A sprawling novel of post–independence movement Basque life and its discontents.
Martutene is a tony residential district outside of San Sebastian, Spain, one of the most important centers of the modern Basque world. There, live two couples who, not having much else to occupy their lives ever since Spain granted the region autonomy, more or less, have slid off into a kind of bored decadence. Martin is a novelist whose keystone book, very much like this latest by Basque laureate Saizarbitoria, is “a novel in which nothing happens.” Dithering for years on a successor book, he lives in a kind of uneasy truce with Julia, a translator who reminds him daily, mostly without saying as much, of squandered ambitions. When she does say as much, well, does she: “What is it about this fucking novel that stops you from just fucking finishing it once and for all?” she thunders. Abaitua is a gynecologist, a profession, he jokes, that has allowed him “to get to know women better.” Perhaps not, since Pilar, a neurosurgeon, has grievances of her own. Into this milieu falls Lynn, an American sociologist who inhabits their world just as a character named Lynn does the world of Max Frisch’s novel Montauk, which is quoted and alluded to throughout the long proceedings; life and art weave and tangle, and in the end Lynn is as much symbol as character. But symbol of what? Perhaps of an assertive, all-conquering global Americanism. Suffice it to say that her presence doesn’t do much to improve the Basque characters’ behavior. Some of Saizarbitoria’s deeper themes may be lost on American readers, especially that of a kind of nostalgic nationalism—Julia and Martin’s house is overdecorated in the colors of the Basque flag, and it’s telling that when Pilar tells Abaitua off, he pauses, terrified by the look that’s in her eyes, to wonder why she’s speaking Spanish.
Saizarbitoria’s study of wobbly relationships is something of a Basque rejoinder to a Bergman film, for good or ill, glacially paced but rich in perception.