Bernardo Atxaga is a Basque writer whose work I’ve tried once before, back in 2012 in the form of his novel Seven Houses in France. However, if you search through the bowels of the blog, you’ll actually find a second review, as one of my little helpers took a look at his children’s book, The Adventures of Shola, too! Both of these were brought into English by the inimitable Margaret Jull Costa, and she’s back on deck (along with Thomas Bunstead) for today’s choice, with the third taste of Atxaga at my site providing a polyphonic look at events close to the writer’s heart – and home 🙂
Water Over Stones (review copy courtesy of MacLehose Press) is an intriguing, hard-to-place work, a mix between a novel and a set of short stories. It consists of six main parts, many of which are closer to novellas than stories, with a so-called ‘Alphabetical Epilogue’ rounding off the book. The stories take us from 1970 through to 2017, and while they could stand alone, there’s a common thread running through the pieces, and several characters reappear later on, either as extras or as the main act.
What ties the stories together is the village of Ugarte, the setting for the opening piece, ‘Il était un petit navire… (Once there was a little boat…)’. This story featuring the mystery of a young boy who has suddenly turned mute shows us the tranquil Basque village during a golden summer, and the friendly people who live there. It’s best to pay close attention to all the minor characters here as many of them will crop up later with their own dilemmas.
While this is the only piece that’s actually set in the village, Water Over Stones never wanders too far from its spiritual lodestone, and as the years pass, we see how life changes in the region. In ‘Antoine’, the focus is on events surrounding a rumoured strike at a mine, with the main character suspecting some of our old friends of sabotage. A few decades on in ‘Orchids’, and we see that history tends to repeat itself, with more strikes in the news, even if the characters here are more concerned with matters closer to home.
If I’m honest, I found Atxaga’s novel, if that’s what it is, hard to get into at times, and on finishing I was left wondering what it was all about, and how successful it actually was. Surprisingly, the writer seems to have predicted my reaction, and much of the epilogue is actually spent explaining himself:
Given the boundless nature of books, we tend to simplify and reduce their various themes to a single sentence. “It’s about war,” we say; “it’s about a crime of passion,” “it’s about an expedition to the South Pole”; that, of course, is just a manner of speaking, because, in this sub-lunar world of ours, we have to find some way of speaking about it, trusting that there might actually be such a thing as eternal life, and that there, in paradise – in the new Byzantium or wherever – we will have more than enough time to hold long, subtle conversations. Until then, let us make do with themes. Among the many themes in this novel, I would put friendship first.
‘An Alphabetical Epilogue’, p.367 (MacLehose Press, 2022)
It makes for a lovely little coda to the book as Atxaga reveals some of the inspirations for the stories and characters, explaining how his own experiences were used in the development of the fiction.
Apart from the theme of friendship that Atxaga himself highlights, one of the themes the author emphasises here is that of family, and having finished the book, I can see now how important that was to the whole affair. Perhaps the main characters, if there are any, come from a family introduced in the first section, a couple and their twin boys. Later on, these twins, Luis and Martín, will both get their own stories, and these continue the theme of family, exploring what happens when you move away from home, and the importance of keeping in touch.
There’s also a distinct focus on the the writer’s Basque homeland and its nature. The second story, ‘Four Friends’, has one of the men introduced earlier completing his military service, but for a story about a soldier, it spends a lot of time in the great outdoors, with the main protagonists and his companions preparing to hunt wild boar, and even adopting an unusual pet along the way! There are several passages describing the beauty of the region:
The dominant colours in the sky were now violet and maroon; on the horizon, where the sun had just set, the clouds were an intense red. In the woods, on the other hand, it was so dark you could not even make out the trees. The Guadarrama mountains had vanished.
‘Four Friends’, p.119
There’s a slight tinge of sadness, then, when the later stories move away from Ugarte to the nearby town, and a sense that while life is easier now, something has been lost in the decades and kilometres separating the main characters from the village.
Even if Atxaga certainly knows what he’s doing, though, I’m still not quite sure it was a total success. These are all nice stories, but personally, I would have preferred a tighter link between them. I’d also say that one of the inclusions, ‘Daisy on the Television’ (describing an episode of an American reality television show that is playing in the background in two different stories), is rather surplus to requirements. Yes, it’s nicely done, and very clever, and it does continue the theme of family by showing how the people around poor Daisy aren’t exactly making her weight-loss journey any easier, but it could have been dropped, and the book wouldn’t have been any the worse for it…
Nevertheless, Water Over Stones is always an enjoyable read, and I suspect that it’s a book that would reward a second try – and would probably appeal even more to those who know the area, and the history of Atxaga’s homeland. While it didn’t completely grab me, it’s an accomplished work by an experienced writer (and two excellent translators), and the rather personal tone running through the book may well endear it other readers.