This book was generally agreed by Spanish critics to be the best Spanish novel of 2013 and also the best novel on the Spanish economic crisis. As is usual with Chirbes, plot is not key to this book; indeed, there is very little plot.
It mainly consists of Esteban, a seventy year old Spaniard, who lives in Olba, a small town he has barely left in his life, who has recently had to close down his carpentry business for financial reasons, a business founded by his grandfather and which he inherited from his father, ruminating on his life and the sad state of affairs in Olba, Spain and the world.
The shoreland of the title is used as a dumping ground for all types of waste, including chemical waste and dead bodies, both animal and human and is clearly a symbol for the state of affairs in Spain. Esteban covers all the usual topics – globalisation, immigration, corruption, Internet porn and so on – both in his ruminations and in his barroom chats with his friends. His father, who had fought in the Civil War and been imprisoned, is now over ninety and Esteban keeps him in his house, stuck in front of the television watching westerns and films about terrorism, cared for by Liliana, a Colombian immigrant. Esteban had never been married but has two brothers and a sister with whom he has little contact and for whom he has little respect.
It is a very grim picture of contemporary Spain and clearly resonated with the Spanish reading public. It has not been translated into English (though has been translated into German) and I am not sure how well it will go down in the English-speaking world.
On the Edge
The story opens with the discovery of a body in the Olba marshes. Esteban, the protagonist, is forced to close the carpentry workshop he owns, leaving his employees jobless. While he cares for his father, who has entered the terminal stage of his illness, Esteban investigates the reasons behind this wreckage, for which he assumes responsibility in his double role of victim and persecutor. It is among these remains that we find the values which have governed a society, a world and an age. Welfare and its indivisible opposite, greed and fake pretences, turned into materials of demolition. The mirror into which Esteban stares, a man without attributes in his own way, reflects back to him an image made of broken dreams and lost hopes. Nothing has freed itself from voracity. Love, family, friendship and social codes have also formed part of the menu in this feast for only a few.
As has come to be expected in Rafael Chirbes’ novels, the inner lives of the characters, what they think and feel about themselves and the world they live in, corresponds with a particular exterior landscape which in this case is undoubtedly the marsh. This marsh, which marks both the beginning and the end of the story, gains increasing symbolic importance which, always subject to ferocious materialism, helps us to understand the complex relationships which human beings maintain with their environment and history. This novel forces us to look into this murky space that has always been there, although for years nobody seemed prepared to accept it. It is at once a useful space and an abyss where crimes have been hidden and both private and public consciences have been washed clean.
Heir to the highest tradition of realism, the style of On the Edge sustains itself with its straightforward language and obsessive tone which ensnares from the very first line, turning the reader into an accomplice. The variety of resources (monologues, third person narration, and dialogue) allows for the opening of the novel’s scope to other situations and characters. Tom the dog, Liliana, Fransisco the opportunist, Justino and the fraudster Pedrós make up a network of different interests and resentments.
The follow up to Crematorium, the previous novel from this author, which was awarded the Critics’ Prize among other honours, and considered to be “one of the best Spanish novels of this century so far” (Ángel Basanta, El Cultural), On the Edge is a magnificent and formidable masterpiece, in every way unforgettable. The English translation dates from April 2016. Before that and bu way of translation the book was called “On the Shore”.
This is the great novel of the crisis. The corrosive voice of Rafael Chirbes in On the Edge paints a portrait of a universe of unemployment and disappointment… Essentially, one is the face B of the other. If Crematorium was the implosion and the housing bubble piloted by a Valencian architect who exchanged his political ideals for political corruption, On the Shore is the long and hung over winter that follows that party. And it still goes on… Reich-Ranicki declared in his television program that The Long March, his fifth novel, was “the book Europe needed”. (Javier Rodriguez Marcos, El País).
The use of both the first and third person, the free indirect style and monologues, as well as the diverse voices that take turns offer us a varied and complete fresco: a representative microcosm of the whole country… Chirbes is an experienced reader and he astutely reutilizes our literary tradition, making it his, above all the calderonian motif of existence as a theatrical representation. Furthermore, in his accomplished ending appears the theme of the ubi sunt, which mimics the verses of Jorge Manrique. The work, in terms of its treatment of the body, the process of ageing and putrefaction, is inspired by the paintings of Francis Bacon and Lucien Freud, as in his last work… How the world appears to be governed by the deadly sins: especially greed, wrath, lust and gluttony. For this, the narration could be linked to the paintings of El Bosco or to some of the works by Brecht and Kurt Weill… A great novel that those who want to better understand the terrifying start of the twenty first century shouldn’t miss, it is a time without gods, plagued by unscrupulous and corrupt beings, in which financial capitalism, with the complicity of conservative governments and the passivity of social democrats, is slowly destroying the welfare state. (Fernando Valls, El País).
There are books that one reads as if carrying out a purge, that are like lashes of the whip that move you to the core, and this is one of them… Chirbes, like many great novelists from Balzac to Faulkner, has been writing the same book (or the same “human comedy”) for many books now, and in On the Shore we once again find ourselves before all of his themes: from (collective) lost hopes to accepted (individual) deception, from meteoric rises to the most instant of defeats and desertions, from the unsubtle mechanisms of exploitation to the universal anguish of the irreversibility of time… In my opinion, this is the best Spanish novel regarding the crisis, and in any case, one of the four of five most important books of the last five years. (Manuel Rodríguez Rivero, El País).
Delving deep into the plundering nature of the human condition, the decisive value of money or the decrepitude of old age, this novel, a stormy and indispensable read, immerses us in a social demolishment of unforeseeable moral consequences. With the superb psychological development of the characters, the uneasy intrigue common in the dark post war era and a very successfully stifling atmosphere, these pages are stunning in the honest dignity of a social critique offered without prejudice or a tendency towards seeing things in black and white. But this is not just a novel about the crisis, as it also tackles some of the other excruciating aspects of our disorientated age, such as exploitative commercial globalisation or a tyrannical mobile phone; here they are symptoms of a modern, arid dehumanisation of the present. Taking the best critical realism to its limit, Chirbes has absolutely hit the mark with this impressive history of failure and rancour (Jesús Ferrer, La Razón).
This is the hidden face, the sordid back garden of Crematorium, that was always there but nobody looked at. It is from here, from the rotten waters of the marsh that Rafael Chirbes has written On the Shore… A story filled with destroyed lives, broken dreams, the best literature… The novel has overwhelming literary density and a symbolic weight. Voices resound from the muckheap, and within this back garden that we had forgotten everything is a broken dream… He who best defined Rafael Chirbes was Vásquez Montalbán, with whom he shared many affinities. “Chirbes, an island that strives to be one”, he wrote. Certainly Chirbes is a solitary man, unconnected to trends and generations (Blanca Berasátegui, El Cultural, El Mundo)
Chirbes displays his most radical pessimism with the emergence from the mud of a society that is at once a victim and an instigator of the moral crisis… Within these pages document has been replaced by an investigation of human nature… In this very powerful novel Chirbes reaches the highest level of realist expression. (J.A. Masoliver Ródenas, La Vanguardia).
If with Crematorio he delved into the heart of shady real estate dealings, he now deals with the metastasis of that cancer, its disturbing hangover after the explosion of a bubble made of bricks and millions. Some fireworks that left nothing but desolation in their wake. This book explores the post-war battlefield in order to tell the story of how the crane-filled landscape of his previous novel (Winner of the Critics Prize) transformed into a graveyard of cement, hopes and shattered dignity. (Miguel Lorenci, Sur).
He does not write simply to exercise catharsis, but instead to drag the desolation out into the public square and to make that desolation into ceremony. Chirbes signs up to the forgotten aesthetic of the Max Aubs of the world, and shares, in a certain way, the Marxism, poetic and cruel, of those who personally lived through the war: the generation of defeat and rage. He also shares that spoilsport clarity that makes those of champagne bubbles and chicken breasts wrapped in cling film so uncomfortable… This spoilsport clarity anchors itself like a thorn in the cornea of the reader who looks for kindness in literature. This is not a kind read, but it is absolutely necessary. (Marta Sanz, El Mercurio).
The things that truly make me most excited, where I place my hopes and the security of knowing that my time will be well filled during the next few days, is the happy announcement that the devastating, raw and extraordinary writer named Rafael Chirbes has published a new book with the title On the Shore, and that after excessive years of silence David Bowie is releasing the yearned for album The Next Day, […] The fifty pages of the novel that I have read so far seem to me to be extraordinary… An incredible writer. Crematorio is the Spanish book that has most moved me in many years. (Carlos Boyero, El País).
The voices of the characters create an X-ray of failure. They tell us why it is their broken dreams are over. They tell us what is happening today on the streets. On the Shore is the anatomy of the crisis. It reflects with mastery a world of the defeated who live in a sad society, controlled by the impulses of power, sex and money. (J.L. Martín Nogales, Diario de Navarra).
Literature, as Adorno once said, is a clock that keeps ticking. But it is also the best tool for understanding the world when reality is torn to shreds. Both rules are strictly complied with by great authors. And Rafael Chirbes is one of them… More than five years after Crematorium, Chirbes returns with the sequel to that memorable novel: On the Shore» (Matías Néspolo, El Mundo).
Rafael Chirbes, it has taken him decades to abandon his status as a secret writer and to be generally considered a genius, a reputation he has earned with pure literary rigour. Not because what he did previously was not excellent, but because he has stubbornly kept himself on the margins of styles and customs. (Elena Hevia, El Periódico).
Overwhelming… Chirbes’ talent for representing reality in its most turbulent and tricky aspects is admirable… Books like this one explain that even in these times it makes sense to write literature. (Domingo Ródenas, El Periódico).
From his skilled hand On the Shore provides us with a critical, pessimistic, very corrosive vision, but it is also clear, of the human condition, of the perverse mechanisms that govern the functioning of society, of the man faced with triumph and failure. And this pitiless vision of family, depicted with strength as a social microcosm where disappointment, the destructive force of money, greed, or envy degrade its members… On the Shore is a great novel that paints a stark picture of what this brutal beginning of the twenty-first century means, a time plagued with social climbers and corrupt beings, in which financial capitalism, with the complicity of conservative governments and the passivity of the social democracts, has gone about finishing with the welfare state, that big party they told us we were all invited to and from which we are now kicked out. (Javier García Recio, La Opinión de Málaga).
There is hard realism in the pages of this book, but there is also a contemporary renovation of this. There is a real aesthetic of deterioration and even a mannerism in his descriptions and a metaphor for moral putrefaction that runs like a transcript of the physical putrefaction that inaugurates the novel with its first line: “The first to see the remains of the body is Ahmed Ouallahi”… And there is the wisdom of the writer present in the art of narration, in going from the traditional and conventional omniscient third person to the first or from both to dialogue. (Iñaki Ezquerra, El Correo Español).
Anyone who thinks that social realism can contain no worthwhile literary aesthetic would have to read Chirbes to be convinced of the opposite. On the Shore is a monumental baroque fresco of current Spain, conceived with spellbinding syntactic rigour. As he himself has pointed out, this novel is a place from which you can depart in all directions. With the choral sounds in the background, the choir gives way to various soloists that tell the story from different angles. Money appears as an important figure in the tale (this is a story about cold hard cash) as well as corruption, terrorism, immigration, upheaval, prostitution, existential failure, limitless ambition and a marsh that presides over all and flies over the story like a symbol of the mud and rot that has surrounded the last few years of this country… On the Shore is a dense novel that captures tension in each paragraph. The words, sharp as knives, crowd together at times obsessively in long monologues. At other times it is the first and third person narration that takes over the storytelling, revealing the ghosts of a grey existence and the disappointments and the destruction of family. (Luis M. Alonso, La Nueva España).
One of the best pieces of prose that exists today in Spanish, as much for its rhythmic strength as for the brilliance of its evocations. Rafael Chirbes is now the definitive moral chronicler of the recent Spanish reality, with a realism that is certainly faithful to everyday situations and has moments of critical inspiration. (J. M. Pozuelo Yvancos, ABC).
After the magisterial Crematorium, Rafael Chirbes publishes En la orilla, in order to describe and decipher a desolate geography. Nobody, save for perhaps Manel Longares, can paint the closest reality in relief; nobody manages to catch the reader and leave them out of breath with the emotion, the tension, the anguish, and the blame. With a powerful, cryptic and torrential style, the stories that each one of the voices narrates or confesses form an encyclopaedia of desolation… Literature in its purest state, the meaning of the words and the story of what takes place, not in limbo, but right here, this is what makes this novel the intimate and brutal story of the nations. A thousand times superb. (Fernando R. Lafuente, ABC).
With a torrential, fast flowing narrative of unprecedented strength in our country, Rafael Chirbes offers us this novel which I would say, to begin with, seems to me to be an authentic masterpiece. Chirbes narrates this story with an impressive display of resources and a style so dense, hard and robust that it is reminiscent of the best of Faulkner. But the other thing is, and it seems paradoxical, that with this text our author has hoisted himself up to becoming the most deserving disciple of Galdós. Frankly, I cannot think of higher praise. (Antoni Gual, Qué Leer).
A necessary Chirbes has returned in his purest state with his extraordinary novel On the Shore. If every book is, as is often said, a corollary of the one that came before it and even a signal of what will come after it, the references to Crematorium are inevitable, as the author returns to similar narrative principles, although on this occasion to demonstrate the other side of unfettered capitalism, that comes very close to being unbearable for human beings. With a structure that includes a dozen narrative voices with their respective points of view, Chirbes uses the first and third person, an indirect style and the use of monologues to define to perfection something that Spanish literature has rarely dared to explain: the era that we have lived through. The capacity this Valencian has to dive deep into the unfathomed limits of the tempestuous waters of the soul does not leave a single stone unturned. Books by great authors (and Rafael Chirbes is one of them) become a magnificent opportunity for us to reflect upon ourselves. (Daniel Heredia).
We start reading… and it feels like a whirlwind has come in through the window. A powerful prose: aromatic and penetrating. A writing that draws you in, a cascade of ideas transformed into images that caress you with their subtle shades, languish and then suddenly rise up, enragedas the language becomes raw and pitiless… The first thing that strikes you when reading En la orilla is that Rafael Chirbes’s writing takes on everything, with seeds and mud, poetry and politics, raw stench and subtle fragrance, history, memory, friendship, money, old age and treachery. And, throughout it all, plenty of humour and a love of life. In Chirbes, pages cry through one eye and laugh through the other. We applaud. We savour. We’re surprised. How is it possible that the enormous talent of this Spanish writer—who has published seven novels with Rivages since 1998—is not better known in France? Seen from Madrid, there is an obvious fact: Rafael Chirbes is one of the best Spanish writers and one of the greatest European authors of our time. (Florence Noiville, Le Monde des Livres).
A terrifying portrait of a decaying society sinking into economic crisis,into the depths of memory, into the folds of consciousness. A cruel and powerful book (…) With its sometimes explosive style, it shows us that at the bottom of putrid swamps a new vitality can emerge. (David Fontaine, Le Canard enchaîné).
The ninth book published in France by one of the most important Spanish writers of the last twenty years. En la orilla travels through the shadows of an ancient world and the dawn of a new one… (…) Chirbes goes from one protagonist to another, from one generation to the next, mixing voices and destinies whileillustrating the history of ten decades of his country. Thanks to a majestic dramatic structure, Chirbes alternates accusatory social realism with a profound and moving lyricism. (Hubert Artus, Lire).
A Spanish critic has correctly compared Chirbes with Thomas Bernhard and Calderón. We could also add DeLillo and Houellebecq, but unlike Houellebecg, Chirbes has been able to create an aesthetics of delinquency and decadence by injecting lyricism. (Thierry Clermont, Le Figaro).
Rafael Chirbes is one of the best writers of our age, unanimously acclaimed. (Christine Mercandier, Mediapart).
Chirbes has this inimitable art—the sign of a great writer—to discover in luminous intervals, the signs of hope. At least men stay on their feet, as they did before, facing Franco’s armies that their fathers and grandfathers confronted and fought. (Léon-Marc Levy, La Cause Littéraire).
Rafael Chirbes is a master of the kind of Spanish literature that shines most brightly in lyrical descriptive passages and powerful metaphors steeped in the lessons of a clasical education… On the Edge is the culmination of Chirbes´work, a dizzying survey of the last 90 years of Spanish history, his ninth novel published before his death this past August, and his first to appear in America in more than 20 years. Margaret Jull Costa´s incandescent translation carries along Esteban´s turbulent torrent, which maintains an extended fever pitch as the various streams of the narrative come together in more of a nadir than a climax. When this book finally releases its grip, you may find your lapels sullied by grubby fingerprints you are in no rush to scrub out. (Mara Faye Lethem, New York Review of Books).
This novel about the ills of Europe generally and Spain specifically appears in English mere months after the death of its author, one of Spain´s premier novelists. Readers unmoved by, say, the sour hypotheticals of Michel Houellebecq will find a more nuanced, if no less depressing, portrait of economic decline and societal breakdown in On the Edge, the first of Chirbes´s novels to be translated into English (by Margaret Jull Costa). (The Millions).
On the Edge, Chirbes´s masterpiece, arrives as a message in a bottle among all the cans, rusting appliances, and tangled tackle. The fumes of the lagoon mix with the lingering sulfur of the Atocha railway-station bombing; the Spanish economy has all but collapsed. Who, or what, is to blame? Chirbes’s novel accuses everyone. (Joshua Cohen, Harper´s).
Utterly convincing in its psychological details, but also memorable for the beauty of its writing and rhythms. (Colm Tóibín)
A moving, densely detailed portrait of people without hope. (Kirkus Reviews)
Chirbes, one of Spain´s premier writers, is at his best when fully immersed, as he is in this novel. If Proust and an Old Testament prophet had collaborated to write about Spain´s recession, it might have been something like the writing here—agonized, dense, full of rage, and difficult to forget. (Publishers Weekly).
On the Edge is a morbidly inviting tale of lost lives and loves… If this intense and incisive novel is any indication of Chirbes´ greatness then it is surely only a matter of time before we get more of his back catalogue in English and hear Bolaño-esque posthumous acclaim. (Malcom Forbes, The Guardian).
Devastating, desolate, and disquieting, Rafael Chirbes´s On the Edge ought to rank as one of the decade´s finest novels… 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… Chirbes´ incomparable novel assures that great art may one day rise from even the most polluted locale».(Jeremy Garber, Three Percent).