Confessions, by Jaume Cabré, is massive in size, scope and literary merit. Given its reach it is hard to classify: a love story, a treatise on evil, the story of a life. Translated from the original Catalan by Mara Faye Letham, the tale has a depth that demands the reader’s full attention. Compelling as the interwoven strands of the story are, it deserves regular pauses for contemplation and for the quality of the writing to be savoured.
The book introduces us to Adrià Ardèvol, a gifted and precocious only son of distant and cold parents. His father, a collector of valuable objects and secrets, pushes his son to study languages. Adrià enjoys this challenge but resents that his father rarely acknowledges his impressive progress. His mother is determined that he should become a virtuoso violinist, all but killing his enjoyment of the instrument with her passion for his success. His violin lessons do, however, facilitate a meeting with another music student, Bernat Plensa, who becomes a lifelong friend.
The book is written as a memoir. At sixty years of age Adrià is succumbing to the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. With Bernat’s help he wishes to publish the story of his life, a story that has been driven by dark secrets, history and his unusual, lonely childhood. In many ways his life has been extraordinary, influenced as it was by the inquisition, Auschwitz and his own academic studies and career. As with any life though, his choices have more often been driven by regular experiences: love, friendship, guilt and chance.
There were so many aspects of this book that I enjoyed. As Adrià recalled events he jumped from his own past to that of objects which affected his life, such as the valuable violin that his father had acquired through one of his many nefarious deals. In moving between time periods it is shown that evil has always existed. Ideals are justified by strong leaders who hold power and can force others to act as they desire through promises of glory and through fear. Individual acts of distressing cruelty are as likely to be prompted by personal lust, greed or jealousy as by a shared belief in a cause.
At times the changes of voice in the tale can be disconcerting. I was unsure if this was to highlight the effects of the Alzheimer’s or to illustrate the hazy concept of truth in recollection. Each time an individual recounts a story from their past the emphasis or detail is liable to change. It was unclear at times how much of Adrià’s story came from his books, his thoughts or how he lived his life. All were his experiences.
The valuable violin was a constant throughout the tale. I empathised with Adrià’s actions when, as a young boy, he wished to give it to Bernat. The lonely boy valued their friendship over an instrument which, at that time, was simply another object in his father’s collection, a collection that was given more care and attention than the child. It was interesting that Adrià, like his father, subsequently took pleasure in acquiring historical objects, suffering problems when these were granted undue importance in his life.
Another strand of the story looked at how value is ascribed. Any item is only worth as much as someone is willing to pay. That artwork or artefacts fetch such staggering sums is as much to do with the satisfaction a buyer feels in owning such a piece as in the attributes of the object. Throughout history lives have been barbarically sacrificed to satisfy the wealthy and powerful’s desire for ownership of place, person or thing.
Having enjoyed the complex journey I wondered how the author could complete such a tale. I was not disappointed. The denouement was unexpected but satisfying, rounding off Bernat’s story as much as Adrià’s. The ending fitted perfectly with everything that had gone before.
This is not a book to be picked up lightly but the investment in reading is undoubtedly worthwhile. As a study of humanity, what is valued, and how individuals see themselves and their history it is enlightening. Beautifully written, challenging and perceptive, its narrative will continue to resonate long after the last page is turned.
My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Arcadia Books.