Bernardo Atxaga

translated from the Basque by Margaret Jull Costa
Vintage 2007 [1989]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2019 https://dannyreviews.com/
Attempts to build larger works out of short stories often leave me cold, but in Obabakoak I felt Atxaga found a good balance between short story collection and metafiction. Its stories are tied together by the metafictional framing, by some recurring themes, and by many sharing a setting in the village of Obaba. They are varied, but most focus on a central character's inner turmoil rather than on an external drama.

"Childhoods" contains five short stories, set in Obaba but otherwise unconnected. Several involve outsiders — the son of a German engineer, a sex-deprived schoolmistress — or animals — trains taking horses to be knackered, a boy who turns into a white boar — themes which recur throughout the book.

"Nine Words in Honour of the Village of Villamediana" is a sixty page episodic novella describing the narrator's year-long stay in Villamediana. This feels autobiographical — it begins with a childhood memory — and comes close to "travel" writing, giving a feel for the geography of the village, the social differences between its two pubs, and so forth, as well as for some of its notable characters.

Taking up half of Obabakoak, "In Search of the Last Word" incorporates a dozen stories into a framing narrative set in Obaba. That begins with the first-person narrator looking at old school photos, includes some magical realism with lizards crawling into ears and causing deafness, conveys something of the geography and social life of the village, and incorporates literary exchanges between the narrator, his uncle, a friend and a stranger, who discuss writing as well as sharing stories with one another. The embedded pieces are diverse: retellings of an Arab story about a man fleeing to another city to escape Death; an adventure up the Amazon; a magic liaison and murder; protagonists linked to dead siblings; a medieval historical vignette; and even a couple of non-fiction pieces "How to write a story in five minutes" and "How to plagiarise".

Somehow this all works, at the level of individual stories and as a whole.

Note: Obabakoak was translated by Margaret Jull Costa from Bernardo Atxaga's own Spanish translation, not directly from the Basque.

July 2019

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%T Obabakoak
%A Atxaga, Bernardo
%M Basque
%F Costa, Margaret Jull
%I Vintage
%D 2007 [1989]
%O paperback
%G ISBN-13 9780099512998
%P 326pp