Literature is subjective: on this, most can agree. A novel provides a snapshot of the author’s world, a distillation of their values and beliefs. But sometimes there arises a snapshot so striking and definitive it resembles the universal. Manuel Vilas’ Ordesa (304 pages; Riverhead Books; translated by Andrea Rosenberg) is one such novel. In its unflinching exploration of parental loss, mortality, and solitary life through the eyes of a 52-year-old, recently bereaved divorcé, Ordesa offers a perspective so earnest it approaches unquestionable truth.
Vilas’ novel is structured around its unnamed narrator’s reflections on his current, abysmal state of affairs, as well as around frequent recollections of childhood memories that defined his relationship with his late mother and father. The narrator is a writer living alone in Zaragoza, a city in the northeast of Spain: his parents have both died within the last decade, his wife has divorced him after learning of his many infidelities, and he entertains a chilly relationship with his two teenage sons, whom he rarely sees.
It is clear that the narrator is a depiction of a man at rock-bottom, on the fringes of his life—utterly disconnected from those around him, observing and remarking as if removed from the human experience. He interprets his life almost entirely through the lens of his parents, particularly his father; his narration is channeled through the guilt he feels for neglecting them, and the impossibility of all he wishes to know about them in the eternal aftermath of their deaths. “Everything that happened to my father reverberates in me with millimetric precision,” the narrator states. “Sometimes that level of coincidence annihilates time, melts time and turns it liquid and unstable, and the two lives become equivalent.”
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While Ordesa makes extensive existential and social commentary, by addressing questions of ontology and the capitalistic nature of a modern and declining Spanish society, the novel is fundamentally about the inescapable bond between parent and child. “The only true, accurate reason you’re in this world is contained in the will of your father and mother,” the narrator asserts.
The narrator is haunted by the silence he and his parents maintained their entire lives—by their lack of a measurable love. Despite this, and despite the narrator’s lamentations that he knows nothing about his parents as they lived, he reports a love for them so profound that it appears to resurrect them. The novel occupies a surreal, almost paranormal space in which the narrator’s parents are ever-present as apparitions, literal or otherwise. In this way, Ordesa becomes a ghost story. “It’s clear they’re not already dead,” the narrator says. “I see them often.” These ghosts, ironically, are what anchor the narrator to the present; they are the driving forces behind most every thought, image, and reflection he conjures.
Ordesa often veers into cynical and pessimistic territory, and does so in a manner that can feel purely cerebral rather than earnest. As a result, the novel is not always an easy or particularly enjoyable read when taken strictly by its emotional tenor. But its revelations on the omnipresence of love and family, even in their physical absence, are transformative and more than compensate for these darker stretches. These revelations may in fact become all the more vital because of the narrator’s otherwise bleak manner.
Purportedly the manifesto of a “man of sorrows” who has “failed to understand life,” Ordesa proves a portrait of love, and an acknowledgment of its indelibility from a man who has nothing else left. It is an assertion of a goodness that can do nothing but remain with the man who first received it. With the cadence of poetry, Ordesa unearths a fraught but tender reality in which each moment we’ve inhabited with those we love is synonymous with the present moment—inextricable from everything that comes after.