Fernando Aramburu: Patria (Homeland)
Bittori and Txato are a happily married Basque couple. He is a successful businessman, running a haulage company. The couple have two adult children. Xabier is a doctor and unmarried. Nerea is married but her marriage is not doing well. One day, Txato receives a letter from ETA, the Basque terrorists/freedom fighters, depending on your point of view – and this point of view is the key theme of the novel. They are demanding that Txato make a generous contribution to their cause. To avoid trouble, he does.
Four months later, he receives another, higher demand from them. He feels that this is excessive, so soon after the first and he cannot afford it. He realises his life may be in danger, so he changes his route to work and varies his hours. However, soon after he is killed by ETA.
The couple live in a village where there are many who sympathise with ETA. Bittori decides that it is best to leave. She and her husband have a small flat in San Sebastián, which they bought thinking they might move away from the ETA trouble, so she moves there with her cat and with the help of Xabier. She naturally remains very bitter.
The couple had friends in their village. In particular, Txato was close friends with Joxian, while Bittori was close friends with his wife, Miren. Joxian and Miren have three children: Joxe Mari, Arantxa and Gorka, who will later become a children’s writer. Joxe Mari joins ETA and, as a result, Miren is a keen supporter of the group. By the time the novel starts, Joxe Mari has fled to France but returned, been caught and sentenced to 126 years in prison.
When she is on holiday with a friend (after Bittori has left) Arantxa has a stroke. Though she survives, she cannot talk and she is paralysed down one side. She has to use a wheelchair. Eventually, Miren hires a carer for her, Celeste, an Ecuadorian woman. Bittori, who was very fond of Arantxa, does not know about this but Xabier does, not least because he was also very fond of Arantxa. Indeed, she was the first girl he kissed.
At the start of the novel, some four years after Txato’s murder, two things happen. Nerea goes to London to try and repair her marriage. She will not succeed and the couple separate. The second event is that ETA announce a cease-fire. They have done this before so Bittori and others are sceptical but this one seems real. Miren thinks that they should finish what they have started.
As she does with everything, Bittori discusses this with the dead Txato. She decides, without telling her children, that she is going to go back to the village. She takes the bus and gets off at a stop before the centre, and walks in, in the hope that she will not be seen. Of course, she is seen. Many people ignore her. Arantxa, with Celeste in her wheelchair, sees her and waves, the first Bittori knows of Arantxa’s stroke. The local priest comes round and tries to persuade her to leave. Her response is to tell him that she will not rest till she knows who was responsible for her husband’s murder. Joxian also tries to persuade her to leave.
This is a long novel and Aramburu tells us the stories of all the main characters. We learn about Gorka and his obsession with books but also about his not always successful attempts to keep away from politics. He admits that having a brother in ETA gives him a certain status. However, he will later try to keep away from both his parents and his brother. We follow Arantxa, her unsuccessful marriage and her stroke.
In particular, we follow Joxe Mari and his violent activities in ETA. Joxe Mari and his close friends engage in various terrorist activities and we follow these till they are caught and imprisoned. We also follow Txato and his company. He has union problems and difficult workers and he suspects that some of the information ETA have about him is coming from one or more of his workers. We see the other side of the story, as the police raid the house of Joxian and Miren in the middle of the night, after they know Joxe Maria is a member of ETA, and deliberately cause a lot of damage. We also see terrorists tortured by the police.
Inevitably, the death of Txato and Joxe Mari’s involvement in ETA and his subsequent arrest have profound consequences for their respective families. Bittori is determined to find out who killed her husband though not, she says, for revenge but just to know. She writes to Joxe Mari in prison and asks him if he was the one. Xabier, who had planned to move away, stays in the region to give support to his mother. Of the five children, the two women have failed marriages, while two of the three sons never marry. Bittori is bitter, Miren remains firmly in support of her son and Joxian is horrified by what his son has done.
The final part of the novel focuses on Jose Mari’s time in prison. Not surprisingly, it is not easy. He is often in isolation. He gets beaten up by the guards. He gets into a fight with together prisoners. He does get a girlfriend – young women write to him, telling him how much they admire him and one comes and visits him for a while but it does not last. However, el antídoto más efectivo que tenía Joxe Mari contra el veneno de la nostalgia, los remordimientos y la sensación de derrota era el odio. En la cárcel le había nacido una rabia profunda y lenta [the most effective antidote that Joxe Mari had against the poison of nostalgia, remorse and the feeling of defeat was hate. In prison a deep and slow rage had been born in him].
Bittori, meanwhile, is trying to find out who killed her husband and trying to get Jose Mari to admit his crime. But, as Arantxa says, before her stroke, en esta tierra nuestra la verdad murió hace mucho tiempo [In this land of ours, truth died long ago]. Perhaps it is all best summed up by the motto above the cemetery where Txato is buried: PRONTO SE DIRÁ DE VOSOTROS, LO QUE SUELE AHORA DECIRSE DE NOSOTROS: ¡¡MURIERON!! [Soon they will say of us what they now say of us. They died.]
There is no doubt which side Aramburu is on but despite his sympathy for the victims of ETA terrorism, this is not a vitriolic attack on ETA. Even if he does not agree with them, he understands and even, to a certain degree, sympathises with them. He is, after all, Basque himself. The police and authorities are generally painted as being almost as bad as the ETA members. They brutalise, they torture, they bully, they harass. After the cease-fire, Miren asks who will protect us now? and you can see why. But the answer is not violence, particularly the random violence of the ETA, attacking those who do not pay the revolutionary tax, blowing up buses and killing anyone who does not share their view. Aramburu has no doubt about that.
This book has been hugely successful in Spain as people try to come to terms with and understand the ETA, who have formally disbanded but many of whose members are still in prison and many of whose supporters are still around. With similar activities elsewhere – the IRA, the Red Brigades, the Red Army Fraction (better known as the Baader-Meinhof Group), the Angry Brigade, the Weathermen, the Symbionese Liberation Army – there is no doubt that it will do well abroad and it has been translated into several languages already. It is certainly a detailed and very well-written fictional study of the subject.
First published 2016 by Tusquets
First published in English by Pantheon in 2019
Translated by Alfred J. Mac Adam