Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
It is perhaps easier to see the beauty in art when that art deals with a subject that is, for lack of a better term, beautiful. On the Edge, by Rafael Chirbes, does not deal in what most of us would consider beautiful. But there is no denying the skill, emotive eloquence, and resonant power of this book. It openly attacks youth-worshiping culture and sentimental idealism in a way that demands the reader listen, laying down the gauntlet after having slapped the face of naïve ignorance. It manages to be both allegorical and extremely direct, doggedly rejecting subtlety but somehow rife with commentary and implications that take multiple reads to fully process. This is the kind of book that, given its density and tone, you will want to reward yourself for having finished, and yet that same reward may very well be another crack at the text.
One of the best things about truly skilled authors is that, when they break “the rules” of writing, they do so in ruthlessly effective fashion, making their violations serve a purpose and enhance the atmosphere of the work. Chirbes’ version of this is his mercilessly long paragraphs. Whole sections of pages, whole pages, and even multiple pages can be taken up by the same interconnected, unbroken thought process. Even to an experienced reader, this can be intimidating. But the way to make this style work to the author’s advantage is to make excellent use of language and make the block feel authentic to the speaker. Esteban, the novel’s protagonist, is bitter and desperate and intelligent and utterly lost. His sentences are rarely complicated but they are delivered one after the other in otherwise unbroken litanies expressing his grievances and observations. These paragraphs possess a deceptive and clever flow that both speed the process of reading them and immediately convey to the reader that Esteban has had enough time to carefully hone his thoughts in a highly organized and extensive essay on society.
Those thoughts are rarely unclear. A reader can turn to any page of the text and pull something biting and poignant – “If money serves any purpose at all, it at least buys innocence for your descendants”. But the lack of ambiguity is not a hindrance in the novel. If anything, it assists the reader’s digestion. The point is made, and the text moves on. But that is not to say that there is not room for interpretation. Moreover, while the novel gives us ample amounts of Esteban’s perspective, it doesn’t seem entirely settled on the idea that he is “right”. For example, consider the following quote: “The easiest way to attract attention is to do extravagant, stupid things. Standing out from the crowd because of your work is a lot harder.” On the surface, the point is simple and particularly relevant in an age where Kim Kardashian and Farrah Abraham get more attention than most genuine, supremely talented artists. But is this quote the resulting point of view of a bitter old man who watches as wealth and culture have left him behind? Or is it the voice of someone who has suffered greatly from a system that extends far beyond his control? An argument can be made for both, or neither.
Special note should be given for one of the most powerful and difficult moments in the book, in which Esteban gives his elderly, disabled father a bath. The experience is described in intimate, uncomfortable detail that would be familiar to any who have dealt with such a situation before. This is the book’s crescendo, where the sum total of its philosophy and perspective can be found in a multi-layered event. And while it is perhaps the most strenuous part of the book to read, it deserves the utmost care while reading. The relationship between generations of families and of nations, the human needs for understanding and respect, and the visceral, grimy nature of the book’s perspective on the world are all addressed as part of an intense metaphor. It many ways, it leaves the strongest and most lasting impression.
Mr. Chirbes has written many stellar novels, and this definitely deserves to be counted among them. On The Edge presents a demanding critique of modern Western society, including culture and economics, in such a way that it avoids the common pitfalls of soapbox preaching and not trusting the reader to common to their own conclusions. The book is not for those who do not value a challenge, but, in all honesty, why wouldn’t we?
On The Edge is available now through New Directions Publishing Company.