Juan José Millás’s Desde la sombra (From the Shadow) is a short novel, not yet translated into English, about alienation, loneliness, voyeurism, and the power of fantasy to transform claustrophobic, humdrum lives. Written by one of Spain’s most original and important authors and set in contemporary Madrid, Desde la sombra invites us to connect its outlandish flights of fancy to current events in Spain. But it also highlights the limits of allegory for understanding the relationship between literature and politics.
In one of the many imaginary television interviews the novel’s antihero, Damián Lobo, engages in to give meaning to an otherwise colorless life, he recalls an episode from his childhood: “I must have been six or seven,” he tells the host of the show, “when I opened the oven door in the kitchen of my house and discovered the head of a camel, with its eyes open, staring straight at me.”1 The audience laughs, and the interviewer asks why Damián opened the oven in the first place. Damián explains he kept his secret candy stash there, and the conversation moves on. The camel’s head is left unexplained—but the disturbing image lingers.
This fleeting intrusion of absurdity is a signature move in the work of Millás. Born in Valencia in 1946 but largely raised in Madrid, he published his first novel in 1975, the year Francisco Franco died and Spain began its transition to democracy. He broke through to a large public in the 1980s with El desorden de tu nombre (The Disorder of Your Name) and La soledad era esto (That Was Loneliness), and has since then held down a place in the country’s pantheon of living literary greats—on a par with Javier Marías or Almudena Grandes, and comparable to the place Ian McEwan or Hilary Mantel occupy in the United Kingdom.
When Damián recalls the episode of the camel’s head to the imaginary talk show host, he is actually hiding out in an antique armoire at a flea market in Madrid, in an attempt to escape from a security guard who’s just caught him stealing a golden tiepin. Damián is 43 and single, recently laid off after 25 years doing maintenance work for the same company. Strolling through the market stands, he pilfered the pin on a whim. Unable to get out of the armoire in time, he finds himself loaded onto a truck and ends up a stowaway in the suburban home of a middle-class couple and their teenage daughter. The armoire holds sentimental value for the woman of the house, Lucía, who, when she caught sight of it at the market, immediately recognized the piece as having previously belonged to her grandparents.
Damián, as resourceful as he is inert, sees no immediate reason to leave his new dwelling: while the family is gone for the day, he installs a door in the armoire’s back panel—he’s a handyman, after all—and moves into the existing wall closet blocked off by the family’s new purchase. There he survives for long months like a suburban, indoor Robinson Crusoe. As he loses weight and grows a beard, he turns into a kind of ghostly butler: a whimsical, live-in guardian angel who cleans the house, makes the beds, and keeps a watchful eye on his hosts. His stealthy interventions change their lives, and his lifelong fantasies of fame become real, or at least virtual, after he hacks into a household computer and becomes a blogging domestic ghost with a wide online following.
Millás’s latest highlights the limits of allegory for understanding the relationship between literature and politics.
Millás’s novel is entertaining and funny but also deeply unsettling. All the characters are estranged from themselves, one another, and the world. Damián is too creepy ever to become likable. What makes the text affecting nonetheless? Its ambiguity. Is this a timely allegory of life under advanced capitalism, filled with loneliness, layoffs, invisible labor, and a public hooked on spectacle? Some Spanish reviewers have made that case, but the text doesn’t quite fit this rigid allegorical mold. Damián is not a credible stand-in for the Spanish working class, for example, while the survivalist trope is unconvincing as a cipher for the economic crisis. Nor is this really a fantastic novel in the classical sense, although Damián spends most of his life in a fantasy world. Todorov famously defined the fantastic as the unresolved hesitation between the natural and the supernatural: the characters’ reality is ours; something strange happens that surprises or scares them; there may be a logical explanation, and yet it’s not clear that there is one. It’s this undecidedness that makes short stories by Borges or Cortázar—or Poe or Hoffmann—so uncanny. The strange bits of Desde la sombra, by contrast, don’t surprise Damián half as much as we think they should. In that sense, Millás owes more to García Márquez than to Cortázar.
Millás himself, in an interview on Spanish national television, called Desde la sombra his “most political book to date,” but it’s not immediately clear what exactly would make it so. Perhaps it is a matter of timing. When the novel appeared last April, Spain was in governmental limbo, getting ready to head to the polls for the second time in six months after elections the previous December had failed to yield a workable majority. The country is still struggling to dig itself out of the Great Recession, which several governments have tried—and failed—to weather through massive spending cuts affecting education, health care, and public services. Meanwhile, poverty, unemployment, and foreclosures have soared, while a growing segment of families try to survive on no income at all.
The economic crisis has led to a political one, as an increasing number of Spaniards—especially those under 35—have come to realize that the political structures set up after Franco’s death are no longer working, at least not for them. The country, they protest, has been controlled by economic, political, and cultural elites who benefit from a corrupt and anti-democratic system that leaves most of Spain’s citizens without resources or power. In early 2014, their indignation spawned Podemos, a new party founded on an anti-austerity, anti-corruption platform that has quickly risen to become the third largest in the country. In 2015, it formed progressive coalitions now governing the country’s largest cities, including Madrid and Barcelona.
The emergence of Podemos has revealed a deep generational chasm. In the December 2015 elections, the new party garnered more than half the votes of people under 35 but only 6 percent of those 65 and older. Podemos has been harshly critical of political and cultural elites from the generation that helped orchestrate the democratic transition in the 1970s. Many of these established figures, now in their 60s and 70s, have responded angrily and arrogantly to criticism, revealing just how out of touch they really are. Félix de Azúa, for example, a novelist two years Millás’s senior and a member of Spain’s Royal Academy, remarked in April last year that Ada Colau, Barcelona’s first female mayor, had no business running the Catalan capital. Instead, he said, she “should be working as a fish monger.”
Although Millás belongs to the generation of best-selling, media-savvy writers who became the country’s new literary establishment in the 1980s and ’90s, his attitude has been very different. Like many of his colleagues, he has long combined fiction writing with journalism, regularly addressing political and social concerns in his weekly column in El País. In the mid-1990s, he began criticizing politicians of his generation for selling out to neoliberalism. He welcomed the new political movements emerging in the wake of the 2008 crisis with genuine curiosity, filtered through a well-meaning, perceptive skepticism. In March 2016, for example, he published a long interview with one of Podemos’s founders in which he heard him out with interest while wondering aloud whether his self-confidence was genuine.
Throughout these political convulsions, Millás has kept up a steady defense of fiction and the literary imagination. “Literature is a mode of knowledge that’s no better or worse than any other,” he said in an interview. “Reading Madame Bovary leaves you wiser than you were before, although you might not be sure why.”2 This position, which Millás has held his whole adult life, now seems under threat from the right as much as the left. On the right, the logic of neoliberalism has pushed the humanities to the margins of education and public life. (“The knowledge one draws from literature is not quantifiable,” Millás said in the same interview; the problem, he added, is that we live “in a world where what’s not quantifiable doesn’t exist.”) The sheer urgency of the left’s struggle against that logic, on the other hand, seems to leave precious little room for non-goal-oriented free play and fantasy.
Seen from this standpoint, the value of Desde la sombra would be its resistance to being mobilized for an immediate political purpose, despite the fact that it clearly aspires to tell us something about the collective present. Millás makes a modest attempt to show that even though the imagination can be an escapist trap with no practical use, we cannot do without it. This position pays tribute to a very Spanish tradition, embodied by, among others, surrealists like Luis Buñuel, who prefaced his 1962 film, The Exterminating Angel—another claustrophobic allegory that turns middle-class comfort into a desert island—with the coy statement: “Maybe the explanation of [this film] is that, rationally, there is none.” Sometimes, a camel in the oven is just a camel in the oven, a sign of nothing more, and nothing less, than our imagination’s ability to exceed reality.