Saturday, April 18, 2009

Bernardo Atxaga's "The Accordionist's Son": Book Review

This novel joins two Basque eras of conflict-- the Spanish Civil War and the ETA struggle-- by a triple narrative. Translated from Basque into first Spanish and then English, the tone seems diffused and distant. It's both evocative and muted, qualities that may or may not have been in the original Euskara.

Distance suffuses this story, told by Joseba about his childhood friend David. They both wind up in California, and David's premature death leads Joseba to translate David's self-published memoir into English for David's wife and children. Along the way, the novel includes its most gripping part, the centerpiece story "Obaba's First American," about Don Pedro, who hid Juan, David's uncle, from the Fascist forces who overran their Basque village. We learn later why David left the Basque country to come to his Central California ranch, and in the near present, why Joseba also left their native place of Obaba to stay with David's family.

In turn, the story shifts from the mid-1930s to the 1960s, when the Basque nationalists began to dare to take on the Franco dictatorship. We learn such crucially telling details as the prohibition of the Basque language even on gravestones, of the illegality of a Basque-Spanish dictionary, and of the suppression by the Church as well as the State following the defeat of those who opposed the Spanish rule after the Thirties. We also see the rebirth of resistance from the end of the Sixties onward.

However, the tales that David tells through Joseba ramble. Lots of characters and flirtations and relatives flit in and out, but few characters stand out. They blur together too much, amidst a surprisingly understated landscape. There's little of the memorable descriptions that would make the power of these events stick. It's all rather interesting, but sameness accumulates for long stretches. The tone's affable, but too much of David's growing up in a modernizing era lacks the freshness we'd expect.

I did appreciate the momentary nod to how language changes our perceptions: the peasants never talked about paranoia or neuroticism; they'd be happy or unhappy; similarly, the force of hearing "privitization" or "imperialism" for the first time in the countercultural undercurrent diminishes in time into tired cant. The feel of the novel is one of intense surges fizzling out over time's humdrum routine.

The best section, the "First American" part, proves the summit of Atxaga's skill. It moves with a vigor lacking in much of what surrounds it. Joseba very late seems to acknowledge the disparity between David's more stolid tellings and his own "improvements" in the framing device that holds down the central portions and links to the more fictional retellings (it gets a bit complex, no surprise given his previous novel of interlinked stories in a magic realist kaleidoscope, "Obabakoak").

I think that Joseba's coming-of-age story, so closely chronological with Atxaga's own date of birth, may have dragged the novel down into too many semi- autobiographical correspondences that may be more vivid in Euskara (or even Spanish) than in English. We get embedded transcriptions of the Basque within the story, as if explanations must interrupt the original, and these do push the reader away from the events a bit.

Atxaga through both tellers does, still, leap away from the more mundane recital in his reversion near the end to three "confessions" of three ETA-type (the affiliation appears to be deliberately muddled) comrades arrested by the Spanish for "terrorism." As in the "Deck of Cards" intermission, the dramatically and eloquently conveyed registers of Joseba's voice retell David's memories in a markedly more engrossing style. I understand what Atxaga in these moments breaks through three languages and three levels of discourse to show us, but it's a lot of effort for the reader to get to these moments of true literary power.

Yet, this may be Atxaga's hard-won lesson for readers used to less effort to capture the truth on the page that witnesses to the emotion felt by those for whom the Basque homeland was more than a place erased from the Spanish (or French) map. He helps us realize the intensity for which a few of his countrymen and women have for so long kept alive an utterly unique way of expression in a Europe that the Basque people have occupied longer than anyone else on the continent. For this exposure, it's worth the languors of much of the story. As in hiking up a dull scree to a dazzling vista on top of the mountain, one must put in the discipline for a glimpse at a culture so rarely seen, the chance to eavesdrop on the only surviving pre-Indo-European language and to see its words in print. This sight brings its own reward.

(Posted to Amazon US today. I use the British cover for readabilty; the American version is more artistic, but like the novel, too intricate to make out details from afar very easily!)

1 comment:

Carrie said...

I read his The Lone Man - enjoyed it; about some former ETA prisoners and some current on the runs, there was a lamentary rumination that was familiar to it (in the failed revolutionary sense). Will have to pick this up too.