Víctor del Árbol is an award-winning Spanish author whose novels are best-sellers overseas. He’s described as a notable voice in Spanish literature, and yet here in the States he’s little known. A Million Drops is his third novel to be translated into English, The Sadness of the Samurai published in 2012 and The Heart Tastes Bitter in 2016. Born in Barcelona in 1968, del Árbol served as an officer of the Catalan police force from 1992 to 2012, which is experience I’m guessing has much to do with his talent as a crime writer.
That said, A Million Drops is much more than a crime novel, capturing the nature of human evil with such finely tuned psychological precision we are less horrified about the darkly motivated characters and more understanding of how evil took hold of them. They have lived the atrocities of history’s past, notably Stalin’s Reign of Terror and Spain’s Civil War. Their damaged souls forget the torture and terror, but they cannot stop how it drives them, including how it affects the lives of their children.
Gonzalo Gil is the central character, a mild-mannered civil attorney in a marriage held together by pretense and lies. His assistant Luisa provides moments of humor with her sarcastic comments and dry wit. Indeed, despite her few appearances, she’s the most likable character in the book, along with Gonzalo. Daily life changes drastically for the middle-aged attorney when he looks into the reason for his sister’s suicide. He learns she took her life after being accused of brutally killing a Russian mafia boss as payback for the kidnapping and murder of her six-year-old son. Laura is a deputy inspector working a case that got too close to mafia business; and yet, Gonzalo doesn’t believe Laura capable of murder, even though evidence clearly points to her. He gets the case reopened based on information secretly delivered to him, generating dangerous complications.
As this highly charged novel opens with these dark crimes, del Árbol develops another powerful story line about Gonzalo and Laura’s father, Elías Gil. He’s a hero of the Franco resistance who disappears under strange circumstances in 1967, when they were children. As an engineering student in 1933, Elías travels to the Soviet Union to work on Stalin’s great renewal of Moscow’s infrastructure, but his casual behavior gets him arrested by the secret police and deported to the Siberian Gulag, specifically the infamous Nazino Island. Here Elías experiences the depths of depravity at the hands of a monster named Igor Stern. For the rest of his life, Elías must face the incomparable Stern, whose tentacles in the Soviet communist party reach far and refuse to let go of the one man he couldn’t break in the Gulag. Elías also is forever haunted by the woman he fell in love with at Nazino and her daughter.
This is an intense, complex page-turner, where new variables continually present, surprising us right up to the end. The novel’s a bit over-written with lengthy descriptions, but del Árbol keeps us riveted, as he masterfully weaves together the lives of his entangled characters and the secrets everyone keeps from one another. Laura’s suicide takes place in 2002, but the why of her son’s kidnapping and murder is rooted in Elías’s past. “It all starts with something simple. The first drop to fall starts breaking down the stone, right?” That’s a casual comment made by a minor character, and yet it perfectly describes the intricate layers of evidence that unfurl in this intoxicating novel about survival and the magnitude of human evil.
A Million Drops by Víctor del Árbol is published by Other Press and translated from the Spanish by Lisa Dillman.