Author Gabriel Urza, whose family roots are Basque, lived in the Basque country himself for several years after college before returning to his birthplace in the U.S. to write and practice law, a background which gives this debut novel a sense of atmosphere, a feeling of strong roots, and a sense of the social and political vagaries which sometimes lead to crimes of passion and violence. To set the scene within Spain politically, the author opens and closes the novel with descriptions on a much broader scale – the 2004 bombing of the Atocha train station, outside of Madrid, which killed one hundred ninety-one people and wounded eighteen hundred, the deadliest terrorist attack in Spanish history. The novel, character driven, is told in the voices of three residents of Muriga – Joni Garrett, an elderly American who came to Muriga in 1948 to teach at a local school and never went home; Mariana Zelaia, widow of Jose Antonio Torres, a government official murdered six years before the bombing; and Iker Abarzuza, convicted of Jose Antonio’s murder when he was eighteen, a young man confined to the Salto del Negro Prison in the Canary Islands for the past six years. With his multiple points of view, well-drawn characters, shifting time frames, atmospheric style, and unusual historical perspective, Urza has developed a sensitive and often moving novel about a part of the world which is only now beginning to receive literary attention. Though the subject matter of the novel might have been treated sensationally, Urza wisely lets his story lines evolve subtly. The dramatic conclusion adds a stunning coda to the action.
Category Archive for 'Basque Country'
Author Bernardo Atxaga, whose previous works have been set in his native Basque country in Spain, provides only basic information about the rule of King Leopold II and Belgium’s Force Publique in the Congo in 1903. Spending little time on the grand scale of the atrocities this group committed historically against the native population, he focuses instead on the behavior of the individual officers of one small garrison in Yangambi as they conduct their daily lives. This creates a unique narrative in which the author explores what happens when there are, essentially, no limits on what individuals may do to keep themselves entertained – life is truly a “jungle.” By creating Chrysostrome Liege, a young soldier who is both naïve and timid, Atxaga also creates scenes in which Chrysostrome’s reactions set the behaviors of the others into sharp relief. He has no sense of being part of the group and no apparent need to become part of it, and since he also has no feeling for irony or absurdity, even in circumstances in which the ironies and absurdities are patently obvious, the reader is alternately horrified by some of the officers’ activities and somewhat nonplussed by Chrysostrome’s apparent attitude of being above it all. As one of the officers notes, “I’ve no idea whether he’ll be a good soldier or a bad one, but he’ll certainly be a miserable one. As miserable as a mandrill.”
The Spanish Civil War (1936 – 1939), with its terrible effects on residents of the Basque country, was a complex and brutal war in which soldiers, sometimes neighbors, often found themselves fighting for different sides. Author Manuel de Lope, who grew up in Burgos, not far from the Basque Country, obviously knows the landscape and the culture well, describing the overwhelming beauty of the land and mountains with an obvious love of nature, and the characters in his story with understanding and affection. Not a traditional war story, the author focuses instead on three characters who, though affected by the war in terrible ways, are peripheral to that bloody action—Maria Antonia Etxarri, the daughter of a former innkeeper from a nearby town; Dr. Felix Castro, a young, crippled doctor; and Isabel Cruces Herraiz, the bride (and soon widow) of a young officer, all living in the village of Hondarribia. Miguel Goitia, a young law student studying for his exams, arrives at Las Cruces sixty-five years after the Civil War, and stays in the inn which was once the home of his grandmother, Isabel Herraiz, becoming the catalyst for the novel.
Last week, if someone had told me that I’d be able to take only one book of short stories with me on a long trip to a desert island, I’d have looked first at all the powerful and intriguing stories by Andre Dubus II. Then I’d have thought about the stories of John Updike, another favorite story writer, pausing for a long time over the volume which contains “Pigeon Feathers,” one of my favorite stories. Today, however, I’d be gravitating toward this book, completely different from any collection of stories I’ve ever read, a volume containing so much variety and color in its subject matter, so many overlapping themes, such strange and ultimately intriguing characters (who peek in at various points throughout the book and revisit us in new stories throughout), and so much fascinating discussion about the nature of stories and story-writing that ultimately, I’d probably choose this one for the island trip. The Dubus and Updike collections are among the best in the world, but on my desert island I think I’d want the stimulation, excitement, humor, uniqueness, and, especially, the sense of wonder that are all contained in this one volume.
In September, 1957, Joseba, the speaker who opens the novel, and his friend David Imaz are both eight years old when they introduce themselves to the new teacher at their Basque school in Obaba, near Guernica, Spain. David, sometimes called “the accordionist’s son,” is, like his father, an accordionist–an “artist” at his craft–and almost instantly, he finds himself perched on top of a desk, playing for his delighted class. Forty-two years later, the accordion is put away, and Joseba is visiting David’s widow, not in Basque country, but at Stoneham Ranch in Three Rivers, California, where David’s uncle once lived. Joseba, a published author who also participated in the events in Obaba with David, discovers when he reads David’s book that “events and facts have all been crammed” into the book, “like anchovies in a glass jar.” He suggests to Mary Ann that he rewrite the book, expanding David’s memoir and setting the record straight, promising that “any lines I add…must be true to the original.” Mary Ann agrees, and three years later Joseba has completed the book which becomes the text of this novel. (On my Favorites List for 2009)