Monday, January 14, 2008

Bernado Atxaga: The Accordionist's Son

Nick Caistor reviews Bernado Atxaga's The Accordionist's Son.
The Basques have a word for it. That word is usually unpronounceable and unconnected to any other European language, reflecting the uniqueness of the history of that troubled, distinctive northern corner of Spain. In The Accordionist's Son , one of these words is zulo, here translated as "hiding-place". Over the 60-year period that the novel covers, from the 1930s to the 1990s, this zulo is used for many different purposes, all of them essential to the lived history of the village of Obaba in the heart of the Basque country.
During the civil war in the 30s, "the American" who owns a hotel coveted by the Francoists is hidden there before he succeeds in escaping over the border to France and eventually makes it back to the United States. In the 60s, the novel's protagonist David Imaz spends hours in its dark well as he makes his silent protest at being forced to play his accordion at the inauguration of a monument being erected for only one side of those who fought in the civil war. And in the 70s, when a new Spain and a new Basque country are struggling to emerge as the Franco regime crumbles, the zulo is given a more sinister function: it is used as a prison where the groups fighting for Basque independence keep the people they have kidnapped and are holding to ransom. Beyond this, Bernardo Atxaga suggests, the zulo is a symbol of the state of mind of the Basques themselves: the dark, hidden place where their complex identity is forged and from which they often only reluctantly emerge.

The novel begins and ends far from Obaba. Like many Basques, the Imaz family have been forced to emigrate. For reasons that become clear only later, David has gone to join his Uncle Juan in California. The opening centres on David's death and the arrival of Joseba, his closest friend from the Basque country, to attend his funeral. David's American widow Mary Ann presents Joseba with her husband's long memoir about his life before emigration and his explanation of how he arrived in California, and it is this memoir that constitutes the bulk of The Accordionist's Son. Born in the 50s, David finds himself surrounded by adults who bear the scars of a war he did not participate in and whose meaning he only gradually comes to understand. As he does so, he realises not only that his father Angel (the accordionist) was on Franco's side, but that he could have been directly responsible for the deaths of seven people in their home village of Obaba. Growing to manhood, David rejects his father's view of the world, with its illusion of progress and attraction to the sophistication of life beyond the village. He himself is far more drawn to the countryside, to horses, the forests surrounding the green valleys, his "peasant" friends, Joseba and local girls, the link with the land and the sensual pleasures of being immersed in still unspoilt nature.

Despite this, David accepts the need to go away to university to study. There in the early 70s he meets fellow students who are much more politically aware than he is. They do not simply feel nostalgia for the village life of the Basque country - they see it as somewhere that has always suffered at the hands of the Spanish, with Franco as simply the most recent manifestation of this oppression. They are determined to take advantage of his disappearance to win independence at last. Almost without realising it, David and Joseba find themselves drawn into this movement, until at the climax of the book they are faced with the choice between espousing violence to win freedom and accepting that yet again others will decide their future for them - in many ways the same choice as that faced by their parents' generation.

In all his work, Atxaga delves into the impact of the political on individual lives. What is most moving in The Accordionist's Son is the push and counter-push of these pressures on a believable individual (and Margaret Jull Costa's elegant and unfussy translation gives us a clear view of him in English) as he contends with the weight of history and a sense of belonging, and assesses his possibilities for action.

The conclusion to the novel is in many ways a sombre one. David rejects using violent means to preserve his garden of Eden, and in so doing is expelled far from it, to a 21st century in which Basque shepherds tend their sheep in the parks of San Francisco. Escape from the zulo can only come at a huge cost.




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