translated by Mara Faye Lethem, Arcadia Books, 2014.
‘Can’t you keep your hands still?’
But Father …. I just want to touch the parchment. You said that it was mine, too.’
‘With this finger. And carefully.’
Adrià brought a timid hand forward, with one finger extended, and touched the parchment. He felt as if he was already inside the monastery.
‘Okay that’s enough, you’ll dirty it.’
‘A little bit more, Father.’
‘Don’t you know what that’s enough means?’ shouted father.
And I pulled away my hand as if the parchment had shocked me, and that was why, when the former Friar returned from his journey in the holy land with his soul wizened, his body gaunt and his face tanned, his gaze hard as a diamond, he still felt the fires of hell inside him. (61)
So Confessions slides one century into another, even in the same sentence, and constantly switches the point of view of its narrator, Adrià, from the “I” to the “he”. It’s a tribute to Cabré that he takes us with him, that we trust him in the twists and turns of this very complex narrative, spanning seven centuries from the Inquisition to post-Holocaust Europe. The Grand Inquisitor, in Cabré’s view, is the same character as Rudolph Hoss, the commandant of Auschwitz – not a new idea, but given great energy by the way Cabré manipulates time.
Adrià, the narrator of Confessions, is the son of Felix Ardevole, a collector and dealer in rare manuscripts and objets d’art. Felix means to make his gifted son another piece in his gallery, a perfect example of the glories of European learning. Fortunately Adrià loves languages, so he has no difficulty mastering Catalan, Spanish, Greek, Latin, French, English, Aramaic, German, Italian and Russian; his real difficulty lies in understanding his secretive, untouchable father, the unspoken tensions in his household, and the mysterious power of the objects that are his father’s obsession, among which is the 1764 Storioni violin.
The Storioni violin is the drive behind the plot of Confessions, but it is also a powerful symbol of Adrià himself – his gifts, his longings and, finally, his implication in the guilt that Cabré sees as the lot of all human beings. A glorious instrument made from an ancient maple that sheltered the remains of a murdered priest who had tried to atone in the monastic life for his part in the Inquisition, it has been the cause of murders, betrayals and ruthless exploitation, and it has come into his father’s hands as the fruits of the Holocaust. Adrià’s story is the story of someone trying to understand the existence of evil in the mind of man, which is capable of creating so much beauty in art, music and human thought.
‘There are things I don’t know how to explain,’ said Adria in a mournful voice. ‘Cruelty. The justification of cruelty. Things that I don’t know how to explain except through narration.’
‘Why don’t you try it?’ you said, looking at me with those eyes of yours that still bore right through me.
‘I don’t know how to write. That’s Bernat’s thing,’
‘Don’t mess with me. I’m not up for it.’
The conversation waned and we went to sleep. I remember, my love, that was the day I took the decision. I grabbed some blank pages and the fountain pen, and I tried to remedy it by coming from a distance, thinking that, gradually, I would approach us, and I wrote the rocks shouldn’t be too small because then they would be harmless. But they shouldn’t be too big either, because then they would curtail the torture of the guilty too much. Because we are talking about punishing the guilty, let us not ever forget. (521)
But ‘punishing the guilty’, the book shows us, is impossible, even if you hunt them down and kill them, as happens several times in the book over the centuries. And so is atonement, even when the guilty man recognizes his atrocities. We are left, it seems, speechless in the face of evil.
Bernard thought my poor friend, all his life spent reasoning and reflecting and now he can only formulate one question about morality. Is that good or bad? As if life could be summed up as doing evil or not doing it. Maybe he’s right. I don’t know. (734)
There’s a lot to admire in Confessions: big themes that stir the emotions and some memorable writing, especially about Adrià’s childhood. Many readers have absolutely loved it. I have my reservations. While it’s full of memorable scenes and episodes, some of its plot devices are clunky – such as the letter written in Aramaic that Adrià finds years later that explains his father’s mysterious death – and at times Cabré pushes too hard on the theme of the beauty of human civilization, as when he imports Isaiah Berlin, that richly erudite and humane philosopher, into the narrative. Crucially, to my mind, the love-story at its heart never really comes alive, and the end of that love story is close to melodrama.
No matter how good the translation, a translated book must lose some of its resonance. I’d love to share the experience of a Catalan reader, imbued with the rich and tumultuous history of the Catalan language and culture, which is a vital part of the book’s subject-matter. So is its shaggy and multifarious form.
I deemed this book definitively unfinished, he says in his afterword, on January 27 2011, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Unfinished. The story continues, and art can only try to catch at it as it moves on.