Obabakoak: Stories from a Village
by Bernardo Atxaga
Reviewed by Steve Street
One of the central images of this delightfully dense Basque novel is of a dancer whose increasingly passionate circling around a full glass of wine on the floor leaves it, amazingly, intact. It's an apt image, not only for the ruminations on time, place, fate, and storytelling indulged in by both the unnamed narrator and his characters, but also for author Bernardo Atxaga's approach in this book. There's much traditional storytelling here, from fables to essayistic vignettes to realistic tales linked one to the next. But on the whole the book reads less like a novel than a virtuoso performance from a writer whose search for the truths of human experience takes readers from the Basque Country to Hamburg, China, the Himalayas, America, Montevideo, and ancient Baghdad, as well as from the 9th century to the present, in calendar date as well as in literary style -- all without losing focus on the small, isolated Basque town evoked in the title, Obaba.
A sampling of titles for the more than two dozen chapter-like readings (to call them chapters would violate Atxaga's twin standards of inventiveness and precision of language) might give an indication of the scope of his vision and technique. Arranged in three sections called "Childhoods," "Nine Words in Honor of the Village of Villamediana," and "In Search of the Last Word," and leaving out the titles that are proper names of characters (which range from Germanic to Arabic), you'll read "The Game of the Goose," "An exposition of Canon Lizardi's letter," "Post tenebras spero lucem," "Young and green," "The rich merchant's servant," "Regarding stories," "In the morning," "How to write a story in five minutes," "The crevasse," "A Rhine wine," "X and Y," "The torch," and "By way of an autobiography." It's a lively pace, with plenty of tempo changes: you have to watch your step.
In fact, you might get lost, though the author's close focus never blurs. Characters appear, vanish, and reappear; narrative promises are delayed but kept. Words and images echo, subliminally -- blue and white, the favorite colors of a contemporary German character, seem like an incidental mention until they reappear two segments later as the colors of the flag of Lorraine, one of the armies fighting the invading Normans. The effect is of a kind of reassuring puzzlement: everything's connected, but we don't know precisely how. Mountain climbing plays a role; so do scary children's stories, Marco Polo, trains loaded with horses to sell for meat, and discussions of the concept of intertextuality. "As someone once said: 'Let nothing that has been lived be lost.'" Atxaga can give the impression of having left little lived by anyone before 1989 (the date of the novel's initial publication) unconsidered, if not unmentioned in these 288 pages. It can be a somewhat exhausting trip if you're looking to sit back and enjoy one, because your guide never lets up, on you or on himself. "I felt tired and disillusioned, old before my time, and when I sat down in front of a blank sheet of paper, I would weep."
Yet his earnestness keeps us from doing so. Atxaga's is not really a modern sensibility, and he's refreshing to read in that way: he's taking the world for what it is, and he's taking it seriously, even when he's telling jokes. Even when he's telling stories of psychosis and murder, revenge, small-town gossip, and "how to plagiarize" -- which from an academic writer's perspective, at least, must seem like the height of cynicism -- our maestro never strikes a truly cynical note. Tonally, the world of Obabakoak is somewhere between the paintings of Hieronymous Bosch and Peanuts, though the writers Atxaga evokes with reverence and wonder range from Maupassant to Melville to Kafka. "What exactly [is] originality...what should the function of art be?" At a relaxed pace, and in probing depth, narrator and characters discuss such questions straight out.
Not only are they discussed: in this translation by Margaret Jull Costa (of the translation into Spanish that Atxaga did himself from his native Euskal) they are demonstrated. Euskal may be unrelated to any other language on earth, but what Obabakoak shows is the intertextuality of the whole world, as experienced through "books [that] covered almost every inch of [the opening character's] room's four walls" as well as acute observation of the world itself: its medieval armies, its Muslim profession of faith, its lonely schoolteachers' love lives confounded by mail-delivery problems, its mountain climbers' habits with ropes, its Amazonian flora and fauna, its specific command of languages and cultures across continents. Perhaps it's not for nothing that the tales revolve around dances, mysteries, paradoxes, and games like The Game of the Goose, which starts and ends the book and who's board itself is "the reason...for us to keep playing."