#RivetingReviews: Jeremy Garber reviews CREMATION by Rafael Chirbes

Chirbes’ Cremation (the third of his books to be translated into English) takes place over a single day – the day of Matías Bertomeu’s cremation. Kaleidoscopic in its representation of post-Franco Spain, the novel is primarily narrated by Matías’s brother, Rubén, a financially successful, once-idealistic art lover who now constructs buildings that remind his daughter of Albert Speer, and isn’t above doing whatever is necessary to get ahead. 

Much as he did in his dark, devastating On the Edge, Chirbes confronts the corrosion and decay of modern life: familial, economic, social and political. The late Spanish author, in prose beautifully disproportionate to its subject, uses Matías’s final days as the focal point for exploring an extended family’s response to and reckoning with the loss of its long-time patriarch. Facade, privilege, wealth, excess, greed, Chirbes chronicles society’s decline with remarkable (and unflinching) acuity. Perhaps not quite as caustic or acidic as On the Edge, Cremation (published six years prior, both winners of the prestigious Premio de la Crítica de Narrativa Castellana) is nonetheless a stirring, and stunning, reflection of culture seen through the deeds and doings of a single family – a polyvocal appraisal of avarice and apathy.

This is embodied in Rubén’s son-in-law, a comparative-literature professor who is writing a biography of an author who, for years, refused to sell his property to Rubén. In the battle between art and capitalism, the practical always wins:

‘Her husband’s tone became bitter whenever he talked about culture, about his work as a literature professor: we’re not cancer researchers, he’d say, we’re not trying to come up with a polio vaccine, or something that will end up saving humanity. We’re a whim that rich societies can indulge, while poor ones can barely consider it. We’re like escorts, lotus blossoms that open above a nauseating puddle of opulence, we provide entertainment that is barely more refined than what the street girls offer (and less intense). Beauty, sentiment: malarkey – ado, as the comedy goes. We read a book, see a painting, hear a song that moves us so deeply and maybe even stirs up a tear, but then it’s over, and we go back to daily life and forget we ever even heard that song. Feelings aren’t that strong, that certain or that lasting. We exaggerate their value. They’re closer to the animal, to Pavlov’s salivating dogs who hear the noise alerting them that food is on the way. They’re drool. Emotion is not the most human of things. The intellect is human, and surely also the capacity to come up with evil for the long term: like what my idiot brother’s bosses are doing, fabricating long-term instruments for killing. This is surely the most specifically human thing there is, death on the instalment plan, to give it a Céline-like title.’

Raw and powerful, with a lyrical flow second to none, Chirbes’s novel is a remarkable achievement, reinforcing his status as one of Spain’s most unflinching chroniclers whose readership in English will continue to grow despite his untimely passing.

Reviewed by Jeremy Garber


By Rafael Chirbes 

Translated by Valerie Miles

Published by New Directions (2021)

Read The Spanish Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

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Jeremy Garber is a Pacific Northwest bookseller.

Category: The Spanish RiveterApril 2023 – The Spanish RiveterReviewsThe Riveter


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