“On the Edge” by Rafael Chirbes [Why This Book Should Win]

Between the announcement of the Best Translated Book Award longlists and the unveiling of the finalists, we will be covering all thirty-five titles in the Why This Book Should Win series. Enjoy learning about all the various titles selected by the fourteen fiction and poetry judges, and I hope you find a few to purchase and read!

The entry below is by Jeremy Garber, events coordinator at Powell’s Books in Portland, OR.


On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Spain, New Directions)

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Making the Shortlist: 62%

Chad’s Uneducated and Unscientific Percentage Chance of Winning the BTBA: 12%

In the afterword to Rafael Chirbes’s On the Edge (New Directions), Valerie Miles (translator and Granta en español co-founder) said this about the late Spanish author, “[he] accepted his role as the defiant, intrepid author who bears witness, who acts as counterbalance to the forces of power, of corruption and of greed and misery, yet writes lucidly, and even at times tenderly.” Chirbes, who passed away from lung cancer during the summer of 2015, was esteemed in his native land, but has had (to date) only two of his works translated into English.

Set following last decade’s financial crisis, On the Edge is a remarkable novel of the personal fallout stemming from the ravaging and pervasive economic ruin that shook lives and nations around the globe. Chirbes’s tale, while often gritty and unsparing, is nonetheless possessed of considerable beauty and abundant feeling. With rich, evocative prose, Chirbes’s language is as gripping as the story itself—neither of which leaves much room for the reader to saunter or dally. No, On the Edge instead grasps tightly, arresting and affecting in equal measure. Like the far-reaching effects of the economic crisis itself, Chirbes’s masterpiece (awarded both Spain’s National Prize for Literature and the Critic’s Prize [and perhaps soon the Best Translated Book Award!]) is epic and unrelenting.

Rendered from the Spanish by the incomparable Margaret Jull Costa (who has four books on this year’s BTBA longlist), On the Edge is a riveting and disquieting work of fiction—one that speaks to the horrors of individual and collective calamity. On the Edge’s import cannot be overstated, nor can the lingering effects of this singular novel. Chirbes’s steady gaze helps dissect the pernicious greed that led to our global recession and, through the eyes of his characters, we’re able to glimpse the very real, inescapable consequences it has brought (and continues to bring). Speaking of steady gazes, the unforgettable cover image (by Paul Sahre Inc.) inescapably foretells the stark story within.

Miles concludes her afterword thus, “Writing was his form of observing and expiating his own inconsistencies and primal urges—sex, power, money—in their modern iterations—real estate speculation, prostitution and human trafficking, political debauchery—and challenging readers to look into his pages as into a dark mirror, to see the ghostly reflection of their own faces looking back. What redeems these scathing truths—for a writer with this experience and depth of insight—is art.” Rafael Chirbes, Margaret Jull Costa, and On the Edge are immensely deserving of this year’s Best Translated Book Award.

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