It is becoming increasingly rare to come across good novels that exceed the 900-page mark. And even rarer that such novels may capture the reader’s imagination to such an extent as Jaume Cabré’s Jo confesso. This is undoubtedly an ambitious work, very much within the traditionally European line of the all-encompassing novel with a profoundly intellectual substratum.
The protagonist is Adrià Ardèvol, born into an upper-class Catalan family. He is the only child of a powerful antiques dealer, Félix Ardèvol. The father, a very strict figure, is bent on forcing Adrià to learn more than ten languages before he turns 18; as if that were not enough, the violin is also one of the extracurricular subjects the young Adrià will have to learn. How about some affection instead of so much knowledge? It is not to be: Adrià’s mother appears to have little interest in him, and shows hardly any warmth.
However, in the generally busy Ardèvols’ department of his childhood, Adrià finds nooks and corners where he can hide and listen, or as Hamlet would put it, be seeing unseen. Two action-hero toys of the 50s, Sheriff Carson and Black Eagle, the great Arapahoe Chief, accompany Adrià in his adventures and offer him advice on adult situations he does not comprehend and odd explanations of words he has never heard before.
The thing is, Adrià is something of a genius. He is enrolled in an elite religious school despite not having been baptised. It might sound like a paradox, but it makes perfect sense when we learn of the murky dealings Félix Ardèvol carried out during the Second World War, obtaining highly valuable objects from fleeing Holocaust victims first, and later from ex-Nazi officers. When need is so pressing, the basest offer sometimes will do.
|Modest Urgell, Paisatge. 1655|
Jo confesso, however, is much more than the above. It is also a long story about the nature of human evil, to which the young Adrià will be exposed very early in his life, when his father is murdered in mysterious circumstances. When Adrià grows up, he ends up being a distinguished professor who writes many a treatise on the problem of evil and the history of Western thought, among other subjects. But Cabré not only intersperses the narrative with lucid reflections on evil – he interweaves numerous narratives within the main plot led by Adrià. He deserves recognition for the fact that the mingling narrative lines do not confuse. It is after all a literary game Cabré plays with flair, although perhaps towards the end it might be a little overdone. Personally, I would have preferred a more open ending.
But Jo confesso is first and foremost the story of a man’s life. As Adrià grows up his world becomes populated with interesting characters. There is his friendship with professional violinist and would-be novelist Bernat, with whom he will share many a confidence. And there is the love story of his relationship with Jewish French artist Sara Voltes-Epstein. When they were still in their twenties, their two mothers conspire to break them apart, for reasons unknown to Adrià. It is only towards the end of the novel that it becomes clear that all of it was attributable to his father’s murky past. It is then that the novel’s first sentences make sense: “Until last night, while walking on the wet streets of Vallcarca, I had never understood that being born into that family of mine had been an unforgivable mistake. Suddenly I understood that I had always been alone, that I had never been able to rely upon my parents or upon a God to whom to ask to find solutions, even though as I grew up I had got accustomed to depend on imprecise beliefs and various readings for the burden of my thoughts and the responsibility of my actions.” (p. 13, my translation).
|Confessions: Of how a musical instrument can awaken the most revolting passions in a human being.|
One might think that all these plots and subplots should already be enough to construct a novel, but there’s more. There is one more piece in this puzzle: a genuine Storioni, made from the best wood available. The musical instrument becomes the centrepiece in Cabré’s journey through the centuries. The violin illustrates the point the author wants to make: how can a beautifully crafted instrument become an object of greed, malice, ill-will and bring about the death of so many? Since evil cannot reside in immaterial objects, where can it come from other than from within humans?
The Storioni, bought illicitly by Adrià’s father at the end of the Second World War, is obscurely linked with Sara’s family. It will become the bone of contention between the lovers, and ultimately it will be Bernat who finds out what happened to the one thing owned by Adrià he would have wished to own for good.
Cabré’s narrative is anything but conventional. Adrià’s story is written in the first and the third persons simultaneously, which provides for interesting angles. The novel is, therefore, not only a confession but also a self-assessment, where impartiality can only be an aspiration rather than a matter of fact. Towards the end, Bernat brings in another narrative voice allowing Cabré to tie up a few loose ends.
Jo confesso has been a huge editorial success beyond Catalonia, with translations published in fourteen languages. The English language edition was published by Arcadia Books and translated by Mara Faye Lethem. This grand novel provides a uniquely candid view of post-war Barcelona. An enriching, recommendable book.