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Kirmen Uribe: Bilbao-New York-Bilbao (Bilbao-New York-Bilbao)

This is not a novel. Instead, it is about Kirmen Uribe’s attempt to write a novel about various topics and, while he does not really write a novel, he writes this book, which he calls a novel, so it is a novel. Sort of.

It is not about Bilbao and New York (except to a certain degree) nor is it about a journey between Bilbao, New York and Bilbao, except to a certain degree. It is about Uribe’s life, about his forebears, about the people he knows and, yes, about journeys in which Bilbao and New York are certainly involved but so are other places, such as Montreal, Estonia, Stornoway and elsewhere. It is about Basque and being Basque. It is also about a particular painter and his friend, a particular architect.

The novel that he planned to write was inspired in part by a painter. The painter is Aurelio Arteta, a Basque painter from Bilbao. Uribe goes to the Bilbao Fine arts Museum to see a painting by Arteta, specifically this mural. It was initially in the house of the architect Ricardo Bastida. We learn more about both Arteta and Bastida, and their relationship, as well as Uribe’s investigation of the pair, the people he speaks to about them and even extracts from the diary of Bastida’s fifteen year old son, who was killed in the Spanish Civil War.

Arteta was influenced by French painters – he lived for some time in France – as well as traditional Basque ones. Bastida worked with him, for example having him paint murals in the Bank of Bilbao HQ, for which Bastida was the architect. Arteta was offered a commission to to do a painting after the Guernica bombings. He declined, wanting to be with his family and, as we know, the commission went to Picasso. Arteta and his family went into exile to Mexico, where they were later killed in a tram accident, as they were heading for the country after learning that one of their friends had been killed in Spain.

Arteta was one of the many painters that painted in Ondarroa, Uribe’s home town and Uribe gives us the details.

As the title tells us, Uribe travelled. He describes his flights in some details – who he sat next to, the ads on the in-flight entertainment system, the air hostesses – but he also tells us what he did and who he met on his various travels. He goes to a congress of minority language writers and meets a host of writers – Scottish, US, Estonian and others.

His grandfather had been a fisherman and fished around Rockall, where the highest wave ever was apparently recorded. It was a hard life and the family eventually turned its back on fishing as a way of life and moved to Bilbao but somewhat inland. However, we learn about his grandfather’s travels and, of course, about shipwrecks. Uribe says he could have been reluctant to write about his grandfather, as he was a supporter of Franco but, despite this, he chose to do so because of his colourful life.

We also learn about his writing. He starts out this novel wanting to imitate the first line of Carson McCullersThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter: In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together and the first line of Sylvia Plath‘s The Bell Jar: It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.. He tries numerous versions before eventually coming up with the one in the book we are reading, involving fish and trees.

His first writing was newspaper articles. He asked his father to read the first one through. The father told him a story about two priests and their sermons. The first one gave a down-home sermon which the masses understood and appreciated. The second one used long words and convoluted ideas which only the posh people in the front pew appreciated. His father likened his article to the second priest’s sermon.

A lot of the novel is amusing stories. As he says, he didn’t want to create fictitious characters, he wanted to talk about real people. From slave ships to minority languages, from transatlantic crossings, both by ship and plane, to a lost portrait of Afonso XIII, which was later found, he regales us with amusing and interesting stories. Here’s one. In the 1960s, Franco came to Bilbao. His visit was filmed and the prisoners in the local prison, who, not surprisingly, were not generally pro-Franco, were made to watch it. They watched in horror as they saw cheering crows throng the streets of Bilbao. Suddenly, one of the prisoners turned to his friend and asked if the man on the film cheering wildly wasn’t his friend. Indeed, it was, the friend replied. That was me cheering when Athletic (the local football team) won the cup several years ago. The entire film was fake (well before Donald Trump came to power).

Even though it rambles and jumps all over the place, both in time and space, it is a very enjoyable novel. Uribe tells his stories well, the characters – real people – are interesting; it is often witty and even more often informative. And, surprisingly, it is available in English.

Publishing history

First published in Basque 2008 by Elkar
First English translation 2014 by Seren
Translated by Elizabeth Macklin