cyclical theory (“What makes us so like the Viennese is that we’re standing at the edge of the abyss”), tragic spectacle (“It’s the Titanic sans grandeur”), Dantean allusion (“Misent’s recent history works like a parody of a voyage, except backward: it starts in paradise and ends in hell”), self-care woo-woo (“tenderness as the positive materialization of money, the healing effect of money”), and Christian apocalypse (“We’re starting to see the Antichrist now, he’s among us: his name is Concrete”). The relentless search for proximate meaning, for a language that might articulate such disfigurement and waste, buoys the novel and raises it beyond hypnotic pessimism. In its final chapters, Cremation achieves a terrible sublimity as it strives against an unknowable and overpowering force:

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 its equally incorporeal. It’s the axis around which the great wheel turns.

That term—“the great wheel”—is worth considering. The curious power of Chirbes’s late fiction is that it seems to grapple with history while also suspending itself in a transhistorical current. Like many of us, his characters have difficulty imagining a different way of life. The Bertomeus attempt to escape into the past, or nurture dubious tales of self-invention, though neither succeeds in its intended revisionism. Chirbes dramatizes the insidious prevalence of capital, the way it constricts imaginative alternatives and underwrites the despair it purports to relieve. “It’s all about self-centeredness, what people want to possess, consume, campaigns designed by big advertising agencies,” Rubén says. “As ideals they are far bleaker, though who knows, perhaps they’re less harmful too, and strange as it may seem a little closer to me, at least I find them more understandable.” What little pleasures exist in these pages—sex, maybe, and the ephemeral beauty of sun and water—bring brief respites, though both are marbled with some aspect of their own corruption: sex is largely presented as a latent addiction, and beauty as something exclusionary or provisional, awaiting its own defilement.

Chirbes has been touted as the corrosive poet of the financial crisis. There is some truth to this. His final novels neatly bookend the vertiginous rise and despairing fall of the time. But this narrow focus obscures the range of European novelists who previously confronted capital’s revelations and perversions. Chirbes builds on the work of writers like Zola and Balzac, or, closer to home, Benito Pérez Galdós and Dolores Medio, layering a thick impasto of modernist effect atop a social realist structure. His countryman and near contemporary, Juan Goytisolo, too, relentlessly admonished Spain in his Álvaro Mendiola trilogy. (The acerbic Count Julian is a personal favorite.) The permutations of capital have played out in the novel from its inception, revealing the distortions of a European imagination under perpetual duress. The exploitation Chirbes depicts, then, is not sudden or historically unique, nor even very shocking.

His penultimate novel, On the Edge, follows seventy-year-old Esteban, the second son of a carpenter and one-time political prisoner, as he navigates personal and professional misfortune in a ravaged, post-bubble Spain. His father, for whom he acts as caretaker, is now an invalid. The family woodworking business has been bankrupted after Esteban put it up for collateral in a property development scheme run by a childhood friend. The rest of the family proves of little help. One brother died young, the other is a conman. His sister, Carmen, settles in Barcelona and cuts off all contact when negotiations for her presumed inheritance fall through. The house will soon be repossessed; Esteban tells no one. The novel leads in a mortal direction, with Esteban settling scores with ghosts and tying up what loose ends he can. A brief opening section, in which a Moroccan laborer discovers a pair of corpses in a marsh, offers the fates of Esteban and his father up front. The rest of the book is a slow-motion suicide.

Things have changed since Cremation. The novel is set in tiny Olba, about nine miles from the fictional Misent. Abandoned construction sites litter the town. Work is scarce. The financial hangover is palpable. A mist of fear and resentment hangs over the proceedings. While the novel is comprised of a nearly unbroken monologue from Esteban, other members of the community make brief cameos bemoaning their reduced circumstances, an italicized chorus of lamentation. As in Cremation, capital constellates nearly every aspect of the novel. If anything, it is even more voracious here, a universal orientation in which families are destroyed, relations are obscured (or mercilessly clarified), terms of attraction are revised, ecology contaminated, and every vulgarity sanctioned.

How, after all, does one get on in hell?

Esteban lives in desperate lassitude. He piddles around the shop and spends a lot of time playing cards at Bar Castañer. That he never transcended his life the way his friends did—through crime, or taste, or ambition—is a source of persistent shame. One of these men, Justino, is an emblematic figure, a Mephistophelean tough who thrives in lean times by way of moral abdication: “Justino covers up, dissembles, hides. His life is a mystery, you have to decipher the meaning slithering about beneath his words, he’s the oracle of all things murky, the sibyl of the unsavory: he conceals the truth with lies and conceals lies with half-truths.” Another, Francisco, made a small fortune on a restaurant he opened with his wife, once the love of Esteban’s life. He tells stories about wine, food, his yacht. The crisis may have diminished him, though he clings to memories, an armor of hauteur. Esteban himself lusts after Liliana, a Colombian maid he employs. He gives her money and family heirlooms. (She understandably flees when the cash dries up.) He also rhapsodizes about the marsh at Olba’s center, in which he once hunted, fished, and made love. It is now a chemical dump and makeshift gravesite for the mafia. There is something Boschian about these figures and their predicaments, the way they act out their vices across a corroded landscape. They crowd the frame, cheek by jowl. This postlapsarian drama reveals Chirbes’s fascination with etiquette in extremis: How, after all, does one get on in hell?

If the 2008 crisis anchors the novel, the complete disillusionment of post-Franco life suffuses it like a vapor. It is the less visible catastrophe of On the Edge, the ideological ruin in which the current debacle unfolds. Similar to Chirbes’s father, Esteban’s fought for the losing side of the Spanish Civil War. (One of the most affecting parts of the novel is a section offering the covert notes his father took while listening to BBC reports on Allied progress.) But even the purported victors of the war experienced their own slow humiliation. The dream of Spanish democracy, stable and prosperous for a time, has choked beneath the flourishing of neoliberal dispensation. A politics of rancor now rears its head. Here Chirbes offers the most chilling—and, in the end, the most practical—of his many corollaries: the financial collapse as a kind of fate. Capital presides over human affairs in the impenetrable manner of a god. In its pitiless machinations, our lives are continuously spun, measured, and cut.

Beyond the intricate treatment of Spanish history and politics, it is the voices of each novel that linger: Rubén’s and Brouard’s in Cremation, I think, and perhaps especially Esteban’s in On the Edge. Each has been defeated by an excess to which he has too willingly consented. These voices are resolutely pessimistic, even abyssal. But their bleakness finally exhilarates. What I especially appreciated in reading these novels was the sense of Chirbes owning up to his own confusion with regard to the crisis. As much as they can be said to be about anything, his fictions enact the disorientation of capital. Chirbes, staring into the void, remains as dizzy as the rest of us. He has no hope, no prospects, and no answers to offer the reader. How awful, we feel, and how lovely: he isn’t selling a thing.