Bernardo Atxaga,
El Hijo del Acordeonista
(The Accordionist's Son)

(Alfaguara, 2004)

With this novel, Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga has written his most wide-ranging, penetrating and important work of fiction to date, and perhaps Atxaga's most personally revealing work as well.

Atxaga is the most internationally famous Basque-language writer ever. As far as Basques writing in any language all time, he ranks -- with Unamuno, Pio Baroja and Laxalt -- at the very top.

The author of the acclaimed Obabakoak has returned to his fictional town of Obaba. (The name Obaba comes from the name of the sound a Basque baby makes -- as explained in an essay by the exile writer Joseba Sarrionandia.) But instead of the sketches and dark visions of that book, he gives us the full reality of a Basque village in the post-Spanish civil war period. The narrative is a much more straightforward tale of coming of age in a divided land.

While in Obabakoak, politics is so far below the surface as to be invisible or at least allegorical, his two short novels (known in English as "The Lone Man" and "The Lone Woman)" are overtly about politics. In El Hijo del Acordeonista, the politics works at both a symbolic level and at the level of the action.

This is the story of David Imaz, a member of the author's own generation in an Obaba very much like Asteasu, the village where the author was born and raised. David's story is told in reverse. His friend Joseba, attending David's funeral in California, where David lived at the end of his young life, introduces him to the reader.

The perspective soon switches to David's. He looks back to his teenage years in Obaba, his coming of age and his political awakening. David is implicated on both sides. His father the accordionist who perhaps committed atrocities during the civil war or, at least, had close friends who collaborated with the fascists -- and profited from the war. But David's other friends and family are staunch Basque patriots.

David's friends include not only the middle-class youths he goes to school with but also the peasants and woodsmen that are his neighbors in the nearby village of Iruain where his mother grew up and where he spends his spare time.

When David plays the accordion in the Hotel Alaska, owned by fascist-friendly friends of his father's, he is betraying his friends, yet by not doing so, he also puts himself in danger. The boxer Paulino Uzcudun (the Basque former European champ who collaborated with Franco) makes an appearance in the village, but David absents himself from the ceremony, hiding out in a secret crawl space in his house, a hiding spot that is almost a character in the novel.

Another central character is the butterfly, flitting in and out of so many scenes. Are David's new friends really teachers, collecting butterflies?

The two worlds -- the two Obabas -- the middle-class world and the world of the peasant families; the Spanish town and the hidden Basque town, move together and move apart through the action of the novel.

David discovers the nation within a nation, found within the Basque village of the Franco era. Basque communities only existed in shadowy form for Atxaga's/David's generation, but it was his generation that fought and engineered the defeat of the last fascist regime in Europe.

The war touched every community in Spain, particularly in the Basque country because of the severe repression afterwards.

David's generation lived the Basque spring of the 1960s. The repression began to lift somewhat, due to international pressure. But Spain remained a dictatorship until the late 1970s. The Basque Country still, in the time of the action of the novel and today, lives the consequences of that war and repression. As Joseba says, the dictator lifted a wrecking ball, but now that wrecking ball is out of control.

In one scene, David and Joseba admire the sequoias in California. David admires a tree that has stood for 3,000 years, withstanding storms, and other perils: "blessed is the endurance of the trees," he thinks. It is unstated, but reminds me, and probably other readers, that the Basque tree of Gernika withstood even the withering Nazi bombardment, just as the Basques survived Franco. It takes the perspective of 3,000 years to know that no storm or flood can wash away the deep roots, of a tree or a people.

In his realistic storytelling technique and the wide sweep of his narrative, Atxaga's style is reminiscent of the great Basque writer Pio Baroja y Nessi (Hemingway's favourite writer), and in particular of Baroja's novel Las Inquietudes de Shanti Andia. It is a novel that lives with the reader, with characters that are fully formed and robust.

Atxaga, unlike so many of today's writers, does not exploit a situation, he does not milk tragedy, sex, disaster, death, etc., but lets the events speak for themselves. That's not to say there are no poignant descriptive passages. But still, it's a light touch reminiscent of an Alice Munro or Wendell Berry, rather than a writer like Mario Vargas Llosa who never stints on the grisly details.

Originally written in Basque, this fine and important novel awaits translation into English at this writing, but based on Atxaga's record this should be simply a matter of months. Regardless, it is an enjoyable and engrossing read.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 22 January 2005

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