Denial is the quickest form of self-destruction. It’s a testament to the fragility of the human condition that we, as emotional beings, should put our guards up in times that try our resolve and threaten any sense of normalcy. Perhaps this feels pertinent to us in our current moment, but for the people who take up the most space in Breathing Through the Wound, the second novel by Spanish author Víctor del Árbol in translation by Lisa Dillman, it’s used as a coping mechanism to prevent themselves from accepting the false promises of others.
In the sketchy underground of urban contemporary Madrid, this sprawling story, at its heart, sees two has-been artists find each other on their journey to discover the circumstances behind the grave killings of their families. As secrets unravel and personalities converge, the slow deterioration of these lost souls, perpetually faced with riling up a serial murderer and the ungodly sins of Spain’s blacklist fugitives, begins to take place, and the severity with which they treat themselves and one another starts to surface: “…She wasn’t beautiful and probably never had been, but now she seemed to have succumbed to the evidence.” Even the most astute readers with a hunch for the depths this book goes into will quickly understand they have no idea of the arsenal of crime and punishment running rampant in this 670-page opus.
On the surface, Eduardo Quintana is an unlikely hero; an ageing, semi-retired painter who considers himself a bore to his own therapist and is very much still fraught with the grief of living without his wife and daughter. While it seems reasonable that he should confide in Ms. Gloria Tagger, a former violinist who has commissioned him to paint one last portrait, in this dire time of need for both of them, it becomes apparent that she has knowledge and awarenesses of her own that transcend any logical and perceived reality. Together, as they throw themselves into unsolved cases and reopen unsettled abrasions, they will push each other to the brink of their emotional and physical capacities and obliterate their personal boundaries for all the wrong reasons.
Del Árbol paints the everlasting portrait of this compromised city and all that inhabits it with unmatched skill in the mounting tone of the book’s noiseless and overwhelming moments, where Dillman’s translation truly shines: “Romance was a cheap dress, easy to sew, and she liked to wear it. Depravity was accessible to them as long as it was a game – a little bit of pain, a few drops of blood, some dirty talk whispered into an ear.” His expertly tuned ear for rhythm and elegance, as well as his wickedly wired brain, wipes clean every preconception passages like these tell us about what else could possibly go haywire.
Personally, I admire any artist who is willing to dissect society’s power dynamics in a way that holds such oppressors accountable for their filthy, unforgivable behavior. The criminals of this novel are not, in the least, limited to hit men and their counterparts, and preside in Spain’s narrow margins where no one would suspect a thing. To be frank, though, there are times where Del Árbol is dangerously close to crossing lines in the analyses of his characters’ actions, and will surely come off to some as overly, or even unnecessarily, graphic, running the gamut between pedophilia, prostitution, and mutilation, among other heinous topics.
I am willing to overlook the discomfort I felt in these portions because of how utterly invested I was in the stories that connected them to every single character. Breathing Through the Wound is the kind of book that thrives on impatience with a bag of tricks that never empties. Del Árbol unflinchingly walks readers through dark hallways with the floor ready to fall out from under them, confronting us with inevitabilities that were mapped out from the very beginning and perfectly landing the punch every time: “He was never afraid to walk through an open door, never worried about what he would find on the other side. Nothing could be worse than what he’d already left behind.” It made me nostalgic for the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo’s of years gone by, as I began to remember what it feels like to give myself over to storytelling that draws blood from the psyche and savors in its seamlessly tangled webs.