Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Lone Man by Bernardo Atxaga

Maybe it is because this novel is a translation of a translation that its prose often seems clunky and occasionally banal. It was originally written in Basque, tranaslated into Spanish and it is the Spanish translation that has in turn been translated into English.
Atxaga's narrative technique is also slightly unusual, much of it takes the form of an internal dialogue in Carlos the main protatagnist's head between himself, a nagging voice of self-doubt who he has named The Rat, his former Eta commander Sabino, and his estranged brother Kropotsly (who is in a mental institution).
It is a claustraphobic novel set mostly in and around a hotel outside Barcelona which is owned by Carlos and a number of other former Eta activists. The hotel is almost symbolic of Carlos's psyche and seems to have trapped him both physically in the same way that his past has trapped him psychologically.
It was bought from the proceeds of an armed bank raid after Carlos and the others were released from prison. They have all more or less cut themselves off from their militant past and are even critical of the direction in which Eta has gone.
However, despite this Carlos has hidden two on-the-run Eta members who police throughout Spain are searching for. Wanted posters for them are everywhere. Things are complicated because the Polish national soccer team are staying in the hotel during the 1982 World Cup and the grounds are swamped with police.
Carlos soon realises that there is more to the police presence than merely protecting the footballers and he suspects that someone has tipped them off that the fugitives are hidding somewhere in the hotel or within its grounds.
His colleagues suspect that something is going on and Carlos is forced into betraying life-long friendships and loyalties as he tries to pretend everything is normal, knowing that if the fugitives are captured his betrayal will land his friends in as much trouble with the authorities as himself.
His attempts to remain calm and act as if everything is normal while under the scrutiny of his friends and police (uniformed and undercover) the blaze of publicity surrounding the Polish squad staying in the hotel and conflicting voices in his head who keep dragging up his past all contrive to pin Carlos down further and further.
He hatches a plan to get the fugitives away from the hotel during a World Cup match between Spain and Germany and focuses all his attention in putting it in place. Atxaga prepares the final tragedy of this novel well, planting information and scenarios that only come in to play in the last few pages with a quickening pace that leads to a conclusion that seemed almost inevivtable despite earlier expectations.
The Lone Man is slightly uneven novel but one worth persevering with.


Fionnchú said...

Just before we met up, Tony, I'd been chatting with Carrie about this very novel. She liked it far more than "The Lone Woman" counterpart as a look into how an activist finds distance between the radical he or she once was and the mature person they've become-- without a plot that stoops to easy cliché, facile revelations, or silly shoot-'em-ups.

I reviewed his "The Accordionist's Son" last spring but found it too semi-autobiographically weighed down despite the inherent fascination of the only Basque writer probably translated at all widely into English. I suspect translation tripled may add to the impact, or lack of, in our language. For a non-fiction look, Mark Kurlansky's "The Basque History of the World" may make a good companion. Atxaga has a few works out, including a magical realism linked short story collection.

Tony Bailie said...

I think you recommended Artxaga to me John. The short story collection sounds interesting. I've read Mark Kurlansky's The Basque History of the World.