The Accordionist’s Son

For Basques, language is a crucial issue. Only slightly more than a million people in the world speak Euskera, their embattled tongue, a language related to no other in existence, and thought by linguists to prove that the Basques descended from the earliest settlers of the European Continent. Basques have weathered history by striking a variety of bargains with governing powers of Rome, France, and Spain, who have allowed them a measure of independence without granting them autonomy. In the 20th century, however, Basque nationalism began to rise, and in 1952, the separatist group Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, or ETA, formed — beginning as an intellectual enterprise and then morphing into a terrorist organization notorious for bombing a supermarket in Barcelona, among other atrocities. Despite their militancy, they refused to define Basque-ness through racial characteristics, choosing instead to set the bar at fluency in Euskera. Of course, this is not a particularly low bar, given the language’s unique difficulties.

Because of the region’s political history, Basque things tend to have several names — Basque and Spanish names for cities can differ radically; for example, in Euskera the city of San Sebastián is known as Donostia. The double naming apparently holds true for their novelists as well, at least the one who goes by Bernardo Atxaga, a native of Gipuzkoa whose real name is Jose Irazu Garmendia — the nom de plume he adopted to avoid persecution from supporters of dictator Francisco Franco, who during his reign attempted to suppress Basque culture and wipe out the language. Since Atxaga tends to write in Euskera, his novel comes to us doubly translated: Atxaga’s 2003 novel Soinujolearen Semea was renamed El hijo del acordeonista when translated into Spanish by Atxaga and Asun Garikano; English speakers will know it as The Accordionist’s Son.

The doubling doesn’t stop there — far from it. Complicated, playful, and maybe too plainspoken as translated by Margaret Jull Costa, the sprawling epic concerns a Basque activist named David Imaz, from Atxaga’s imaginary town of Obaba, who lives in exile in California and dies leaving an unfinished memoir behind — written in Euskera. His wife, an American named Mary Ann, gives the manuscript to José, one of David’s childhood friends, asking him to deliver a copy to Obaba’s library as per David’s wishes. She also wants José to describe it to her, as she does not speak Basque. Of the manuscript, José says, “Very interesting, very strange…. David was trying to tell everything, leaving no gaps; but some facts, which I knew first-hand…weren’t given the necessary emphasis.” In turn, José decides to write a book himself, “based on what David had written, to rewrite and expand his memoir?in the spirit of someone finding a tree, on which some long vanished shepherd had left a carving, and deciding to redraw the lines so that … time will so blur the difference between the old incisions and the new that eventually there’ll only be a single inscription on the bark.” Atxaga here refers to a tradition of Basque shepherds, who engrave mysterious images and symbols into aspen trees for the puzzlement of future generations, but he also gives us a ringing invocation of the book’s spirit.

The plot attempts to encompass nearly 50 years of David’s life, from 1957 to 1999, and quite unlike an American novelist might, Atxaga refrains from emphasizing the most sensational events and arranging them in a way that gathers momentum. We’re allowed to try on David’s life like one of those a red berets characteristic of Basque garb. The twin poles of the protagonist’s life include the moment when David’s friend and would-be paramour Teresa shows him a notebook in which someone, probably David’s father, has written a list of people who were later shot by the fascists, and David’s involvement with the Basque liberation movement in the late 1960s — which would later lead him into the arms of the more militant Basque nationalist movement.

These moments are not unrelated. The tension between the deeds and politics of David’s father and his own leftist activism gives the book much of its psychological power. If Atxaga means for this father/son duo to exemplify Spain’s national trauma in the second half of the 20th century, as well as the sense of the Basque dilemma, he has chosen well. And existing alongside the political elements of this filial relationship is a deceptively simple musical bond. In the same conversation in which David’s father first confesses to his misdeeds, he asks if his son will replace him as the accordionist at Obaba’s swanky Hotel Alaska, a Francoista hangout. David agrees, but his political beliefs gradually prove obstacles, in very unexpected ways.

A variety of absurd events pile up into horror: a group of terrorists posing as butterfly experts arrive in town to stay with David just as his irreverent group of friends concoct a silly pamphlet about the prettiest girls in the village. Someone shoves pepper into a donkey’s butt, and it goes on a rampage near the hotel. Yet in the paranoid atmosphere of Franco’s Spain, the country folks of Obaba interpret the pamphlet-and-donkey events as some kind of terrorist act, and this cluster of ridiculous happenings somehow gets one of David’s friends murdered. But this chain of events does not get the necessary emphasis, exactly, because it is packed in with so much other activity.

The connective tissue of the book consists of delightful details — David’s childhood turn as a stable boy, the rise of a local boxer to national fame, David’s affair with a local girl — that glance off the central political pillars of his life, enriching and complicating it, though sometimes without much payoff in the way of consequences. Nevertheless, Atxaga’s expansive vision and confidence in his Faulknerian village, (punctuated with Nabokovian butterfly references), can easily be felt through the gauzy effects of two translations. The tricks of the translator — who must add clarifications about language and such — are sometimes too obviously handled. But occasionally, Costa must leave a sentence in Euskera — Gu basoan hilko gaituk!* — and even without understanding its meaning, one can tell that in the translated text the music and rhythm of the original, the unusual sound of Euskera — “all those k’s and r’s,” as Mary Ann puts it — have been entirely lost. The best way to enjoy The Accordionist’s Son is probably to read it in the original — which is a lot to ask, given that it would be necessary to learn Basque. But at least by the nationalist’s rules, learning the language well enough makes you Basque. What other book has ever conferred honorary citizenship on its readers?

*We’ll die in the forest!