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from the October 2016 issue

“Martutene” by Ramon Saizarbitoria

Reviewed by Carolyn Silveira

A disruptive romance as metaphor for the complexities of contemporary ethnic and political Basque identity.

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.

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