Saturday, February 14, 2009

Bernardo Atxaga: The Accordionist’s Son

Jascha Hoffman reviews Bernardo Atxaga's "The Accordionist's Son"

The Basque novelist Bernardo At­xaga has spent his career moving between fairy tales and terrorism. His early works were set in the mythical Spanish town of Obaba, where birds, squirrels and snakes could speak. Later he turned out gritty novels about men and women backed into corners by their entanglement with the Basque separatist movement. These two worlds converge in "The Accordionist's Son," a sprawling novel about the legacy of civil war in Spain that borrows characters from Atxaga's previous works but does not have quite the same charm and power.

Stretching across most of the 20th century, the novel is framed as the memoir of David Imaz, a Basque exile. Dying on a ranch in Northern California in 1999, he steals away from his American family each night to document his early life in his native language. We learn he was raised in the peaceful town of Obaba, not far from Guernica, with only a dim awareness of the civil war that ended a decade before he was born. As a teenager he discovers a list of Republican sympathizers executed on behalf of the Franco regime in 1937. It is in his father's hand.

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