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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

On the Edge

Rafael Chirbes

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To purchase On the Edge

Title: On the Edge
Author: Rafael Chirbes
Genre: Novel
Written: 2013 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 474 pages
Original in: Spain
Availability: On the Edge - US
En la orilla - US
On the Edge - UK
On the Edge - Canada
Sur le rivage - France
Am Ufer - Deutschland
Sulla sponda - Italia
En la orilla - España
  • Spanish title: En la orilla
  • Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
  • With an Afterword by Valerie Miles

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Our Assessment:

A- : powerful but bleak

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
FAZ . 25/1/2014 Paul Ingendaay
The Guardian . 20/1/2016 Lydia Kiesling
Harper's . 12/2015 Joshua Cohen
The Nation . 14/3/2016 Aaron Thier
NZZ . 11/2/2014 Maike Albath
The NY Times Book Rev. . 24/1/2016 Mara Faye Lethem
Publishers Weekly . 16/11/2015 .
Die Zeit . 6/2/2014 Merten Worthmann

  From the Reviews:
  • "Chirbes-Romane haben im eigentlichen Sinn keine Handlung, sondern sind vielstimmiges Seelentheater von hoher Rhetorik, angefeuert von manischem Redezwang. Einen Geistesbruder des Autors darf man in dem Portugiesen António Lobo Antunes vermuten. Man sollte auch deutlich sagen, was dieser Roman nicht ist: keine locker geschlagene Prosa im mittelguten Bereich, kein nettes Buch, keine Häppchenliteratur. Stattdessen eine erbarmungslose Analyse, insgesamt wohl ein paar Seiten zu lang, aber immer wieder von atemnehmender Klarsicht und Brillanz." - Paul Ingendaay, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "On the Edge traffics in acute descriptions of the failed economy of the Spanish coast (.....) Chirbes wants to show us the sprawling, kaleidoscopic effect of the crisis, which means he gives us several narrators, all linked by the economics of the fictional Spanish villages in which they live. (...) Chirbes structures the book as a mosaic, which can be intensely disorienting. (...) But Chirbes descends into flat parody when he has to speak in the voices of the super-rich, corrupt men who serve as contrast to Estebanís financial ruin. (...) Laborers, meanwhile, are given angelic, dreamy monologues while they sit on park benches, brooms in hand." - Lydia Kiesling, The Guardian

  • "Chirbesís novel accuses everyone, from Barcelona financiers to Brussels bureaucrats." - Joshua Cohen, Harper's

  • "Is On the Edge worth reading ? Certainly it gives no pleasure. But it does seem to operate like a psychological health tonic. It has to be swallowed to take effect, itís corrosive going down, you wonder if he had to add quite so much vinegar and horseradish, but afterward the effect is invigorating. Life might be bad, but youíre not Esteban, thank God. And, at the very least, youíre no longer reading On the Edge." - Aaron Thier, The Nation

  • "Seine Dynamik gewinnt der Roman weniger aus Handlungselementen als aus dem Beziehungsnetz der Figuren und ihren ineinander verzahnten Reden. Esteban wird von Erinnerungsschüben ergriffen, es folgt Tableau auf Tableau. Eindrucksvoll lotet Chirbes den seelischen Zustand seiner Helden aus. Die Verrohung hat auch das Innerste ergriffen, überall herrschen Berechnung und Besitzdenken. Die einzige liebende Figur ist Estebans Onkel Ramon, der ihm der bessere Vater war. Am Ufer ist nicht nur eine elektrisierende Abrechnung mit den Ideologien des 20. Jahrhunderts, die im 21. Jahrhundert keine Gestaltungskraft mehr entfalten." - Maike Albath, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "On the Edge is the culmination of Chirbesís 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 Costaís incandescent translation carries along Estebanís 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, The New York Times Boook Review

  • "If Proust and an Old Testament prophet had collaborated to write about Spainís recession, it might have been something like the writing here -- agonized, dense, full of rage, and difficult to forget." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Erbarmungslos bricht Chirbes so gut wie jede handelnde Person auf ihre niedersten Antriebe herunter. Das ist brillant herausgemeißelt, schleudert den Roman allerdings irgendwann auch aus seiner zeitgeschichtlichen Umlaufbahn. Was eine Vivisektion der spanischen Malaise hätte werden können, entwickelt sich zur Generalabrechnung mit dem "zusammengeflickten Sack voll Dreck", wie Estebans Vater den Menschen gemeinhin nennt." - Merten Worthmann, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       On the Edge begins on 26 December 2010, and with a solid first line-hook:

     The first to spot the carrion is Ahmed Ouallahi.
       Here -- and throughout -- Chirbes is in no hurry: that's the entire first paragraph, and the next steps back slightly, beginning the account of what Ahmed finds, and how. Ten pages of how, since he lost his job in a carpentry workshop, he's been coming to this lagoon to fish while his friend works at a nearby restaurant, quickly immersing the reader in a Spain still in the spiral of the recent financial crisis. Eventually we get to the bodies -- three of them -- but just as quickly they are abandoned:
Ahmed knows that he must leave at once. Just having seen them makes him an accomplice to something, impregnates him with guilt. His first impulse is to run, but that would make him look even more suspicious: he starts walking quickly, brushing aside the leaves of the reeds that strike his face.
       With their "pestilential odour" the trio has clearly been dead a while, so no one would think Ahmed had just killed them -- but he knows better than to get involved. Aside from the fact that he frequents the locale, as an unemployed foreigner he's automatically suspicious, and in a time where everything has gone to hell it's better not to be involved.
       As to the human remains: even without knowing who they are, or why they're half-buried here, it's easy to see them as, one way or another, representative of the pervasive rot that has overwhelmed Spain.
       This first section, of less than twenty pages, gives a nice initial tension to the novel, a murder-mystery air to it, but On the Edge isn't a thriller. In the next, and by far the longest part of the novel Chirbes jumps back slightly in time, to 14 December, and the narrative switches to the first person, old Esteban -- of the carpentry business that Ahmed worked for -- telling his story. He's not the only one to speak up in this section, as others' stories are interspersed here too, but his is the dominant voice and story
       Esteban's account begins with the seventy-year-old man settling in his demented and mute nonagenarian father for the day -- securing him to a chair in front of the TV. Esteban's world has collapsed, the Colombian caretaker he and his father had, Liliana, the last to go -- but really, it's all gone. Esteban has siblings, but from Carmen -- "my father's beloved daughter, his favourite, she doesn't even phone any more" -- to no-good Juan, they've pretty much abandoned the old homestead, cut their ties (the other brother, Germán, died).
       Esteban won't admit it openly yet, but he knows that what little is left of his world is about to come crashing down on him. He invested everything he had with friend and construction magnate Tomás Pedrós, and Pedrós' business has gone bankrupt (and Pedrós done a runner). Everyone is talking about Pedrós' rise and fall, but they're unaware just how deep in Esteban is, but Esteban had to close up shop -- the family business of many decades -- and let his employees go, and now he's just ignoring all the financial demands on him until they come and take everything ("I got so tired of creditors ringing me up, I decided to rip out the landline and throw my mobile in the lagoon").
       On the Edge describes the ripple-effects of the Spanish financial crisis. Pedrós is one of the opportunists who as able to take advantage of the situation -- and bail himself (if not his companies) out in time, but Esteban and most of those left around him are collateral damage, pulled apart in the swirl of the inevitable collapse. As one person suggests: "The last fifteen or twenty years have been a complete illusion".
       On the Edge takes place in a very small town:
Olba's a nice, quiet place, and if you want a bit of excitement, you've got Misent about ten kilometres away, Benidorm fifty kilometres away and Valencia a mere hundred kilometres.
       Esteban fills in a lot of his backstory, from his father -- a harsh man, on the wrong side in the Spanish Civil War, and imprisoned afterwards (expecting to be condemned to death, but pardoned) -- to the love of his life, Leonor, who abandoned him and married the more successful Francisco. Leonor died a few years earlier, and Francisco returned to the fold (though with the trappings of the lifestyle he's become used to: "acquiring the best house in Olba, owned so long by the former lords of the village", and mooring a yacht nearby), and Esteban plays cards with him and a few other old-timers at the local bar. Much of Esteban's account is in this setting, and the conversations between the old men -- with Esteban not letting on just how far he's fallen.
       There are also the brief shifts to other perspectives, as the stories and fates of Liliana and Esteban's now unemployed workers are also addressed. All their lives have been upended -- after so long where: "It never occurs to you that things aren't eternal, that they could change from one day to the next."
       In looking back on his life, Esteban covers a lot of recent Spanish history and transitions, offering glimpses of different human horrors from the Civil War and Francoist times. More recently, even sleepy Olba rode the tide of Spain's explosive growth -- and then suffered just like the rest of the country when the bubble burst, so that:
"Business" is a dirty word these days; a century ago it signified action and progress, but now it's a synonym of other words heavy with negative energy: exploitation, egotism, wastefulness.
       It's all come to a head for Esteban these days, and he's beyond panic. He sees and knows all is lost, and if he hasn't given in solely to despair, all he does is he go through the motions of maintaining some normality even has mind angrily roils about life's disappointments (settling in Olba, in a business he didn't really want to take over; the loss of the love of his life) and now this final horrible flourish of it all going to hell.
       Chirbes' novel is a powerful account of Spain savaged by the recent financial crisis, a state of the nation novel that also looks beyond the immediate, to the larger picture, placing events also in historical context, making the connections with the past as well. It is a grand if bleak novel of contemporary Spain, sustained in an impressive achievement by a powerful voice that pulls -- drags -- readers through this bleak mire. The other voices -- those that briefly tell of their experiences, or also Esteban in conversation with his circle of acquaintances, family, and employees -- generally aren't quite as successful, but provide some relief from Esteban's near-overwhelming account (which is far from a rant, yet speaks with a deep, deep anger and sadness).
       On the Edge is a very good novel, a very powerful piece of work that, despite its length, almost doesn't flag at all. Yet it's also that sustained power that makes the novel hard going, because of its very bleakness, almost unalleviated throughout.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 January 2016

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On the Edge: Reviews: Other books by Rafael Chirbes under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Spanish author Rafael Chirbes lived 1949 to 2015.

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© 2016-2022 the complete review

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