Saturday, July 04, 2009

Review: Bernardo Atxaga's "The Accordionist’s Son"

Ray Taras, who covers contemporary world literature for the blog, reviews Bernardo Atxaga's The Accordionist’s Son (Graywolf Press, 2009):
This ambitious novel paints a broad canvas of social and political life in the Basque Country. Centered on the obscure village of Obaba, we are introduced to the cleavages that have scarred Basque society for three-quarters of a century. The Spanish Civil War polarized Obabans as General Franco’s forces moved in: “The first thing the forces opposed to the Republic did when they ‘liberated’ a village was to bring in a priest to celebrate mass in the church, as if they were afraid that, under the Republicans, the devil had established himself there” (188). Right-wing Catholic extremists, like the Navarrese integristas who “liberated” Obaba, were brutal. But Falangists were the most feared of all. Inevitably, collaborators were found to be introduced into their ranks. One of them is the narrator’s father.

David, who had moved from Obaba to a ranch in California as a young man, returns to his native village to discover the controversial figure that his father had represented. Which people had Ángel, the Christian name David uses without affection to refer to his Dad, betrayed to the fascists? Was he implicated in the first killings of a group of villagers? Had he shot a horse adored by the youth of the area in order to spite a man he did not like? The verdict is clear to David but he is emotionally torn whether to embrace it. Just as he is torn whether to replace his father as the accordionist at village fêtes, which would turn him into a public symbol of acquiescence to the village authorities and the contemptible Guardia Civil.

David’s role model is Uncle Juan who, by contrast, stands as a symbol of Basque anti-fascist resistance. The tender portrayal of their long relationship, especially poignant since Juan is not David’s real uncle, is arguably the romantic centerpiece of this novel. Because of his politics, Juan becomes David’s figurative father.

David is infatuated with a series of village girls, who figure among the subjects of a shortlist he draws up, together with friends, identifying the area’s five top beauty queens. The extended account of young men in a bar over a long night making the case for ranking the doctor’s or farmer’s daughter --replete with comparisons of the most striking physical attributes of each-- on this list can make for tedious reading. To be sure, female interests that David has while away at university are condemned to only passing mention. The callousness towards the women of his youth stands in sharp relief to the male bonding that permeates David’s adolescence.

There is more to this narrative than we anticipate. Circulating copies among villagers over the next few days of the beauty queen list appears downright crude. But in a subterfuge way, the story of this list serves Atxaga’s literary purpose. When some time later ETA (“Basque Homeland and Freedom”) leaflets are distributed in the area, the Guardia’s suspicions immediately fall on the boorish young men. Were they not, perhaps, carrying out a trial run of colportage of political literature with the Obaba beauty queens’ list?

There is much subtlety in the author’s narrative structure, as there is to his politics. Atxaga is aware that Euskadi independence is not exactly an international cause célèbre to rival Tibet. Bilbao, where nearly half of all Basques live, does not have the cachet, or economic might, of Barcelona, capital of Catalonia. So he does not proselytize for the Basque independence movement but, instead, is content to reveal its inner struggles (the hardcore ideologue on the farm across the border in France), its devoted adherents (Papi), its twisted betrayals (as on the train carrying David and two companions to a mission in Barcelona), and its often tragic outcomes (Lubis’ death).

If Atxaga has made any inroads in attracting sympathy for the Basque cause, it is in tantalizing the reader with the Basque language. There are just enough Basque phrases—and a whole lot of Basque names for the different species of butterflies found in the region—to pique our interest. Euskalerriko Tximeletak?—“Butterflies and Moths of the Basque Country.” Music to Nabokov’s ears.

In some measure the author raises awareness of the Basque diaspora in the United States, too. David meets his future wife in Sausalito, but Basques have generally preferred life in the open spaces of California and the Intermountain West, above all Idaho. Boise and Gernica (Basque spelling), where one of the novel’s protagonists lost family in the 1937 Luftwaffe bombing, are twin cities.

It takes a village to populate The Accordionist’s Son. The Basque village is Axtaga’s idyllic model. It spawns a lengthy list of characters. Some of them leave more profound marks on David--and Obaba (though the egalitarian Axtaga would dispute this)--than others. The author’s most admirable achievement is his political restraint. He subordinates the significance of Basque politics to that of the Basque people.
--Ray Taras
Ray Taras is a visiting scholar at Stanford University. His many books include the recently released Europe Old and New: Transnationalism, Belonging, Xenophobia and Understanding Ethnic Conflict, 4th edition.

He has reviewed the following fiction for the blog:
Elina Hirvonen's When I Forgot
Joseph Boyden's Through Black Spruce
Per Petterson's To Siberia
Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger
Per Petterson's Out Stealing Horses
M.G. Vassanji's The Assassin's Song
3 Works by Dorota Masłowska
Andreï Makine's L’amour humain
Michel Houellebecq's The Possibility of an Island
Emmanuel Dongala's Johnny Mad Dog
Amitav Ghosh's The Hungry Tide

--Marshal Zeringue