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  • Sifting through the Ashes.An Interview with Rafael Chirbes1
  • William J. Nichols

Rafael Chirbes was born in Tabernes de Valldigna, near Valencia, Spain, in 1949. He studied Historia Moderna y Contemporánea in Madrid and later lived in Salamanca and Barcelona before returning to his native Valencia, where he now lives in the coastal town of Denia. Early on in his life he was drawn to big cities like Salamanca, Madrid, and Barcelona. After finishing his studies, he wrote literature and film reviews, as well as reportage for various journals including travel reports for a gourmet food magazine. He lived in Paris and then, for some years, in Morocco, where he gave Spanish lessons. After his return, Chirbes published the novel Mimoun (1988), a finalist for the Premio Herralde, and set himself on a literary career that includes several novels and such non-fiction writing as Mediterráneos (1997), El novelista perplejo (2002) and El viajero sedentario (2004).

Rafael Chirbes, an essential figure in Spain's contemporary literary landscape, dismantles the myths of Spain's democratic identity by critiquing the country's relationship to its own collective and individual memory. Through characters that recall a seemingly irretrievable past, be it recent or remote, or by situating the plots of his novels in a specifically transcendent historical moment in Spanish history (such as the day Francisco Franco died), Chirbes exposes the mechanisms that not only frame an awareness of the past but offer a narrative for understanding the present. He fuses the public with the private to reveal the interpenetration of individual and collective memory to better understand the problems of the present as an extension of the actions of [End Page 219] the past. Moreover, through the notion of metamemory, or the self-aware representation of the act of remembering, he exposes the construction of memory and questions the way in which Spain remembers and retells the origins of its democracy. Contrary to the notion of los felices ochenta and the maxim repeated throughout the government of José María Aznar during the 1990s that "España va bien," the novels of Rafael Chirbes reveal a sense of unease, a malestar, about Spain's economic, political, and cultural trajectory after Franco.

In his novels, Rafael Chirbes critiques the narrative of Spain's transición by fusing the public and private, the collective and individual, the transcendent and the everyday to unhinge the foundational myths upon which Spain's democracy has been erected.

The atmosphere of Mimoun presents an almost Gothic vision of the so-called felices ochenta in which a perdedor from Spain's transición loses himself in the phantasmagoric world and false utopias of a small Moroccan town. En la lucha final (1991), set in Madrid during the 1980s, again presents a narrator in crisis who depicts the corruption of previous political and social ideals that disintegrate within an atmosphere of impostura where individuals selfishly fight to acquire status by ascending in social class.

Through a simple yet intimate prose of an old woman's diary, La buena letra (1992) not only details her suffering and the pain of everyday life her Republican family endured after the Spanish Civil War, but also explores writing, both personal and novelistic, as a space for preserving memory as her sons vie to sell her lifelong home to build a highrise. Similarly, Disparos del cazador (1994) presents the reader with a personal cuaderno, but now from the perspective of a successful, though morally corrupt, businessman who reconstructs and confronts his past, from his humble beginnings during the posguerra to his economic ascent during the milagro español during the 1950s and 60s.

La larga marcha (1996), Chirbes's first novel not written with a first-person narrator, appropriates ironically a distant omniscience that follows the individual experiences of several characters from the years immediately after the Spanish Civil War through the anti-Franco student movements of the 1960s to present a vision of the present as a continuation of the past and individual experiences as intimately tied to a larger, collective social context. Through a microscopic vision, La caída de Madrid (2000), the second part of an informal trilogy, continues...


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