Books: Roads to freedom

Ex-terrorists may give up the gun, but the cause won't let them go. Julian May takes a bus with the Basques; The Lone Woman by Bernardo Atxaga, tr. Margaret Jull Costa Harvill, pounds 9.99, 120pp

IN BERNARDO Atxaga's last novel, a veteran terrorist hung up his gun and balaclava after one last bank job, and devoted his life to bread- making. Then there was another atrocity and Carlos found himself hiding two fugitives in his bakery. The Lone Man explored the predicament of the freedom fighter of mature years: the Organisation doesn't hand out gold watches; you can't just retire from a culture of violence.

The title of this new book from Atxaga, the first writer in Basque to be published in English translation, suggests a similar preoccupation. Sure enough, Irene is a compromised ex-terrrorist. She has cut a deal with the state and been released after four years in a Barcelona prison. Atxaga deftly delineates the bleakness of her freedom: her family has rejected her; her lover, an activist with a different organisation, has been murdered, probably with the collusion of her own group, which is now suspicious of her. Before, she was a nurse; now she has no job. But she returns to the Basque country, and The Lone Woman recounts her journey to Bilbao by coach.

This proves to be a remarkably effective device. As the bus speeds through an unreachable landscape, there is no escape from other passengers: a large lady in the next seat who discusses her ailments, a hostess who refuses to switch off the soft-porn video that offends two nuns and, it becomes clear, a pair of special-branch men.

There is no escape either from the seediness of the journey save in reading and sleep. Three times Irene drifts off and dreams; of her lover doomed by the internecine complexity of the struggle for independence; of Margarita, a cell-mate, who counsels her to move away; of the nuns' hospice where she might find fulfilment as a nurse.

Irene rebuffs the handsome policeman's softly-softly attempts to recruit her as an informer, and suffers threats from his heavy sidekick. But with surprising courage and humanity, the large lady offers solace and the nuns protect her.

Irene's journey is from prison to freedom, from exile to home. To begin with she has no options, but by the time she gets off the bus in Bilbao, dodges the cops, her life is filled again with possibility. The fictional journey is almost always mythic, but in Atxaga's hands this ride becomes a psychological thriller reminiscent of Greene.

Atxaga's work is not restricted by the Basque experience. We never learn what Irene did;, ETA is not mentioned. This may be expedient, but it enables him to focus on the state of mind of the terrorist who wants to stop. Atxaga's story could be told in Ireland, Corsica or Kosovo. One only hopes that he will be read in such places.

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