For anyone who missed this in my earlier posts, the fiction book for February’s Reading the World Book Club is On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes, which is translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and published by New Directions.
As a way of introducing Chirbes, I thought I’d post this bio and interview from A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, an anthology of Spanish-language writers Open Letter published in the fall of 2014 featuring the first of Chirbes’s writing to appear in English translation. The principle idea of the book is that each of the included literary masters select the best thing s/he has ever written. (In Chirbes’s case, he selected part of Crematorio.) Prefacing these excerpts are long biographies situating the writer, and a short interview in which each author answers a few standard questions about their influences and why they chose the section they did. That’s what’s posted below.
From A Thousand Forests in One Acorn, edited by Valerie Miles:
Rafael Chirbes is an author who has been creating his work—indispensable to understanding Spain’s recent history—in the shadows. Born the 27th of June, 1949, in Tabernes de Valldigna, in the province of Valencia. He is the son of a republican family, but above all a child of the post-war—social and historical conscience have marked both his life and his writing. From the age of eight, he studied in schools for the orphans of railway workers, and he spent parts of his childhood and adolescence in Ávila, León, and Salamanca. When he was sixteen, he left for Madrid, where he got a degree in Modern and Contemporary History, perhaps to better understand that particular time in history (the second half of the twentieth century) of which he considered himself a product, that moment when a generation—his—succumbed to “chronic amnesia” right when they took power.
An insatiable reader, he worked for several years in bookstores and spent others writing literary criticism. Then he lived in Morocco (where he was a Spanish teacher), Paris, Barcelona, La Coruña, and Extremadura, and finally he went back to his city of birth, Valencia. For years he did various journalistic activities; writing restaurant reviews for the magazine Sobremesa and travel reports. It wasn’t until he was thirty-nine, in 1988, that he became known as a writer. His first novel, Mimoun, was a finalist for the Premio Herralde. Since then, Chirbes has published eight novels that have composed a bitter portrayal of modern-day Spain, blending realism and introspection, history and story, in what the author defines as “a boomerang effect”: you have to look behind you to get back to the present. Rafael Chirbes’s novels are populated with individuals who long to change history and who, nevertheless, end up succumbing, confronting the impossibility of intervening in anything, torn away toward the end of the world; revolutionaries who shield themselves behind a historical past in order to justify their uselessness in the present.
After publishing En la lucha final (1991), La buena letra (1992), and Los disparos del cazador (1994), in 1996 appeared La larga marcha, a novel that along with La caída de Madrid (2000) and Los viejos amigos (2003) formed a trilogy about Spanish society from post-war times, through the Transition. The ethical sensibility in Chirbes’s writing consists precisely in situating the reader in front of a moral conflict, forcing the reader to take part. Through his minutely detailed stories, the minature world of his characters, Rafael Chirbes manages to shed light on the mechanisms that make the real world run. In his most recently published novel, Crematorio (for which he received the Premio Nacional de la Crítica and the Premio Dulce Chacón), he depicts a world adrift, eaten away by corruption and speculation, where that game of masking the real within the fictional becomes rawer and savager. Skeptical and happy, he has accepted the recognition with his characteristic discretion, which serves him so well in Beniarbieg, a small Valencian town, where he currently lives, far away from literary cliques.
Rafael Chirbes states that up until this moment he has the impression of having written only one book. In that book “they don’t talk about the war, though the war is present; they don’t talk about hope, though they carry the aspirations of the twentieth century.” The book he’s referring to is a place where you go to try to understand the past in order to attend to the present; it’s a place where you find yourself forced, simply, to find out who you are.
The Torture of Doctor Johnson
This is the end of my most recent novel, and although the protagonist who’s speaking in the text isn’t very much like me, I do share a certain texture of his dark outlook.
In Conversation with the Dead
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. A point of view situates you somewhere, in a location where potentialities—ways of being—battle one another. When you write, or paint, as when you read or look at something, you have to be conscious of the fact that the author wants to invite you to look from where he’s looking. Your mission is to protect yourself. Know that they want to seduce you.
I hope you grab a copy of On the Edge (AND A Thousand Forests in One Acorn!) and join in the reading group. Feel free to email me comments and thoughts, or post them in the comments section below, or use #RTWBC on Twitter, or join the Facebook Group.
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