Literary Testimony: Fernando Aramburu Tells the Basque Story

April 17, 2019 | 1 book mentioned 5 min read

As it turns out, Spanish author Fernando Aramburu and I frequent the same bookstore in the Basque city of San Sebastian. Cozy and family run, the bookstore Donosti looks onto a fountain, sandstone apartment facades in the Belle Époque style, and foot traffic that crisscrosses the circular plaza. As far as I know, he and I have never squeezed past one another in the little space not occupied by books in the store. However, two summers ago, it was there that I first encountered his monumental novel Homeland, which has recently been released in English by Pantheon, translated from the Spanish by Alfred MacAdam. At the time, the novel was featured on the bookstore’s front display and had likely been there since its publication nine months earlier. It was in its 19th printing then and had sold 350,000 copies.

I possess a healthy skepticism of the masses’ collective palate, yet the bookstore owners convinced me that Homeland was, in fact, the real deal. They gave me the novel’s thicker brushstrokes: Two Basque families in a village near San Sebastian are torn apart when the father of one is assassinated by ETA, the Basque terrorist group that the oldest son of the other family belongs to.

The 600-page novel tracks the two families as they approach an inevitable and fatal encounter and the decades-long process of trying to heal that follows. As humorous as it is heartbreaking, Homeland explores how various factions of Basque and Spanish society were violently pitted against one another for 50 years.

The novel has sold nearly one million copies in the Spanish-speaking world and will be coming to the small screen next year as an HBO Europe miniseries. Fernando Aramburu and I conducted our interview via email, with Alfred MacAdam translating Aramburu’s responses into English.

The Millions: Homeland opens in 2011 with ETA’s declaration of a permanent ceasefire. Did you start thinking of these two families at this time, and did ongoing developments affect the outcome of the novel?

Fernando Aramburu: The idea of telling the Homeland story using two families came to me in a natural sort of way. The two families are closely related.  There are nine people, nine protagonists who have their own narrative voices. The two families are made up of men and women of different ages and temperaments, with different life experiences and different destines. Combined, the two families constitute a small society. The ETA ceasefire creates a narrative situation that favors memory. Something terrible has finally come to an end, and the moment has arrived to turn it into a testimony, into a literary testimony as well. It’s also a moment for considering the possibility of reconnecting the social and emotional ties broken by the violence.

TM: Homeland tells the story of two families torn apart by terrorism and ideological fundamentalism, set in the larger story of the Basque Country’s complicated history over the past 30 years. Though the outside action is integral to the characters, they manage to be more than just a product of their environment—complex and complicated, they remain with the reader for reasons other than their political views. For those writers considering writing a work of fiction about the current fractures in their society (there’s plenty of material here in America these days), how would you recommend approaching the work so as to avoid the allegorical or polemical?

FA: I don’t think I’m in any way authorized to give advice to anyone about how to treat social conflicts in literature. Nor about any other issue. What I can do is briefly describe my way of working and my objectives. From the first sentence of Homeland, I knew I’d place my bet on literature. I’m not a historian, not a politician, and not a journalist. For me, words used in their musical combinations, in their aesthetic possibilities are as important as what those words can express. So, all my decisions must take into account the fact that the ultimate objective is composing a good literary work and that the work must offer readers the most complex image possible of each character. Other people can decide if I’ve achieved my goal or not. I’ve tried to avoid the two greatest dangers in any dramatic story: pathos and the subordination of the facts to a thesis. I’ve limited myself to narrating private lives, not historical events. I haven’t theorized. I haven’t made a judgment as to who is good and who is bad. I’ve never paused the narrative to point out anything on the ideological or political level. I’ve followed each character over the years and tried to have each one own his or her voice. All of that, of course, within the context of a novelistic structure. When all is said and done, a novel is a means whereby we impose order on human experience, always leaving to the readers the possibility of reaching their own interpretations.

TM: You are a Basque writer living in Berlin. Do you feel that this life experience, of living outside your homeland, affects your portrayal of any of your characters or the Basque Country itself? And has this geographical distance made it easier or harder to write about the events that touch your characters’ lives?

FA: The first 25 years of my life I lived in el País Vasco, enough time for me to get to know the habits, the culture, and the people there. I suppose that living far away has given me a panoramic perspective, the same kind a chess player would have viewing the board from above. Depending on the issues at hand, it may well be that such an all-inclusive perspective, one that takes in the entire chessboard, is preferable to the perspective of one who sees his side but does not understand the general sense of the game. At the same time, never in all these years have I had any problem with regard to travel, with verifying things, reading books and newspapers, talking with other people, etc. The fact is, the internet has cancelled distances.

TM: There’s an interesting literary technique in Homeland that I’ve never come across before. The book’s narrator, or perhaps narrators, would interrupt and supplement the narrative by asking questions in response to the story as it is being told to us. How did this technique come to you? Can we find it in your other books or is it something this particular novel required?

FA: It may well be that some other writer used that technique before I did. Don’t we always say there’s nothing new under the sun? I had no desire whatsoever to narrate episodes in a conventional manner, so even before beginning the work I decided that the characters would intervene in the novel in their own voice and that they would do so as soon as they had something to say, even if that were to happen in the middle of a sentence spoken by the external narrator. I also decided that the text, conscious of being the foundation of a narrative, would intervene from time to time. Since the text cannot speak, what it does is pose questions to the narrator, demanding more exactitude or new facts. From the first pages, I realized that this way of telling the story—it doesn’t matter to me if it’s a novelty or not—has immense creative possibilities.

TM: I recognized many of my family members in the strong female characters that populate Homeland. These are Basque women, typically older, who tend to rule many aspects of society, including even the speed at which foot traffic moves along the sidewalk. But for American readers who are unfamiliar with the Basque Country, what aspects of Basque culture and society do you think they should know in order to more fully appreciate the book?

FA: I’d have to wonder if the culture and social life of the País Vasco could be completely strange to the American reader. That reader might certainly find strange elements, but always within life parameters known to the American reader. For example, the mothers. Mothers are an institution for Basques. There are many mothers who are women of strong character, hardworking, brave, decisive, who govern the family and handle themselves well in arguments. The American reader will find a land where it rains a lot and where people have a great fondness for good food. People say Basques are cooks by nature. The American reader will find that the men tend to be of few words, disciplined, serious, and fond of sports. So, nothing that an American reader doesn’t already know, even if it all comes in different doses.

is completing his first novel, which predominantly takes place in the Basque Country of Spain. Excerpts from the novel have been published in American Short Fiction, Gettysburg Review, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, and Southern Indiana Review. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Honors College at University of Massachusetts Lowell.

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