Saturday, July 18, 2015

Fiction | Finding Identity in a War-Torn Spain

I recognized it too: it was Virginia's dog. "Haven't you got old, Oki!" I exclaimed. When I looked at the hills, time seemed not to have passed; when I looked at my mother or my face in the mirror, it seemed to be passing only slowly; but the message written on the dog left no room for illusions. Time was inflicting terrible damage, it was destroying life.

The Accordionist's Son by Bernardo Atxaga is my translated pick for the Read Harder Challenge. The author was born in the Basque country and continues to write in his native language. Though I am familiar with its designation as a language, I don't know much about what "Basque" actually entails, geographically, culturally, or linguistically. From what I can gather, it is a rural language unrelated to neighboring Spanish or French. It is technically defined as an ethnic group, existing as regions in a handful of countries. Politically, they seem to enjoy some level of autonomy in their home countries, though, without going into extensive research, I get the sense it's a history peppered with frequent conflict surrounding political rights and cultural identities.

Anyway, back to the book.

It's 1999, and a fifty-something-year-old Joseba is recalling the first day of school back in 1957 when his friend David, the accordionist's son, is corralled by the new teacher into playing a tune during introductions. David, though, is now dead, and his wife Mary Ann presents Joseba with a small book written by David in his native Basque language—his memoirs, published with a 3-copy print run. Once Joseba reads it, these stories and memories of their native land, he is inspired to write his own book based on David's words, rewritten and expanded. It's a project born of love and shared experience, and especially the need to bring these stories to light, freed from the constraints of a dying language.

David's memoirs begin with his adolescence in Obaba, a rural village in Spain that, in the 1960s and 1970s, felt other-wordly; it had not yet caught up with the modernization of the rest of the country and rest of the world. David had a penchant for the rural life—a life of land and animals. It conflicted with the life being forced upon him—school in the city with other local boys, accordion lessons to preserve traditions. He much prefers life with rural friends and the horses at the country house often inhabited by his uncle Juan.

This escape to the country mirrors David's escape from the conflicts of real life, of the knowledge and realism that comes with growing up. It gets harder to ignore as he gets older, and in his later adolescence, David finds himself drawn into the residual conflict from the Spanish Civil War. Their town is very near Guernica, and the death and destruction that happened there is a memory still fresh on the minds of the locals. When a friend shares some found letters that involve David's father and his dubious role in the war, David struggles with the idea that his father was, and remains, one of the bad guys, causing the loss of innocence that he so desperately longs for. Once his eyes are open to the presence of these political sides—the us vs. them, or good vs. bad—still present in his community, it's all David can see, all he can think about. This intoxication leads him to declare allies and enemies and guides his actions and decisions that ultimately define his entire young adult life.

It is an interesting concept and structure—an individual's memoir written with another person's words. We have no way of knowing the "true" David, or how much of himself Joseba inserted in David's original stories. We can only rely on the words we can see and must trust that Joseba remained true to David's original work and voice. The book's actual author, Atxaga, depends greatly on environment to define his characters—landscape, history, individual experience. Much of the growth we see in David is dependent on his interaction with others, but not just those isolated interactions—how they connect to the larger world, informing or enlightening. The plot itself goes in unexpected places, though I'm not sure I could define any expectations I had in the first place. Though it certainly has a specific historical presence, grounded in the conflict and aftermath of the Spanish Civil War, I think it's ultimately the story of what shaped this one man, the things that defined him and constructed his identity.

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