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.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week