The Fallen, Carlos Manuel Álvarez, trans. by Frank Wynne, Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019, pp.136, £10.99 (paperback)
The Fallen is only 136 pages long, but it bursts with resounding voices of unbridled pain. Carlos Manuel Álvarez’s polyphonic novel takes us across a Cuban family, each member with individual chapters — the son, the daughter, the mother, the father — in an arduous dissection of their daily lives. Frank Wynne’s elegant translation makes for an unsettling and deeply moving read, highlighting the familial tensions that mirror generational gaps in contemporary Cuba.
At the beginning of every chapter, we are informed of the everchanging point of view by a dry title, giving a sense of anonymity to this family, where every member is reduced to their status and function in the domestic microcosm. It seems that every character is thoroughly convinced they are a good person, putting into question the reliability of each narrator. The father, Armando, particularly, refers to himself as an honest and incorruptible man. Does he believe it, or is it a show put on for us? Armando again and again refers to a story that he seems to live by:
Nobody likes their boss. I do not either, to tell the truth. But the difference is that my bosses are corrupt and I am an honest and irreproachable boss, like Che Guevara, who once visited a bicycle factory where the lickspit -the manager tried to give him a bicycle for his daughter and Che put him in his place, saying that these bicycles weren’t his, meaning the manager’s, that they belonged to the State and he had no right to give them away.
The reader is reminded of this anecdote a number of times throughout the short novel, and it seems that the father is perhaps clinging on to this example for motivation, in a world where there is nothing to gain but one’s own intact sense of integrity. Armando reads like a mechanical object, almost as though he were programmed against corruption, constantly recalling Che Guevara’s statement, to himself and others. In a system where luxuries are scarce, Armando deprives his wife and children of some basic, innocent pleasures: he refuses, for instance, to take them to the beach in his car — it was given to him by the state, and it would not be right to use it in order to entertain his own children.
There is a great sense of claustrophobia within the family, although they barely seem to interact. The mother’s illness has taken a toll on the household, an unforgiving form of epilepsy. The unconstrained divulgence of her suffering confronts us with the devastating deterioration of the mind along with the body. A woman who was once a wife, a mother, a respected teacher, becomes only the shell of the person she once was. ‘This is what I am inside my body,’ she reflects, ‘I am its language. Nothing more.’
The son’s resentment towards his parents — and especially towards his father — is blatant and relentless. If his father were a reasonable man, he argues, he would have helped him evade his obligatory military service. More than that, Diego was top of his class, praised by everyone but his own family; he has never felt celebrated or admired:
I had just come back from military service. There was no piñata, no paper hats, no straws, no strawberry cake, no old friends, no uncles, no cousins, no gift-wrapped presents, not even a special dinner waiting for me.
In such a small amount of pages, The Fallen is abundantly expressive yet leaves so much unsaid. In admiration of his daughter María’s straightforward nature, Armando ponders: ‘I realize we are living in an era where things are said with three times more resources, words and complications than necessary.’ Frank Wynne’s translation reflects the irony of this thought, as the novel flows with detailed descriptions of mundane daily activities. Similarly, when explaining his feelings of bitterness and resentment, Diego addresses the reader the way one would write a structured essay. ‘I’d like to draw attention to two things’, he warns, before delving into upsetting anecdotes from his childhood. The author challenges expectations by building anticipation without relating the outcome, setting up a tense and uncathartic ending that successfully leaves the reader reeling.
The Fallen is the story of a family; not a romanticized saga, but a tale of unconditional love and friendship. Through careful and subtle prose, the strain and suffering in every voice emerges loud and clear. Carlos Manuel Álvarez has painted a powerful, burning image of illness, isolation and harrowing rancour.
Words by Laila Obeidat.
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