"The Fallen," Juan Marse's first novel to be translated into English, is his best to date. Like other of his fictional works, "The Fallen" won a prestigious literary prize, this one Mexican, awarded on the novel's publication there in 1973. "The Fallen" was published outside of Marse's native Spain because Francoist censors viewed its release inside the country as "inopportune." A Spanish publisher attempted to issue it in 1976, a year after Franco's death and after the censorship system purportedly was dismantled, but permission continued to be withheld. When the novel finally appeared there in 1977, it became an instant success and remained on the best-seller list for an entire year.
"The Fallen" is set in Barcelona, in the late '60s or early '70s. Nito is a down-at-the-mouth hospital caretaker. One day, while assisting in the hospital's morgue, he sees the corpse of a well-to-do man, victim of a fatal car crash. He recognizes him as his childhood companion Java. Stirred by this discovery, Nito begins to recollect adventures of some 30 years before.
These memories lead the reader into the world of Nito's childhood, when he was known by the nickname Itchy, and when he and Java were leaders of a gang of lower-class kids. Most of them were relatives of children of Republican supporters now suffering persecution, imprisionment, a clandestine existence or exile. The children and their activities serve to broaden the novel's focus and draw in other groups of characters: The girls at the convent school where the boys have their secret hideout in an abandoned shelter; the group of anit-Francoist resistance fighters futilely struggling to bring down the regime through their terrorist acts; the victorious Falangists who now hold power and use it to brutalize all into conformance with their "ideals"; and also prostitutes and night people.
In this way Marse provides the reader with a panorama of life during the first days under Franco's rule. The image is not a pretty one. People live in a futureless present, their fates congealed by the civil war and its effects. The victors have gained the freedom to lord it over the vanquished, as well as a measure of economic stability that allows them to live in relative opulence; but, of all those protrayed, they, significantly, are the most depraved. Senor Conrado, an ex-Falangist officer crippled in the war, "directs" people in degrading sexual acts he pays them to perform. These private dramatics contrast with "public" direction of pious student plays at the local convent school. His former driver, Justiniano, mutilated by the Republicans, has been compensated by the Falangists with a leadership role in neighborhood party politics. He uses his power to seek out those responsible for his mutilation and to run a private torture chamber.
The novel's message is clear to those familiar with post-war Franco policy. Rather than seeking to reconcile their opponents, the regime extended the period of belligerency after the close of hostilities. "The Fallen" documents the effects of that policy, and indicts it is being responsible for the wretched conditions portrayed in the narrative. From the beginning it is clear that nothing will get better, only worse: Java's fate symbolizes this pattern. His attempts to better his position -- no matter what the price -- bring him only an unhappy marriage and, ultimately, death in a traffic accident.
Marse's message is couched in an extremely complex narrative which mirrors the chaotic structure of existence during this period. A kaleidoscopic juxtaposition of narrative voices keeps the reader constantly off-balance and unsure of who is speaking. The key to the novel's intricate system of voices lies in the face that multiple versions of childhood adventures are being recounted. Faced with the bleak reality of post-war Barcelona, Itchy, Java and their companions embellish to the point that one is never sure to what extent the stories are fabricated.
Helen R. Lane, who has also translated recent works by another important Spanish novelist, Juan Goytisolo, provides a very readable English version of a quite difficult text. "The Fallen's" publishers are hailing it as the most important novel written in Spain since the Spanish Civil War. While "The Fallen" is certainly not that, it is an important work. Other writers such as Juan and Luis Goytisolo, Luis Martin Santos, and Juan Benet established the parameters and possiblilities for innovative fiction that Marse begins to explore so well in this novel. With it Marse takes his place in the vanguard of Spanish fiction.