Review of: Aramburu, Fernando. Patria. Tusquets Editores, Barcelona, 2016.
648 pages. ISBN: 9788490663196.

Fernando Aramburu wrote his novel Patria (Homeland) at a puzzling and ambiguous time. On the one hand, existentially speaking, people who suffer from traumatic experiences conceive the boundaries between the past and the present as blurred and find themselves in a state of constant perplexity. On the other hand, historically and legally speaking, these boundaries are cold-bloodedly delineated and a certain reluctance to expose and discuss old but still untreated wounds might appear. Both Aramburu, the author, and ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna/Basque Country and Liberty), a leftist Basque nationalist and separatist organization, were born in the same year (1959). Until 1985, the year when he left Spain for Germany, Aramburu was a close observer of the troubled political situation of Spain. For example, certain terrorist attacks that took place in reality are also mentioned in the book. Patria intends to put a comma instead of a period in what otherwise might be a forcefully finished historical and political narrative of the country (ETA announced the cessation of its armed activity in 2011). Aramburu seeks to reflect on the still audible and detectable echoes and repercussions of the complicated past. Literature in this case does not seek to replace or contradict but rather to complement history.

Many readers, even before starting the book, already know that one of the main characters, Txato, will be assassinated by ETA. So what are the main themes of the novel, if the murder is not a secret? Is it the depiction of the pre/post-traumatic lives of the main characters from two families, which live in divided communities and nations? Could it be the potential reconciliation and unification of once close and friendly families whose ties were cut by nationalism and terrorism? Txato’s widow, Bittori, is not that ambitious nor optimistic. Bittori only seeks that the second family’s son, Joxe Mari, who as an ETA member killed people in the name of a liberated Basque Country and is also linked to the assassination of Txato, ask her for forgiveness. However, it seems to provoke an opposite reaction when Miren, Joxe Mari’s mother, finds it impossible to blame her son and prefers to see him rather as a national hero who has committed atrocities that can be justified by the nationalist cause. Thus, the main intrigue of the novel is whether the aggressor will be able to assume responsibility, acknowledge his guilt, and eventually ask for forgiveness, which would allow Bittori to die in relative peace and tranquility.

Aramburu‘s language, as opposed to his narrative structure, is simple, economical, and visual. It does not distract us with unnecessary linguistic pretensions and pompousness. The multifaceted story, however, is told in a non-chronological, non-sequential, rhizomatic vagrancy through the web of personal memories when the present is constantly deferred and is doomed to lose against the tyranny of the past. It seems that only a sober reflection on victimhood and aggression, two concepts which are not that easy to untangle, could promise a less turbulent existence for the characters. Thus, Aramburu reveals history to us through fictional personal stories of ordinary people, a similar pattern of interwoven storylines used by his fellow countryman Rafael Chirbes (Crematorio/Crematorium) or by the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa (La fiesta del chivo/The Feast of the Goat). This pattern allows us to better grasp and visualize the lives of victims and aggressors and the circumstances which shaped these lives. Knowing that popular TV shows, for instance Orange Is the New Black or Master of None, also use similar elements of storytelling, it should not come as a surprise that Patria will be adapted into a TV series.

The novel raises many philosophical and ethical questions as well as engages us in a certain elimination of the boundaries between reality and fiction. Through the characters of Txato and Gorka, Joxe Mari’s younger brother, Aramburu demonstrates the impossibility of an individual to remain neutral and avoid picking ideological sides during a period of hatred and zealotry. The book’s fictional nature allows the creation of putative encounters and interactions with demonized Others, which may lead the reader to a thoughtful revision of his/her dogmatic thinking. Aramburu also offers us an ideological amplification. That is to say, we too often tend to speak of different ideologies as if they existed in isolation and were mutually unrelated. However, the author dismantles such an ideological reductionism and creates a vicious circle which consists of social inequality, nationalism, terrorism, Marxism, and the radicalizing and dividing role of the Church. In this circle, a comfortable and simplistic cause-effect relationship becomes indecipherable. In addition, Aramburu brilliantly shows what happens when ideologies expire; in other words, when the society alters so much that there is no acceptance and tolerance left for obsolete convictions and dogmas, and how it adds up to an already enormous personal frustration embodied by Joxe Mari.

The novel also deals with the universal problem of honoring, remembering, and talking about dead or living victims. Bittori does not want her family’s pain to become material for a book writer or film director who might win awards, receive applause, and become popular, while victims will keep living with their burden (Aramburu 552). This is when Aramburu enters the novel and becomes a character. He is a key speaker in a literary conference, which is also unconsciously and coincidentally attended by Bittori’s children, Xabi and Nerea. Here, victims, artists, writers and other people are gathered to commemorate the tragic events of the conflict, and in his public speech Aramburu tries to explain his motives for writing this book, which leaves Xabi unconvinced. Nevertheless, the mere fact that victims attended the meeting might suggest the relevance and value of Patria.

The novel is almost exclusively based on local occurrences and affairs, unlike Héctor Abad Faciolince’s Angosta, which is a perfect example of local elements being combined with eclectic global components. However, that does not mean that Patria cannot be treated as a global novel and appreciated by an international readership. Bearing in mind the recent referendums in Catalonia and Northen Italy, economic and social inequalities, and lack of opportunities in the grey zones of the USA, France, Greece, and other areas, we should not be surprised by the emergence of protest votes that feed on fears of otherness and find its form of expression and temporal refuge in poisonous ideologies. Aramburu explains how violence provokes more violence, how ignorance and fear of speaking up make attempts to enable coexistence reach an impasse, divide families and friends, and intoxicate the common sense of both Spain and the Basque Country. The novel encourages us to reconsider the nature of ideologies and to observe intimately the circumstances that shape the voices of resentment (Joxe Mari: “I didn’t join ETA to be bad” (525)). Aramburu’s 646-page novel invites us to eavesdrop on the characters’ monologues, thoughts, and sentiments, and implicitly asks us to postpone moral judgment, condemnation, or perhaps in some cases glorification, until a complete picture can be seen; but is there ever a complete picture?

Donatas Sinkunas
Western University

Chirbes, Rafael. Crematorio. Editorial Anagrama, Barcelona, 2007.

Faciolince Abad, Héctor. Angosta. Seix Barral, Bogotá, 2014.

Vargas Llosa, Mario. La Fiesta Del Chivo. Alfaguara, Madrid, 2000.