Books: Ordesa: ‘a desolate memento mori and a warm, consoling hug’

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Ordesa

Manuel Vilas

Canongate, £11.99

Review by Stephen Phelan

WHAT a start to the year’s reading. Manuel Vilas’s Ordesa is a smack in the chops and a swim in the sea, a desolate memento mori and a warm, consoling hug. If that sounds a little blurby, you should hear the hymns that Spanish critics sang to it on publication in 2018, tears fountaining from their eyes. It sold by the truckload too, as if it were a popular thriller rather than a plotless expression of private grief, political disaffection, and existential bafflement.

Which is to say that it obviously speaks to people, and now in English too, the swells and crashes of Vilas’s wavelike syntax energetically rendered by master translator Andrea Rosenberg. The author is a former secondary school teacher, a career he summarises as 23 years of shouting: “Everybody settle down.” He quit a couple of decades ago to devote himself to literature, becoming a prolific novelist and poet, turning steely irony against the Spanish state.

Ordesa is something else though, apparently inspired by the death of his mother and the end of his marriage circa 2015. These losses made him “free” in the most frightening sense, an orphaned astronaut with a severed tether, and this book is a record of his spinning. It’s subtitled “A Novel” but reads much closer to the mode often classed as “autofiction” – personal history sprayed onto the page in a manner more like bloodletting than storytelling.

If there is structure here it’s imperceptible, almost subatomic, each numbered chapter a particle of thought orbiting the memory of Vilas’s parents. “The fact that I can never talk to them again seems to me the most outrageous phenomenon in the universe,” he writes, “a mystery as enormous as the origin of intelligent life.” A little like WG Sebald, he includes reproduced photos as metaphysical prompts. A picture of his father in a bar, taken long before Vilas’s birth, gives him the same pleasure that he imagines the angels feed upon: “You can enjoy the world more when you’re not in it.” And a little like Karl Ove Knausgaard, he invests totemic significance in material objects, from TVs, irons, water heaters, and toiletry kits to the mass-produced SEAT cars that signalled Spain’s shift toward industrial modernity during Franco’s long dictatorship.

There’s a definite Marxist bent to his sense of the national continuum over the last half-century or so, whereby neither fascism, nor monarchy, nor parliamentary democracy have ever done much for his parents, or himself, or any other member of his country’s lower-middle class – all “victims of Spain and the desire for prosperity”. Readers from other backgrounds may or may not recognise their own struggles here, and their mileage will probably vary on Vilas’s fondness for cosmic-aphoristic statements like, “Nature is a vicious form of truth”, or “Honesty, too, is an ontological fraud.” He’s not wrong though, surely.

Which of us can say that we are not, as Vilas suggests, “living in the tumult of the fleetingness of everything”? What parent does not look at their children, as he does, and wish they could protect them “till the final instant of eternity”? And while the likes of Knausgaard tend to spiral inward, Vilas opens out into boundless empathy. Standing behind a sweaty, demented pensioner in the supermarket, he does his best to remember that she was once “a little girl, beside a young mother … I place the old woman in my heart, and I love her”.

There is so much love in this book, for life and for language, that it bursts the seams even in translation. If you’re remotely responsive to this, it will make a holy mess of you. In writing without illusions, Vilas must also acknowledge the limits of words on a page. “Books aren’t life, only a decoration for it, and little more than that.” Even so, this is one to clutch to your chest.

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