4 April 17 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

9 November 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

This week’s Best Translated Book Award post is by Jeremy Garber, events coordinator for Powells and freelance reviewer. For more information on the BTBA, “like” our Facebook page and follow us on Twitter. And check back here each week for a new post by one of the judges.

Esteemed translator Margaret Jull Costa has five books in contention for the 2017 Best Translated Book Award: His Only Son by Leopoldo Alas (New York Review Books), Chronicle of the Murdered House by Lúcio Cardoso (Open Letter), On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes (New Directions), Thus Bad Begins by Javier Marías (Knopf), and Vampire in Love by Enrique Vila-Matas (New Directions). Jull Costa translates from both Spanish and Portuguese and has rendered some of each language’s most well-regarded authors, including Nobel laureate José Saramago, the singular (and multitudinous!) Fernando Pessoa, Eça de Queirós, Luisa Valenzuela, and Bernardo Atxaga, amongst many others. As a working translator for three decades (her first novel-in-translation was published in 1987), Jull Costa has won a number of awards in recognition of her work and was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 2014.

Despite Jull Costa’s prodigious output, in the first nine years of the award, she has only once made the shortlist—in 2015, for Medardo Fraile’s evocative short story collection, Things Look Different in the Light (Pushkin Press). With five strong works under consideration for the forthcoming prize, will 2017 be the year Jull Costa finally adds a Best Translated Book Award to her many accolades? In looking more closely at three of these books, it’s evident that her quality translations ought to have her squarely in the conversation.



Spanish novelist Rafael Chirbes passed away in August 2015, leaving behind some ten novels (On the Edge and the long out-of-print Mimoun being, as yet, his only two translated into English). On the Edge is a dark, tense, and foreboding tale set in the wake of the global recession that robbed so many of so much. Easily one of the year’s finest and most important works, Chirbes’s novel stands out as a marvel of what fiction is capable of doing (and, oh, that inescapable cover!). Valerie Miles’s excellent essay, entitled “The Life and Times of he Great Rafael Chirbes,” was used as the book’s afterword and offers an incomparable glimpse of both the author and On the Edge itself (her piece also appeared on Lit Hub). Below is my review of On the Edge (which originally appeared on Three Percent in December):

Let’s not deceive ourselves, man is nothing very special. In fact, there are so many of us that our governments don’t know what to do with us at all. Six billion humans on the planet and only six or seven thousand Bengal tigers: tell me—who needs protecting most? Yes, you decide who needs most care. A dying African, Chinaman, or Scotsman or a beautiful tiger killed by a hunter. A tiger with its pelt of matchless colours and its flashing eyes is far more beautiful than a varicose-veined old git like me. What a difference in the way it carries itself. How elegant the one and how clumsy the other. Look how they move. Put them next to each other in a cage in the zoo. The children gather round the old man’s cage and laugh as they watch him delousing himself or crouching down to defecate; outside the tiger’s cage, though, they open their eyes wide with admiration. The sleight of hand that made man the centre of the universe no longer convinces.

Devastating, desolate, and disquieting, Rafael Chirbes’s On the Edge (En la orilla) ought to rank as one of the decade’s finest novels. First published in its original Spanish in 2013, On the Edge was awarded both Spain’s National Prize for Literature and the Critics Prize the following year. The Spanish novelist (who passed away [in August 2015] at the age of 66) is the author of nine published novels—with a tenth due out posthumously. While billed as his English language debut, On the Edge was actually preceded in translation by Mimoun, Chirbes’s first novel, published some 22 years ago by Serpent’s Tail (and out of print since).

Set in late 2010, following the economic crisis that ravaged the Spanish economy (as well as many others around the world), On the Edge offers an unflinching glimpse of a nation despoiled and reeling. An unemployment rate of 20% (and rising), poverty, prostitution, xenophoboia, Islamophobia, immigration fears, human trafficking, violence, corruption, and environmental decay are the real-life milieu upon which Chirbes situates his unforgiving tale. Septuagenarian Esteban, tasked with end-of-life care for his terminally ill father and burdened with the stresses of his recently bankrupted carpentry workshop (and impending legal charges resulting therefrom), recounts his life, as well as his myriad failures, disappointments, and betrayals, through an unrelenting series of recollections and dirge-like soliloquies.

Taking life is easy, anyone can do that. They do it every day all over the world. Just read the newspaper and you’ll see. Even you could do it, take someone’s life I mean, obviously, you’d have to improve your aim a little (and then he did smile teasingly, the corners of his lively grey eyes etched with a web of delicate lines). Mankind may have constructed vast buildings, destroyed whole mountains, built canals and bridges, but we’ve never yet succeeded in opening the eyes of a child who has just died. Sometimes it’s the biggest, heaviest things that are easiest to move. Huge stones in the back of a truck, vans laden with heavy metals. And yet everything that’s inside you—what you think, what you want—all of which apparently weighs nothing—no strong man can life that onto his shoulder and move it somewhere else. No truck can transport it. Loving someone you despise or don’t really care for is a lot harder than flooring him with a punch. Men hit each other out of a sense of powerlessness. They think that by using force they can get what they can’t get by using tenderness or intelligence.

With shifting narratives and a chorus of other voices (including those of Esteban’s equally-ravished employees, business partners, barmates, and his father’s one-time palliative nurse), On the Edge teems with fear, frustration, anxiety, and despair. Esteban, challenged (and nearly defeated) not only by the plundering economic state, but also by decades of personal degradation (failed romance, compromised loyalties, allegiances upended, and the legacy of his father’s generations’ attitudes following the war), is forced to confront perdition—familial, social, financial, physical, emotional, and even spiritual.

Chirbes, perhaps like a detached reporter chronicling horrors and atrocities espied from the front lines, infuses an abundance of feeling into characters and setting—despite each being startlingly paralyzed by an unyielding torpor. With gifted prose and a confident style, Chirbes deftly (re)creates a world teetering on ruin and irreconcilability (however hopeful certain characters remain). Like the fetid, rancid lagoon which figures so prominently into the story, On the Edge brilliantly captures the collapse of a system once-thriving and supportive, but left in wreckage resulting from avarice, disregard, and myopia.

Rafael Chirbes, called “the best writer of the twenty-first century in Spain” by the Spanish newspaper ABC, tears asunder whatever illusions may have endured after the global economic collapse. Without didacticism or a moralizing tone, Chirbes stands amidst the debris and destruction, and, with an unflinching gaze, attests to and confirms the harrowing aftermath wrought in the wake of international recession and crises. A remarkable portrait of one man’s struggle to make sense of an encompassing personal, economic, and social decay, On the Edge_breathes life into an otherwise asphyxiating scene. Chirbes’s _On the Edge may lack in redemption (and propelling plot) what it makes up for in cautionary storytelling, but pillaged lives and economies both have never seemed so imaginatively conceived nor richly executed. Even the barrenest of wastelands may lay forlorn and neglected, but, if nothing else, Chirbes’s incomparable novel assures that great art may one day rise from even the most polluted locale.

Of course times have changed, Francisco. Life is constantly changing, it is change. It has no other purpose but to change and to keep changing, the Greeks knew this and I imagine even their ancestors knew it too, you never bathe twice in the same stream, you don’t even bathe the same body, today there’s a pimple that didn’t exist yesterday, nor did this varicose vein which, for long hours, has been making its way to the surface, or this ulcer in my groin or on the sole of my foot, and which my hyperglycemia won’t allow to heal; they are all lying, those utopians who say that this troubled life of avarice and lust will be succeeded by a peaceful world in which we will all be brothers, and where, as in the golden age Don Quijote described, we will, in a spirit of fraternal love, dine on a shared meal of acorns. There is no heavenly peace possible beneath the sheltering sky, only a permanent state of war in which everyone is pitched against everyone and everything against everything. The problem is that with so much change, everything somehow ends up pretty much the same.



Javier Marías’s reputation as a writer of high-quality literary fiction surely precedes him and if the Swedish Academy sees fit to recognize his impressive body of work (Your Face Tomorrow [translated by Jull Costa] alone ought to qualify him), a Nobel Prize would be a deserved coda to an already illustrious authorial career. Thus Bad Begins, his newest novel to be translated into English, is certainly not Marías finest outing (which is hardly a slight, perhaps like saying Blonde on Blonde isn’t this year’s Nobel laureate’s most accomplished album)—yet is still possessed of all the characteristic trademarks that have made him, or, more precisely, his fiction, consistently amongst the best in translation. Marías’s The Infatuations (Knopf, also translated by Jull Costa) was longlisted for the 2014 BTBA. Some thoughts on Thus Bad Begins:

Indeed, freedom is the first thing that fearful citizens are prepared to give up. So much so that they often ask to lose it, ask for it to be taken away, banished from their sight, which is why they not only applaud the very person intending to take it from them, they even vote for him.

With over a dozen of his books available in English translation, Javier Marías’s stateside renown seems to grow deservedly with each new release. His most recent novel, Thus Bad Begins (Así empieza lo malo)—named best book of the year by Spain’s El País in 2014—is a domestic drama set in 1980, immediately following Franco’s regime. A brutal, loveless, spiteful, and often cruel marriage is metaphor for a distrusting populace struggling to move beyond the authoritarianism and betrayals of decades past. While Marías’s characters reveal slowly the motivations for their actions, his story (incorporating the best elements of a convincing mystery) builds toward a gripping conclusion—leaving devastated individuals and a tormented legacy in its wake.

Offering stark insight into the erosive qualities of small deceptions and minor treacheries, Marías, as always, deftly navigates realms psychological, political, and philosophical. Thus Bad Begins isn’t Marías’s strongest outing, but, that said, it is still, nonetheless, an exceptional effort (especially given that he has penned such consistently tremendous works). If written by another author, this book may well be considered the peak of said progenitor’s output, but given the Spaniard’s seemingly limitless ability to compose first-rate fiction, Thus Bad Begins pales slightly when compared to some of his other works. All the same, Thus Bad Begins invariably impresses, adding yet another resplendent feather in the cap of a (hopefully) future nobel laureate.

_“In fact, anything you’re told, anything you didn’t personally witness, is pure rumour, however wrapped up in oaths it comes, all swearing the story to be true. And we can’t spend our lives listening to rumours, still less acting in accordance with their many fluctuations. When you give that up, when you give up trying to know what you cannot know, perhaps, to paraphrase Shakespeare, perhaps that is when bad begins, but, on the other hand, worse remains behind.”

The Hamlet line from which the title is taken is wonderfully ambiguous and well befitting a novel of such emotional subterfuge. Is “worse” left behind or still yet to come?



Like far too many (most?) authors in translations, Enrique Vila-Matas has yet to enjoy the English-speaking audience he deserves—despite being championed by the likes of his friend Paul Auster. The Spanish writer has published over three dozen books, with Vampire in Love being his eighth rendered into English. A collection of short stories spanning his career, Vampire in Love offers a glimpse of Vila-Matas that hadn’t been apparent in his mostly meta-fictional novels (Bartleby & Co. [translated by Jonathan Dunne], Never Any End to Paris, and Dublineqsue are some of his best). Twice shortlisted for the BTBA (in 2008 for Montano’s Malady [translated by Jonathan Dunne] and in 2012 for Never Any End to Paris [translated by Anne McLean]) and included on the longlist for another (in 2013 for Dublinesque [translated by Rosalind Harvey and Anne McLean]), Vila-Matas’s books make for an always fascinating, engaging outing (even if one doesn’t quite know what to expect beforehand, much like his prolific Argentine compatriot, César Aira). Vampire in Love is as good a place as any to start reading Vila-Matas. While short story collections do not sometimes garner the acclaim of their lengthier brethren, Vampire in Love can surely hold it’s own against other contenders for this year’s Best Translated Book Award:

The first collection of Enrique Vila-Matas’s short stories to appear in English translation, Vampire in Love features 19 stories from throughout the Spanish author’s estimable career. Most noteworthy (and quite surprising to this reader) is that save for a couple selections, nearly all of the stories forego the metafictional, self-referential, and literary milieu well familiar to readers of his previously translated works. The stories which compose Vampire in Love reveal an almost entirely different side to Vila-Matas’s fiction—many dealing with death, life’s hardships, and the mystery of the uncertain.

With oft-remarkable prose, wit, and more than a little playfulness, Vila-Matas’s short fiction reveals an artisan as comfortable (and as skillful) in brevity as he is in longer form. Vampire in Love ably demonstrates the wide variety of storytelling hues available on Vila-Matas’s literary palette. The standout stories in Vampire in Love include “Rosa Schwarzer Comes Back to Life,” “The Hour of the Tired and Weary,” “They Say I Should Say Who I Am,” “Greetings from Dante,” “The Boy on the Swing,” and the titular tale.

I remember—probably because it seemed to foreshadow something that would affect us later on—the long speech he made that day about how we human beings are all carriers of poisons and inner devils that can undermine our most marvelous achievements.

3 March 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

Sure, February is officially over, but next week Tom and I will be discussing last month’s Reading the Book Book Club selections: On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes and Monospace by Anne Parian.

We’d love to include comments and questions and topics from everyone else, so if you have any thoughts or reactions, you can email them to me (chad.post [at] rochester.edu), post them in the comments section below, share them on Twitter with #RTWBC, or post them to the Facebook Group. I’ll collate everything that I can find and try and work it into the conversation.

To get things started I thought I’d put together a short post with some info about both of the books covering some of the topics I plan on bringing up with Tom.

I still haven’t finished this, but I’m absolutely loving it. Stylistically it reminds me of Celine and Antonio Lobo Antunes with the grounded rants and general disdain for everything. Of the two books I’ve read recently that touch on Spain’s economic collapse, this is definitely the more forceful and direct. At its core, this book is a chronicle of the shittiness that the collapse brought about, with everyone losing their money, their jobs, their future.

This is all centered around Esteban, the narrator for most of the book, who ended up stranded in this small Spanish town, running his father’s carpentry shop. In hopes of finally getting something substantial for himself, he invests a ton of money into his friend’s construction business, which promptly goes bust. As a result, he has to fire everyone, and it’s their voices interspersed throughout the text that really drive home the bleakness of the situation. (Talking about the structure of this book—the rant with the interspersed monologues, the relationship between Esteban’s memories, the card game, and the swamp—will be really interesting as well.)

One of the things that struck me—especially in contrast to a different book I was reading concurrently with this and then put aside—is how honest and true the despair running throughout this book seems. These characters just want a decent life—enough money to feed their kids and to make it to the end. But that’s all been taken away from them by unseen (for the most part) sources and now their futures are incredibly hopeless. This is so much more powerful than books in which the author constructs really contrived situations with which to batter the characters. Nothing in On the Edge feels contrived to me.

I also want to talk with Tom about the humor. To me, the rants can be pretty funny, turning from a sort of bleak observation into something more charged, self-reflexive and playful. What else can you do when everything’s turned to shit but rant in an entertaining fashion?

A couple weeks back, I received an email from a reader praising the book for how compelling the writing is and how it gets right to the heart of the pain of being human. She included a few choice quotes, which I think are worth sharing:

Sometimes it’s the biggest, heaviest things that are the easiest to move. Huge stones in the back of a truck, vans laden with heavy metals. And yet everything that’s inside you—what you think, what you want—all of which apparently weighs nothing—no strong man can lift that onto his shoulder and move it somewhere else. [. . .]

In day-to-day living, you’re constrained by your kids, by your wife; if it wasn’t for them, you’d do all kinds of crazy things, but when you’re in really deep trouble, when you reach that final tipping point, the very opposite happens: it is precisely your wife and kids who make you do the crazy thing that, before, they seemed to be stopping you from doing.

We tend to think that people’s true nature comes out at decisive moments, when the going gets tough, when they’re pushed to the limit. The moment for heroes and saints. And yet, strange though it may seem, at such moments, human behavior is usually neither exemplary nor encouraging. The group who elbow their way to the head of the line where the concert tickets are being handed out; the spectators who flee the burning theater, trampling over the weaker members of the audience . . .

It’ll also be interesting to compare this review by Mara Faye Lethem, with this one by Aaron Thier.

Mara Faye Lethem’s review opens with:

On the Edge is not a book you want to read in fits and starts. It is an anti-tweet, a brick of dense prose, that 70-year-old uncle who corners you at a holiday party, grabs you by the lapels and demands you hear him out. Your eyes sometimes glaze over, and you occasionally have to wipe a fleck of whitish spit off your face, but once you give yourself over to his story, you find there are plenty of rewards.

Whereas Aaron Thier’s is titled “On the Edge Gives No Pleasure.”

I’ve already written a couple things about Monospace, so instead of rehashing that all here, I just want to share most of what Charles Gabel posted in the Facebook Group:

So “The Scenery” not only has the footnotes, but from what I can tell by far the most concrete nouns. There’s an obsession of defining the space of the garden, and as the awesome translator Emma Ramadan wrote in one of the blog posts on 3%, it’s inseparable from the act of its own making. In these terms, I kept thinking of the garden as the already-failed arcadia, which suffers completely from its inability to exist, existing only in the flawed medium of language, of poetry (“First problem// a garden is never ideal” (61)) That said, “The Scenery” packs in as much concrete reality as it can, but somehow it’s never stable. Much like the lines aren’t definable in terms of singular tone or texture (I wish I’d underlined a good example of this), I could never fully picture any concrete space of a garden, no matter how many objects appeared or how much the poems talk about graphing the space and putting stuff in it. The definition itself is too insufficient to be confined to a poem, perhaps necessitating the footnotes?

It’s also the section with the most sense of longing, and erotic reaching toward another, the rose bed, etc. (Does this disappear as the book moves toward the later sections? Or did I not pick up on it?) The eros of the first section seems like a useful tension furthering the anxious lack that the book moves to resolve. The first page of “Repetitions” (p. 79) has zero concrete nouns, and seems to be more at ease with its own form; the footnotes are gone, it looks like a poem.

I guess I also want to mention the title, which appears throughout the book, I think as early as p. 16 (italicized as a title would be, maintaining the distance of the creation, the book’s object-ness, something that made me gleeful as a reader), and that it’s a type of typesetting where all the characters take up the same amount of space, which just awesomely sets up and furthers the text-garden-object association. Also, partly because the book’s original title in French is also Monospace, I went to google.fr, and the first association that came up (before the typesetting, which also came up) was a model of minivan. I’m not sure if that has anything to do with anything.

Again, if you have any thoughts or comments, send them in or post them wherever and we’ll try and address them next week on the podcast.

5 February 16 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

Coda

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.

9 December 15 | Kaija Straumanis | Comments

Let’s not deceive ourselves, man is nothing very special. In fact, there are so many of us that our governments don’t know what to do with us at all. Six billion humans on the planet and only six or seven thousand Bengal tigers: tell me—who needs protecting most? Yes, you decide who needs most care. A dying African, Chinaman, or Scotsman or a beautiful tiger killed by a hunter. A tiger with its pelt of matchless colours and its flashing eyes is far more beautiful than a varicose-veined old git like me. What a difference in the way it carries itself. How elegant the one and how clumsy the other. Look how they move. Put them next to each other in a cage in the zoo. The children gather round the old man’s cage and laugh as they watch him delousing himself or crouching down to defecate; outside the tiger’s cage, though, they open their eyes wide with admiration. The sleight of hand that made man the centre of the universe no longer convinces.

Devastating, desolate, and disquieting, Rafael Chirbes’s On the Edge (En la orilla) ought to rank as one of the decade’s finest novels. First published in its original Spanish in 2013, On the Edge was awarded both Spain’s National Prize for Literature and the Critics Prize the following year. The Spanish novelist (who passed away in August at the age of 66) is the author of nine published novels—with a tenth due out posthumously. While billed as his English language debut, On the Edge was actually preceded in translation by Mimoun, Chirbes’s first novel, published some 22 years ago by Serpent’s Tail (and out of print since).

Set in late 2010, following the economic crisis that ravaged the Spanish economy (as well as many others around the world), On the Edge offers an unflinching glimpse of a nation despoiled and reeling. An unemployment rate of 20% (and rising), poverty, prostitution, xenophobia, Islamophobia, immigration fears, human trafficking, violence, corruption, and environmental decay are the real-life milieu upon which Chirbes situates his unforgiving tale. Septuagenarian Esteban, tasked with end-of-life care for his terminally ill father and burdened with the stresses of his recently bankrupted carpentry workshop (and impending legal charges resulting therefrom), recounts his life, as well as his myriad failures, disappointments, and betrayals, through an unrelenting series of recollections and dirge-like soliloquies.

Taking life is easy, anyone can do that. They do it every day all over the world. just read the newspaper and you’ll see. Even you could do it, take someone’s life I mean, obviously, you’d have to improve your aim a little (and then he did smile teasingly, the corners of his lively grey eyes etched with a web of delicate lines). Mankind may have constructed vast buildings, destroyed whole mountains, built canals and bridges, but we’ve never yet succeeded in opening the eyes of a child who has just died. Sometimes it’s the biggest, heaviest things that are easiest to move. Huge stones in the back of a truck, vans laden with heavy metals. and yet everything that’s inside you—what you think, what you want—all of which apparently weighs nothing—no strong man can life that onto his shoulder and move it somewhere else. No truck can transport it. Loving someone you despise or don’t really care for is a lot harder than flooring him with a punch. Men hit each other out of a sense of powerlessness. They think that by using force they can get what they can’t get by using tenderness or intelligence.

With shifting narratives and a chorus of other voices (including those of Esteban’s equally-ravished employees, business partners, barmates, and his father’s one-time palliative nurse), On the Edge teems with fear, frustration, anxiety, and despair. Esteban, challenged (and nearly defeated) not only by the plundering economic state, but also by decades of personal degradation (failed romance, compromised loyalties, allegiances upended, and the legacy of his father’s generations’ attitudes following the war), is forced to confront perdition—familial, social, financial, physical, emotional, and even spiritual.

Chirbes, perhaps like a detached reporter chronicling horrors and atrocities espied from the front lines, infuses an abundance of feeling into characters and setting—despite each being startlingly paralyzed by an unyielding torpor. With gifted prose and a confident style, Chirbes deftly (re)creates a world teetering on ruin and irreconcilability (however hopeful certain characters remain). Like the fetid, rancid lagoon which figures so prominently into the story, On the Edge brilliantly captures the collapse of a system once-thriving and supportive, but left in wreckage resulting from avarice, disregard, and myopia.

Rafael Chirbes, called “the best writer of the twenty-first century in Spain” by the Spanish newspaper ABC, tears asunder whatever illusions may have endured after the global economic collapse. Without didacticism or a moralizing tone, Chirbes stands amid the debris and destruction, and, with an unflinching gaze, attests to and confirms the harrowing aftermath wrought in the wake of international recession and crises. A remarkable portrait of one man’s struggle to make sense of an encompassing personal, economic, and social decay, On the Edge breathes life into an otherwise asphyxiating scene. Chirbes’s On the Edge may lack in redemption (and propelling plot) what it makes up for in cautionary storytelling, but pillaged lives and economies both have never seemed so imaginatively conceived nor richly executed. Even the barrenest of wastelands may lay forlorn and neglected, but, if nothing else, Chirbe’s incomparable novel assures that great art may one day rise from even the most polluted locale.

Of course times have changed, Francisco. Life is constantly changing, it is change. It has no other purpose but to change and to keep changing, the Greeks knew this and I imagine even their ancestors knew it too, you never bathe twice in the same stream, you don’t even bathe the same body, today there’s a pimple that didn’t exist yesterday, nor did this varicose vein which, for long hours, has been making its way to the surface, or this ulcer in my groin or on the sole of my foot, and which my hyperglycemia won’t allow to heal; they are all lying, those utopians who say that this troubled life of avarice and lust will be succeeded by a peaceful world in which we will all be brothers, and where, as in the golden age Don Quijote described, we will, in a spirit of fraternal love, dine on a shared meal of acorns. There is no heavenly peace possible beneath the sheltering sky, only a permanent state of war in which everyone is pitched against everyone and everything against everything. The problem is that with so much change, everything somehow ends up pretty much the same.

10 September 14 | Chad W. Post | Comments

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.

Rafael Chirbes (Spain, 1949)

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.

*

From Crematorio

(Crematorium)

[A Novel]

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)

21 April 08 | Melissa Schoenberger | Comments

Spanish author Rafael Chirbes has recently been awarded Spain’s National Critic’s Prize for his novel Crematorio, which, according to Ángel Basanto of El Mundo, “takes on shady business dealings perpetrated by the outrageous capitalism of recent years with bravery and clarity, and delves into the intimate and painful paradoxes and contradictions of contemporary human beings.”

José María Pozuelo Yvancos of ABC describes Chirbes as “an author who has been on the verge of receiving the award many times and who should have received it before, for a body of work that is, above all, outstandingly coherent and honest. Through his writing Chirbes has created a narrative frieze that tells the complete story of an epoch of Spanish history…in Crematorio the themes that have been constant in his work resurface: particularly an investigation of moral degradation, always served with a measured, careful and highly rhythmical prose.”

Chirbes is also the author of Mimoun, Los disparos del cazador, La buena letra, La larga marcha, La caída de Madrid, and Los viejos amigos.

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