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Home » literature » fiction » Bernardo Atxaga, ‘Obabakoak’ — book review

Bernardo Atxaga, ‘Obabakoak’ — book review

This book is on my Classics Club list, but I bought it quite a long time ago. I really enjoyed Bernardo Atxaga‘s Seven Houses in France, and I was struck when I saw him speak at the 2012 Edinburgh Book Festival about self-translating and, more broadly, the impact of translation. Obabakoak is a seminal work, despite the brevity of the English Wikipedia entry.

Obabakoak, meaning ‘the things and people of Obaba’, is somewhere between a short-story collection and a novel. The book’s focus is on the (imaginary but representative) place, the Basque country and its effects on the people and lives occupying that space, but the technique is circuitous, resembling negative drawing. The book is separated into two large sections — Childhoods and the longer In Search of the Last Word — with an intervening section meditating on the location: Nine Words in Honour of the Village of Villamediana. To me, the structure reflects the book’s focus on understanding and perceiving something in the round by looking at it from multiple viewpoints.

The first story, Esteban Werfell, plays with this idea of coming to a fuller understanding of one’s reality through partial revelations. Esteban writes of a teenage experience of a ‘religious’ hallucination; although raised by an anti-religious father, he is persuaded into the church by school friends, and there he has a vision of a young woman who asks him to love her and find her, giving him her address. The young Esteban enters into a correspondence wholeheartedly, which sees him through his studies and keeps him on the straight and narrow until the correspondence is coldly broken off by her. Only many years later does Esteban learn that his hallucination was the product of unconscious memories of things he had heard his father speaking of, and that his correspondent was in fact his father.

This story sets the tone for the rest of the book: the possible darkness of religion and its effects, echoed again in An Exposition of Canon Lizardi’s letter; the manipulation of children echoed in Albania’s predatory (perhaps?) school-teacher in Post Tenebras Spero Lucem; the exclusion of outsiders, so often moralising, seen in many of the stories; and the preoccupation with the idea of attempting the futile exercise of fixing memories and understanding fully the interconnections between one person or event and many others.

The whole book is atmospheric, offering a visceral sense of life in communities like Obaba. Atxaga is by turns, and occasionally simultaneously, melancholic, joyful and wry. How to Write a Story in Five Minutes, which flawlessly gives the impression of being self-referential, is a wonderful example of all three at once. This is a great book to dip in and out of compulsively until the whole thing is finished, and then start it again because, of course, your understanding of it the second time around will be different — maybe better, maybe worse — than on first reading.

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