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Ramon Saizarbitoria: Martutene (Martutene)

This novel has claims to being the Great Basque Novel and not just because it is 816 pages long. Like other Great Novels, it is set in an eponymous and very real town – Martutene in the Basque country, to the South of San Sebastián. The novel, in fact, starts off with a potted history of the town, not least because, like many other novels, the town is as much a character of the book as the people. Big novels can go for the cast of thousands approach (e.g. War and Peace), the complicated plot (e.g. Gravity’s Rainbow) or the story of a place that is a microcosm for the whole region/country/world. This novel veers towards the latter approach but its length also enables it to examine the characters and behaviour of the relatively few main characters in some depth.

The main focus is on two couples and their immediate friends. We start off with Julia. She had been married to a Basque freedom fighter. He was given the nickname Zigor (meaning whip or punishment) and had that name when Julia met him. They had a son, also called Zigor. Zigor Senior has since been killed. In the preface to the book, Julia meets Martin, a diffident writer of short stories. He is planning to write a novel and, as Flaubert is his literary hero, it will be a novel about nothing, though we later learn that it might be about a couple who meet at an airport terminal. Julia and Martin become a couple but Julia lives separately, with her mother and son and next door to her sister. Not surprisingly, Zigor Junior is interested in the issue of Basque independence.

The couple have a friend, Harri (a woman), who is not happy with her marriage. Harri is quite garrulous and she is always trying to tell Martin a story, in the hope that he will fit it into his novel. He is never impressed with her stories, including the latest one about how she almost picked up a man on the flight back home from Heathrow. She is an epidemiologist by profession and as a friend of Martin and Julia and professionally associated with Abiatua, she is one of the links between the two groups.

The other couple is Iñaki Abaitua and his wife, Pilar. Abaitua was a doctor in private practice but has since worked in a public hospital, where he specialises in gynaecology. Pilar is a neurosurgeon, working in her father’s private practice. Their marriage is not in good shape and is only held together by sex. Now that they are planning on sleeping in separate bedrooms, it is under even more stress. Indeed, they have already split up once but got back together. Apart from worrying about his marriage and job, Abaitua has another worry. His son, Loiola, found about a planned ETA bomb attack. Abaitua reported it but is now worried that he will be killed in reprisal.

This shows one of the main themes of this book, namely what it means to be Basque. They struggle with the language – when to use Basque and when to use Spanish (and when to use English). Martin, for example, is considering writing a book in both Basque and Spanish (all his books, till now, have been only in Basque and are translated into Spanish, currently by Julia), till Julia says that, of course, what is the point, as only Basque speakers will read it. But they also struggle with their nationalism. While generally disapproving of the ETA attacks – though Julia still considers her late husband something of a martyr – some of the characters have a certain amount of sympathy for them, not least because the police have always been associated with the Franco regime and are therefore seen as the enemy. Martin, however, deals with this when one of his students turns out to be the daughter of a police officer who is murdered and he puts this incident in a story. Throughout the book, we follow the Basques dealing with their nationalism, what it is, what it means and how it should function. This is, perhaps, the key theme of the book. Indeed, as a guide to Basque culture, what it is and what it isn’t, its relationship to Spain and Spanish culture, how it has changed and is changing and what it really means to be Basque as opposed to the tourist view of being Basque, this book is a first-class guide. However, this review of Basqueness is in no way intrusive but fully integrated into the story and structure of the book.

Another key theme of the book is one we have seen elsewhere in literature, namely the idea of the outsider coming into to a group and disrupting it. This is the case with Lynn. (The book insists on calling her girl but she is a trained sociologist and highly educated woman.) Martin has met her and she is now renting his upstairs room. She is also working with Harri on an epidemiology study. However, she has an effect on many of the characters. Abaitua is attracted to her, as is Martin. Julia is somewhat jealous of her, while Harri very much likes her. In various ways, she has an impact on the lives of all four.

One very clever touch is the reference to an author (Flaubert) and to a book – Max Frisch‘s Montauk. Martin admires Flaubert. As we have seen, he wants to write a novel about nothing, like Flaubert. Like Flaubert, he wants to go and live in Italy, specifically Syracuse in Sicily, when his mother dies. There are other references to Flaubert throughout the book.

However, it is Montauk that is key to this novel, as regards the plot, the theme, writing and translation. As regards the plot, Harri’s story about the man on the flight, mentioned in the third paragraph above, is key. The man spills his books and when she helps him pick them up, he offers her a copy of a book. The book is the Spanish translation of Montauk. She will spend much time and effort trying to find him, even though we know who he is very early on and, indeed he plays a fairly important role in the book, besides his connection with Harri.

One of the key characters in Montauk is called Lynn, a woman who has an affair with a much older man. This is, of course, paralleled in this book. Several of the main characters read the book and, indeed, the English, French and Spanish translations (and later the German original) are not only circulate but are compared and criticised, as are other Frisch books. It is even suggested that Julia translate the book into Basque. Martin very much admires the book, as do the others. It will appear again and again throughout this book and offer something of a guide to the plot of this novel.

Saizarbitoria clearly has something of a cynical view of his profession. The dream of young writers is no longer to be remembered; they want success, money, and fame, a four-star chef to come and greet them at their table, they want to have a beautiful yard or a mansion on the coast where they can go to be alone and as well as having a product that a hundred thousand people will be able to read, the writer himself becomes a brand image for promotional purposes and a suitable rhythm of production has to be kept up. This is not, he says, limited to writing. Indeed, it is clear that he has something of a cynical attitude to the way the world is going. Indeed, he mentions it in reference to things Basque. None of the things that are sold as being Basque — béret, maison, linge, gâteau, and so on — are at all Basque. (Though he does not mention it, they are probably all made in China.)

While struggling with his novel, Martin is writing a series of short stories about a couple, Flora Ugalde and Faustino Iturbe. These two are clearly based on Julia and Martin. Indeed, Julia, who is translating the stories from Basque to Spanish, admits that there are clearly bits of her in Flora Ugalde. She is sometimes upset to find that what she considered private parts of their life together appear in the stories. Indeed, Martin even uses the stories to send messages to Julia. Clearly, as with Montauk, Saizarbitoria is paralleling the story within the story and the main story.

Relationships are also key to this book. All the main relationships in this book are in trouble. All four partners in the two main couples are having or have had affairs outside the relationship. Harri is actively looking for another man, not least because she is more or less bored with her husband and, though she does not know this, the man she is looking for is breaking up with his wife. In short, there is no happy relationship in this book. Whether this is intended to be symbolic of the Basque country’s relationship with Spain, I am not sure.

Death is also key to this book, as it must be in any great novel. Two of the characters lose a parent during the course of the book. Three of the main characters work in the medical progression and are very much exposed to death. Indeed, we get some graphic descriptions of medical procedures which do not always go as planned. The ETA attacks – both bombings and assassinations – appear throughout the books and, even though they are less frequent than before, they are still a threat, with two characters fearing the possibility of being assassinated. And where death is not to the fore, violence is. Nobody can deny there’s been considerable tolerance for violence in the Basque-speaking world. Many writers and particularly our people’s poets — the bertsolaris — have encouraged it.. This could also be a symbol – for the threat to Basque culture.

With such a long novel, it is impossible to describe its richness. It is full of both humour and sadness. People struggle with life, some more effectively than others. A culture is under threat but still very much alive. Basque writers are writing but young people seem to be speaking Basque less – one child says it is only a language spoken at school. People struggle with their relationships. People get ill and people die. Life and living life seem to have a fragility which the main characters – both the humans but also the nation as a whole – struggle with. Saizarbitoria is clearly a first-class writer and tells a complex story very well, without letting up, delving into troubled relationships and showing us his culture in all of its many facets. Is it the Great Basque Novel? I am not even vaguely competent to judge that but it certainly is a first-class Basque novel. We must be grateful to Hispabooks, a Madrid-based publishing house specializing in contemporary Spanish fiction in English-language translation, for extending their range to include both Basque and Catalan writers.

Publishing history

First published in Basque 2012 by Erein Argitaletxeaa
First English translation 2016 by Hispabooks
Translated by Madalen Saizarbitoria