Rafael Chirbes's "Crematorium" [A Month of a Thousand Forests]
I’m going to have to double up on these for a while in order to catch up and make sure we cover everyone before the end of September, so expect a lot of “Forests” over the next week or so.
Rafael Chirbes is up first today. I’ve been interested in his works for a while, and just today gave his newest book En la orilla to a student to do a reader’s report for me. In looking back through my email though to see if I had a PDF of Crematorio anywhere, I found an email about the “Big ABC Survey” of the best Spanish novels of the twenty-first century, which might really interest all of you. Here’s the bulk of the email:
The “Big ABC survey” that was carried out among a hundred writers, editors, literary agents and cultural figures has chosen The Feast of the Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa as the best Spanish language novel of the twenty first century.
In second place appears Crematorium by Rafael Chirbes. In ABC’s words, “In a true tête-à-tête with the winner, the work of Rafael Chirbes stands out enormously. Using a realist point of view it has understood how to depict the profound (economic, moral, almost total) crisis of Spanish society in a painful and accurate way”.
In third place appears Your Face Tomorrow by Javier Marías followed by Soldiers of Salamis by Javier Cercas, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, The Infatuations by Javier Marías, The Cold Skin by Albert Sánchez Piñol, Montano by Enrique Vila-Matas, Lizard Tails by Juan Marsé and The Day Tomorrow by Ignacio Martínez de Pisón.
Of the nine authors listed there (Marías appearing twice), five of them are included in A Thousand Forests in One Acorn. In fact, this collection contains excerpts from both of the top two books: Feast of the Goat and Crematorium.
More reasons that you should get a copy of A Thousand Forests in One Acorn. And through the end of the month, if you use FORESTS when you check out, you’ll get it for $15.
There are a lot of deceased authors I love crowding my bookshelves at home. I talk to them; I listen to them. From Aub and Galdós, to Tolstoy, Montaigne, Yourcenar, Lucretius and Virgil, Faulkner, Döblin, Proust, Balzac, Eça de Queiroz, and on and on. I don’t leave the house much, so I reread them either at random or impelled by some intuition that tells me that this one and no other is the dead author I should hear at a particular time. For the most part, I’m not mistaken. I also dream about the dead people I knew when they were alive; I’ve touched them, even, and now they’re nowhere, and knowing that they’re not here and that I can’t talk to them or hear their voices distresses me when I go to bed. Some nights they take control of the room: their absence leaves me breathless and I have to turn on the light so I don’t suffocate. With the light on, it’s easier to send them back to the peaceful nothingness they’re struggling to escape from.
You said once that literature is like a lover. Either you go all the way or they leave you. You have to know the value of hitting bottom.
I think texts betray any sort of imposture on the part of their authors; they’re an extremely sensitive detector. They contain what the author wants to say, but also—and almost more importantly—what’s up his sleeve. And yes, I have the impression that writing saves me—I know, I know it’s sort of a romantic idea—don’t ask me from what, even if it’s from myself, it helps me stay afloat. It puts my doubts, my anxieties, at a certain distance and, more importantly, in the service of something.
Do you think there’s an ethical place for literature or is it merely an aesthetic exercise?
I don’t believe in an aesthetic without ethics, there’s no such thing: all aesthetics suggest a particular outlook on the world, and no outlook is innocent.
You have to go up, even if it’s no more than a few feet, a few yards; after all the sky starts a few feet above your head, but you must experience height, look at things from above, even if it’s only a few yards, and then you will be able to chart a course; but the high and mighty Gothic tower refused to help me take that flight. Hermetic, closed, completely sealed off. Deaf, mute, blind stone. Unfeeling stone hewn from God knows what quarry. Showing off the fact that, in its dense structure, there wasn’t a single weakness, not a single hole to let the water of feeling seep through. Unmentionable was the god who said let there be, fiat, and there was light, who said, open, and the earth broke in two, and a hole opened up to be filled with the blue waters of the swimming pools, the multi-story abyss rose straight up and the air-conditioning units started humming on its walls; everything in the cells of the rising honeycomb switched on, the ovens in the kitchens, and the ceramic stovetops, and every cell was filled with life, those cavities were filled with the shouts of children running down the stairs of their houses with inner tubes and plastic flippers and scuba goggles: the joy of a seaside vacation. All the blue of the Mediterranean, all the calm of the Mediterranean. My God, what would the bus drivers in the big European cities do if there were no Mediterranean, the clerks, the secretaries, the welders, the butchers, what would all those poor people do if on the horizon of their sad working lives there were no Mediterranean. And what about the millionaires who like to float around on rafts, and swim without getting their clothes wet. At this point I know all of this so well it bores me. Now everything can turn stupidly transparent (despite what Guillén thinks). Through the aquarium glass the children watch how whales mate and how sharks sharpen their teeth before going for their morning swim, the world squeezed into a fish tank where everything is visible, like in the houses on those TV shows, Big Brother, The Island of who knows what, you can see everything, the enormous fish tank of the world, the sharks swimming over the heads of the aquarium visitors, showing their teeth to the kids who aren’t afraid of anything anymore. There’s something childish about that zeal for transparency, as if societies, like homes—public life is, after all, a simulacrum of private life—didn’t need to have their dark zones, the places where potential energy accumulates. We, ourselves, our own bodies, have glass walls. All it takes is the push of a button to show our insides functioning on a screen.
(Translated by Emily Davis)