On the Edge by Rafael Chirbes (tr. Margaret Jull Costa). New Directions. $16.95, 464 pp.
(On the Edge publishes from New Directions in January 2016)
I’ve left and returned a few times over the years—I don’t mean the village, but the bar; there have been periods when I’ve abandoned it entirely, but I’ve always come back in the end, to that stimulating daily journey, the one that prises me out of my solitude at the workshop in the evenings: down Calle de San Ramón where I live, along Calle del Carmen, Calle de la Paz, Paseo de la Constitución (formerly known as General Mola), and here I am—as on so many evenings for so many years—in Bar Castañer, my refuge: the protective gauze of cigarette smoke, which, today, like the snows of yesteryear, has vanished. You can’t smoke inside any more. Although, even after all these months of the smoking ban, the smell of nicotine that used to impregnate walls and tables may have gone, but other components of that comforting olfactory gauze linger on: the smell of old cooking oil, damp wool, sweaty vests and overalls, the smell of cheap beer and sour wine. All of these still allow me to recognise the place, to snuggle down in my nest and shuffle the cards. Lately, I’ve been coming almost every evening. Saying goodbye to all this was the dream of an empty-headed youth who ended up staying and who has, in the meantime, become a decrepit old man without ever passing through maturity. I think I was trying to avoid maturity, and there was the added attraction of getting away, of not thinking too much and leaving it to Time to resolve everything. The result: I have adorned my old age with bankruptcy, a little twist of angostura bitters to spice up my last drink. I’ll say goodbye before they put a name to the disease (because they’ve already detected it, this transmittable disease, to be kept at arm’s length), before they hang the leper’s bell around my neck. I’ll snatch victory from under their noses when they’ve already prepared the pyre, guns at the ready; leaving them without any prey in their sights. Screw them all. I finally feel able to say goodbye: burnt cooking oil coffee beer anis wine and damp wool. Goodbye to the overflowing ashtray outside the street door which we visit from time to time, stretching our legs and receiving, cigarette clamped firmly between our lips, a breath of clean winter air.
But Justino is speaking:
“At least he doesn’t have to spend money any more on radio ads or appear in the directors’ box at the football stadium or preside at their suppers along with the players and the powers-that-be paying homage to him, the generous builder of their new changing-room with its hot and cold showers, to the man who gave them the south stand. Right now, his creditors are providing him with an ad campaign gratis, for nothing. If he wanted to be talked about, he’s certainly succeeded, because he’s left an awful lot of people in the lurch: suppliers, clients who’ve paid for materials he’s never delivered, would-be owners of apartments who’ve put down a deposit they’re never going to recoup, not to mention paid for all the stuff that’s already installed in those unfinished buildings. No, he’s on the run, who knows where, to China or Brazil perhaps, to some more or less civilised place where there’s no extradition treaty.”
“Given how few such places are left, things don’t look so good for our friend. I can’t see Pedrós plunging into darkest Africa armed with pistol, pith helmet and insect repellent. He’s not exactly into extreme travel, as they say, he’s more your civilised, cosmopolitan, urban tourist, looking for a nice central hotel and some Cartier perfumes.”
“What with the Schengen Agreement and the mess the Swiss bankers have got into, it’s not so easy now to bury money, it’s really difficult to find a nice quiet resting-place, a mausoleum where your money can safely repose; and it’s even harder for the owner of the money to disappear. There must be places, of course, certainly for the money, gigantic black holes where by day you can stash the cash that races back and forth in the night: between drug traffickers, Arab sheikhs, financiers in London and New York, the owners of oil wells, the people who attend art auctions, because they’re the truly rich. If you yourself want to disappear, there’s always the Pitanguy option, one of those plastic surgery magicians who can change your face and even swap your fingerprints for those of some anonymous third world corpse who was never fingerprinted while alive, there must be hundreds of thousands of them.”
Justino clearly knows a lot about the subject: “Why, just down the road, a drug dealer got caught because he’d replaced the skin on his fingertips with the skin on the ends of his toes, just so that he could change the prints on his passport. I’m not making it up. It was in the newspapers.”
“Well, I can’t see Pedrós and his lady wife doing anything like that, they’re your typical lazy, comfortably-off bourgeoisie, although who knows . . . when needs must . . . ” says Francisco.
And Bernal says:
“What’s the point in getting rich if you end up enjoying your fortune in a prison cell surrounded by psychopaths, wife-murderers, Russian hitmen, and faggots with huge cocks.”
“Well, where could he go?” ponders Francisco, taking this opportunity to give us a lesson in human geography. “I seem to remember that one of the countries that has no extradition treaty with Spain is Indonesia, and they certainly know how to enjoy money there: women, jewels, good food. Bali belongs to Indonesia—celebrities go there to get married. Beautiful girls carrying trays of fruit and flowers on their heads (and if you don’t like small, dark girls, there’s a whole collection of big, buxom Australians vacationing there), beaches lined with coconut palms, good discotheques. But that’s too handy for the creditor’s hitmen, those Bulgarians who are such experts in tracking people down and in the ancient art of inflicting pain.”
“They’re not usually Bulgarians, they’re Moldavians,” Justino states, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of dark subjects. “People say the Moldavians are worse, even more ruthless.”
For a second, I wonder if I, too, in order to recover what I’m owed, should get in touch with that band of pursuers. But I immediately think, no, it’s too late, the horse has well and truly bolted. Sometimes I forget and continue to think as if I have years ahead of me, not just hours. While he talks, Justino skilfully cuts the cards, shuffles them like a magician or like the cardsharp he is, although at this hour of the evening, he behaves more like a modest pensioner, as most of us do, as Francisco does, and as I have also started to do: pure theatre. The money which, to frighten his rivals, he places on the table in the clandestine card games he plays at night—when he takes off his mask and shows his teeth—had its origins in Switzerland and Germany in the 1960s (those German marks and Swiss francs begat pesetas that then begat euros, three monetary generations). Thanks to contacts he had with who knows what mafias, he earned his money by charging commissions on the work contracts and permits he acquired for men from the area seeking employment abroad. He took men from the villages to work as road-sweepers, waiters, bricklayers or navvies, and he alone knows all the shady dealings involved. He’d housed the men in large, freezing-cold huts, where they would have died of hypothermia if they hadn’t paid separately for coal, or oil for the heater, and then, on top of what they’d shelled out for the journey and the work permit, he had deducted some twenty or thirty per cent from their wages in payment for continued protection and accommodation. What puzzles me is that the survivors of those expeditions still speak to him, even buy him a drink and think he did well by them. Forty years later, they still say: the guy’s so smart, a genius really. I mean we’re talking about Germany and Switzerland here—they’re so finicky about who they let in. But he could smuggle you across three frontiers under a blanket, feeding you sips of brandy to keep you warm during the time you spent in the boot of a car or sharing a refrigerated trunk with a cargo of Galician fish; and when you got there, everything was already sorted and the next day you were working. The victims speak of him with almost religious awe, and you might think that they still haven’t realised that they were slaves in the hands of a trafficker of human flesh. However, when the same grateful guy has had a few drinks things change radically. Then the whole story changes, and at that point, you do get a glimpse of the cannibal, of our very own Hannibal Lecter. The predator. In Olba, he has continued to do more or less the same thing, just variants of slave-trading: taking vanloads of workmen to jobs he finds for them in exchange for keeping twenty or twenty-five per cent of what they earn. That’s just an example. He’s a protean being who has a finger in every pie: agriculture, construction, import-export, banking. And he dabbles in all the professions too: teams of orange-pickers, groups of bricklayers, electricians, plumbers, whole brigades of drivers. Not to mention the white-collar sector: customs men and port agents, superintendents, lawyers, notaries, town councillors, mayors. He makes them all employees in his service company which, of course, has no legal existence. He could be seen as a champion in the struggle against unemployment: he has all kinds of ways to keep other people working. Wherever he goes, work flows forth. He always collects the money himself and then distributes it as he sees fit. If you meet him, if you stop to talk to him, it won’t be long before he’s offering you some little job too: Listen, I’ve been meaning to talk to you. Would you do me a favour? He’d make an ideal candidate for the post of Minister for Social Affairs. Some years ago, he got into trouble because, it seems, he sent phantom teams of orange-pickers into orchards that weren’t his and where he hadn’t been invited. In a matter of hours, entirely without the permission of the owner, the workers had picked clean two whole orchards and, immediately afterwards, our very own Hannibal Lecter was either selling the stolen fruit to warehouses that don’t ask too many questions, or else warehousing it himself and distributing it throughout half of Europe, including the former Iron Curtain countries, crating up the fruit with stickers that someone had managed to forge or steal for him, or which were given to him by the warehouses themselves for a trifling amount, on condition that no one ever found out about their involvement. I can’t quite remember what exactly happened or how things panned out, but, depending on who you talk to, he either narrowly escaped prison or ended up doing time. Anyway, he disappeared for a while, and various reasons were given for his absence. There are lots of businessmen who spend prolonged periods in limbo or at imaginary spas, when they’re actually in the clink or in a clinic somewhere detoxing from alcohol and cocaine. Such retreats are all part of the businessman’s busy life. Ahmed knows him because he worked for a while as a fruit-picker, before finding work as a bricklayer and then with me in the workshop, and I’ve noticed that he always greets Justino with a nod whenever we pass him; these Arabs know all about murky dealings—in fruit, clothes, scrap metal or the routes taken by the boats carrying marijuana from the Alboran Sea to Spain or about the ads on the internet for gigolos and rent boys; on that vague frontier with the lumpenproletariat, the Arabs offer their own complicated services, although they doubtless make more modest profits; they compete, not always on friendly terms, with the gypsies, although at present the kings of all this trafficking are the Romanians, Bulgarians, Poles, Ukrainians, Georgians and Lithuanians—in short, that unstable multitude we describe as Eastern European, specialists in copper, top-of-the-line cars, burglaries, breakins, and in the use of backhoes, to wrench cash machines or safes from walls; they’re experts, above all, in the exercise of disproportionate violence: capable of smashing in the skulls of two pensioners just to make them reveal where they were hiding the fifty euros they needed to see them through to the end of the month.
The slave-trader continues:
“No one wants to lead a life like everyone else’s, no one wants his obituary to read: He was born, he lived, he worked, he reproduced and he died—and so people try to attract attention. They do absurd, tedious, painful things they’d refuse to do if they were required to by their work contract—it’s been the same since the world began. Tomás Pedrós thought he could grow as big as El Corte Inglés, Inditex, or Mercadona, or like that Bañuelos guy—making his fortune here and now building like mad in Brazil apparently.”
And then there’s Pedrós, growing like a malignant tumour, yes, and Justino has been a malignant tumour himself: and like all tumours, he grows in darkness and in silence. We laugh, yes, so do I, although I’m afraid they might notice that my laughter is somewhat forced, because I feel utterly wretched.
“Well, yes, he always had to cause a stir, and have a finger in every pie,” Bernal comments mildly, and it seems to me that he looks at me out of the corner of his eye when he says this, or is that just my paranoia?
Justino returns to the charge:
“Exactly, the self-made man. All those films from the 1950s and 1960s—or even today—all contain that same poisonous hidden message. The Kennedy saga, the Obama story. Pedrós was always so keen on all that freedom of the individual crap, about will power and hard work, the winner burning his excess energy at the gym or on the tennis court, and he encountering other alpha-males, who help him make his way thanks to a spider’s web of influences they call synergies. Sure, he was very ambitious, but there was that touch of the mythomaniac, the fantasist: he was just too much in love with himself, the butterfly, the show-off.”
“And the times were ripe for men like him,” says Bernal sagely.
“Yes,” Justino disagrees: “But not everyone fell into the trap.”
Of course they didn’t, and our Hannibal Lecter is no showoff. Justino’s no butterfly—more of a moth. He moves among the shadows of the night, where evil lurks and where his succubi have their beds, the labourers who stoke our nightmares with filthy coal. Justino covers up, dissembles, hides. His life is a mystery, you have to decipher the meaning slithering about beneath his words, he’s the oracle of all things murky, the sibyl of the unsavoury: he conceals the truth with lies and conceals lies with half-truths. You always have the feeling that he’s deceiving you; if he says it’s a nice day and points up at the sun, you can be sure this is merely a diversionary tactic so that you won’t notice what’s going on down below. And he takes every precaution and successfully fends off the tax people—he’s a past master at hiding any so-called “signs of ostentatious living”—but we all know that he leads a secret life and that, in the shadows, he lives far beyond his theoretcal means. I’m not talking about the watches and chains he wears, or the fact that his wife looks like a walking jewelry shop: those are mere trinkets, the equivalent of the finger pointing at the sun; I’m talking about land transactions, property transfers, estates registered in the name of nephews, brothersand sisters-in-law, his retired motherand father-in-law who both have Alzheimer’s or senile dementia, poor defenceless stooges whose signatures he has forged and who, even in their wildest meanderings, would never dream they were the owners of apartments, business premises, import-export companies, orange groves and building sites like the ones they possess thanks to Justino: underhand deals that you hear others mention only obliquely and sotto voce. And then there are the occasional disappearances, the mysterious periods spent in limbo, trips you know nothing about but which—as I said—you imagine to be to some spa to cure his arthritis or to an exclusive clinic to control his hyperglicemia or his high triglyceride levels, trips that his enemies say are time spent in prison or on journeys to some dangerously borderline country (Thailand, Colombia, Mexico) to coordinate the transport of illegal substances and about which his vanity will eventually lead him to spill the beans one night when he’s had a couple of drinks and you’re alone with him and he’s telling you about a wife-swapping club in Paris (you didn’t take your wife, did you, I asked, and he replied: Don’t be an idiot, where she’s concerned I have exclusive rights), or a place in Miami (ah, wonderful, chaotic Miami, so popular with wheeler-dealers up to no good) where at the reception desk, you have to leave not just the money for the ticket, but all your clothes (yes, even your underpants, he laughs, adding with a touch of vulgar humour, and your jockstrap: your wallet and your watch are put in a safe with a secret code), and only then can you go over to the bar and order a whisky or a glass of champagne and, finally, enter the spa, the main room with its sofas, swimming pools, jacuzzis and saunas, and the tortuous labyrinth of small rooms with beds of various sizes. He can’t resist telling these secrets—out of sheer boastfulness and egotism, he can’t help it: they make him seem different, more interesting, more mysterious, in the eyes of the person he’s talking to, in my eyes too, me, the bored carpenter who, for the last four decades, has barely gone any further than back and forth to the marsh or to some small room at the Lovely Ladies Club, but who, in his now distant youth, did his fair share of globe-trotting too and can, therefore, be of use as a confidante (you know what I’m talking about, Esteban, you’ve been around a bit, you travelled when you were a young man, although you rarely leave the house now, I mean, would you ever even go to the local pick-up joint if I didn’t drag you there?—and you’re single, for heaven’s sake, you don’t have to account to anyone), and these confidences make him grow in his own eyes too, because among us prestige is consolidated by such anecdotes, which seem to slip out as unexpectedly as farts, but which he has learned to ration out, knowing that such stories are as easily transmitted as flu, and are vague enough not to get him into any trouble with the authorities. In order to make sure that everyone finds out, he only has to use the words: This is just between you and me, in confidence.
“I told you that? I certainly didn’t mean to. Had we had too much to drink that night? I’ve really got to drink less and be more careful and watch what I say when I leave the house. Please, not a word to anyone else.”
Even though he was supposedly as drunk as a lord, he still couldn’t resist whispering to me—his mouth pressed to my ear—about the oysters in champagne that he ate in Monte Carlo (I won’t tell you why I went there, he says, adding further to the mystery, while I yelp: ugh, you’re sticking your tongue in my ear, and wipe away the saliva). He boasts about the luck he had at roulette that night, the Russian bitch I was with seemed to have seriously lucky nipples—she kept sticking her roulette chips down her front and rubbing them on her tits before putting them down, and the ball stopped on her number every time; then he tells me about the journey from Monte Carlo to Paris in her convertible BMW (la douce brise de la Provence sur mes joues, la huître au vent: needless to say, she wasn’t wearing any knickers, and while she drove, my hands went walkabout) and about the quarter of a kilo of caviar that they bought in Kaspia—on the Place de la Madeleine, next door to Fauchon—and ate in their room in the Hotel Lutetia on the Boulevard Raspail. Actually, the hotel’s a real disappointment. The furniture, the bathroom fittings, the room with its dusty corners, all very shabby and dated, hotels in Spain are much better maintained and a much better deal too—it really needs a complete overhaul, he says. He probably suggested to the manager that he could carry out the renovation himself (his architects, his teams of bricklayers, his decorators, leaving the Lutetia like new), he probably left his card on the desk and, in exchange, got a free bottle of champagne, although it’s hard to get anything out of the French—stingy bastards. But—oh, and the champagne I drank out of that Russian oyster was Krug Millésimé, so rich, so nutty, so strong, have you never tried it? Ask your friend Francisco about it. He’ll tell you. Ask his opinion as an expert, as a connoisseur. It’s certainly my favourite, and I know more about champagne than you might think, in fact, I know a lot. Krug champagne is, now how would your friend Francisco describe it?—serious, elegant, noble. Justino continues to allow himself to be carried away by details: do you know that French painting called The Origin of the World? Do you know the one I mean? With that great furry hole in the foreground. Well, that was the scene I had before me, the original black hole—albeit pink and fair in this case—from which everything emerges and through which everything enters, I caressed it with my teeth, with the tip of my tongue, I stuck my whole tongue into that dense jungle and touched the genesis, no, it wasn’t shaven, but a good dense mat of hair, neat and trimmed, but furry, I like pubic hair, the fair, silky kind, which makes the thing itself look like a shy, delicate little animal, it makes you want to caress it, bite it, eat it, we Spaniards call it el conejo, the rabbit, while the French call it la chatte: well, I gobbled up the first day of creation along with a sip of champagne. And I ate the end of the world, I ate the world from beginning to end, I stuck my tongue into that other retractile, slightly brownish hole where everything ends, but through which one can begin the excavation in reverse, travelling from darkness to light. I dug my tongue into that sweet, dark well, and then I plunged my steam hammer into that place where, it must be said, hélas, others had fervently dug before. She was, after all, a high-class whore. But that night, I voyaged from alpha to omega. I penetrated the very beginning and the very end.
He prattles on, he laughs, he grabs you by the lapels with his great mitts and pulls you toward him, splattering your shirtfront and your face with spit, which you wipe away, not that he notices, of course. You feel like asking: When was that? Why didn’t you tell me at the time? But you don’t, because his hairy hand is now on your shoulder and his face is now resting between his hand and the bit of your throat that his hand isn’t touching, the place where a vampire would bite, and you feel on your neck the warmth of his breath, the tickling of his mobile tongue, your neck sticky with saliva, and the girls at the bar have started looking at us, thinking that, tonight, one of them will be making up a threesome.
Rafael Chirbes was the author of several novels, two of which have won the Premio de la Crítica de narrativa castellana: Crematorio (2007) and En la orilla (On the Edge) (2013). The latter also won the Premio Nacional de Narrativa. Chirbes is further known for his trilogy of novels dealing with postwar Spain (La larga marcha, La caída de Madrid, and Los viejos amigos). He has also written several collections of essays. He died earlier this year. Margaret Jull Costa has been a literary translator for nearly thirty years and has translated many novels and short stories by Portuguese, Spanish and Latin American writers, including Javier Marías, Fernando Pessoa, José Saramago, Bernardo Atxaga and Ramón del Valle-Inclán. She has won various prizes for her work, including, in 2008, the PEN Book-of-the-Month Translation Award and the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize for her version of Eça de Queiroz’s masterpiece The Maias, and, most recently, the 2012 Calouste Gulbenkian Prize for The Word Tree by Teolinda Gersão (Dedalus Books).
Excerpt courtesy New Directions
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