Friday, December 21, 2007

Atxaga Translated

This note appeared at the Telegraph:

Uncle Juan's horse and the rich Fascist's daughter

Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 22/12/2007

David Flusfeder reviews The Accordionist's Son by Bernado Atxaga, tr by Margaret Jull Costa

Bernardo Atxaga's leisurely novel is a rare thing in our literary culture. Look around a bookshop's tables of fiction and you will see very few translated books; maybe a couple of contemporary novels from France, a few reissued classics from Russia and Germany and South America. The rest will be British and American.

Bernardo Atxaga is a Basque novelist, writing in a language that has fewer than a million speakers, and yet whose work has commanded an international audience.

The Accordionist's Son begins with the untimely death of its hero and supposed author, David Imaz, on his ranch in California, a long way from his home in the Basque village of Obaba. In the introduction we are told that David's book will be "very interesting, very dense…events and facts have all been crammed in like anchovies in a glass jar". In fact - and this is both the book's weakness and its strength - it reads like a slowly unfolding memoir.

We are moved back in time, first into the romance of how David and his (American) wife met and fell in love, and then to his 1960s boyhood in Obaba, where he did the sorts of things that boys do everywhere: flirting, fighting, squabbling with his father and falling in love.

But this is Franco's Spain, where the men with power in the village, including David's father, Angel, are those who fought or conspired for the winning side in the Civil War. Before we can approach these unpleasant truths, though, we pass several seasons in the life of the village, where things pass slowly.

The most remarkable events are David's expulsion from school, after being caught with a pornographic magazine that belongs to his friend Martin (who will later become a cocaine-tooting nightclub entrepreneur and boxing promoter); his hiding of his Uncle Juan's horse so that the rich Fascist's daughter will be unable to buy it; and his love affairs.

The most poignant of these is his afternoon of love in room 27 of the Hotel Alaska with Martin's sister, the lame Theresa. She has always loved him, while he has always loved the virginal Virginia, who is engaged to a sailor who will later be lost at sea.

In defiance of Chekhov's maxim that a pistol introduced in Act 1 must always be fired in Act 3, Theresa's pocket revolver is introduced with no greater shock ensuing than the death of a sparrow.

But there have been human deaths: the village was ripped apart in the Civil War, with Uncle Juan on the Republican side and Angel the accordionist implicated in the murders of Republican sympathisers. (Moral value here is generally equated with which side a character supported, or would have, in the Civil War.)

And the boy David, the reluctant accordionist and 1960s adolescent, becomes obsessed with disinterring the truths of the village's past.

The surface of village life is finally lifted, and we are thrust into murder and conspiracy in the story of Don Pedro "The American" (a Leftist villager so-called because he once lived in Canada), who had been chosen for death but managed to get away.

By the end of the novel, subtly, with the reader almost being unaware of the process taking place, we are in tune with the lost rhythms of Basque rural life and able to begin to comprehend a world that supported both communal village traditions and the atrocity of Guernica.

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