The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2016

All Issues
OCT 2016 Issue

an extract from

Abaitua parks in front of what he thinks is Kepa’s doorway, in the Morlans district. He’s changed apartments again, which he normally does to suit his financial situation, and he hasn’t visited him here before. He decides to wait outside for him, the weather’s marvelous. There’s a gentle south wind, and that changes the color of Donostia completely—the horizon stretches further, and he gets the impression that his sight becomes more acute thanks to that. A perfect day to go walking in the hills.

The apartment buildings, which are two or three floors high, are modest, many of the balconies are full of flowers, and the atmosphere is peaceful and pleasant in spite of the ugly viaduct, but it’s obvious the area must be damp and very different when the weather isn’t so good. He reads the name of the district on a blue and white ceramic plaque. Morlans—like Urgull, Igeldo, and many other place-names in Donostia—is a Gascon word, he thinks, and that makes him slightly sad, though he’s not quite sure why. He has a vague memory of the district, of when the Civil Guard had a house surrounded there for a long time with an ETA group holed up inside. He thinks that shortly after the radio gave the news about the Civil Guard’s movements, he heard the shots and was scared by them, but he’s not sure. In his mind’s eye, it was a long shoot-out, and several young people were tragically, senselessly killed. He doesn’t know how to place the events chronologically, but they seem far off to him now, perhaps because he’d rather forget them, but the traces they left on him, which senseless though they are still persist, must be from a time when he felt more closely associated with what was going on with ETA, when he felt sorrow whenever someone was killed, and also guilty, at the end of the day, because he hadn’t met the same fate as those young people who had given their lives for him, for their ideas.

There are many places that have been marked forever because they were scenes of death, where the echo of machine guns can still be felt, and where it seems you can probably still see the indelible stains left by blood—and by long-shriveled memorial flowers, as well—and Morlans is one of those places.

He decides to go up to the third floor, which should be where Kepa’s apartment is, and make sure he’s remembered the building number correctly. When Kepa opens the door, Abaitua gets the impression he doesn’t know whether to let him in or not. He’s dressed for hiking and has a mop in his hand. “We’ve had a mishap,” he says, finally moving to one side to let him in. There are books piled up against the wall all along the hallway, as if they were waiting to be taken to more noble surroundings. It’s a shabby apartment, and there’s a great contrast between the ugly furniture and the fancy decorative objects resting on the floor and waiting to be put in place, including several engravings—he recognizes some by Chillida and others by Balerdi—and polished tin maritime artefacts. The kitchen floor tiles are wet. Kepa says not to worry about it and to come in. His mother is at the sink washing dishes. She looks much better than she had at the hospital. She’s a tall woman who was once very elegant, she has beautiful long gray hair that’s gone a little yellow, a bit like her son’s fingers, colored by smoking English cigarettes. Her son says she wets herself more and more often, and he’ll kill her when she starts soiling herself. He says it as if he means it, without raising his voice, just as if he were saying he’d give her an acetaminophen if her temperature went up. His mother doesn’t so much as flinch, but Abaitua gets angry with the son, because he doesn’t think he should speak like that in front of her, even if she won’t understand his Basque. “I know the theory: it’s a disservice to us both.” His gestures toward her, on the other hand, are full of love—he removes a speck of food left at the side of her mouth, holds her elbow to take her back to the sink. She says she likes cleaning pots. She scrubs them, leaves them on a towel, and then rinses them. And so on, without interruption. Her son puts a plastic apron on her, the type fishmongers wear. He calls her “madre,” in Spanish.

Abaitua goes up to her when her son leaves to finish packing his backpack. “How are you?” “I’m fine, doing the dishwashing, as you can see, that’s all I’ve done all my life.” She tries to dry her hands on a wet cloth. “What about you?” “I can’t complain.” “Of course, you really did the right thing not going to war, Juan.” Abaitua isn’t entirely sure that he should say yes to everything and let her go on confusing him with whoever this Juan person is, it doesn’t seem respectful to him, so he solves it by saying that going to war is never good. “But Pedro had to go,” the old woman continues, “it would have been better if he’d died.” Abaitua thinks she’s talking about Kepa’s father. He knows he spent the war in Jaen, in Andalusia, and subsequently emigrated to Bizkaia. “Yes, it would have been better if he’d died.” Now she has her back to the sink and confirms her sentiment by nodding. If she had known, she wouldn’t have prayed for him to survive the war, and that way he wouldn’t have been so unhappy. He says she shouldn’t say things like that. He feels more and more uncomfortable, she’s opening her heart to him, confusing him with someone she must have really trusted. The war’s over, he says, it’s not going to happen again. Someone calls at the door. It’s the girl who’s going to look after her while they’re away. Kepa’s put a jacket on and is carrying his backpack over one shoulder.

“Enough with the stories about the goddamn war.”

His tone is rough once more, but the old woman doesn’t seem to be affected by that. In any event, she turns back to the sink that she’s been leaning on to continue washing the dishes. Kepa says they can go. He goes up to his mother and rolls up her sleeves. This time he speaks to her more gently, “Forget that goddamn war.”

He asks Kepa who this Juan is that she’s confusing him with, but he has no idea. Abaitua thinks he does know but doesn’t want to talk about it, and they remain in silence until they get to what used to be the gasworks. He asks if he remembers the gun battle that once took place in Morlans. Of course he does, as if it were yesterday. The operation was directed by General Galindo, and Luis Roldán was still heading the Civil Guard. This was back before they were arrested, naturally, the first for torture and the second on charges of corruption. The battle lasted for four hours, and three ETA members were killed. It was August 1991. Abaitua thought it must have been longer ago. 1991 seems very recent to him, but, then, twenty years is pretty long. They keep quiet again until they reach Antso Jakituna Hiribidea. Where are they going to spend the night? Kepa is always in charge of logistics. One thing he likes about going on trips with Kepa is that he takes care of everything: choosing the hotels and booking them, doing the same with the restaurants—and, extremely importantly, deciding how much to tip at each one—and figuring out which routes they should take. Abaitua’s only responsibility is driving along the routes he’s told to. He likes the arrangement, traveling as if he were a great lady.

They’re booked into the Argi Eder hotel for the first night. In the town of Ainhoa, it’s the best spot for couples, though not exactly for their sort of couple, although there’s nothing wrong with that. They usually have a good time during the day, but in the evening, at dinner, the lack of women becomes too apparent for them, especially once they’ve had a glass or two of Armagnac each. When the nostalgia that they aren’t always able to share takes over, they withdraw into themselves, each silently resenting the other for not being the company they would really like to be with, and they’ve even had arguments at such moments. It’s wrong of them. Abaitua’s aware of it, and he knows that Kepa is, as well. When they reach the Pio XII traffic circle, instead of turning off at the appropriate exit, he drives all the way around. Once, twice. Kepa lets him be and shows no sign of surprise.

He suddenly gets the idea of calling the young American. He’s thought several times since they decided to go on this trip about how he’d like to show her Azkaine, Ainhoa, and Garazi, because she spoke to him about the northern Basque Country and said she wanted to go there. He would enjoy showing her the pretty parts of each town, taking her to good restaurants, and above all, they would have lively conversations in her company, they’d have to stay on their feet, so to speak. The third time they go around, he says, “How about if we invite a girl to come with us?” Kepa says it’s fine by him—not really believing him, it seems to Abaitua. In any case, and to cover himself, he says he doesn’t know if she’ll be at home. He parks the car near the offices of the Spanish central government delegation and gets out to make the call, just in case the conversation is a disaster. While he waits for the call to go through, he feels his pulse racing—a sensation he’d forgotten, a state of anxiety he enjoys feeling.

He says both his first and last name to introduce himself: Iñaki Abaitua. His heart is beating fast, and he’s afraid that his nervousness may be all too obvious on the other end. He starts by saying that he knows it’s a last-minute invitation but that he’d told her that he was planning to go to the northern Basque Country with a friend. He thought she might like to see that part of the country. He mentions his friend and the mountains, to stop his invitation from seeming suspicious. Or so he hopes. There’s a short silence, but he knows she’s going to accept. Her voice sounds happy—she’d be glad to go with them, it’s just a little out of the blue. She doesn’t know if she has any suitable clothes for hiking. He says a T-shirt and some sneakers would be fine. They’ll pick her up in half an hour. He starts the engine again and tells Kepa she’s an American sociologist. A very smart, friendly girl. Kepa doesn’t react, but Abaitua knows he’s glad and will enjoy the company.“My name is Lynn.” She talks about her name’s origins, the circumstances that brought her to Donostia, the good luck she had finding a house—it’s a bargain, because of the price and because she can use the yard, and because Max, her cat, has the roof all to himself—things that Abaitua is familiar with, and now, hearing her tell them to Kepa, he has the agreeable feeling that he’s known her for a long time, and that feels like a privilege.

When Kepa says “o sea—so—you live in that weird guy’s house,” Abaitua tries to make a gesture to him not to go on. Fortunately, he adds that although he’s weird, he does write well. Then they remain silent while they drive through the more run-down districts of Herrera and Pasaia, trying to go as quickly as they can so the young foreign girl will see as little as possible of that embarrassing spectacle. The only one to say anything at all is Kepa, who mumbles that he can’t remember what that name reminds him of. Lynn.

Until, suddenly, he clicks his fingers together. “The girl from Montauk!” he says in triumph, and Lynn seems to be delighted that he’s made the connection. She’s also amazed, but above all delighted, and that deflates Abaitua a little; he doesn’t think it fair that Kepa—a devourer of books with the memory of an elephant—should get so much credit for knowing that. A twisted feeling, which makes him keep quiet for a while.

Lynn and Kepa are talking about Montauk.

Abaitua is amused by the fact that when they talk about the mistakes in the Spanish translation of Montauk, Lynn sounds as angry as if the translator had caused her some personal harm. But Kepa says she’s right, and he’s very angry, as well. So they talk about the translation, because it’s something that Kepa, naturally, knows all about. He says that all of Frisch’s work, including Montauk, has been translated into French very well. That leads them to talk about Julia, the writer’s friend, and the American girl says she wants to convince her to translate the book into Basque, and Kepa, of course, thinks it’s a very good idea, because it could be better than the Spanish translation and above all because that edition’s long been out of print, and that woman, who he thinks is very beautiful, in spite of being that weird writer’s friend, looks like a person who does everything well. The American girl openly expresses her happiness once more, because she shares his opinion completely. Kepa mentions that he only knows the writer’s friend, Julia, by sight. Although he can easily satisfy the girl’s curiosity by speaking about the character based on her, Flora Ugalde. Abaitua, on the other hand, is bound by professional secret and can’t tell them that he treated her for a venereal infection and the writer most likely cheats on her.First stop, Biriatu, to see the cemetery. The plaque with the names that Unamuno transcribed for his poem “Orhoit gutaz,”or “Rememeber Us.”

Aprendisteguy, Charles

Aristeguy, Joseph

Eyheramendy, Jean Joseph


Kepa starts reciting the Basque-born, Spanish-speaking writer’s poem with great feeling: “You passed like oak leaves / blown down in a springtime / unseasonable hail; / you passed, sons of my noble race, / your souls dressed in your childhood Basque.” Later, when they’re having a bowl of soup in the restaurant by the church, Kepa talks to the young sociologist about the meaning behind the poem. In 1914 the prefect of the Basses-Pyrénées Département apparently complained to the minister of war that large groups of young Basque men were deserting and emigrating, and that it was because of the mentality of the local people, who knew no other homeland than the little corner of land they were born in and so viewed the war as a plague, something that should never have reached as far as the Pyrenees. Abaitua had to remind him that while that was true for the war of 1914, it was certainly no longer the case in 1944, because by then the République had taken good care to transform the French Basques into vrais patriotes—true patriots—and Kepa looked at him as if he were a spoilsport. He starts singing Gorka Knörr’s “Morts Pour La Patrie,” about people “dying for the nation”—not caring that a lot of people are staring at them. And the girl looks “madly happy” about it all.Sare, just over the border in France, is almost exactly as Pierre Loti described it in Ramuntcho. On the outside of the church, there’s a memorial plaque to Pedro de Axular that Bonaparte had installed there: Euskaldun izcribatzalletatik iztun ederrenari ni Luis Luziano Bonaparte Euskaltzaleak au ipiñi nion. Ez dago atsedenik ta edoi gabe egunik zeruetan baizik 1865—I, Louis-Lucien Bonaparte, an enthusiast of Basque culture, dedicate this plaque to the greatest of Basque writers. There are no days without clouds and no rest except in heaven. 1865. The large sturdy church tower in azkaine; the cemetery behind it with the famous circular tombstone dated 1657; the place with its Lapurdian houses. Kepa insists on having a glass of pastis. Unusual facts about Luis-Lucien Bonaparte, Abbadia, and Humboldt. But Kepa gets really excited when he starts talking about Agustin Xaho and Basque poets. He doesn’t stop talking until they reach Ainhoa.In the dining room at the Argi Eder Hotel, Lynn complains that she feels out of place there. She thought they were going hiking in the hills and has only brought underclothes, shorts, and a few T-shirts. She reproaches them for having put on very elegant clothes 265 for dinner. Abaitua is wearing a raw linen jacket and a striking tie—black with large splashes of color on it, orange, yellow, and green—that Pilar brought him from Florence and that he doesn’t normally dare to wear. And the one Kepa is wearing would be simply impossible back in Donostia. Abaitua picked it up for him in Rio, where he’d gone for a gynecology conference. From a distance, the gray and blue shapes on it look abstract, but they’re actually a naked woman when you look closely. He, too, is wearing a jacket. It’s what they usually do. Hikers in the morning and elegant night birds in the evening. The girl complains again that they should have told her. Now she looks out of place sitting between these two elegant gentlemen. Kepa says she looks very pretty. Kepa is the one who talks most. The sociologist asks questions, and he gives her long, in-depth answers.

“So what they say about the Basque matriarchy is a myth?” the girl asks, looking disappointed. Her eyes are bright, her face flushed, and she laughs easily. It’s very obvious she’s a little tipsy. Abaitua likes women who let themselves be tempted by wine. Kepa asks for another bottle of Hermitage, saying something he probably read in a guidebook and hasn’t forgotten (he never forgets anything): it comes from a winery that dates from the fifteenth century and can be aged for up to twenty years. None of that means much to Abaitua, but he thinks it’s a very good wine. And he thinks it must be extremely expensive. He says the way to ask for more wine is to turn the empty bottle upside down in the ice bucket. Kepa doesn’t stop talking, he has brilliant explanations for everything they see, an encyclopedia of anecdotes, and his observations are relevant and appropriate. He enjoys the young woman’s attention, her admiration when he’s able to make use of his knowledge, her loud laughter at the stories and jokes he remembers. And Abaitua, too, enjoys seeing that they’re having a good time. It’s a long time since he’s seen Kepa so happy, so relaxed. That said, it isn’t hard to amaze the young woman and get her laughing—that loud, happy laughter, which he sometimes finds too much—because their worlds and backgrounds are so very different. She is enormously curious and is interested in everything. So Abaitua lets Kepa show off, display his skills, and enjoy the young woman’s interest, showing no envy in his eyes when he looks at them over his glass from time to time. While Kepa is talking about matriarchy and mentioning someone called Goldberg, the sociologist interjects, calling the man he’s just mentioned a sexist piece of shit—“Ese machista de mierda.” It’s funny the way she says it, and Kepa pretends not to have heard her, so that she’ll say it again. “Ese machista de mierda.” They carry on laughing loudly, and everybody in the dining room is looking at them.

Kepa usually talks quite loudly, especially after he’s had a few drinks. The things he says about the Basques become more and more clichéd, and more and more sentimental, as they empty the bottle, and Abaitua, even though he, too, likes throwing a bit of imagination into things, despite finding himself somewhat repressed in that regard in recent years, is embarrassed by them idealizing history so much, and from time to time he asks them to calm down, maybe too often, because finally Kepa, looking angry, tells him to leave them alone. So he lets them talk. He doesn’t know to what extent Kepa’s use of medical examples is meant to provoke a reaction from him. He has heard that using biological models to express social subjects is a sign of not being able to explain them in social terms. He doesn’t say that to him, among other things because he’s been left out of the conversation. The Basque Country probably needed to have some of its myths overturned, but they’ve gone too far, Kepa says, they’ve left its innards nearly entirely stripped of gut flora. “Do you understand?” He keeps on repeating the question, with an incredibly bad accent. Bringing out the untruth in the myths in order to deny the Basque character. Myths are lies, nobody can deny that, but what makes Basques special is their ability and desire to make them believable. “It’s all a lie, fine, but who else can say, with the same conviction as a Basque, that their language’s words for “hand,” “stone,” “water,” and “fire”—esku, harri, ur, and su in Basque—are the same ones used twenty thousand years ago? What’s more, myths influence the people who believe them. The idea of egalitarianism may be a myth, but Basques believed that dignity knows no social classes, and so they convinced everybody else that they, the Basques, were all equally noble. That’s why it was forbidden to beat up Basques in Castile, and disciplined observers such as Humboldt and Weber were amazed to see, as another traveler once put it, that “the poorest ox herd was just as proud as the governor of Tolosa.”

It’s easy to imagine him as a shaman from the Paleolithic Age when he says “ur, su, lur” in that deep voice of his. The young American looks self-absorbed now, stirring the sugar at the bottom of her cup, and Abaitua wants to hold her thin-fingered hands. Just hold them. She sees his look and gives that fleeting smile that wrinkles her eyes and lengthens her lips. When Kepa says what fine hands she has, she puts her cup down on the saucer and hides both hands under the table as if she thought she’d been caught doing something wrong. She doesn’t like them, she answers. Abaitua knew that, as well. Kepa, though, says they’re pretty and makes her put them both on the tablecloth. He knows how to read hands. Love will soon come her way, he tells her.



Ramon Saizarbitoria

Ramon Saizarbitoria was born in San Sebastián in 1944. He was one of the leaders of the cultural renewal movement that took place in the 1960’s. His first novel Egunero Hasten Delako—Because every day begins—(1969) is included in all anthologies and histories of literature as the first modern Basque novel. Ehun Metro—One hundred meters—his second novel, was seized by the Franco regime in 1974 and was not published until 1976. With Ene Jesus—My dear Jesus—(1976) winner of the Critics Prize for Literature, he took literary experimentation to the extreme, with an approach to literature that lead him to silence. After a nineteen-years’ editorial gap he published Hamaika pauso—The countless steps—(1995) winner of the Critics Prize for Literature; Bihotz bi. Gerrako kronikak—Love and war—(1996) winner of the Basque Country’s Prize for Dissemination; Gorde nazazu lurpean—Keep me underground—(2000), winner of the Basque Country’s Fiction Prize and of the Critics Prize for Literature; Gudari zaharraren gerra galdua—The old soldiers’ lost war—(2000); Rossetti-ren obsesioa—Rosetti’s obsession—(2001), and Kandinskyren tradizioa—Kandinsky’s tradition—(2003). After Martutene (2013), his latest novel is Lili eta biok (2015), winner of the Critics Prize for Literature.

Aritz Branton

Aritz Branton is a late arrival in literary translation, after nearly two decades of commercial translation management. He translates mostly for children and younger readers from English into Basque (books by Jeff Kinney, John Buchan) and mostly linguistics and literature from Basque into English (Koldo Zuazo, Javi Cillero). He writes on literature and music for the Basque magazines Entzun and Thebalde.


The Brooklyn Rail

OCT 2016

All Issues