The Galician writer Manuel Rivas has championed the language, literature and culture of his native northwestern Spain. Through his poetry and journalism as well as his fiction, he has used words as beautiful weapons. He is an artist aware of the value of a linguistic legacy as well as the physicality of a place, its geography, even the hapless fish that support the local economy.
His importance is obvious, and he is widely respected as a cultural commentator in Spain. Two of his novels, The Carpenter's Pencil (1998) and Books Burn Badly (2006), are vital components in the literature of the Spanish Civil War. In addition, the simple fact remains that, removed from his campaigning polemic, the wonderful All Is Silence (2010) must be one of the finest tours de force published anywhere, in any language.
Here is a morality play cum thriller of daring artistry that soars on so many levels, from the intellectual to the political and on to the emotional, as to leave a reader reeling. It has horror and humour, bleak truth, naked humanity and a depraved integrity. Rivas knows what fiction can do, and pushes the form here with a casual abandon that defies superlatives. Luckily, in the translator Jonathan Dunne he seems to have found a soulmate who shares his vision and comic timing.
Everything about this book thrills: the coastal setting, the characters, the dialogue, the pace, the shifting points of view, and the bad guys who are as sympathetic as the good guys are irritating, as well as the crazy asides and chaotic story that would have won the approval of the great William Gaddis. If there is a novel that seems to hover in the wings of Rivas's calmly manic narrative it is Gaddis's Carpenter's Gothic (1985).
All Is Silence is driven by the menace that shrouds a small town in which all power resides in the badly burnt hands of Mariscal, an eloquent criminal who nurtures a belief in the greatness of the Western. He is like no other baddie; once a seminarian, he uses his Latin to great effect. It certainly confers a surreal profundity on his evildoing, which begins modestly with smuggling fish and then hits the big time with drugs.
He has style, a roving eye and some of the best lines in contemporary fiction. Late in the novel he is about to be interviewed by a journalist. It seems that Mariscal’s power is such that, in keeping with many great criminals, he is being tipped to run for political office. The young woman proceeds with caution and decides to begin by flattering him, reminding him that he has been described as a self-made man.
“He stared at the journalist in silence. Made out he was considering her statement when in fact he was thinking about her . . . There was an animal intelligence in her eyes. He noticed this because the first thing she did on entering the Ultramar’s back room was pay attention to the little owl . . .” The bird is stuffed and in a glass display case. He notices that she writes the words “little owl”. “He soon saw that extended periods of silence made her nervous, and this discomfort on her part made him feel secure.”
The journalist battles on, fielding his smart replies, including his asking her what she thinks of John Wayne. “The girl smiled. She’d end up being the one interviewed.”
Years earlier there were three children; Victor Rumbo – “Brinco” – with whose mother Mariscal had been conducting a haphazard relationship; another boy, Fins, who suffers from fits that he describes as absences; and the lovely Leda, more streetwise than either of them.
It is so well done, and within pages this novel emerges as both strikingly similar to Javier Cercas's recent Outlaws and stylistically superior. The interaction between the three young people is extraordinary. There is an uncanny sense of how they view each other, themselves and the adult world. Rivas articulates the role-playing that teenagers engage in, the tentative shifts that briefly open when it is possible to play at being grown up before edging back towards childhood.
Equally, as a work of art and a study of the drug scene, including the escapades of the Colombian maverick Pablo Escobar, All Is Silence surpasses this year's Impac winner, Juan Gabriel Vásquez's The Sound of Things Falling.
In one of the many superb set pieces, young Fins observes as his father prepares for his annual role of playing Christ hauling his cross around the town. Fins “was the son of Jesus Christ . . . Among other things his father had spent the last few years playing Christ on the day of the Passion, Good Friday.” The previous Christ had left to work on the oil rigs in the North Sea, “the first year he’d managed to return in order to be crucified. But then there’d been some problem . . . What was needed was a new Christ.” Fins’s father was suitable, as he had a beard and was thin.
Rivas handles the comedy so well. He evokes a sense of small-town life. The characters know each other's business and are particularly aware of their respective weaknesses. In many ways All Is Silence is a great Irish novel: it is so easy to imagine the action being transferred to the west of Ireland. The youngsters are aware they have a native culture that has been relegated to the margins. Yet as the story evolves and acquires subplots, and with them a sense of daily life, the strongest of several strengths is the dialogue. If this is the great Irish novel that just happens to have been written by a Galician genius, it is also the finest movie the Coen Brothers have yet to make.
Time passes, with Leda and Brinco becoming a couple and having a child. They turn to crime. Fins chooses another direction. He joins the police and pursues his interest in photography, which leads to a brief exchange that speaks volumes, as is true of much of the narrative. Rivas injects telling asides about the Galician character and never allows the reader to forget the territory in which his yarn unfolds.
Study of corruption
It all has a deliberate, textured, real-life dynamic: the abrupt outburst; the tragedies; the characters who are maimed, the others who are are killed. Life goes on – well, sort of. It is very cool yet never utterly devoid of killing. There is also a philosophical context; it is a study of corruption and how that corruption must feed on others to perpetuate itself. Even at his most precise and clinical Rivas retains his poet’s eye. He never loses interest in the dastardly blatant and enduringly mercurial Mariscal, who is given the final words when commenting on the arrival of a suitcase: “Memories, eh? Then it must be heavy.” But there is nothing leaden about this dazzling performance.