The Thumbnail Book Reviews

by John Q McDonald --- 26 June 2017

The Lone Man

by Bernardo Atxaga

The Basque nation spans provinces in southwest France and northern Spain. It has a unique culture and a unique language. The Basques suffered greatly in the Spanish Civil War (note the brutal bombing of Guernica), and under fascism. For many decades, there has been an on-again off-again seperatist movement that has been variously violent and peaceful. There have been a number of seperatist organizations, perhaps the most well-known outside of Spain is the ETA. Their relative lack of coherence is the sort of thing that plagues seperatist movements all over the world. It is a complex and contradictory history.

Carlos, our protagonist in this quietly suspenseful 1993 novel by Bernardo Atxaga (a Basque author most well-known for Obabakoak), is a former activist in an unnamed Basque seperatist and anti-fascist organization. He now lives a quiet life baking bread in a Barcelona hotel he bought with bank money stolen by him and several former cohorts. They are the beneficiaries of a post-Franco amnesty, but they continue to harbor leftist opinions. And Carlos, without the knowledge of his comrades, harbors, too, two younger activists still fighting the cause. He's hidden them in a basement of his bakery, and all seems pretty clandestine and under control. However, this is early summer of 1982, and the World Cup soccer matches are going on in and around Barcelona. The Polish team (Atxaga names actual players on that team.) is staying at Carlos's hotel, and, as a result, the place is crawling with police officers ostensibly protecting the players, but quietly looking for the fugitive activists Jon and Jone. Indeed, there is the threat of undercover agents and informers at every turn.

At first, it all seems fairly under control. Carlos quietly bakes his bread while managing the attention of the people around him: Danuta, the Polish translator; Ugarte and Guiomar the hotel co-owners; Maria-Teresa and Beatriz, his romantic interests; Pascal, a child who has witnessed more than he should; his energetic dogs who like to bark at the police; and another old friend and organization contact who also delivers fish to the hotel. Carlos needs to manage this crowd, to maintain control of the information he holds, the whereabouts of Jon and Jone, against the three-million-peseta reward for their capture. Throughout, Carlos is also haunted by voices in his head, those of deceased comrades, his mentally-ill brother, and his own troubled conscience in the guise of survivors of a businessman he helped to kill in a botched action.

The story proceeds at a deceptively easy pace, lulling the reader into a sense of security. Carlos, surely, will pull off what appears to be a pretty basic operation, to get Jon and Jone out of Barcelona and across the border into France. Meanwhile, there are assignations to attend to, private dinners and soccer celebrations. All the while, somehow Atxaga artfully ramps up the tension. When things come to a head, Carlos might have a less assured grip on things than he, or the reader, may have expected. It's a seductive novel, unique in its style and intriguing in its setting and context.

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