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What the chilling steppe is to Sorokin, the hot swamp is to Rafael Chirbes: the inhospitable symbol of his nation, and of his work. The Russian freezes his emotions, the Spaniard lets them rot. Chirbes was born in Valencia in 1949, and died this past summer of lung cancer, leaving behind ten novels and four volumes of essays that have been acclaimed and reviled in the Hispanophone world. Or rather, they have been acclaimed for their revulsion — at the desecration of Europe by the E.U., at Spain’s abasement of itself and of the Maghreb. ON the Edge (New Directions, $18.95), published in Spanish in 2013 and immediately declared Chirbes’s masterpiece, is the first novel of his to have reached the shores of English, and arrives as a message in a bottle among all the cans, rusting appliances, and tangled tackle.

Photomicrograph of snow crystals, c. 1903–10, by Wilson A. Bentley © Swann Auction Galleries/Bridgeman Images

Photomicrograph of snow crystals, c. 1903–10, by Wilson A. Bentley © Swann Auction Galleries/Bridgeman Images

In 2010, in the seaside town of Olba, the fumes of the lagoon mix with the lingering sulfur of the Atocha railway-station bombing; the Spanish economy has all but collapsed. The construction sites stand idle, and each foundation pit dug out of the muck now seems like the grave of neoliberalism. Natives vie with foreigners for whatever jobs remain: la crisis is even worse in Arabic. The book opens with Ahmed Ouallahi, a Moroccan laborer, fishing for his supper in the lagoon — “an unhealthy, fetid place, stagnant water that can’t be trusted, liquid that grows warm and putrid in the spring sun and is only washed clean again when the first cold drops of rain fall in the autumn.” About to cast his net, he finds a severed human hand, which points the way to three bodies half-buried in the pollution — and the beginnings of a plot:

Probably immigrants like him, people just passing through, or maybe mafiosi fallen victim to some settling of scores: Moroccans, Colombians, Russians, Ukrainians, Romanians. Perhaps a couple of prostitutes, their throats cut by their pimps, women nobody will take the trouble to look for.

Who, or what, is to blame for these murders? Chirbes’s novel accuses everyone, from Barcelona financiers to Brussels bureaucrats. At the center of the investigation is a family without a mother. One son, Germán, who before his death was an underemployed mechanic, fixed things; Juan, a failed entrepreneur, sells things; the third son, Esteban, an unemployed carpenter and the novel’s principal narrator, makes things, or did. He’s also the sole caretaker of his father, an elderly mute who was imprisoned for his soft socialism during Franco’s regime and now contents himself with providing incontinent commentary in italics. A prodigal sister sends letters with photos of her own children, like reminders to pay a bill: the meek may inherit the earth, but they always get screwed out of the real estate and the furniture. As for Esteban’s own assets, they were invested, and lost, in a property-development scheme perpetrated by a childhood friend who’s now on the lam from creditors and the Moldovan — or maybe the Bulgarian — mob. Esteban wastes what’s left on whores and low-stakes tute. The whores he picks up on the roadside, the tute he plays in a pickup game at Bar Castañer, where the news is either Merkel’s austerity or Muslim rage. When Ahmed is reintroduced as Esteban’s former assistant, the tides begin to turn, in a brackish confluence of chronologies and regrets:

In its neglected state, the marsh restores some sense of privacy to me, makes me think of the “houses” we used to build as children to shield us from the eyes of our elders, places safe from prying adult eyes, where we could set up our own system of laws, play more or less forbidden games under the tablecloth, under the bed, or inside a large wardrobe. In the marsh, you can create your own world outside the real one.

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