- Tales of the Brick Age:Corruption and Bankruptcy in the late works of Rafael Chirbes
The subprime collapse, the Global Recession, and the Eurozone crisis have given rise to an entire subgenre of crisis narratives in literary and visual arts, attempting to make sense of the human aspect, causes and outcomes of the largest non-war economic commotion in the West since the Great Depression. In Spain, the last two novels of Rafael Chirbes (1949-2015), Crematorio (2007) and En la orilla (2013)1 have distinguished themselves for an insightful view and poignant reflections on the real estate boom and bust, which defined the economic and cultural parameters of Spain after the democratic transition. Here I will call this period the Brick Age.2
As a metonymy, the Brick refers here to a series of interrelated factors, economic developments, social changes, evolving cultural attitudes, and substantial alterations in visual landscape and the environment, which took place in Spain from the mid-1980s to approximately 2010. It takes after the so-called "fiebre del ladrillo" or "Brick Fever," i.e. the construction boom starting approximately in the late 90s, defining an economy largely based on real estate development and related sectors, including tourism, along with the rapid, unsustainable economic growth it fostered, supported by the gradual imposition of neoliberal ideology and policy by the right and its implicit acceptance by the traditional left.
In the following pages I will produce a brief account of the Brick Age as a historical process in two phases, underscoring the ties of the boom and bust economy with a culture of corruption. Having established this context, I will proceed to introduce Chirbes' novels, justify the need for a joint analysis, [End Page 405] and discuss the concepts and imagery that seek to account for the political, cultural, and moral context intertwined with the economics of boom and bust during the Brick Age.
The Brick Age: A Brief History
The Brick Age started in the mid-1980s, with the development of what came to be colloquially known as the "cultura del pelotazo"—roughly translatable to "fast money culture." "Pelotazos" relate to a time where, given the right political connections with the recently elected PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers' Party), it became easy to become rich in real estate development and related sectors, especially in the capital Madrid and the coastal areas. The "pelotazo" era culminates with the large institutional investments following the winning bids of Barcelona, Seville, and Madrid as hosts for the Olympic Games, the World Fair, and European Cultural Capital in 1992. This phase of the Brick Age is best embodied by the banker Mario Conde, whose career came to an abrupt end in 1993 under public accusations of embezzlement, and by the expensive mansion shared by former minister of finance Miguel Boyer with his partner, the socialite Isabel Preysler. This house, which came to be jokingly known as "Villa Meona" or "Pissing Villa" because of its 13 toilets, embodied the contradictions between proclaimed social-democratic politics and the lavish lifestyle that involvement with the party could entail given the right connections.
After the brief economic crisis that broke out in 1993, the "get rich quick" mentality of the "pelotazo" years reignited in 1998 under the government of the conservative party. A significant change in land development laws ("Ley de Suelo") gave regional and municipal administrations wide-ranging control over the privatization of public and rustic areas. This signals the beginning of what is popularly known in Spain as "La fiebre del ladrillo" ("The Brick Fever") itself, a long financial bubble, largely sustained by private mortgage lending, that peaked in the late 2000s, when private debt reached 1.77 trillion euros, nearly two times the national GDP. Although the changes in "Leyes de Suelo" were ostensibly aimed at reducing real estate prices, the opposite happened instead. Local administrations had a double incentive to speculate with land and facilitate insider deals: first, "recalificaciones" ("re-zoning") had become a major source of funding; second, the consequent growth in urban development and associated services became an easy source of jobs that would have significant electoral returns for the parties in power. Early in the...