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Karmele Jaio: Aitaren etxea (My Father’s House)

The male protagonist – I hesitate to call him hero – is Ismael Alberdi. He is a Basque writer and has had some success, despite the fact that this last novel attracted a review from a critic which said the characters felt like extra terrestrial beings, and your novel did not make a single reference to the world, in which we live, to the social or political context. He has taken this very much to heart and is now struggling to write a novel set in the troubled time of the 1980s in the Basque country. He is not making progress and has been working on it for two years.

Ismael grew up with a macho father. The men went hunting, the women stayed at home. When Aitor, his cousin and a better shot and hunter than Ismael, disappeared in the hills, father and son joined the search party. Ismael’s sister Libe wanted to come as well but the father said no, only men. Libe, unlike her brother, was involved in the Basque upheavals of the 1980s and was arrested. On release she left for Berlin where she now helps refugees and has a lesbian relationship which the family dare not tell her father about.

At university, Jasone, Libe’s best friend, and Jauregi, founded a student magazine. Ismael submits stories to them and Jasone persuades Jauregi to publish one of them, which he reluctantly does. Jasone has also written stories and had talked with Libe about founding a publishing company but, eventually, it is Jauregi who does and he published Ismael’s work (in Basque – Spanish translations are published by a Madrid publisher).

Ismael and Jasone become an item, marry and have two daughters. She gives up her literary aspirations to be a mother, a daughter (both her parents need looking after), wife and first editor of Ismael’s work. She had tried writing stories but Ismael would merely comment not bad and toss them aside.

Getting back to Ismael, he seems to have no friends, is afraid of getting too close to anybody, even his wife and is often is afraid. He thinks he might have a brain tumour and that he is dying. Doctors have found nothing. He has been afraid of dying since childhood. His father now has dementia and he is afraid that it will be hereditary. He even feels that the women in the family – his wife, mother and sister – are conspiring to keep the men, primarily him, out of the loop. He also, we learn, has a guilty secret dating back from his childhood, which we later learn.

However his parents-in-law have died and his daughters left home so Jasone now has more time to herself, not least because Ismael has no book to edit. She has felt resentful over the years that Ismael has failed to notice her many travails as, of course, it is all beneath him, as he writes The Great Basque Novel. He even seems to have neglected her sexually. But now things are changing.

One of Jasone’s issues is her fear of being raped. She has an imaginary rape fantasy and she and Libe, who liked partying in their younger days, had developed a host of strategies for dealing with violent men. She has now started writing down this fantasy. She has also joined a feminist book club (her view on men: this is the war, and they are killing us).

Ismael notices that she is changing – paying more attention to her appearance, going out more – and suspects an affair. He finds excerpts from her rape fantasy in her backpack. What he does not know but we do is that she is writing a novel.

And then it all changes. Ismael’s mother falls and hurts herself and has to be hospitalised. She is adamant that her husband, who has dementia cannot be left alone. Who can look after him? Their daughter is in Berlin so the burden falls on a highly reluctant Ismael.

He has been struggling with his novel and wonders whether it would be appropriate to tell it from a woman’s point of view but how is one supposed to understand women. Not that you made much of an effort to enter that Cave. A dark and dangerous cave. He faces the same problem as writing about the Basque country of the 1980s. How can you write about a conflict you only observed from a safe distance?

But the woman in his house – Jasone – is now realising that she can finally be herself, urged on by Libe and not just be identified as the novelist’s wife, a mother, a daughter. I have often talked to Libe about that moment in women’s lives, when they find themselves up against a brick wall, having lived with the illusion that they were equal to men, she says but that too is changing.

There are three main male characters and three main female characters in this book. The men do not come out well. Ismael does not meet his father’s expectations as a man but takes his wife too much for granted, absorbed as he is in becoming a great novelist. His father is macho, bullying and possibly violent towards his wife, and he takes her for granted just as Ismael does with Jasone. Jauregi plays a relatively minor role but even he takes Jasone for granted and underestimates her.

As for the women we can see that Jasone is misunderstood and taken for granted by her husband and friend Jauregi and she herself feels that she has to follow the roles given to her and cannot really be herself. Her mother-in-law is similar. She has been taken for granted and bullied by her husband for much of her adult life, but is still devoted to him. Even when she is in hospital, injured, her concern is for him, not herself. Libe does manage to break away but has to hide her true self from her father – her lesbian relationship – and when both her parents are ill, she has to return following the ancient law that states that daughters look after aging parents.

Violence hovers in the background. The 1980s when there was a lot of violence in the Basque country have not really gone away. Violence to women is also key. Ismael’s father may have been violent towards his wife. We see the fears of Libe and, in particular, Jasone. The book actually opens with a woman raped and left in the hills and this incident will be referred to throughout the book.

There is a story, the story of Ismael and his struggles, of Jasone and her struggles and the stories of the other characters but, above all, this is a superb feminist novel.

Publishing history

First published in Basque in 2019 by Elkar
First English translation in 2023 by Dedalus
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes