Who says the protagonist of a novel has to be “likable” in order for the novel to be enjoyable? Javier, the protagonist of this short but disturbing novel, isn’t very likable. He’s cynical, nihilistic, and vindictive, though at times he does show a more softer side. However, we are introduced to him as he’s driving to work on one of those Mondays all nine-to-fivers hate. As he gripes about the coming work day (while listening to Judas Priest on high volume), he accidentally rear ends a young woman’s car in front of him. A momentary lapse which only furthers his frustrations for a Monday morning he already despises. The woman in front of him — Sonsoles — is livid, insulting Javier for his incompetence and an argument ensues. Javier reveals to the reader his hatred for Sonsoles, based purely on her class: she’s driving a convertible, her appearance indicating wealth. Not that Sonsoles is a nice woman herself. The two bicker back and forth as the policeman takes down their information and soon both are on their way. However the incident sticks in Javier’s craw, a slow burn. He decides he’s going to spend the rest of the summer making Sonsoles’s life a living hell.
It begins innocently enough with a few harmless prank phone calls but it soon escalates. It isn’t long before he’s stalking her around Madrid. It is during one of these stalking sessions where he sees Sonsoles pick up a beautiful teenage girl in front of a school who he initially mistakes for Sonsoles’s daughter. After more prank phone calls he soon learns that the teenage girl, Rosana, is Sonsoles’s younger sister. Her appearance in the story unlocks Javier’s most base instincts and he soon finds himself on a path which could only lead to trouble. How can one unfortunate incident and one man’s bad choices lead to such tragic consequences? Javier’s vindictiveness, cynicism and nihilism pushes him further down this dangerous path as he begins to court Rosana, feeling himself weakening in her presence, pursuing the young Rosana. What exactly does he hope to gain by this?
Putting himself in the place of the Bolshevik hired to kill the Grand Duchess Olga (one of the last Tsar’s daughters; a photo of which Javier keeps on his desk at home), he ruminates on how he could understand how the Bolshevik fell in love with her before having to kill her and it forces Javier to confront his own most primitive instincts. Pursuing this impossible affair, he struggles with his inner conflict as well as the frustrations of the middle-aged man in a contemporary consumerist society. Economics and class surrounds nearly everything, from the type of cars people drive, the clothes they wear, the type of schools they attend, the careers they have.
Javier feels like a “have not”, despite his office job at a bank, and as he begins to relate to the Bolshevik who was tasked with the deed of killing the Grand Duchess Olga, an unexpected twist occurs which will alter his life forever, a twist that occurs just when Javier begins to come to his senses. It’s a highly suspenseful novel and a devastating critique on the modern work place and the values of a materialist, capitalist society, where more often than not a man’s worth is measured by what he has (or doesn’t have).
Translated from the Spanish by Nick Caistor and Isabelle Kaufeler