Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The lone man

As a teenage Anglophile, when I wanted to emigrate to England, naturally I landed in Scotland - and remained for most of my life in the UK.

Recently I started studying Spanish, so what's the first book of 'Spanish' literature that fell into my hand? It's by a Basque author, of course.....solidarity of the downtrodden nations and all that, I suppose. No, I'm not reading it in either Basque or Spanish - Spanish may be easier than Lithuanian, but a language which uses 'deportisto' for 'sportsman', rather than what you might think is its meaning more logically, is a language with elephant traps.

Bernardo Atxaga's 'The Lone Man' takes me into parts of history (not that much history, really) which I have known little about. (Though sadly, I remember that my Scottish friends, with whom I spent my first years in Scotland, lost a friend in San Sebastian through ETA activities in about 1975 or so).

The book is set in 1982, during the Football World Cup which took place in Spain (how did this happen - it must have been awarded during Franco's reign which finished in 1975? They knowingly awarded the cup to a dictatorship, and a country in relatively deep decline?). In the story, the Polish team (with the real team names - gee, the research one does for a review) is staying in a hotel owned by a group of former members of 'The Organisation', presumably ETA. They are all rehabilitated, amnestified and free men - though no-one should ask about the start-up capital for the hotel; to obtain this they had used previously gained skills.

The leader of the group, a bit of a dreamer and philosopher, has got himself involved in hiding some fugitives within the hotel complex, for old times' sake, without telling his co-owners. The police is on to him, somehow, and it becomes a race against time to get the fugitives out.

The blurb says it's an entertaining thriller. Not sure about that - the book is paced quite gently with not a single car chase, and very little violence, if any. The main protagonist, known as 'Carlos' is given a book of Rosa Luxemburg's letters and spends much time quoting them and drawing parallels between her situation in prison and his current condition. He goes for walks, with his much-loved dogs (the author's much-loved dogs? They are very dog-loving descriptions), spends much time chatting to his colleagues, whose own lives are unravelling and re-knitting themselves just a little, and spends much time alone in the bake-house, where he produces the hotel's famous bread. But of course in the race against time there's the thriller element.

The book is thin on description, but heavy on relationships, and contemplation of the present and the past, including the recent past and that of Rosa Luxemburg. But it is not dense. It is much more demanding and interesting than an airport novel (though these have changed in recent years), but at the same time becomes increasingly unputdownable as you go on. It's very readable indeed.

And after getting stuck at 24 pages into Theodor W Adorno that is very nice, too!