A terrorist bombing in Madrid stirs up memories in a Basque town of a politician kidnapped and killed, an act that linked the political and the personal, in this thoughtful, ambitious debut.
The American teacher Joni has been in the town of Muriga for more than 50 years when an al-Qaida cell's 2004 attack on Madrid’s Atocha train station recalls a local episode of Basque separatist violence six years earlier, one of “these acts that erode the soul of a people.” In chapters that alternate among the voices of Joni; Mariana, the victim’s wife; and Iker, one of the kidnappers, Urza illuminates the before—from days to decades—and after of the abduction. Mariana remembers that while her husband pursued party politics in Bilbao half the week, she was having an affair with the young American teacher who came to Muriga to replace the elderly Joni at the local school. Iker speaks from his prison cell, recalling how he was drawn reluctantly from truancy and vandalism to violence even as he sought a way out of the town through English lessons with Joni. And the American teacher, whose early years in Muriga were scarred by deep love and loss that cemented him to the town, finds his friendship with Mariana collapsing in the wake of her husband’s death. Urza’s fragmented, cinematic structure can confuse with its disjointed chronology, yet it works well to let each member of the trio reveal a different segment of the town’s populace and history. While Iker’s crime grew from the pointless acts and energy of youth and Mariana’s infidelity was enabled by party politics, Joni’s long-ago lover could recall seeing her father shot by Franco’s men at the former army barracks that came to serve as the high school where Joni taught students like Iker.
The author’s family is from Spain’s Basque region, which helps explain why an American writer would venture into this fraught history, and Urza does so convincingly, revealing the human faces behind the masks of terrorism and its collateral damage.