Gabriel Urza’s All That Followed unfolds in reverse. Readers are clued in to the book’s trigger event—the 2004 Madrid train station bombing—in its first few pages. But after the tragedy, as an old American man wanders the too-silent streets of Muriga, a small Basque town, it’s clear the bombing is only one piece of the puzzle. Muriga is intimately acquainted with “acts that erode the soul of a people,” and the bombing has “torn the stitches from a wound nearly six years healed”—namely, the kidnapping and murder of local politician Jose Antonio Torres by members of a Basque separatist group. It’s an event that’s haunted the town ever since, and in the ensuing chapters, three vastly different characters—Joni, the old American man; Mariana, Jose Antonio’s young widow; and Iker, one of the young men who perpetrated the crime—pick apart the threads connecting them to the young politician’s death.
Though questions about the Basque independence movement are inevitable in a novel like this, debut author Urza didn’t set out to write a political book. Instead Urza, whose family is from the Basque Country, strove to explore the inner lives of his characters, none of whom are quite what they seem. “On one hand, the characters are all really different—there’s an old American man, a young woman in her thirties from the Basque Country, and there’s this young kid in his teens,” Urza explains. “But all three of them are outsiders in similar ways.” All three hold secrets that separate them from the community, and Urza’s understanding of these secrets—and his characters’ complexities—is what makes this voice-driven book so remarkable. Urza was a public defender for five years and says the experience drove home the importance of building character depth, particularly when writing from Iker’s perspective.
“I think there’s a tendency that when you read a newspaper article about somebody that’s involved in whatever kind of crime, the person becomes the crime,” he comments. “As a public defender I got to see that most of the time, people were in court or in jail because of the worst thing that ever happened in their life—the worst moment in their life—and that they were a lot more three-dimensional than they first seemed. It really opened my eyes to the idea that there isn’t a world of good guys and bad guys, and that there are a lot of complexities that lead to crimes.”
This is largely the case with Iker, a 17-year-old boy who’s intrigued by the principles of the Basque separatist group, the ETA; but while he’s mostly interested in “drinking red wine and discussing the Situation,” Iker’s childhood friends become radicalized. In a last-ditch effort to feel part of a community that’s been making less and less sense to him, he joins in the kidnapping plot—with disastrous results. The other main characters experience remarkably similar cycles of alienation and violence. Mariana, outwardly a victimized widow, had an affair while her husband was alive to stave off the loneliness in their marriage; Joni, an American schoolteacher who’s lived in Muriga for 40 years but still feels like an outsider, bitterly leaks a friend’s secret to the police.
It’s in this way that, in the small town of Muriga, the political is inherently personal. In one instance, Iker’s friends burn down a school bus in the middle of a neighboring town in an act of political violence. When Iker meets Joni in his office at school the next day to discuss skipping English classes, he notices “the newspaper on his desk, the yellows and blacks of the burning gasoline almost standing up off the page,” and waits for Joni to voice the connection. In another, Iker observes a radicalized friend and comes to a kind of detached realization: “He still looked like the kid I had grown up with, the floppy brown hair and the crooked tooth that only came out when he smiled. But I didn’t know the person standing in front of me at all, and I wondered if he was thinking the same thing about me.” And, in a plot development that surprised Urza, Mariana begins writing letters to Iker in jail in order to understand her husband’s death and, in a more subconscious way, absolve the boy from the politicized crime. Ultimately, it’s Muriga’s tightly-knit community that both links and isolates its residents, leading to different forms of rebellion.
And although the characters’ alienation is magnified by Muriga’s smallness, Urza’s book describes a kind of universal isolation that can lead people anywhere to commit unimaginable acts. “It’s not a book just about the Basque Country,” says Urza. “I think it’s about alienation that can happen in a lot of communities, and the radicalization that can happen as a result.”
Miriam Grossman is a writer and editorial assistant.