The Accordionist's Son by Bernardo Atxaga trans. Margaret Jull Costa

So green and so dark

Michael Eaude
Friday 01 February 2008 01:00 GMT

Bernardo Atxaga's imagination is rooted in the fictional village of Obaba. Bucolic though it is, with river, woods, butterflies and horses, Obaba is no pre-industrial paradise, but a place where the modern and rural worlds interact. The Accordionist's Son has a broad sweep, starting and ending in California, with its characters moving to and from Obaba and the Basque coastal cities of San Sebastiá*, Bilbao and Biarritz.

Atxaga, born in 1951, came to fame with Obabakoak (1988), a fresh voice in Basque and Spanish literature. The Lone Man, The Lone Woman and Two Brothers followed in the 1990s and are available in English. The Accordionist's Son, first published in the Basque language in 2003, is his most accomplished novel (the wonderful Obabakoak is more a collection of linked stories). It is also his most ambitious, as it embraces the history of the Basque Country from 1936 to 1999.

The novel works on at least three levels: as an adventure; as a public story about the history and politics of the Basque Country; and a personal dissection of shifting mood and feeling, with Atxaga's customary precision. It opens with the death of the protagonist, David, on his ranch in California. His wife Mary Ann and childhood friend Joseba talk in calm sadness about love, death and the past. Two of Atxaga's strengths are at once apparent: his fine storytelling, as he draws the reader expertly into David and Joseba's childhoods in Obaba, and the directness with which he talks about emotions. Subtleties of feeling about death and childhood are expressed in simple, elegant language.

Interest is maintained by adventure, with a lost diary and pistol, the promise of young love, a gun battle and a secret hiding-place. On another level, history intrudes on the adolescents' peaceful childhood. They discover that people were murdered when the village was taken by the fascists at the start of the Civil War in 1936. David's family is split. While his uncle is a Basque nationalist and anti-fascist, his father associates with the sinister hotel-owner known as "Berlino" because of his Nazi sympathies. David broods on his father's guilt.

Some of Atxaga's critics see his writing as Manichean: his village (and implicitly the Basque Country) as a paradise of "happy peasants", only spoilt by the entry of fascist killers from Madrid. This is a serious misreading of a novel which achieves a multi-layered portrait of Obaba, beautiful but with internal conflicts. And, still less Manichean, the novel's triumph is to question the entire construction of romantic stories about the past.

Atxaga's political ambition is to explain the emergence of ETA, the Basque armed guerrilla movement still active nearly 50 years after its foundation. He shows how young people growing up under Francoism come to join or sympathise with the revolutionary movement of the late 1960s and 1970s. ETA attacks are seen by them as the recovery of Basque dignity. He shows, too, the personal cost of this commitment: in the death of David's closest friend, in betrayal and in the exile of so many Basques. The final 80 pages undercut any black-and-white view. This most delicate and personal of novels packs a powerful political message, but it's not at all the one you first expect. Indeed, Atxaga has a bleak side: despite the gentleness of his narrative voices, his characters tend to end up alone, betrayed or abandoned. He underlines how the stories we tell or what we read in books are prettier than in real life: from the early anecdote of Raquel Welch in the smallest bikini in America to the use of Spanish centralist and Basque nationalist myth to justify killing people.

Translator Margaret Jull Costa overcomes with fluency the hurdles of Atxaga's use of phrases in English and frequent references to Basque. Enter the magical world of Obaba, but be warned, its beauty is not the whole truth: "so green without, so dark within," as Don Pedro, one of the best of the book's many characters, observes.

Michael Eaude's 'Catalonia: a cultural history' is published by Signal
Harvill Secker £18.99 (391pp) £17.09 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

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