“It takes a lot of energy to keep the flame of civilisation alight.” – Rafael Chirbes
Cast your mind back 10 years, when Spain was on a roll. Its economy was growing at an unbelievable rate on the back of a property boom; second cars and second homes were being bought like they were going out of fashion; the unemployment rate had dropped to single figures; and prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had declared that Spain was in the “Champions League” of world economies.
What could possibly go wrong?
We all know the answer, but I’d like to look back at the publication, in 2007, of a remarkably prescient novel, by Rafael Chirbes, which seemed to intuit the disaster to come. Crematorio tells the story of a family in the fictional Valencian town of Misent. Told from the point of view of different characters, it frequently jumps back into the past. Yet this is a fiercely contemporary novel, which, instead of lionising the new Spain, delves under its shiny bonnet and examines the unsavoury, grimy motor that drives it.
Crematorio portrays the Spain of the middle of the last decade: pumped up by credit, giddy on consumerism and happy to wreck the skyline in the name of progress.
It’s not the easiest of reads, with Chirbes eschewing conventions such as dialogue and even paragraphs. Instead, each long chapter is a single torrent of words, told from the perspective of a particular character.
The most intricately painted of these is Rubén Bertomeu, a wealthy, 73-year-old property developer who ruminates on the recent death of his brother Matías, his family and his own eroded scruples. Rubén is a fascinatingly complex creation and, as the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that he personifies the transformation of modern Spain. As an idealistic young architect he dreamed of creating beauty and improving lives, but over the years he has shed his principles, allowed his tastes to slide and destroyed the countryside in order to make money.
His cynical involvement in the property industry has contributed to the grim modernisation of his hometown, a place that has been turned into “an innocuous kind of theme park, a stupid holiday destination” on the Mediterranean coast.
While Rubén is at the centre of the novel, his family and acquaintances are also explored, like spokes on a wheel. He fondly remembers his dead first wife as he ponders his second marriage to a much younger woman, his uneasy relationships with his mother and his daughter and his estrangement from a local novelist who was once his best friend. Then there is a shady Russian business associate, and one of Rubén’s employees, who is caught up in a web of crime. It all makes for a demanding state-of-the nation story that reaches for the sky and frequently realises its lofty ambitions.
When Crematorio was published, the madness of Spain’s property boom was not yet fully apparent and nor was the corruption which helped drive it. It was only when the bubble burst that a seemingly endless torrent of graft scandals started to flow. Chirbes, however, saw it all clearly for what it was.
“[H]ere among the cranes that touch the sky, the derricks, the rubbish skips, the loading trucks and noisy diggers, you have to be discrete”, Rubén says, as he boasts of his ability to bully and bribe the local authorities into granting him permits to build on land earmarked for social use.
The academic Fernando Valls wrote that Chirbes sought to “tell the other version of our official history, the one that is hidden from us, giving dignity back to the losers” and also shining a light on “the failure, not just of politics, but of a large part of Spanish society.” His other acclaimed novels have worked their way through the last 75 years or so of Spanish history, from the legacy of Franco (La buena letra) and the democratic transition (La caída de Madrid), to the social devastation of the recent economic crisis (En la orilla).
As Valls put it, Chirbes was “a writer that no one could tame.” What a shame, then, that his 2015 death, at the age of 66, robbed us of one of the few people who was able to chronicle the private life of Spain, especially at a time when it has so many secrets to be told.