When commenting on his massive CIA novel, ‘Harlot’s Ghost’, Norman Mailer once remarked: “It is a fictional CIA and its only real existence is in my mind…If I have an argument to make then, on grounds of verisimilitude I will claim that my imaginative CIA is as real or more real than nearly all the lived-in ones.”
This typically confident Mailerian claim came to mind recently when I read ‘Patria’, Fernando Aramburu’s novel about two families affected by Eta’s terrorist violence in the Basque Country. There are so many different experiences of Euskadi’s decades of violence, how do you go about writing a novel based on them?
Aramburu’s approach was to write a 600-page, multi-viewpoint story which leaps around chronologically and seeks to represent those on both ‘sides’ of the Basque conflict. The narrative centrepiece is Eta’s murder of el Txato, a businessman whom the terrorist group has harassed for months, above all with threatening graffiti, as punishment for not paying them extortion fees. His death is revealed early on in the novel and its details gradually emerge as the incident is revisited again and again.
But it is the emotional and social fallout from this death that interest Aramburu, with the members of el Txato’s family all dealing with the loss in different ways. After a while, his widow, Bittori, starts spending more time back in the village where the crime took place, unsettling her former neighbours who are in thrall to Eta’s silent tyranny. Their son, Xabier, is overwhelmed by the death which compromises his life and happiness for years afterwards. Xabier’s sister, Nerea, meanwhile, does everything she can to avoid facing up to the fact her father has been murdered.
Yet ‘Patria’ also tells the story of a family from the other side of the divide. Miren and Joxian are a couple who were once close friends of the murdered man and his wife, but as soon as Eta starts to threaten el Txato, the relationship starts to cool until it is utterly broken by the murder. Miren becomes a convert to Eta’s cause, her conviction hardened by the fact that her son, Joxe Mari, has joined “the armed struggle” (and may have even played a part in el Txato’s death). Gorka, her bookish other son, tries to break free of the gravitational pull of Eta and its ideology, while her daughter, Arantxa, is disgusted by her brother’s involvement in the organisation.
Aramburu tells this story in a defiantly artless prose. Early on, a bus which has been set on fire by pro-Eta activists is described as “burning stoically” in the middle of the street. The phrase stands out partly because it works so well, but also because the author rarely employs such ambitiously precise imagery again over the following 550 pages. In fact, in one of several curious literary tics, he often seems so caught between two or more possible adjectives, nouns or verbs that he uses both or all, separating them with a slash and allowing the reader to decide which is the more appropriate. (“She listened and understood everything, and she remembered everything and wanted to speak/answer/protest/ask for something and she couldn’t.”) Often, a character’s voice fleetingly inhabits the third-person narration, sometimes convincingly but other times less so, before relinquishing it again.
While Aramburu’s use of language rarely captivates, his burning preoccupation is thematic: the absurdity of the years of violence, how they divided families, destroyed friendships and cowed many Basques into a labyrinth of hypocrisy. The dilemma el Txato faces once he becomes a target of Eta’s harassment, for no other reason than that he has a successful business, is terrifying. Not only is his life in danger but his friends and neighbours prefer to ostracise him rather than stand by him. It should be hard to believe that Bittori, the wife of a victim of terrorism, is virtually driven out of the town after her husband’s death, with the oleaginous local priest encouraging her to leave. But, sadly, that particular plot development passes Mailer’s verisimilitude test.
Similarly, Joxe Mari’s experiences as a young etarra are often evoked with cinematic clarity. On joining the group as a 19-year-old, he enters a world of safe houses, boredom, restlessness and rigid hierarchy. One of the novel’s most successful moments is when, after days of exhausting worry about being arrested, the police finally break into his flat.
But such action plays a relatively small part in ‘Patria’, which is dominated instead by family and small-town intrigue, and this tends to lack any such tension. Despite all the detail and baggage provided by Aramburu, there seems to be a vacuum at the heart of the novel where characters’ motivation ought to be. This is a major problem, for example, when it comes to Miren. Such an unremittingly caustic and dogmatic character needs some substance so that she can exist as a human rather than a mere hateful caricature. But we never see what lies beyond her awful façade nor what drives her hypocrisy and political extremism, beyond the fact her son is an etarra.
“Between that tea in the café on the Avenida and the next one in the churrería in the old town, my friend Miren changed,” Bittori explains, early on. “Suddenly she was another person. In a word, she had taken the side of her son….Until then, Miren had shown absolutely no interest in politics.”
Miren’s ideological transformation gets no more explanation or illustration than that. Nor do we get any understanding of how Joxe Mari became radicalised. When he or any of the other abertzale characters discuss their political ideas, they tend to sound like brainwashed half-wits, giving the novel a lop-sided feel, despite Aramburu’s apparent intention of providing a more rounded perspective.
I am fully aware that such reservations put me in a minority. ‘Patria’ has scooped a number of Spanish literary prizes and critics have heaped praise on it, with Mario Vargas Llosa comparing Aramburu to Joseph Conrad and André Malraux. A television series is now on the way (perhaps fittingly, given that the novel’s multi-perspective structure and bite-sized chapters seem almost custom-made for small-screen treatment). Yet I can’t help feeling that its success is due more to its politics – which is tilted firmly in favour of Eta’s victims and against Basque nationalism – and those of its cheerleaders than to literary merit. The story of both sides of the Basque conflict could make an extraordinary novel. One day, perhaps, someone will write it.
‘Patria’ by Fernando Aramburu is published in Spanish by Tusquets and in English as ‘Homeland’ by Picador.