Friday, January 11, 2008

Bernardo Atxaga: The Accordionist's Son

Ed King reviews Bernardo Atxaga's The Accordionist's Son.
The publication of his first novel, Obabakoak, in 1993 established Bernardo Atxaga as a literary voice of startling originality and a passionate guardian of Basque national memory. The traumatised characters that populate his novels have, for many, come to embody the open wounds of a community still trying to come to terms with its bloody past.

The Accordionist's Son, first published in Euskera (Basque) in 2003, is his most ambitious novel to date, encompassing a vast swath of Basque history from the Civil War of the 1930s through to the transition to democracy in 1976. But it's also Atxaga's most personal novel, a eulogy to the lost country of his youth and a moving defence of his role as a writer.

David Imaz, the book's protagonist, lives in self-imposed exile on a ranch in California. Feeling increasingly disconnected from his native Basque country, he decides to write a 'memorial' and trace the evolution of his life from his childhood in the repressive environment of post-war Spain to his decision to leave the country and never return.

His recollections pay particular attention to his political awakening, triggered by the discovery of his father's association with the Fascists during the Civil War. As David uncovers his father's dirty secrets, he grows increasingly politicised and eventually decides to abandon his village to take up the armed struggle for Basque autonomy.

David's yearning for the past is always described in terms of his relationship with his mother tongue and some of the most touching moments in the novel are his laments over the disappearance of his language. When he senses words passing into obsolescence, David mourns their death like cherished friends, burying them next to his family members on the ranch.

But this isn't just nostalgia. For Atxaga, language is always political. When Franco's troops try to stamp out Basque nationalism in David's village, one of the first measures they take is to ban the speaking, learning and writing of Euskera. (Writing in Euskera was still illegal when Atxaga started publishing in the 1970s.)

When David is caught reading a volume of Basque poems it is viewed as subversion and it's ultimately as a defence of his language and culture that he justifies his role in the terrorist organisation ETA.

But this isn't just a portrait of a terrorist as a young man, much less a defence of Basque nationalism. Atxaga's great strength is his talent for conveying in such simple terms the moral complexity of his characters.

As the complex web of David's regrets and longings slowly unravels, the novel conjures a compelling image of a man trapped by the horrors of his past.

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