Part historical novel, part family saga, A Million Drops rockets between two eras: Europe and Russia in the 1930s and ’40s, and 21st-century Barcelona. Víctor del Árbol’s sweeping drama, ably translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman, alternates cinematically between these time periods to trace the life of Elías Gil, an idealistic young communist who gets swept into the nightmare of the gulag in 1933, and his son Gonazalo, a middling lawyer with a troubled marriage, 70 years later. Intersecting with historical events and figures, the chronicles of these men and the people they love, hurt, and combat paints a grim and harrowing but sadly recognizable picture of the past century.
The suicide of Gonzalo’s policewoman sister pitches him into a sea of violent troubles as the past claws forward into the present. A feud that reaches beyond the grave, a murdered little boy, a corrupt real estate deal, a missing laptop with crucial data, a sullen son with a dangerous secret, a mysterious beauty with a butterfly tattoo – Árbol brilliantly depicts Gonzalo’s hardened father’s hardened times and the lawyer’s softer but no less troubled present.
An excellent prestidigitator of perspective, Árbol gets into the minds of all his major characters, and minor ones too. For example, amid the horrors of the gulag Elías has a romance with Irina, the memory of whom haunts him and his descendants long afterward. But even though for most of the book Irina exists only as an avatar of memory, Árbol gives us her own recollections:
Something about him reminded her of her husband, a fact that scared and attracted her in equal measure. Silly idealists, capable of sacrificing everything over a question of pride. Men who seemed dry and brittle on the outside but were coursing rivers on the inside – edgy and rugged but also stubborn and hard to tame…The man was pure passion, which meant that he was free, because he feared nothing in life. Irina couldn’t forget the way he’d smiled in incredulity when they came for him, like he thought his detention was a joke.
Árbol has less of a knack for realistic dialogue. Characters often launch into expository narratives and sidle up with noirish one-liners rather than conversing naturally. Fortunately the tale has an epic grandeur that makes these speeches easier to swallow. Its momentum, its slowly unfolding revelations, and its verisimilitude minimize the stylistic distractions and keep the story pulling us along.
More important, those qualities make the violence and sadness endemic to the story tolerable and understandable. One gets the sense Árbol has gazed long and deeply into the human soul, found little redeeming there, and nonetheless felt compelled to lay it all out for us in glorious, sometimes gory detail. His characters experience love as deeply as it can feel in real life. Yet in this world, happy endings are elusive.
In another echo from the past, Gonzalo’s mother tells him of her relationship with the now long-dead Elías:
That private world of his – locked inside the shed, banging away on the old typewriter – belonged to Irina…their time together marked him forever and filled him with remorse and guilt and sadness that affected all of our lives. She was a presence that never left him, and I spent all those years fighting her tooth and nail, fighting a ghost that would reappear out of the blue and steal my husband, take him from my bed, snatch him from my hands, and there was nothing I could do but wait quietly for him to return.
As Gonzalo gets close to unraveling his sister’s death he confronts her ex-husband, who zeroes in on the novel’s fundamental point: “Wasn’t Laura fighting evil, writ large? And hoping, absurdly, to win? What she never understood is that you can’t defeat something that lives in every one of us.” It’s possible, though, to take a more forgiving view. Might not the evil and bitterness in the hearts of these gulag survivors have come, at least partly, from their scars, rather than arising fully formed from their essential natures? This novel’s foundational characters lived through traumas the likes of which most of us will never face.
With all that, I didn’t close the book with a feeling of despair. Around the edges of the ugliness, it delineates the characters’ thoughts and feelings with great sensitivity, leaving an impression of humanity’s admirable and moral aspects. Outcomes may not be what we wish, but as we lurch toward our fates we are capable, sometimes, of acting virtuously. Skillfully weaving minutely imagined personal stories into the wide sweep of history, A Million Drops withholds ultimate judgment. As Gonzalo’s mother, Esperanza, writes in a letter to her long-dead husband, “that’s what we always were: human. Not heroes, not villains. Just men and women. And we lived.”