Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 10, 2017

Confessions, by Jaume Cabré, translated by Mara Faye Lethem

Confessions

As you know if you saw the Sensational Snippet I posted from Jaume Cabré’s Confessions, I found this 750+ page chunkster so absorbing that I spent a fair bit of my New Caledonia holiday indoors, reading it.  And I don’t regret that for a second.  It is one of the most moving novels I have ever read…

Ostensibly Confessions is about a 60-year-old Catalan academic called Adrià Ardèvol who is writing his confessions to his wife Sara because he has what appears to be early-onset dementia and wants to set the record straight before he loses his memory entirely.  His best and dearest friend Bernat has been entrusted with making sense of his handwriting and transcribing it to computer, but as the novel progresses it becomes clear to Bernat and to the reader that he will need to do more than that.  Adrià’s mind wanders from the here and now to the past and elsewhere and sometimes he loses the thread mid-sentence or uses the wrong word: this is done so brilliantly by the author that the reader, pausing to make sense of some small thing that seems disordered or confused or not quite right is reminded, just often enough, about the irreparable gaps forming in Adrià’s memory.  And here and there the font changes to Italics where we see that the cruel present is confusing him entirely.  It is heartbreaking, especially if you know someone experiencing the same disease.  But, like John Bayley’s beautiful memoir of Iris Murdoch, it shows you that there are people who keep on loving the person that was, even if they no longer know it.

Chapter one introduces the family: Adrià is the only child of an antique dealer and collector called Felix Ardèvol, and his wife Carme.  Neither of them love him.  His father is harsh, demanding and physically abusive: this father insists that the child learn multiple languages and that he must spend his childhood in study so that he can achieve his father’s ambitions.  The boy is precociously clever, and he loves to learn, but that is never enough for his father.  His mother, emotionally unavailable and unforgiveably distant insists that he learn the violin to performance standard, and she never intervenes to protect Adrià from his father’s excesses.

The study is my world, my life, my universe, where almost everything has a place, except love.  I wasn’t usually allowed in there when I ran through the flat in shorts or with my hands covered in chilblains during autumns and winters.  I had to sneak in.  I knew every nook and corner, and for a few years I had a secret fortress behind the sofa, which I had to dismantle after each incursion so Little Lola wouldn’t discover it when she passed the floorcloth back there.  But every time I entered lawfully I had to behave like a guest, with my hands behind my back as Father showed me the latest manuscript he’d found in a rundown shop in Berlin, look at this, and be careful with those hands, I don’t want to have to scold you.  Adrià leaned over the manuscript, very curious.

‘It’s in German, right?’ – his hand reaching out as if by reflex.

‘Psst! Watch those fingers! You’re always touching everything…’ He smacked his hand.  (p.4)

[You can see in this excerpt how Cabré switches the narration from first to third person seemingly at random, but of course it’s not random at all.]

Adrià’s only consolations in this loveless childhood are the maid, known as Little Lola, and his companions Sheriff Carson and Black Eagle, since at home, as Father had decided years ago, there were no medallions, scapulars, engravings or missals, and Adrià Ardévol, poor boy, had need of invisible help:

‘What are you doing here, wasting time?  Don’t you have homework?  Don’t you have violin?  Don’t you have anything, eh?’

And Adrià went to his room, with his heart still going boom-boom.  He didn’t envy children with parents who kissed them because he didn’t think such a thing existed.

‘Carson: let me introduce you to Black Eagle. Of the brave tribe of the Arapaho.’

‘Hello.’

‘How.’

Black Eagle gave Carson a kiss, like the one Father hadn’t given him, and Adrià put both of them, with their horses, on the bedside table so they could get to know each other. (p.16)

These toys don’t know each other because Adrià had just that day at school acquired Sheriff Carson in a swap  for a Weiss harmonica – and if his father finds out, there’ll be hell to pay.

Amongst Felix’s treasures, none of which may Adrià ever touch, is an 18th-century violin made by the master craftsman Lorenzo Storioni.  Every item in the shop and the study has its own story of manufacture and ownership, and the story of this violin, and how it came into Felix’s possession takes the reader back to its origins, beginning with Jachiam of the Muredas in medieval times, who planted the trees and treated the wood from which the violin is made.  The journey of this violin through the centuries is the story of good and evil, of the struggle to make reparation for crimes that are unforgiveable, and of the intransigence of religion and folk myth when it is used to perpetuate evil such as the Spanish Inquisition and the Nazi genocide.  Adrià loses the love of his life because of this violin, but almost worse than that is that he loses his peace of mind, just like monk in the monastery, centuries before…

[Book groups could have a marvellous time discussing moral equivalences, but they say that chunksters kill book groups so I hesitate to suggest it).

Adrià spends his academic life exploring the nature of evil, never expecting that in his own life he would have to confront its intergenerational consequences for himself.  The reader never expects this either because our sympathies are engaged by the pathos of Adrià’s childhood and the difficulties he has in forming relationships.  Throughout the novel we think that he has nothing much to be confessing about.  Even when he hurts his women, it’s because he’s so inept.  It’s a disagreeable surprise to find that everyone has a price, even though we know that’s almost always true.

And even though Cabré doesn’t raise it, the provenance of the things we readers have, from valuable collector’s items to everyday consumer goods, becomes the focus for thought.  Who owned and lost or sold under duress the family heirlooms we have?  What price are we willing to pay for the ultimate piece in our collections?  And, stretching the issue further, who suffered in the making of the clothes we wear or the appliances we use?

Very thought-provoking indeed.

Author: Jaume Cabré
Title: Confessions (Jo Confesso)
Translated from the Catalan by Mara Faye Lethem
Publisher: Arcadia Books, 2015, first published 2011
ISBN: 9781910050576
Source: Personal library.  I can’t remember who recommended it to me, it might have been this Guardian review.

 

Fishpond: Confessions


Responses

  1. Okay – I downloaded the sample to my Kindle. :-)

    • I predict, fairly confidently, that you are a reader who will love this one.

  2. I”ll think about this one, thanks. Sometimes I’m in the mood for chunksters

    • I am too, but I like an uninterrupted week to get into it. I had a lovely week in the Hunter Valley to read Wolf Hall, that was wonderful:)

      • I’ve yet to read that. i tend to avoid historical fiction, but I wavered and bought it.

        • I hope you like it too. I came to it after reading Mantel’s other more edgy work so I was ready to like it anyway but I do think she did something different with WH that takes it beyond the historical fiction that I don’t usually read (though I read Jean Plaidy as a teenager), and historical fiction that I do (that offers more than genre fiction).
          But I know there are purists who believe that any kind of historical fiction must by definition be – what’s the word? falsified? fraudulent? tainted? because a novel written now can’t ever truthfully represent the past? I take their point, but I think I can interpret the work on its own terms, and besides, I don’t think any novel can truthfully represent the present either, it’s too complex and diverse for that.
          So for me, it’s like the translation fiction purists who say that no translation can ever ‘be the same work as the original’. That’s true, but I don’t care, I love reading about other cultures and since I only know two languages as well as English well enough to read them in the original I rely on translations to enrich my reading life.

          • For me, I wince when I come to a sensibility that doesn’t fit the age.

            • It depends why it’s there. It if’s an obvious clunker, I wince too. But sometimes, as in Confessions, it’s there to show the present bleeding through into the memories of the past, reminding the reader of the inexorable passage of the disease that’s claiming the narrator.

              • That’s ok. I think of historical anything pre WWI. I wouldn’t normally even give Wolf Hall a second glance but it seems so well thought of and then I enjoyed the series.

  3. It’s on sale for the kindle. Even better.

    • Could be a rare example of better on a kindle. 750 pages is awkward to read in bed. I had to prop a small cushion under it because I got sick of holding it.

  4. If I was going to read 750 pages I don’t think this would be the book. Every now and then I get an audio book which goes for 18 hours which is probably much the same, it has to be good to hold your attention for that long. I’ve read War and Peace so maybe I’d go for Xavier Herbert or House of All Nations.

    • I have the audio book of Capricornia and I really liked that. Another chunkster I enjoyed on audio was The Northern Clemency, I think that was about 18 CDs too.


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