Bernardo Atxaga,
The Lone Man
(Harvill, 1996)

In this "literary thriller," the Basque country's best-known fiction writer, Bernardo Atxaga, explores the psychological and political landscape of Spain during the delicate and uneasy transition from dictatorship to democracy.

During the Franco dictatorship in Spain (1939-75), the suppression of the Basque language and Basque laws and the lack of democratic alternatives gave rise to groups generally known as ETA -- or, in this book, "the organization." When Franco died, Spain gradually converted to a democracy. Basque political prisoners were amnestied, but old wounds did not heal quickly.

Atxaga sets this novel among a group of Basque ex-prisoners, now operating a hotel in Barcelona, during the 1982 World Cup. This small group has renounced the armed struggle. But the cycle of conflict continues as the main character, Carlos, does one last job for the organization, hiding a man and a woman who are on the run from the authorities. Complicating matters, the hotel is crawling with police, ostensibly protecting the Polish soccer team staying at the hotel.

Atxaga works from inside the head of Carlos, increasing the tension page-by-page as the police get closer and closer to the truth. He explores Carlos's relationships with his fellow ex-prisoners, Guiomar and Ugarte, as the plot moves forward. There are also the families, girlfriends, staff, the Polish team and various hangers-on. The police are on to Carlos, he knows they know, but there is no proof. Who was the informer? Will Carlos get "Jon" and "Jone" out of the hotel bakery where they are hiding, without being caught?

A lot of other questions remain unanswered. Why can't Carlos return to the Basque lands? Why did he have to commit his brother, Kropotky, to a mental institution? Will his former comrades -- now business partners -- denounce him?

The Lone Man, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, draws the reader ever deeper into the web of Carlos's thoughts, the voices inside his head, his loves and his paranoia, all while exploring the complex psyche of the Basque exile -- someone whose past won't let go.

While Jull Costa's translation (from the Spanish: the original was written in Basque) is good, she occasionally uses British colloquialisms, which might slow down an American reader. Otherwise, she maintains the rhythm and flow of an excellent novel (as she does in Atxaga's similarly themed follow-up novella, translated as The Lone Woman).

This novel is set in one specific time, yet this story is one that could take place anytime, anywhere. The elements of a great novel -- riveting plot, intimate character exploration, almost visible setting and life's great themes, all inhabit this fine novel in abundance.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 25 April 2004

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