“You have no idea how hard it is in this profession to find an innocent corpse.”
How many of us find ourselves leading lives we never planned? This is certainly the case in Unpaid Debts, from Antonio Jiménez Barca, a novel in which Madrid lawyer, Pablo, who at age 28 finds himself working a dead-end job collecting unpaid debts owed to a law firm in freefall. Since the company has no clients and no income stream, it’s imperative that Pablo persuade the debtors to pay, and after the self-named Financial Director walks out of the job, Pablo turns to debt collecting full-time. The dying firm’s unsustainable mantra is
Collect the money we’re owed, and don’t pay the money we owe. Then sit back and wait for a miracle.
The firm’s boss, “embittered failure,” Marti, is a perpetual drunk, and the only other remaining employee, secretary Isabel, stays from some sense of loyalty. Pablo continues because he’s suspended in a state of inertia. During the firm’s heyday, Marti invested all earnings in real estate, with the properties either becoming part of the law firm’s property management portfolio or being flipped for profit. Everything went south in the 1992 crisis, and since then the company has been slowly dying. While debt collection is demoralising work, for the reader, Pablo’s efforts are interesting. Here are clients who ten years earlier racked up bills, and for the most part, those clients, with one or two exceptions are now living lives of poverty. Take Juan Romero, for example, who’s a “filler” in a bingo parlor. How is he going to pay back a debt of 250,000 pesetas? Pestering debtors for bills racked up during long past glory years forces Pablo to reflect on the stagnation of his own pathetic life and the devastating reality that his long-term girlfriend just dumped him after a five-year relationship.
We know that something has to shake Pablo to life, and that something is an appearance of a friend called Trendy, a rival in love, who disappeared twelve years earlier. They meet, apparently by chance on the metro, and Trendy seems to want something from Pablo, but changing his mind exchanges phone numbers instead along with promises to keep in touch. But that night Trendy is stabbed and Pablo finds himself being questioned by police. Trendy, born in the barrio, in his youth ran with criminals which probably explains his acceptance of a doomed future:
He said the bullet that’ll kill him has already been fired; for a long time somebody’s been holding the knife that’ll cut him up. And in the meantime, you’ve got to duck and dive, keep out of its way and have fun while you do it.
Pablo is forced to confront his past, and that includes reconnecting with a group of friends from school–some who’ve done annoyingly well and others who are rather abysmally the same as ever. The two people missing from Pablo’s past are Trendy, who’s dead, and Pablo’s first love, Nora. The beginning of the novel is formed by long stories–Pablo’s story regarding his relationship with Trendy which is told to Police Inspector Roche, and a second story which is told by old friend, Mosca, to Pablo. Both of these stories–the first one is overly long–serve to give a sense of just who the absent Trendy was. Following this structure, the novel blooms into a mystery–just who killed Trendy and why? Does the answer lie in Trendy’s past in the barrio? Is Trendy’s murder connected to the burglary of Pablo’s office?
The novel’s melancholy tone is emphasized by descriptions of the shifting face of Madrid, Pablo’s depression, the gloomy weather and Roche’s attitude to his job.
I’ve followed the trails left by a lot of dead bodies, just like you say, Pablo and most of them deserved to die. Or maybe they didn’t deserve it, but they were asking for it somehow. It was as if they’d been following right behind their murderer, almost as closely as I do when I take charge of the case afterward.
Towards the end of the novel, the tone shifts and the solution with its Robin Hood touch undermines, or at least removes itself, from most of the novel’s bleakness, so that the story ends with bittersweet optimism. This is a redemptive tale of unrealized potential, the disappointments of adulthood, how we cannot escape our pasts, our environments or our fate, and the way all debts to the past must be paid. Pablo, whose life has derailed, begins the novel by trying to stay afloat on the misfortunes of others, but instead he must learn from the mistakes of old friends. Not a perfect novel, but solidly rooted in Madrid, this is an entertaining tale in spite of its flaws.
This is one of the titles from Hispa Books–a Madrid-based publisher “specializing in contemporary Spanish fiction in English-language translation.” Definitely a publisher to watch….
Antonio Jiménez Barca
Review copy. Translated by Ben Rowdon