Obabakoak: Stories from a Village

Obabakoak: Stories from a Village


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Obabakoak: Stories from a Village by Bernardo Atxaga

"A brilliantly inventive writer ... he understands the nature of storytelling and is at once terribly moving and wildy funny."—A.S. Byatt

Obabakoak is a shimmering, mercurial collection about life in Obaba, a remote, exotic Basque village. A schoolboy's miningengineer father tricks him into growing up, an unfortunate environmentalist rescues deceptively harmless lizards, and a rescue mission on a Swiss mountain-climbing expedition in Nepal turns into murder. Obaba is peopled with innocents and intellectuals, shepherds and schoolchildren, while everyone from a lovelorn schoolmistress to a cultured but self-hating dwarf wanders across the page. Hints of darker undercurrents mingle with moments of wry humor in this dazzling collage of stories, town gossip, diary excerpts, and literary theory, all held together by Bernardo Atxaga's distinctive and tenderly ironic voice. An unforgettable work from an international literary giant, whom The Observer (London) listed among the top twenty-one writers of the twenty-first century.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781555975517
Publisher: Graywolf Press
Publication date: 03/02/2010
Edition description: Original
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 793,898
Product dimensions: 9.04(w) x 6.02(h) x 0.87(d)

About the Author

Bernardo Atxaga was born in Gipuzkoa, Spain, in 1951 and lives in the Basque Country, writing in Basque and Spanish. He is a prizewinning novelist and poet whose books include The Accordionist's Son, The Lone Man, and The Lone Woman.

Read an Excerpt


By Bernardo Atxaga, Margaret Jull Costa

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 1989 by Bernardo Atxaga
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-55597-551-7



Esteban Werfell

ESTEBAN WERFELL'S BOOKS, mostly leather-bound and ranged in serried ranks along the shelves, covered almost every inch of the room's four walls. Those ten or twelve thousand volumes were the summation of two lives, his own and his father's, and when he sat down among them to write, as he did on that February day, they created a warm enclave, a high protecting wall separating him from the outside world. Like many of the books, the old oak table at which he wrote was another reminder of his father; when still very young, he'd had it brought there from the family home in Obaba.

There was, however, one chink in that wall of paper, pages, and words, a window through which, while he wrote, Esteban Werfell could see the sky, the willows, the lake, and the little house built there for the swans in the city's main park. Without really impinging on his solitude, the window made an inroad into the darkness of the books and mitigated that other darkness that often creates phantoms in the hearts of men who have never quite learned how to live alone.

For some minutes Esteban Werfell contemplated the cloudy, grayish white sky of that February day. Then, looking away, he opened one of the drawers in his desk and took out a notebook with stiff covers, bearing the number twelve, identical down to the last detail with the other eleven notebooks he had already filled, which contained his personal journal.

They were nice, those notebooks with their stiff covers, he liked them. He often used to wonder whether he didn't misuse them, whether the stories and reflections he noted down in them did not perhaps turn them from the proper destiny that might otherwise await a notebook, especially one with stiff covers.

Perhaps it was foolish to think that way about something like a notebook. It probably was. But he couldn't help it, still less when he was about to start a new one, as he was then. Why was he always thinking about things he didn't want to think about? Once his father had said to him: "It isn't the fact that you've got a few batty ideas that worries me, it's just that they're always the same batty ideas." It was true, but he'd never understood why he was so drawn to such ideas.

Whatever the reason, the force propelling him toward them was very strong, and Esteban Werfell couldn't resist the temptation to look up at the shelf where he kept the other eleven notebooks. There, half hidden among various geographical treatises, were the pages that bore witness to his life, the pages that contained all its most beautiful moments, its most important events. Not that they were a treasure. They'd lost any brilliance they once had. Rereading them was like perusing papers smeared with ashes; rereading them he felt ashamed and saw how the desire for sleep and oblivion still grew within him.

"Notebooks full of dead letters," he murmured to himself. Even that expression wasn't new.

But he couldn't allow such thoughts to distract him from the task he'd sat down at the table to perform, nor, as had happened on countless other occasions, allow them to carry him from one sad memory to another, deeper and deeper down, to a land that, long ago — ever since his days as a student of geography — he'd named the Cape of Despair. He was a grown man now, able to fight against his own compulsions, and fight he would, by filling that new notebook.

Esteban Werfell picked up his pen — the one with the wooden shaft that he used only when writing in his diary — and dipped it in the inkwell.

"17 February 1958," he began. He wrote in a beautiful, neat hand.

Outside the window the sky had turned completely gray and a fine, invisible rain was darkening the ivy that covered the swans' house. The sight of it made him sigh. He would have preferred a different kind of weather. He didn't like the park being empty.

He sighed once more, then dipped his pen in the ink again and bent over the notebook. I have returned from Hamburg — he wrote — with the intention of writing a memoir of my life. But I will not do so in the ordered and exhaustive manner of one who, perhaps quite rightly, holds himself to be the mirror of an age or a society. That, of course, is not my case and that is not how I will proceed. I will restrict myself to recounting what happened one afternoon long ago, when, to be exact, I was fourteen years old, and the important consequences that afternoon had for me. For a man already in the autumn of his life a few short hours may not seem a matter of much significance, but it is all I have to tell, indeed it is the only thing worth telling. And perhaps, given the life I have led, it is not such a small thing. After all, I dedicated myself to teaching and a life spent sitting at a teacher's desk is a surer recipe for constipation than it is for adventure.

He sat back in his chair to wait for the ink to dry. The day was still gray, but the rain was much heavier than it had been a few minutes earlier and the sound it made, the dull murmur of rain on grass, was clearly audible in the room. And there was a change too around the lake: The swans had come out of their house now and were beating their wings with unusual vigor. He'd never seen the swans like that before. Did they enjoy getting wet? Or was it the lack of spectators that cheered them? He didn't know, and it really wasn't worth wasting time on such stupid questions, time better spent going over what he'd just written.

He never got off to a good start. The words refused to give faithful expression to what was demanded of them, as if they were lazy, or as if they lacked the energy to do so. His father used to say: "Thought is like sand and when we try to grasp a fistful of it, most of the grains trickle out between our fingers." And it was true. For example, here he was proposing to write a memoir, but it would have been more exact to describe it as a meditation, because that in fact was what he wanted to write: a fine meditation on the events of one afternoon in his adolescence. And that wasn't the only blunder, there were others.

He could, of course, cross out what he'd written and start again, but he didn't want to. It was against his rules. He liked his pages to look immaculate, his as well as other people's, and he felt proud that his scrupulousness had led his students to nickname him after a well-known brand of soap. Anyway, why worry about finding a good beginning? He'd make mistakes on the second attempt too. There would always be mistakes. It was better to press on, getting it right as he went along, gradually making amends for his poor beginning.

He looked out at the park again. There were no swans on the lake now, they'd retreated to their house. No, they didn't like the February rain either.

However — he wrote — any attempt to select out special moments of our life may prove a grave mistake. It may be that a life can only be judged as a whole, in extenso, and not by its parts, not by taking one day and rejecting another, not by separating out the years like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, in order to conclude that this bit was very good and this very bad. The fact is that everything that lives is like a river, with no shortcuts and no halts along the way.

But, while that is true, it is equally true that memory tends to behave quite differently. Like all good witnesses, memory takes pleasure in the concrete, in selected details. If I had to compare it with anything, I'd say it was like an eye. I would never, on the other hand, compare it to a bookkeeper who specializes in taking inventories.

For example, right now I can see the swans' house, covered from ground to roof with ivy, which is by its nature dark and darker still on rainy days like today. I see it but, strictly speaking, I never see it. Each time I look up, my gaze slides over the monotonous green and black of the leaves, and doesn't stop until it finds the reddish stain on one of the corners of the roof. I don't even know what it is. Perhaps it's a scrap of paper or a primrose that's chosen to bloom there or a single tile that the ivy has left uncovered. As far as my eyes are concerned, it doesn't matter, for they shun the dark and unerringly seek out that one point of light.

Esteban Werfell stared out at the reddish stain, but still failed to assuage his doubts. It could as easily be a primrose as a scrap of paper or a tile. In the end, though, such a detail was of no matter. What did matter was what he had just written about memory. To say that memory took pleasure in the concrete was inexact. It was a question of necessity, not pleasure.

That is how the eye behaves — he went on — and, if my idea is correct, memory does too. It disregards the ordinary and instead seeks out remarkable days, intense moments; in my own case, it seeks out one particular far-off afternoon of my life.

But enough of this. It's time to begin the story itself.

Once he'd ruled a line to bring to a close that first page of his notebook, Esteban Werfell felt relieved. There it was, he had managed to outline an introduction to what he wanted to say. He didn't know quite why he went about things that way, with all those detours and delays, but it was certainly very typical of him, it always had been. He never wrote or spoke directly, he never dealt frankly with the people around him. After all these years, he accepted his timidity, his cowardice, as a character defect, but the opportunities he had let slip by because of it still hurt him. His whole life had been one of silence, passivity, withdrawal.

But he was getting sidetracked again. It wasn't a question now of how he lived his life, but of how he wrote, and it was a matter of indifference whether he took a circuitous route to get there or not. No one would ever read his personal journal. He did occasionally allow himself to fantasize about some imaginary future reader — sitting at that same table after his death — poring over his notebooks, but he could never really bring himself to believe in him or her. No, there would be no such reader. There was, therefore, something slightly ridiculous about his preoccupation with style.

As he dipped his pen in the inkwell, he looked across at the park. In the rain, without the usual walkers, the area around the lake looked more solitary than ever. The little streams that sprang up among the grass rippled as they flowed over the pebbles.

Hic incipit — he wrote — here begins the story of the afternoon when, for the first time in my life, I was taken to church. I was fourteen years old and I lived with my father in a place called Obaba.

It was Sunday and I'd arranged to meet up with some school friends and go to the cinema that had been built some three miles from Obaba near the railway. But for the first time, and contrary to the rules governing our friendship, my friends turned up at the house long before the agreed hour and, as soon as I opened the door to them, made a most unexpected request. "Come to church with us this evening," they said, "come and sing in the choir. Ask Mr. Werfell to let you come. You can tell him it's just a matter of singing some psalms, you don't have to believe in anything."

Such behavior was odd in them. Such boldness, I mean. And the word boldness is apt on this occasion, since in Obaba paying social visits — insofar as that implied seeing the interior of someone else's house — was considered to be in distinctly bad taste, in the same league as turning around to stare when someone was getting undressed. Moreover, my father was a foreigner, a stranger and an enemy, and everyone knew how much he hated the church and religion in general.

Looking back, I have no doubt that the person behind that proposal was the canon of Obaba, a Jesuit. In his eyes I must have seemed a soul in mortal danger, a child who, lacking a mother — she had died when I was born — was at the mercy of a hateful man, a man who would not hesitate to drag his own son into the abyss in which he himself lived. The canon must have thought there could be no better way of attracting me than through my friendship with my schoolfellows.

The hatred between the canon and my father was not, so to speak, purely intellectual. It had its roots in something other than the iconoclastic approach adopted by my father from the moment he was put in charge of the mines at Obaba. That something was my existence. To use the words I heard on the lips of the schoolmaster one day, I was not the "legitimate fruit of a marriage." And I wasn't, for the simple reason that my parents had joined together in free union, without recourse to the church, a fact which at that time and in that place was deemed inadmissible. But that's another story and has no place in this notebook.

The park was still deserted and the trees, oblivious of the coming spring, seemed listless. Not even the swans gave any sign of life.

He looked away from the window and reread what he'd written. No, his parents' story had no place in that notebook, perhaps in the next notebook, the thirteenth. It would, above all, be the story of a young woman who chose to live with a foreigner and, because of that, was slandered and condemned to be ostracized. "Your mother would sleep with anyone. Your mother didn't wear any knickers. Your mother died young because of all the wicked things she did."

The words heard during playtime at the school in Obaba still wounded him. He wasn't sure whether he would write that thirteenth notebook or not, but, if he did, he knew how difficult it would be. But he would face that when he came to it. The task in hand was the story he had brought back with him from the trip to Hamburg.

Esteban Werfell bent over his notebook again. His school friends' unexpected visit once more filled his imagination.

Seeing my astonishment, my friends proceeded, rather clumsily, to argue their case, studiously avoiding all mention of the canon. According to them, it was wrong that they and I should have to go our separate ways on Sundays. It was a sheer waste of time, because sometimes they finished their singing ten or fifteen minutes earlier than usual, minutes that could prove vital if we were to get to the cinema on time, minutes that, in fact, were never put to good use; all because of me, of course, because I was their friend and they had no alternative but to wait for me.

Summing up, one of them said: "We always arrive after the film's started, and it seems stupid to me to cycle three miles only to miss half the plot. It would make much better sense to stick together."

Their arguments were, as I said, rather clumsy; in fact the service tended to finish later rather than earlier. I said nothing to contradict them, though. Deep down I wanted to go to church. Not just because it was forbidden territory, and therefore desirable, but also because of the need I felt to be a normal child, to be one of the boys. Apart from my father, I was the only person in Obaba who had never set foot in that building and, naturally — I was after all only fourteen — I didn't like being marked out as different.

Their proposal was in line with my own desires, therefore, and I didn't argue with what they said. I simply indicated the door of the library, where my father was working. It was his permission they required. No, I didn't dare to ask him, it was best that they should do so. Not that I thought he would agree. I expected my father to dismiss them in a loud voice, declaring that he had no intention of going against the principles of a lifetime on that or any other Sunday.

Instead I heard him say: "If he wants to go, let him." I felt first surprised, then frightened; it was as if every pane of glass in the window had suddenly shattered. Why did he say yes? I couldn't even begin to imagine why.

A swan stood at the door of its house making loud honking noises, as if to reproach the continuing rain. It rained on and on, flattening the grass and forming puddles that grew ever deeper. Soon the whole park would be awash.

Esteban Werfell clasped his hands and rested them on the notebook. No, at fourteen he couldn't possibly have understood his father, because at that age, he saw him not with his own eyes, but through the eyes of others, through the eyes of those who, he later realized, were his father's declared enemies. In Obaba it was said that Engineer Werfell was a proud, intractable man and that's what he thought too. It was said — a little girl who played with him in the square told him this — that he was so cruel he beat the mine workers; and Esteban would simply smile and nod. Indeed he accepted that image because he had no other. What was his father? Just that, his father. And beyond that? Beyond that, nothing. Well, apart from being a mining engineer.


Excerpted from Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga, Margaret Jull Costa. Copyright © 1989 by Bernardo Atxaga. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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.

Table of Contents


Translator's Note,
The Game of the Goose,
Esteban Werfell,
An exposition of Canon Lizardi's letter,
Post tenebras spero lucem,
If I could, I'd go out for a stroll every night I. Katharina's statement,
If I could, I'd go out for a stroll every night II. Marie's statement,
Young and green,
The rich merchant's servant,
Regarding stories,
Dayoub, the rich merchant's servant,
Mr. Smith,
Maiden name, Laura Sligo,
Finis coronat opus,
In the morning,
Hans Menscher,
How to write a story in five minutes,
Klaus Hanhn,
Margarete and Heinrich, twins,
I, Jean Baptiste Hargous,
How to plagiarize,
The crevasse,
A Rhine wine,
Samuel Telleria Uribe,
Wei Lie Deshang,
X and Y,
The torch,
By way of an autobiography,

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