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The age-old siege mentality

THE LONE MAN by Bernardo Atxaga trs Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill Press pounds 15.99/pounds 9.99
The Place is a hotel somewhere in Catalonia hemmed by thick woodlands and a deep pond. The time-span covers five interminable days, during which a pair of fleeing terrorists are holed up in the cellar, surrounded by police spies masquerading as television journalists. The cast further includes the hotel staff, former ETA activists to a man, simultaneously engaged in laundering bank-raided money and in mounting a front to cover their subversive past and the oppressive present.

The guests include a Polish football team over to play in the 1982 Barcelona World Cup, a double-dealing interpreter who wishes to trade paste for emerald earrings, and a child who gives the game away. The lone man is Carlos, whose hotel becomes the safe house, and whose struggle now includes the attempt to make sense of his own terrorist past in the light of Spain's fascist legacy.

The plot, though intricate, is never more than the vehicle for this extraordinary book's particular focus. It's a tribute to the quality of the writing that politics and philosophy - how we live and how we die - become the real business of a police thriller.

The debate between collective rights and individual freedoms is a tension at the heart of every political movement, and the choice at the heart of every tragedy. Atxaga admits he was reading Antigone as he began The Lone Man. Like Carlos, Antigone can only obey or betray, knowing the price of her choice is death. Either she obeys the law, abandoning her brother's body beyond the city walls, or she demonstrates a loyalty beyond that to the state which has declared him a traitor, and affords him an honourable burial. Carlos's fraternity is the Basque Independence Movement, to which he owes an inheritance as inalienable as that of his beloved mountains, and whose ransom is also in corpses.

Atxaga carefully plays with past and present tenses in his writing, emphasising the ancient undertow of his tale with references to the deep spring that wells up beneath the waterhole where Carlos swims. Memory revises the past in the present, at once reverting to organic impulses and projecting them into a fresh reality. Only the child Pascal (who calls himself Peter Pan and who therefore has no memory) can betray, and does so in all innocence. Revolution functions as a mirage and an illusion, in the sense both of its mythic dimension and its capacity for inspiration, while the post- Franco era shows its most brutal and reactionary face in dealing with Basque suspects.

Atxaga told me: "I was born in the Basque country and when I was 15 I learned of a policeman killed by a member of a Basque revolutionary group. The next day that member was killed by the police. This is the book's starting point, but it is also today's reality." The event in his memory took place a decade before Franco's death; two decades afterwards, a news story breaks of government-backed mercenaries operating in hit squads to liquidate Basque separatists. Cultural identity is now a more fashionable field than revolutionary politics, but Atxaga's fictitious reality blends the two.

It is already a political choice that Atxaga writes in his native Basque and refuses to translate his own work into Castilian. Margaret Jull Costa has here done him proud in the unusual task of working from a non-original text.

Following the success of his mythic Obabakoak (which won both national and European literary prizes) and of Memories of a Cow (a fable for children), Atxaga has again drawn deeply and creatively on his roots. And again he has proved himself among the most versatile, riveting, gifted and - unexpectedly - lyrical of contemporary authors.