This was originally published on a Substack account. I found that system a bit clunky, and would rather have my writing all in one place, thus this repost.
Translated by Frank Wynne
Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2019
Tolstoy opens Anna Karenina with the famous line that while all happy families are the same, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. Carlos Manuel Álvarez seems to have taken this to heart when writing about the crumbling family that is the focus of his début novel, The Fallen. The pater familias, Armando, is an ageing revolutionary, stalwartly holding onto his ideals and doing his best to live by them. His wife, Mariana, a teacher, suffering from a mysterious illness causing her to have unpredictable and scary seizures. Their son, Diego, a brilliant student brewing in his own resentment as he completes his mandatory military service ahead of going to university. Lastly their daughter, Maria, is caught between her family’s ideals and her own needs. They live in Cuba, and the family’s struggles are reflected in those of their country. Everyone is tense, at their limit, and ready to break.
The country is as much a character in this novel as the four protagonists. It sets up challenges and opportunities, and everything is foregrounded by its slowly progressing ruin. Álvarez’s Cuba is falling apart, struggling to recover from the collapse of the Soviet Union and the withdrawal of the subsidies it gave to the revolutionary state. To the older generation still holding onto fresh memories of going without meals and of the communal suffering they endured, it is a country that hasn’t lived up to its revolutionary promises. Take Armando, the patriarch of the family. He is a manager at a luxury tourist hotel and still committed to the ideals of the revolution. He’s fond of retelling a story about Che Guevara who was once, supposedly, offered a free bicycle for his daughter at a bicycle factory. Guevara refused on the grounds that the bike did not belong to the manager but to the people, so it wasn’t the manager’s to give. Armando takes the lesson to heart, and it is what guides him in his own managerial style. In this, he clashes with his superiors, who have all turned to corruption at various scales. When he tells them the story, they don’t appreciate it the way he does. He lives in the hope that those around him hold onto the ideals as he does, and that the slow dialectical progress of history will mean the revolution will succeed in bringing prosperity to the people.
Armando and Mariana’s children have a radically different relationship to the country. Diego, the son who is undergoing his compulsory military service, resents the state and his parents. He thinks his father in particular is a failure. Most importantly, though, he thinks he deserves better and that everything happening around him is an unjust punishment and an affront to his intelligence and dignity. There is a sense in which his is a rebellion against the requirements of society which he sees in the fact of his military service and in his father’s ideals. This, to him is an affront to humanity. He says:
“At the core of world angst, at the heart of mediocrity, lies the fact that this shapeless mass of men and women, boys and girls, are forced to wake at dawn, at five-thirty, or six, or six-thirty in the morning, and grudgingly go off to work or to school, heads bowed, like cattle daily led to the slaughter, to institutions they despise with every ounce of somnolence and lethargy, yet which they dutifully continue to attend.”
Diego resents the drudgery and blames it on things far above him. His father comes to exemplify them. And Diego is right to in many ways. His father may be virtuous and idealistic, but his superiors are not. In the face of widespread corruption, his faith in the communist ideals the country is supposedly founded on is foolish.
Maria, the daughter, also doesn’t share the father’s ideals. Though she works at the hotel he manages, she conspires with the other employees to gain any small advantage for themselves that they can. Unlike Diego, her impulse is to worry after her parents – particularly the mother. In response to her mother’s epilepsy, she develops a nervous response to any creak or thud she hears in the house or the hotel. Like Diego, she instinctually feels she deserves better, but she is not yet ready to admit to herself that her family and country have failed her.
Importantly, both of the siblings resent having to go without. Diego summarizes this perspective nicely:
“I was top of my class, my parents knew it, everyone knew it. And they never rewarded me, they never thought to. OK, I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I thought that my parents gave me everything they could, but now I realize that’s not true, that they could have done more, especially Armando. I don’t understand why my mother didn’t just get a divorce. What was the point of staying with this ridiculous, old fogey of a husband and, in the process, sacrificing her kids’ childhood?”
That final point is important. Mariana isn’t merely their mother – she is the symbolic representation of the country. The country that nourished them and which couldn’t provide enough despite its best attempts. Diego’s wish that his parents would divorce isn’t merely resentment at his father. It is a manifestation of his desire that the country abandons an ideology that he blames for his situation. As if he’s asking, why can’t the country abandon its “old fogey” of an ideology? Why must it sacrifice her kids’ future?
This isn’t to say that this is an anti-communist novel. I take Álvarez to be presenting the two ways of seeing the situation. In the chapter immediately following Diego’s tirade against his parents, Mariana recollects the special favours she occasionally received from their neighbours on account of her being a teacher. Once, she was gifted two chicken breasts. When she cooked them at home for the family, she asked Armando if they should have more, or the children. Armando’s response, always, is “the children come first.” It is thus not that the parents, and by extension, the revolution, make empty promise to sacrifice everything including the children’s futures for the sake of the ideology. It is rather the case that the parents and the state are willing to sacrifice everything for justice, and the world is simply unjust.
The translation lends itself to the brutal, continual hopelessness the family is forced to endure. Wynne’s rendering of the prose is clear, and underscores the ruin and decay surrounding the protagonists. Wynne and Álvarez present us with the image of a country whose lofty ideals and ambitions have fallen into a malaise that threatens to undo any progress of the revolutionary struggle. The Fallen shows that there are limits to the pain people can endure for the common good, and that without the base material conditions necessary for life, the ideals in which they are brought up will ring hollow.