In May last year, the blood-soaked Basque separatist group, ETA, announced to the relief of millions that it finally had disbanded. The decision — which came seven years after the group committed to a cease fire — ended a long, dark episode in Spanish history, a decades-long terror campaign punctuated by brazen daytime machine-gun attacks and the concussive effects of huge car bombs that cost more than 800 lives.
A legacy of such murderous infamy demands a historical reckoning, especially in a country so recently gripped by another, though nowhere near as violent, separatist drama in Catalonia. In his new novel, “Homeland,” Fernando Aramburu — a celebrated and supremely talented Spanish writer who lives in Germany — conjures a grim and claustrophobic image of the years when ETA held sway in the northern region known as “el Pais Vasco,” the Basque Country.
Aramburu’s complex and challenging work — his first translated into English — revolves around the lives of two couples in a village outside San Sebastian, a picturesque city on the Bay of Biscay. The wives, Bittori and Miren, are dear friends, as are their husbands, Txato and Joxian.
ETA, which stands for Euskadi Ta Askatasuna — a phrase that means “Homeland and Liberty” in the Basque language — looms heavy in village life. Through threats, extortion and public shaming, the group attempts to enforce political, ideological and linguistic purity.
Inevitably, ETA drives apart the couples. Txato, a well-to-do shipping company owner, becomes the object of a shakedown by ETA thugs who send him menacing letters demanding payments to fund their operations. The letters are marked with an image of a serpent wrapped around an ax, a symbol of “bietan jarrai,” or the two paths of ETA, with the ax representing military force and the serpent suggesting political cunning.
When Txato resists, threats and smears about him start appearing in graffiti around town, turning him into a pariah. He is shunned by the cycling and gastronomy clubs that once brought him such pleasure. Even his good friend, Joxian — a foundry worker who lives in much humbler circumstances — barely acknowledges him when they pass each other in the street.
Their wives, once as close as sisters, find their relationship straining as Miren becomes more of an “abertzale” — a Basque patriot. Once, Miren and Bittori had spent Saturdays at cafes in San Sebastian, sometimes referring to the city by its Spanish name, and other times by its name in the Basque language: Donostia.
“They would start speaking in Basque, switch to Spanish, go back to Basque, that way all afternoon,” Aramburu writes.
Eventually, Miren is so doctrinaire that she harangues her grandchildren for speaking Spanish in her home.
“We speak Basque here,” she huffs.
Basque is generally thought to be a “language isolate”— a language with no relation to other languages, and “Homeland” helpfully includes a lengthy glossary to explain the Basque terms sprinkled throughout the book. A family tree would have been helpful, too. Keeping straight all the names and central relationships — as well as a galaxy of supporting characters — can be a difficult task made more challenging by Aramburu’s sometimes maddeningly nonlinear storytelling style. I found myself having to reread several early chapters, and finally succumbed to building a chart of the dramatis personae.
“Homeland” is no beach read. But once I caught the rhythm, I came to think of it as exhibiting a kind of sophisticated tidal pattern, with each ebb and flow — present to past, past to present, splayed over 125 chapters and nearly 600 pages — leaving behind new clues in the sand.
Readers looking for a deeper comprehension — or even a justification — for ETA’s armed campaign will surely be disappointed. Miren’s passion for the Basque separatist cause is amplified by the decision of her son, Joxe Mari, to join the armed struggle of ETA. When Joxe Mari is named as a “dangerous terrorist” in a television report, his sister — Arantxa — gets a phone call from an old friend: to congratulate her.
Still, Miren, for all her passion, can barely articulate a passable raison d’etre for her son’s terroristic activities beyond bromides about the rich exploiting Basque workers.
“She understands nothing about politics, has never read a book in her life, but she shouts slogans the way others set off firecrackers,” Arantxa says of her mother. “I get the idea that she walks through town memorizing what she sees on posters.”
ETA emerged in 1959 during the authoritarian reign of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco. The group, which espoused Basque cultural pride and anger over Franco’s brutal regime, squandered whatever sympathy it might have generated by continuing its terror campaign well beyond the Spanish leader’s death in 1975. Xabier (yes, another character!), the surgeon son of Txato and Bittori, offers a searing assessment of the group in a conversation with his father.
“ETA has to keep acting without interruption,” Xabier says. “A long time ago they became automatons. If they aren’t causing damage, they don’t exist.”
Txato’s refusal to submit to ETA’s demands costs him his life, and his wife, Bittori, sets off on a quest to find answers about his death. She meets resistance at every turn. Joxian discourages her; the parish priest, an ETA sympathizer, warns her to stay away from the village.
“She wondered if after so many years she shouldn’t think about forgetting,” Aramburu writes.
“Forgetting?” Bittori thinks, asking herself a question that generations of Spaniards must also confront. “What’s that?”
Manuel Roig-Franzia is a reporter for The Washington Post.
By Fernando Aramburu. Translated from Spanish by Alfred MacAdam
Pantheon. 590 pp. $29.95