30 March 2007

Obabakoak, by Bernard Atxaga

This is a lovely, lovely book. Originally written in Basque, and apparently one of the few novels to have ever been written in the language, it's an absolute delight.

The text is a collection of tales centering around life in the village of Obaba. The tales are linked by location, and with some thematic connections, yet it's not really a collection of short stories. It's not a novel in the standard narrative sense, rather, one would call it such because it does what a really good novel does - it opens up a new world for the reader. In this case, it's a sort of shimmering land of dreams and passions, quiet late night reflections and yearnings. It's written in that precious, almost magical style, but without the now-cliche supernatural touches. There are plenty of wondrous things in the book, and they seem more so for the fact that they don't rely on magic - thus, one appreciates the beauty of life and its complexities, the unexpected and beautiful things of the world. I was particularly taken with this book because I've grown so weary of this kind of style in writers like Kundera and Marquez - much as I once loved them both, lately they've seemed sort of tired and fatuous to me. As though they were so pleased with their precious magical view of the world, and kind of smug about it. Atxaga doesn't strike one as being in some kind of mystical lala land of overwrought affected prose - the language is gorgeous, but actually quite simple. He doesn't overdo it.

It's also a wonderfully intellectual book with some very nice reflections on literature. The tone is often playful, enjoying the puzzles and complexities of its subject matter . Insights about the world are delivered simply, without that patronizing air of the mystic delivering great truths. Also quite subtly evoked is a kind of wistfulness about the lack of Basque literature - quite moving because it's confronted head-on, its tragedy allowed to speak for itself without being blown up into melodrama.

The book brought to mind, for me, another work - Olga Tokarczuk's Prawiek i inne czasy (I don't know the title of the English translation). It's a similar sort of work, a collection of tales about a small village. Both books sort of explore the rich inner lives of various characters. They're not exactly realistic psychological portraits, but they nonetheless somehow capture these intensely private moments in people's lives. Thinking about both works, I wondered what it is about the small village that seems to make it a particularly amenable setting for works of this kind. One could theoretically have the same kind of text about a huge city, but somehow it would be very different. There's something about villages, not just as a trope, but in actuality, a kind of isolation from the larger world that turns the gaze inwards. It's not that the rest of the world doesn't exist, but somehow it seems further away, and the world of the village somehow seems bigger. One notices details more, perhaps because there's less going on, so you have the time to really look at things carefully. Or maybe this is me projecting my literary fantasies onto landscapes, who knows.

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