The statue on the cover of Learning to Lose is the Monument of the Fallen Angel, so appropriate for the characters in David Trueba's masterful novel. Set in present-day Madrid against the backdrop of professional soccer, it's the story of the many ways people lose parts of their lives. Sometimes tender, sometimes shocking, it's a vivid and powerful rendering of loss, lies and desire.
Sylvia Roque is about to turn 16, and as she sits in class ("a chorus of yawns"), she evaluates the boys around her, but none of them are what she desires, although she does desire something. "Desire works like the wind. Without any apparent effort... it declares that we are ready for desire and that we just have to wait, our sails unfurled, for the wind to blow. That is the desire to desire." Sylvia is waiting, and feels a breeze with Dani, so she invites him to a birthday party at her house, though there is no party--it's a ruse to be alone with him, to see what could happen.
Lorenzo, Sylvia's father, desires the life he lost when his wife left him and Paco, his former best friend and business partner, defrauded him. Lorenzo lost everything when Paco tricked him, and worse, stole his luck. The previous night, he killed Paco, but considers it an accident, a mistake fueled by a grudge. "Men shouldn't listen to their resentment; it gives them bad advice." But this accident is a strange one--why would he have worn boots two sizes too big to disguise his steps?
Leandro is Sylvia's grandfather and has been married to Aurora for 47 years. When she falls in the bathtub and is taken to the hospital, his life changes in more ways than he could have imagined. It starts with a glimpse of a nurse's bare legs and the beginning of a new desire. "No one ever suspects anything from a seventy-three-year-old man. Everyone knows that his steps lead nowhere." But in Leandro's case, they lead to a brothel, where he soon becomes obsessed with Osembe, a Nigerian prostitute.
We meet Ariel in the Madrid airport, saying goodbye to his older brother, Charlie, who has blotted his copy book badly enough to be sent home. Ariel is trying not to cry--he's only a boy, a 20-year-old Argentinian soccer player newly signed by Madrid, who brought Charlie with him to help with problems and to make decisions. Charlie selected Ariel's Porsche Carrera--"On this team, you have to earn your spot even in the stadium parking lot." Ariel has been playing soccer professionally since he was 17, and was carefully nurtured by his soccer teacher, who kept him away from "[Argentina's] sick obsession with finding a new Maradona." In Argentina, the fans' expectations "kill you as fast as a dagger." He desires to prove himself in Madrid, but the fans are just as fickle. Even when he plays well, people whistle because he's too artistic.
Sunday night, after Sylvia's abortive birthday party, after Ariel sees his brother off, Sylvia and Ariel meet on a dark Madrid street--specifically, her body meets his Porsche. Her leg is broken in three places, and the stage is set for a complex dance of desires and longing for connection.
After Ariel visits Sylvia in the hospital, they begin a wary friendship. He's cautious because she's underage, Sylvia is cautious because she thinks he's just being friendly, while she is quickly falling in love. Though he's only four years older than Sylvia, "to Ariel the difference seemed insurmountable. He remembered a teammate telling him soccer players are like dogs, at thirty we're ancient." As their relationship deepens, Sylvia is worried, too, but "the car that four months ago had run her down was now the car she didn't want to get out of, whose appearance in the traffic circle around the Cibeles fountain she celebrated with a marked increase in her pulse." Their liaison is a time-bomb, like the potential explosion of Lorenzo's life, or Leandro's.
In the meantime, Lorenzo tries to find a job while talking to the police about Paco's murder, which is assumed to be the work of Colombian gangs. Leandro continues to see Osembe, and in two visits he's used up his entire retirement check. He tells himself this will end, it doesn't make any sense; he tries to abstain, but finally Leandro sees his situation as a chosen downfall, an obsessive descent that deserved no mercy. He was "old friends with remorse."
Lies fill the story, from Sylvia's small lies to her father about study dates when she's seeing Ariel, to Leandro's simple lies to the bank to explain his monetary needs, to Lorenzo's facile lies to the police. Even Ariel's position on the soccer team is based on a lie about being part Italian in order subvert the European quota system. Everyone is leading a double life, particularly when sex in involved. It's always available for the soccer players and their entourages. A reporter says people fantasize that soccer players live it up as if they had three balls, and that fantasy appears to be true, but not just for soccer players: "In Spain, it seemed to be a tradition to close business deals with an invitation to a whorehouse." Now for Leandro, everything is sex. A gesture, a movement, the roundness of a saucepan, the underside of a spoon. And then there's Lorenzo's relationship with a Barbie doll.
While these people are trying to get a purchase on the steep slope of their lives, they can see what they are losing. Sylvia is often overcome with sadness at the irreconcilability of her affair with Ariel. Ariel continues to play badly, making no excuses for himself, still trying to find his footing, literally and figuratively. "Returning from defeat, alone with his music, he was afraid he was experiencing a slow, but uninterrupted, fall from grace."
Director and screenwriter David Trueba's novel is written with a cinematic precision, and his prose is evocative and elegant. When Leandro places a record on the record player, there is an "initial frying sound." At a hospital, "nurses visit from the country of the sane and vital." Ariel and Sylvia talk one night, and the conversation "passed like a screen of rain between them." When things go well at a soccer match, "the condensed steam in the locker room, in the shower area, looks like heaven, the promised paradise." Moral degradation possesses "a hidden vertigo."
Trueba's love for Madrid and its people is clear; indeed, Madrid is almost a character in the book. But he also has acerbic things to say about Spain: "Spaniards don't go to shrinks, we get drunk in a bar, and all the barmen have psychiatric degrees from Gin and Tonic University." Leandro's friend says, "With the expulsion of the Jews, Spain makes its first formal declaration of mediocrity, officially becoming a despicable nation filled with complexes."
And about soccer: "The most profitable company in the world is the Catholic Church and then there's soccer. They both live off people with faith. Isn't it crazy?"
Soccer is the framework that Trueba uses to deal with fame, sex, politics, immigration, racism--the world, really. In soccer, there's no time for players to be sentimental or have inner lives; they save that for retirement. The team manager says the only contract is with the fans' enthusiasm, not really with the players. While watching a scoreless soccer game, the crowd becomes impatient, frustrated, indignant; they angrily watch Ariel--"Run, you shitty spic." They whistle and heckle him: "Go home, Indian, go home." When a Ghanaian player is in the game, the stadium fills with monkey shrieks. At home in Buenos Aires, the crowd cheered Ariel's name; in Madrid, the fans are cold and expectant, and the casual and accepted racism, provincialism and right-wing support are just part of the game.
The momentum in Learning to Lose grows slowly, but inexorably. What new humiliation awaits Leandro? What new heartbreak awaits Sylvia? The stories overlap, backtrack and expand--romantic, sad, tragic and often humorous, often in Sylvia's voice: "It's strange to be sitting inside this car. Although it's better than being plastered onto the windshield."
David Trueba explores "the gap between what one desires and what one can get, between what one is and what one wants to be," and does so brilliantly, with generosity and wisdom. Learning to Lose is irresistible.--Marilyn Dahl