The Prison of the Past


by Fernando Aramburu, translated from the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam
Pantheon, 590 pp., $29.95
Fernando Aramburu
Gianfranco Tripodo
Fernando Aramburu, Madrid, November 2017

Everyone is captive in Fernando Aramburu’s novel Homeland. People yearn for freedom and independence, and find only entrapment and incarceration. It is also a novel packed with accidents and illnesses. One woman is paralyzed by a stroke. One suffers urinary incontinence. Another faces an unwanted pregnancy. Four cancers are reported, three car crashes. A boy’s face is disfigured. A beloved cat is flattened. One young man passes out from the pain of kidney stones. Another is operated on for hemorrhoids. Three people consider suicide, while a fourth does indeed shoot himself. Not surprisingly, the dominant emotion is fear; the quality most in demand is courage. To complicate it all, there is the armed struggle for Basque independence—intimidation, beatings, Molotov cocktails, murders.

Essentially, Homeland is a two-family saga, spanning the years from Franco’s death in 1975 until just a little short of the present time. The location is an unnamed Basque village near the northwest coastal town of Donostia, or San Sebastián as the Spanish call it, where Aramburu was born. Although dates are rarely given, the story opens on the day in October 2011 when ETA, the armed Basque separatist and socialist movement, declared a permanent cessation of its campaign of violence, which had claimed more than eight hundred victims over the previous forty years. The head of one of the two families, Txato (no last names are given), is among those victims; one son in the other family, Joxe Mari, is a member of ETA. The question immediately raised is: Can the end to the armed struggle lead to reconciliation in a deeply divided community and in particular between these two families who, though once on the friendliest terms, eventually became bitter enemies? In short, can the characters free themselves from the prison of past events?

There are multiple threads to the narrative. Why was Txato, who had never involved himself in politics, murdered? Who did it? How did his death, back in the 1990s, alter relations among the members of his family and between the family and the wider community? Why did the adolescent Joxe Mari join the armed struggle? And now that he has been captured and jailed for multiple murders, is there any way back for him? The novel proceeds in a challenging, radically nonchronological mosaic of 125 short chapters, each focusing on one of the nine members of the two families at different moments over thirty or more years. The style is rapid, dramatic, colloquial, shifting back and forth between third and first person often in the space of a few lines. To add to the immediacy, Aramburu uses a technique of constantly questioning what has just been stated: “Txato got to the office early. Early? Yes, just after six.” “Joxe Mari did not really trust him. Why? I don’t know.” “They learned to…

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