その声 聞こえて、大きくなったから、姉さんも わたしも、
声が 声サ 手ェかけて、
いっしょに 火の元 のぞきこんでる
瞳が 火色に 透けていました
In Those Days and These: Multilingual Singapore
Martutene is the eighth novel by Basque writer Ramon Saizarbitoria, a sociologist who has also published books of economics, perinatology, and poetry. The novel’s name refers to a neighborhood in San Sebastian, which once had “baserris, large apple orchards, rich kitchen gardens that were fertilized using waste material brought from the tobacco factory . . . and elegant Belle Epoque mansions with beautiful gardens.” Saizarbitoria creates, in his winding exploration of contemporary Basque society, a novel as large as the stately old mansion at its center, with room enough to house his wide-ranging intellectual interests: Literature, music, painting, medical ethics and sociology, history, and translation.
The home belongs to a mercurial writer named Martin, who shares it with his longtime girlfriend/translator, Julia, and his new tenant, an American woman named Lynn. His friend Harri has just fallen in love at first sight with a mysterious man at the airport, who tried to give her a copy of the book Montauk by Max Frisch. Harri’s search for the mystery man runs to absurd lengths, at turns comedic and pathetic, and functions as a slow-speed chase through Martutene, with the reader knowing nearly from the start that he’s practically under her nose. But it is only one of the many veins of narrative braided into this book.
Lynn the tenant adores Montauk, which is a novelization of the author’s affair with a younger woman, also named Lynn. Lynn’s business in San Sebastian is participating in a sociological study at Harri’s hospital, where she meets Dr. Abaitua, an older OB/GYN who is mired in the fears, compromises, and constrictions of his own life. He and his wife, just like Martin and Julia, are living in relationships operating mostly on muscle memory, avoidance, and the slow-burning fuel of resentment.
These older characters, languishing from professional and emotional stasis, all think the young American will lift their spirits. And indeed she does set them into motion, helping Harri chase down her mystery man, and encouraging Julia to pursue her own writing. Just like her literary twin, she also has an affair––with Dr. Abaitua––that will change both their fates. And running through the whole book is Montauk, whose plot is the subject of many of their conversations as it also refracts various facets of their own relationships.
Saizarbitoria and Lynn both believe that art imitates life imitating art––or, to put it more mystically, that they are inseparable. Would you believe me if I told you that while I was reading Martutene, I encountered Montauk, a book published in 1975, on the table at the McNally Jackson bookstore in Manhattan, looking up at me with its vibrant new aqua cover and bold title? It’s out again just this year from Tin House. I imagine Saizarbitoria’s characters would.
If you are a romantic, a daydreamer, a nostalgic, a food lover, a history lover, a linguist, a traveler, you may have already fallen for the story and myth of the Basques: The Basque hunted whales from rowboats. They probably sailed to America before Columbus. Their blood runs to type O negative and their language is without a relative on the European continent. They wear berets. They are built thick as trees and like to play handball. If you are a tourist in San Sebastian you might take a picture of some separatist political graffiti. You might eat exquisite food at a Michelin-starred restaurant and say to yourself, my god, these people are incredible.
So the availability of this book in English also presents an incredible opportunity to understand Basque identity and culture on a deeper level, from the perspective of some of its insiders, with a gorgeous level of nuance (all nations and groups should be so lucky as to have their inner life and emotional history so well documented). Martutene’s characters––particularly Julia and Abaitua––have parents who lived through the Spanish Civil War and themselves were young adults in the era of ETA. Now Julia and Abaitua wonder what legacy to leave their children. Do they encourage pride in their culture, or wariness of nationalism? How do they celebrate the sacrifices of those who resisted oppression without glorifying violence? What is lost when you compromise for peace? These are questions that should be attended to in every society. When Julia’s son comes back from spending time with family members who are still heavily invested in Basque independence, she muses:
There’s no reason to feel ashamed of the Basque troops, and she’s proud of that. A pride she has no reason to feel—children are neither to blame for nor to be credited for what their parents did. But she does want to pass that feeling on to her son, and she is sorry, in a way she wasn’t when she was young, that the old patriots have left that source of pride—the fact of having lost well, in the right way—behind them.
The legacy of the Spanish Civil War and of ETA reverberate throughout the book in the most fascinating ways, perhaps even more so for an outsider who couldn’t hope to imagine the myriad emotional and psychological consequences of so much violence, which repeatedly failed to bring about its stated goals of democracy and self-government.
The translation from the Basque by Aritz Branton reads wonderfully. In a book that dramatizes the act of translation, the retention/inclusion of both Basque and Spanish are effective and pleasurable, especially for those with some familiarity with Spanish. For example, the following could probably been have written with less explanation in the original, but deft translation allows the reader a remarkable window into the nuances of local culture:
The fat resident doctor says his extended family name has Etxebarria in it twice, ‘in the Biscay fashion,’ he specifies. On his coat pocket, it’s embroidered with the Spanish ch spelling in the place of the Euskara tx, which Abaitua thinks might be one of the reasons he doesn’t like the man.
In its eight hundred pages, the rich and even exciting plotlines feel as if they unfold slowly, surrounded as they are by so much other material, but that is also one of the book’s pleasures and surely why others are predicting it will be a classic. Like the Basque people, Martutene gives so much.
Limbo Beirut is a novel in short stories that most definitely requires rereading. Each of its five constituent stories unfolds over different spans of time and is centered around a different character. What unites them is that they are anchored by a specific time and place—Beirut, May 2008, when the ostensibly dormant embers of Lebanon’s civil war briefly came to life again. Lebanon had been stable after fifteen years of war from 1975 to 1990, and the country’s young adults had been born in war and raised in peace, with the war as a permanent, grim presence in the background. The armed conflict was the final escalation of political turmoil that began in 2005 with the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri and continued as coalitions led by Hezbollah and the Future Movement vied for power.
These details aren’t laid out in an expository passage––the basic facts would be universally familiar to the book’s original audience––but even a close reading wouldn’t yield much historical information. The slightly overlapping stories––connected by brief moments that take place in two or three of the stories and hold varying levels of importance in each case––retell the violence of that time in a way that nods to the fable in which several blind men grasp at different parts of an elephant (the trunk, the leg, the tusks) and, based on their sensory experiences, give radically different descriptions of what an elephant is. While this narrative seems at first to withhold the truth from the reader, it ends up conveying a collective, multidimensional truth that is richer than any one individual narrative. The butterfly effect appearances of the main character from one story as a bit player in another conveys a sense of community, and suggests that everyone, even in a city as large as Beirut, is bound together by a common experience. The reader might not understand an event when it happens but only when they see it again through another character’s eyes, creating interdependent narratives that have more meaning together than they do alone. This device, with its emphasis on togetherness, is particularly important in the context of war, which necessarily involves a fragmentation of community, of mutual understanding, and even of narratives themselves.
The 1998 novel The Gate of the Sun by Elias Khoury––perhaps the most prominent Lebanese writer today––took a similar approach in recounting a more distant historical event, the Nakba, or Palestinian exodus, of 1948. The Gate of the Sun incorporates the stories of many characters whose lives are affected by the events of the Nakba. In the epic sweep of his novel, Khoury captured a historical moment that was massive in its scope and consequence through an accumulation of the stories and myths of a multitude of different individuals. The shared trauma of the Palestinian people is recounted through dozens of fragmented narratives, a device that mimics the reality of diaspora. The form of the narrative imitates its subject.
Limbo Beirut is also about a traumatic event––the violence of May 2008 in Beirut––but this event was far smaller and briefer than the massive displacement of the Nakba. The narrative strategies used in Limbo Beirut paint a picture of the conflict of 2008 that emerges as an eruption of violence in the midst of an uneasy, unstable peace.
Violence enters into the lives of characters dogged by neuroses and uncertainties that seem to mirror their environments. Walid, the central character of Part One, watches the media say in the run-up to May 2008 “that the government was fighting itself, that the country hated itself, that an explosion was inevitably coming.” Similarly, Walid’s body is fighting itself––he has an ulcer brought on by consuming basically nothing but coffee and cigarettes––and he is wracked by an inner conflict resulting from the fact that he was never able to reveal his sexual orientation to his father, no matter how much he loved him. Walid never explodes in the way the country does––he is too timid for that––but he nevertheless observes that “this war, so very well organized, so very limited, so very local . . . resembled his brain.”
Salwa, the protagonist of Part Three, identifies more with the war in the past, the one that defined her childhood. She manifests what also seems like a kind of Stockholm syndrome for this time in her life, a period that she spent mostly inside for safety, tearing through magazines dedicated solely to crossword puzzles: “She wouldn’t be exaggerating if she said that these magazines were the war for her.” Crossword puzzles generate a sense of a knowable and interconnected universe; the cruciverbalist decrypts what is encrypted to populate an organized and self-contained little world of black and white boxes. At the same time, clues reach into every area of knowledge so that each puzzle seems to span the entire universe. For Salwa, each clue––“the ancient Canaanite god of the sea” or “an Umm Kulthum song based on a melody by Riyad el Sunbati”––is as evocative as a Proust madeleine. Perhaps this is why she is so dejected when she sees these puzzle magazines progressively disappear from newsstands at the same time as the war fades from people’s memories. As an adult she remains obsessed with crossword puzzles to the point where she is almost seriously injured in her quest for a magazine issue she might not have found and gone through yet. That which gave Salwa comfort in the first war puts her in danger at the outset of the second war––she is hit by a car when crossing the street to look at a magazine, and is rushed to the hospital, but the casualties of the violence clog up the halls, impeding her access to medical care.
All in all, this is a bizarre episode, one that could be read as a straightforward condemnation of dwelling on the past––perhaps a parallel to the way the 2008 war can seem like a resurgence of the 1975–90 war. But that’s too simplistic. What really puts Salwa in harm’s way is a universal reflex of people who have experienced trauma: to preserve and perpetuate a coping mechanism long after the occurrence of the trauma that made it necessary. And isn’t that the way history seems to always work, every action generating an equally harmful overcorrection?