The dark side of escaping the daily routine

The dark side of escaping the daily routine
  • The Faint-hearted Bolshevik by Lorenzo Silva

  • This is the second in our five-feature series looking at contemporary Spanish literature available in English. This week we review Lorenzo Silva's The Faint-hearted Bolshevik, a classic of modern Spanish fiction, published in English by Hispabooks

By his own admission, the narrator of this brilliant and dark novel is a “c***sucker”. He is at the very bottom of a three-layered hierarchy that constitutes the world of work in Spain: at the top are the “Buddhas”, who barely work but are unsackable and on great salaries; in the middle are the “two bit temps” who work twelve hour days, are paid terribly and lunge from one temporary contract to the next (if they're lucky); and below them are the “c***suckers”, who have respectable salaries and some job security, but who work even longer hours than the temps, wasting their lives with tasks that “aren't worth a toss”. After ten years in a meaningless bank job that he loathes, The Faint-hearted Bolshevik's acerbic, unnamed narrator describes his life thus: “Now I'm a c***sucker and I'm more alone than ever”.

“Javier”, as he falsely names himself later in the novel, is sunk in this state of self-loathing when Silva raises the curtain on his miserable existence. A standard drive to work, on yet another “f***ing Monday”, is enough to remind him how much he hates everything in his life. His job consists of him wasting his days in exchange for money and he describes his soul as hanging between his legs like a third testicle, “about as much use to me as the other two”. We're treated to Javier's assessments of great artists and thinkers: Bach is an “old fart” who wrote “infuriating cantatas” and Plato is an “idiot” for using both his hands to write rather than to pleasure himself. Fury and bitterness courses through Lorenzo Silva's prose, giving it a compelling irreverence.

Clearly, Javier needs something to break the monotony of his existence and it comes in the form of a minor traffic accident that Monday morning. The driver of a car with which he collides - “a Chanel-clad bitch” who inspires envy and hatred within the narrator - proceeds to give him hell about the crash and insists that he pay for the damage. On the paperwork a “p***k of a traffic cop” makes them sign, Javier sees the woman's address and uses it to find her phone number. He decides that he can bring a little desperately-needed excitement into his life by tormenting the “Chanel clad bitch”. Prank calls and stalking lead him to Rosana, a 15-year-old schoolgirl and “the most extraordinary thing [his] sinful eyes have ever seen in their c***sucking existence”.

In the sad, funny and shocking story that follows there are traces of Nabokov's “Lolita”. Like Humbert Humbert, Javier irretrievably falls for a schoolgirl at first sight - a schoolgirl who is not as resistant to his uncertain advances as the reader might expect (or want). And as in Nabokov's masterpiece, the protagonist's desire for the forbidden cannot be dismissed as simple perversion; Javier's attraction to Rosana is complex, defined as much by genuine affection as it is by a need to dispel profound boredom. Although many want to, we can't label him as a brute or a pervert, nor can we hate him.

This is in part because Javier is clearly an intelligent and self-aware man, whose intellect finds no outlet in a slave-like existence. One of the novel's best chapters contains a critique of the snobbery that surrounds a lot of so-called great music - music that we're told we must enjoy but which, if we're honest, leaves us cold. Characteristically, Javier gets right to the point in describing his own preferences: “the only worthwhile music is music that moves me, and the kind of music that moves me is the music that I f***ing want to be moved by”. Beethoven is a “pretentious cornball”. Even if you disagree with the snap-assessment of the composer of the “Eroica” symphony, there's something delicious about hearing Beethoven referred to with such insolence.

Javier's erudition also informs his feelings towards Rosana. The inspiration for the novel's title comes from the famous photo of the four daughters of Emperor Nicolas II of Russia, all murdered by Bolsheviks the year after the 1917 Russian Revolution. Javier is fascinated by the photo, in particular by the beautiful Duchess Olga (first on the left), whose final moments he tortuously imagines. In his imagination, the Bolshevik who rapes and executes her is later tortured with guilt for his crimes. Realising that he took something that was not his to take, he develops a kind of retrospective love for Olga, which causes him to regret his actions. Thinking about Rosana, Javier wonders if one day he will also “experience the guilty Bolshevik's faint-heartedness”.

Silva's novel is a disturbing and powerful study of the boredom induced by meaningless work, and the measures his protagonist takes to dispel it. And regardless of whether you view Javier as destroyed or liberated (or both) by the book's shocking finale, one thing is beyond doubt by that point: his life will never be boring again.