The Accordionist's Son

The Accordionist's Son

by Bernardo Atxaga

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The Accordionist's Son by Bernardo Atxaga:

"The most accomplished novel to date by an internationally celebrated writers" (Bookforum), now in paperback.

David Imaz has spent many years living in exile in California, far from his native Basque Country. Nearing fifty and in failing health, he begins to write the story of his youth, a

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The Accordionist's Son by Bernardo Atxaga:

"The most accomplished novel to date by an internationally celebrated writers" (Bookforum), now in paperback.

David Imaz has spent many years living in exile in California, far from his native Basque Country. Nearing fifty and in failing health, he begins to write the story of his youth, a sweeping narrative that spans 1936 to 1999. As a young man, David divides his time between his uncle's ranch and his life in the village of Obaba, where he practices the accordion at his father's insistence— all in the shadow of the Spanish Civil War. Letters found in a hotel attic, along with a silver pistol, lead David to unravel his family's involvement in both sides of the conflict.

Editorial Reviews

Annie Proulx
The Accordionist's Son at first beguiles us with its leisurely flow like a late summer river, but it is a dark river with streaks of blood seeping from the muddy banks of the past. The undercurrents of class divisions, very personal politics, and the sins of the fathers pull us deeper. It is a disturbing story about good and evil embedded in the struggle to save a language and a culture, a struggle that metamorphoses into terrorism.
Mark Kurlansky
Rare for our times, Bernardo Atxaga is the most important writer in the history of an ancient language. His love of words and gift for storytelling reveal the Basque language as nuanced and expressive, and The Accordionist's Son, so full of human foibles and insights, may be his best work to date.
Publishers Weekly

Axtaga returns to Obaba, the fictional village at the heart of his acclaimed novel Obabakoak, to tell a gorgeous and ambitious story about the Basque land and language. Much of the book is set in the 1960s, when David Imaz, the teenage son of an accordionist, begins to suspect his father participated in the execution of villagers accused of being Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. Twenty-five years after the war officially ended, political-even inadvertently political-choices remain deadly, but fear of Franco's civil guard neither darkens the innocence or exuberance of the young nor lightens the guilt of their parents. In Obaba, grudges and friendships are long-lasting and deep, and secrets are buried only shallowly. The narrative moves back and forth through time, from the 1990s, when gravely ill David reflects on his life from a ranch in California, to the war in the 1930s and through David's sometimes dangerous coming-of-age up through the 1970s. Originally written in Basque (and later translated into Spanish), the novel is a worthy addition to both Axtaga's body of work and the Basque canon. (Feb.)

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Library Journal

This important novel from Atxaga (The Lone Man) about the still unresolved struggle for Basque cultural independence is both epic and intimate. Covering several decades and including a vast cast of well-drawn characters, the story focuses on David Imaz and the development of his political conscience. Growing up in the Basque village of Obaba, David spends much of his adolescence caught between the traditional peasant life of the workers on his mother's family estate and the more modern life of his school friends. When he learns of his father's past activities in support of the fascist government, David continues to sit on the fence until events touch too close to home. Along with a political story that will be new to many readers, this book also offers a universal coming-of-age story about friends, family, first (and second and third) love, and finding one's own path. Recommended for academic and public libraries.
—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman

James Hannaham
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 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! (We'll die in the forest!) -- 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? --James Hannaham

James Hannaham, a staff writer at Salon, also contributes to the Village Voice and teaches writing at the Pratt Institute. His first novel is forthcoming from McSweeney's Books in 2009.

A brilliantly inventive writer . . . Terribly moving and wildly funny.

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Product Details

Graywolf Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)

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By Bernardo Atxaga
Graywolf Press
Copyright © 2003

Bernardo Atxaga
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-1-55597-517-3


It was the first day of term at school in Obaba. The new teacher was walking from desk to desk holding the register in her hand. "And what's your name?" she asked when she came to me. "José," I replied, "but everyone calls me Joseba." "Very good." The teacher then addressed the boy sharing my desk, the last member of the class left to ask: "And what's your name?" The boy replied, imitating my way of speaking: "I'm David, but everyone calls me the accordionist's son." Our classmates, boys and girls of eight or nine, greeted his answer with giggles. "So your father's an accordionist?" David nodded. "I love music," said the teacher. "One day, we must ask your father to visit the school and give us a little concert." She seemed very pleased, as if she'd just received a piece of wonderful news. "David can play the accordion too. He's an artist," I said. The teacher looked amazed: "Really?" David elbowed me in the ribs. "It's true," I said. "In fact, he's got his accordion over there by the door. After school, he usually goes and rehearses with his father." I had difficulty finishing my sentence because David was trying to cover my mouth with his hand. "Oh, but it would be lovely to hear some music!" exclaimed the teacher. "Why don't you play us something? I'd really like that."

As if her request filled him with sorrow, David slouched reluctantly over to the door to fetch his accordion. Meanwhile, the teacher had placed a chair on the main table in the classroom. "You'd be better up here, where everyone can see you," she said. Moments later, David was, indeed, up there, sitting on the chair and holding the accordion ready to start playing. Everyone began to clap. "What are you going to play for us?" asked the teacher. "'Padam Padam,'" I called out, anticipating David's reply. It was the song my friend knew best, the one he'd practiced most often because it was a compulsory piece that all accordionists had to play in the local competitions. David couldn't help but smile. He enjoyed being the school champion, especially in front of all the girls. "Attention, everyone," said the teacher, like a master of ceremonies. "We're going to end our first class with a little music. I'd just like to say that you seem very nice, hardworking children. I'm sure we're going to get on well and that you're going to learn a lot." She gestured to David, and the notes of the song-"Padam Padam"-filled the classroom. Beside the blackboard, the leaf on the calendar showed that it was September 1957.

Forty-two years later, in September 1999, David was dead, and I was standing by his grave along with his wife, Mary Ann, in the cemetery belonging to Stoneham Ranch, in Three Rivers, California. Opposite us, a man was busy carving the epitaph that was to appear on the gravestone in three different languages, English, Basque, and Spanish: "He was never closer to paradise than when he lived on this ranch." It was the beginning of the funeral oration that David himself had written before he died and which, in its entirety, read:

"He was never closer to paradise than when he lived on this ranch, so much so that he found it difficult to believe that life could possibly be any better in heaven. It was hard for him to leave his wife, Mary Ann, and his two daughters, Liz and Sara, but, when he left, he had just the tiny necessary sliver of hope to ask God to take him up into heaven and place him alongside his uncle Juan and his mother Carmen, and alongside the friends he once had in Obaba."

"Do you need any help?" Mary Ann asked the man carving the gravestone, shifting into English from the Spanish we normally spoke together. The man made a gesture with his hand and asked her to wait. "Hold on," he said.

There were two other graves in the cemetery. In the first lay David's uncle-Juan Imaz. Obaba 1916-Stoneham Ranch 1992. "I could have done with two lives, but I only had one"; in the second, the first owner of the ranch-Henry Johnson, 1890-1965. Then, in one corner, there were three more tiny graves, like toy graves. They belonged, as David had explained to me on one of our walks, to Tommy, Jimmy, and Ronnie, his daughters' three hamsters.

"It was David's idea," explained Mary Ann. "He told the girls that their pets would sleep sweetly beneath the soft earth, and they accepted this gladly and felt greatly consoled. However, shortly after that, the juicer broke, and Liz, who must have been six at the time, insisted on burying that too. Then it was the turn of a plastic duck that got burned when it fell on the barbecue. Later, it was a music box that had stopped working. It took us a while to realize that the girls, especially the little one, Sara, were breaking their toys on purpose. That was when David invented the business about words. I'm not sure if he talked to you about that or not." "I don't think he did," I said. "Well, they started to bury words." "Which words do you mean?" "Your words, words from your language. Did he really not tell you?" I assured her again that he hadn't. "I thought you talked about everything on those walks of yours," smiled Mary Ann. "We talked about things that happened in our youth," I said. "As well as about the two of you and your idyll in San Francisco."

I'd been at Stoneham for nearly a month, and my conversations with David would have filled many tapes. Except that there were no recordings. There were no documents. There were only traces, the words that my memory had managed to retain.

Mary Ann looked down toward the banks of the Kaweah, the river that flows through the ranch, where, in a field of green grass, five or six horses grazed among granite rocks. "It's true about our idyll in San Francisco," she said. "We met while we were both on holiday there." She was wearing a denim shirt and a straw hat to protect her from the sun. She was still a young woman. "I know how you met," I said. "You showed me the photos." "Oh yes, of course, I forgot." She wasn't looking at me. She was looking at the river, at the horses.

He was never closer to paradise than when he lived on this ranch. The man carving the stone came over to us carrying the piece of paper on which we'd written the epitaph in three languages. "It's a strange language this," he said, pointing to the lines in Basque, "but kind of beautiful too." He pointed at one of the words; he didn't like it, he wanted to know if there was another better word that could replace it. "You mean rantxo?" The man put his finger to his ear. "Yeah, it doesn't sound good," he said. I looked at Mary Ann. "If you can think of a better one, go ahead. David wouldn't have minded." I racked my brain. "I don't know, perhaps ..." and I wrote abeletxe on the piece of paper, a word which the dictionaries translate as "fold or shelter for cattle, separate from the farmhouse." The man muttered something I couldn't understand. "He thinks it's too long," Mary Ann explained. "He says it's got two more letters than rantxo and that there's barely enough room on the gravestone as it is." "I'd leave it as it is," I said. "Rantxo, it is then," said Mary Ann. The man shrugged and returned to his work.

The path that connected the stables and the houses that made up the ranch passed by the cemetery too. First came the houses of the Mexican ranch hands, then the house that had belonged to Juan, David's uncle, and where I was staying; and finally, higher up, on the top of a small hill, the house where my friend had lived with Mary Ann for fifteen years; the house where Liz and Sara had been born.

Mary Ann left the cemetery and went out on to the path. "It's supper time, and I don't want to leave Rosario on her own," she said. "It takes more than one person to get the girls to turn off the TV and sit down at the table." Rosario, along with her husband, Efraín, the ranch foreman, was the person Mary Ann depended on for nearly everything. "You can stay here a while, if you like," she said when she saw I was about to follow her. "Why don't you dig up one of those words? They're behind the hamsters' graves, in matchboxes." "I don't know if I ought to," I murmured doubtfully. "As I said before, David never spoke to me about them." "He was probably afraid of looking ridiculous," she said, "but there was no reason to. He invented the game so that Liz and Sara would learn something of your language." "In that case, then, I will. Although I still feel like a bit of an intruder." "I wouldn't worry. He used to say you were the only friend he had left on the other side of the world." "We were like brothers," I said. "He didn't deserve to die at fifty," she said. "It was a dirty trick." "Yes, a very dirty trick indeed." The man carving the gravestone looked up. "Are you leaving?" he asked. "No, not yet," I replied and went back into the cemetery.

I found the first box of matches behind Ronnie's grave. It was in a pretty bad state, but the tiny roll of paper it contained was perfectly preserved. I read the word David had written on it in black ink: mitxirrika. It was the word used in Obaba to mean "butterfly." I opened another box. The roll of paper contained a whole sentence: Elurra mara-mara ari du. It was what people in Obaba said when it was snowing softly.

Liz and Sara had finished supper, and Mary Ann and I were sitting outside on the porch. The view was really beautiful: the houses of Three Rivers nestled beneath enormous trees, for the road to Sequoia National Park ran parallel to the river. On the flatter ground, I could see vineyard upon vineyard, lemon grove upon lemon grove. The sun was gradually setting, lingering on the hills surrounding Lake Kaweah.

I could see it with pristine clarity, just as you can when the wind blows the atmosphere clean and everything seems newly minted. Except that there was no wind, and my perceptions had nothing to do with reality. It was all because of David and my memories, because I was thinking about him, about my friend. David would never see this view again: the hills, the fields, the houses. Nor would the songs of the birds around the ranch reach his ears. His hands would never again feel the warmth of the wooden boards on the porch after a day of sun. For a moment, I imagined myself in his place, as if I were the one who had died, and I felt the awfulness of that loss even more keenly. I couldn't have been more affected if a great crack had suddenly opened up in the earth, swallowing fields and houses and threatening the ranch itself. I understood then, only in a different sense, what is meant by the words: "Life is the greatest thing there is, whoever loses life loses everything."

We heard a whistle. One of the Mexican ranch hands-wearing a cowboy hat-was trying to move the horses away from the riverbank. Immediately afterward, however, everything fell silent again. The birds stopped singing. Below, cars with their headlights on were driving along the road to Sequoia National Park, filling the landscape with bright red splotch and lines. The day was drawing to a close, and the valley was at peace. My friend David was now sleeping forever. Accompanying him in that sleep were Juan, his uncle, and Henry Johnson, the ranch's first owner.

Mary Ann lit a cigarette. "Mom, don't smoke!" shouted Liz, leaning out of the window. "It's one of my last ones. Don't worry, I'll keep my promise," replied Mary Ann. "What's the word for 'butterfly' in Basque?" I asked the girl. From inside the house came the voice of Sara, her younger sister: "Mitxirrika." Liz shouted: "Hush up, silly!" Mary Ann sighed. "Her father's death has affected her a lot. Sara's coping better. She hasn't really grasped yet what his death means." There was the sound of neighing and another whistle from the Mexican ranch hand in the cowboy hat.

Mary Ann stubbed out her cigarette and started rummaging around in the drawer of a small table on the porch. "Did he ever show you this?" she asked. She was holding a letter-sized book of about two hundred beautifully bound pages. "It's the edition the friends of the Three Rivers Book Club were preparing," she said, a half smile on her lips. "It had a print run of three. One for Liz and Sara, one for the library in Obaba, and a third copy for the friends of the club who helped publish it." I couldn't suppress a look of surprise. I didn't know anything about this either. Mary Ann leafed through the pages. "David used to say jokingly that three copies were three too many, and that he felt a complete fraud. He said he should have followed Virgil's example and asked his friends to burn the original."

The book had a dark blue cover. The title was in gold. At the top was his name, David Imaz-using only his mother's maiden name-and, in the middle, the title in Basque: Soinujolearen semea-The Accordionist's Son. The spine was made of black cloth and there was no lettering on it at all.

Mary Ann pointed at the title. "Needless to say the gold lettering wasn't his idea. When he saw it for the first time, he clutched his head and again quoted Virgil and said what a fraud he felt." "I don't know what to say. I'm really surprised," I said, examining the book. "I asked him several times to show it to you," she explained. "After all, you were his friend from Obaba, the person who would present the copy to the library in the village where he was born. He kept promising he would, but only later, when you were getting on the plane to go home. He didn't want you to feel obliged to offer an opinion." Mary Ann paused before continuing. "And maybe that's why he wrote it in a language I can't understand. So as not to put me in an awkward position either." The half smile returned to her lips, but this time it was sadder. I got to my feet and paced up and down the porch. I found it hard to remain seated, hard to know what to say. "I'll take the copy to the library in Obaba," I said at last. "But first, I'll read it and write you a letter giving my impressions."

There were now three ranch hands rounding up the horses by the riverbank. They seemed to be in a good mood. They were laughing loudly and pretending to fight, swatting each other with their hats. Inside the house, someone turned on the TV.

"He'd been toying with the idea of writing a book for ages," said Mary Ann. "Probably ever since he arrived in America, because I remember him mentioning it to me in San Francisco, the first time we went out together. But he didn't do anything about it until the day we went to see the carvings made by the Basque shepherds in Humboldt County. You know about those carvings, don't you? They're figures and inscriptions carved with knives on tree trunks." I did know about them. I'd seen a program on the amerikanoak, the Basques in America, on Basque TV. "At first," she went on, "David was really happy, and all he talked about was what those inscriptions meant, about the need every human being has to leave his or her mark, to say 'I was here.' Suddenly, though, he changed his mind. He'd just spotted something on one of the trees which he found really disturbing. There were two figures. He told me they were two boxers and that one of them was a Basque and that he hated him. I can't remember his name right now." Mary Ann closed her eyes and searched her memory. "Wait a moment," she said, standing up. "I've been sorting through his things and I think I know now where I can find the photo we took of that tree. I'll be right back."

It was getting dark, but there was still some light in the sky and a few clouds lit by the sun, small, round, pink clouds, like the little cotton wool balls you might use to plug your ears. Below the ranch, the trees and the granite rocks blurred into one, as if their shadows were all made of the same material, shadows that filled the riverbank, where there were now no more horses or ranch hands wearing cowboy hats. The loudest sound was the voice of a TV presenter describing a terrible fire near Stockton.

Mary Ann turned on the porch light and handed me a photograph of a tree trunk. It showed two figures with their fists raised as if squaring up to fight. The drawing was fairly crude, and time had so distorted the lines that they could have been two bears, but next to the figure, the shepherd had carved their names, along with the date of the fight and the city where it took place: "Paulino Uzcudun-Max Baer. 4-VII-1931. Reno."

"I'm not surprised David was upset," I said. "Paulino Uzcudun always sided with the Spanish fascists. He was one of those people who claimed that the Basques themselves had been responsible for destroying Guernica." Mary Ann watched me in silence. Then she told me what she remembered: "When we came back from Humboldt County, David showed me an old photo in which his father appeared along with that same boxer and with some other people. He said it had been taken on the day the sports ground in Obaba was formally opened. 'Who are these people?' I asked him. 'Some of them were murderers,' he said. I was surprised because that was the first time he'd ever spoken about anything like that. 'And who were the others? Thieves?' I said, half joking. 'Probably,' he said. The next day, when I came back from school, I found him in the study, setting out on his desk the files he'd brought with him to America. 'I've decided to make my own carving,' he said, by which he meant this book."

The porch light glinted on the gold letters of the cover. I opened the book and started leafing through it. It was in very small print, and almost every inch of the page was used. "What year was that? I mean the trip you made to see the carvings and when he started to write." "I was pregnant with Liz, so that's about fifteen years ago." "Did he take long to finish it?" "I'm not sure," said Mary Ann. She smiled again, as if amused by her own reply. "The only time I helped him with it was when I translated the story you heard the other day."


Excerpted from THE ACCORDIONIST'S SON by Bernardo Atxaga Copyright © 2003 by Bernardo Atxaga. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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