With its cynical riffing on teleological history and the futility of utopianism, The Fallen evokes the postmodernist-influenced intellectual landscape of the 1990s. It feels a bit old hat, but not entirely devoid of contemporary resonance. The character of Armando – the stolid old-timer who insists on framing material problems as moral ones – is a universal archetype. When he remarks that “the hardest times are those when no-one wants to do anything, times marked by a crisis of values, a spiritual simple-mindedness, too little determination”, the sentiment feels eerily familiar. In the UK, the rhetoric of mettle and resilience has been a mainstay of the political right in recent years, from David Cameron’s Big Society to the deprivations of austerity and the bluster of “no-deal” Brexiteers. Sometimes a dose of cynicism is exactly what’s needed.
In chapters which alternate between the perspectives of the four family members, Álvarez slowly and cleverly builds up a picture of a family unit on the brink of collapse. To begin with, it seems as if Armando and his clan are simply facing the kinds of challenges – health scares, financial worries – that might affect families anywhere. As the author adds additional layers of detail to his portrait of them, however, it becomes clear that there are much more serious issues rotting their relationships from the inside out... Although there are moments of delicious dark humour – the passage, for example, about certain neighbourhoods of Havana being allocated one telephone and one television, and families competing to prove themselves the most worthy recipients – The Fallen is, in the end, tragic, and surprisingly so, since for much its length the full facts of Armando’s situation are far from clear.
Álvarez does a neat job in this very short but nutritious novel of establishing the personalities of his characters firmly enough that it comes as a real shock when he upends our expectations of how they might behave. They all have secrets, and when family relations are further frazzled by a series of anonymous phone calls of almost supernatural sinisterness (in a way that recalls Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori), they start to spill. The implication is that there is a disconnect between the people they are and the people they would have been if they hadn’t had to live through hardship. But there is also a sense that history with a capital H is only part of the problem; here is a family that would in any case have found, pace Tolstoy, its own way of being unhappy.