“Make sure you’re at the top of your game before attempting it” – On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes

otercFrom the author who dedicated his life’s work to ‘documenting the political and moral degradation of Spanish society’ (according to El Pais newspaper), On the Edge is a novel-length diatribe on the Spanish economic crisis, spat out by a gruff seventy-something.

The action takes place in a small town on the edge of a lagoon (the novel’s Spanish title En la Orilla could possibly have been translated as On the Shore), which features prominently in the narrative: a place of beauty which has been defiled by years of irresponsible trash dumping into a putrid stinking pit. For our hero, the lagoon has something of a special meaning, being the scene of childhood hunting trips with his favourite uncle. But those happy times are long gone, and now the Spanish economic crisis is in full swing. The narrator has just closed the family carpentry workshop, in which he (following on from his father and grandfather) has spent his whole working life, and is facing bankruptcy.

As dense as it is depressing, there is not one real break in the whole text, only occasional breaths between paragraphs, and the odd vignette where the workers whose livelihoods depended on the carpentry workshop get their say. Rather than any discernible plot, there is a steady accumulation of information as present day drifts into musings on the past and back again. Family troubles, bankruptcy, corruption, a money-grubbing brother, random conversations with the Colombian home help, senile father, sordid encounters, a long time past love affair, the child that never was, friends who made it by doing dodgy deals and now sail around on yachts while everyone else struggles to make it to the end of the month. The aftermath of the civil war features heavily; there are no Hemingway-esque recreations of the action, instead he talks of ruined lives, hypocrisy and witch hunts. Neoliberalism is deconstructed, construction boom excesses are denounced.

“Can a lazy bastard also be a hard worker? Alvaro is living proof. Slogging away out of sheer idleness and indifference, because it’s easier, because you can’t be bothered to walk thirty metres to find yourself another more instructive, more exciting job, with more prospects and possibly better pay. Such workers used to be described as model employees, and they’d be presented with a gold-plated medal on the day they retired.”

On the Edge is a wise, topical and important book, maybe even the masterpiece which is claimed on the cover. Chirbes inhabits the gruff old man’s character perfectly. But my goodness it’s heavy. I had to consume it in small bites because the sheer volume, range and relentlessness of the content quickly becomes overwhelming.

Any Cop?: It almost defeated me. If you’re the sort of person who skips through Dostoevsky, you’ll appreciate the insightful and comprehensive nature of this masterful novel. All other prospective readers, clear a space in your diary, catch up on your sleep and otherwise make sure you’re at the top of your game before attempting it.

 

Lucy Chatburn


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