Sunday, March 30, 2008

European Literature

January 6, 2008

The Accordionist's Son by Bernardo Atxaga

“All books, even the harshest, embellish life,” declares David Imaz, the principal narrator of this superb novel. He’s earned the right to say so and the right to be wrong. It’s not smug literary theory but a recognition of the complex relationship between what happens to us and what we say about it. The book moves skilfully between David’s time in America in the 1990s, his youth in the Basque country in the 1960s and the experiences of his parents’ generation during the Spanish civil war.

At its heart, it’s a wholly convincing account of families and friendship. We meet David’s teenage friends as they play, quarrel and develop rivalries and loyalties; we share his desperately painful suspicions about his father’s support of fascist atrocities and the drowsy eroticism of his feelings for Virginia – “ la paysanne” – who is betrothed to a sailor; we witness his delicate courtship of his American wife, with all the tenderness and strangeness of flirtation and unspoken love. Like Josef Skvorecky and Milan Kundera, Bernardo Atxaga excels in portraying youthful rites of passage against a merciless, often mendacious history.

The history goes deep. As a boy, David is aware of the much older Virgilian world of shepherds and wolves, and the growing and grinding of grain. There are echoes of Petronius, Ovid and Martial; the “hissing leaves” speak with Virginia’s voice and the toads croak harsh warnings. But the “ancient people” among whom he grows up are already losing their memories. Motorbikes appear beside the horses, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s hits feature on the radio, contrasting with the “sadder music” of the accordion songs that David learns from his father. To his American children, his memories will seem “from another galaxy”.

History’s worst cruelty is that a civil war is never finished. David sees old lists mentioning locals who were shot and tries vainly to forget them. Another narrator (these shifts in perspective are achieved smoothly) describes horrifying reprisals and a pool of blood on the ground. A hiding place used in the 1930s is needed 30 years later as Franco’s police sniff out subversion. The mere fact of speaking Basque or not playing the accordion for a ceremony becomes a political act; victims become executioners.

Language and loss are intimately connected. David’s country friends said “happy” or “unhappy”, not “obsessive” or “paranoid”. His student friends, however, say “alienation” as naturally as the peasants say “ mitxirrika” when they point to a butterfly. There is not a sermon here about what is or isn’t authentic, and no moral sleight of hand to prove one way of life inherently superior.

What counts most is true feeling and intensity. David’s premature death is mentioned on page two, and its approach is sensed throughout the final pages. In between, the killing of a horse, a bird or an insect are all the more moving for being placed against the atrocities that human beings perform on one another. Even as David meets his wife, he notices the baleful movement of a clock’s pendulum. But death doesn’t have the last word. Atxaga’s dextrous interweaving of themes and vibrant evocation of people and places make the book not an embellishment of life but a celebration of its richness.

Harvill Secker £18.99 pp400

Saturday, March 29, 2008

(A Very Good) Haiku

to convey one's mood
in seventeen syllables
is very diffic

by John Cooper Clarke

Friday, March 28, 2008

Quote of the Day

"Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand."

Albert Einstein

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Bella Italia

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Free Tibet (2)

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

To My Love...

... Despite all the storms.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Sunday, March 16, 2008

Maioha, Ivy Mae

Friday, March 14, 2008


(From The Economist)

NO LONGER is José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero the accidental prime minister. In March 2004, luck helped to bring the leader of Spain's Socialists to power: he was trailing in the polls until a cack-handed attempt by the ruling centre-right People's Party to blame the Madrid train bombings three days before the election on Basque separatists. This time he consistently led his PP rival, Mariano Rajoy, and duly won re-election on March 9th. Yet his second term promises to be far harder than his first.

For one thing, the Socialists again fell short of an absolute majority in parliament, so Mr Zapatero will need a regional party's backing (see article). His best bet is to dump the left-wing Catalan separatists in favour of their moderate rivals, Convergence and Union (CiU). The CiU may well demand still more autonomy for Catalonia, but it is broadly liberal on economic policy. This matters, for the economy will be Mr Zapatero's biggest headache.

Spain has been one of the European Union's biggest success stories. Thanks to the macroeconomic stability afforded by the euro, lavish EU subsidies, a property boom and a huge influx of immigrant workers, the economy has grown by some 4% a year. Over the past four years, Spain has created two-thirds of all new jobs in the euro area's biggest four countries. But the good times have come to an abrupt end. GDP growth has slowed sharply, unemployment has shot up, house prices are falling and inflation has risen. EU money is running out and immigration will follow the economy down. Consumer confidence is at a 13-year low.

Spain's vote was the first post-credit-crunch election in a big Western country. Economic woes did indeed cost Mr Zapatero some support. Yet he persuaded many voters that the slowdown was not really his fault; and that the sensible choice in such risky times was his reliable finance minister, Pedro Solbes. The PP failed to come up with a convincing cure for the ailing economy. Mr Solbes presides over a healthy budget surplus worth 2% of GDP, giving him plenty of room for tax cuts and a splurge of public spending on infrastructure.

Yet fiscal expansion will not be enough, for the end of the good times is exposing deeper weaknesses. Successive Spanish governments worked strenuously to get the country into the euro, then sat back, accepting the benefits in lower inflation and interest rates, but failing to promote the more competitive markets that the discipline of euro membership requires. Spanish labour laws are too restrictive. Rising costs are denting the competitiveness of manufacturing, which makes up a big chunk of the economy. Productivity is held back by poor education and training. Immigration and the property bubble made up for these failings for a while, but no longer.

In search of bipartisanship

Economic liberalisation is hard, as many other European governments have found, because reforms tend to be fiercely opposed by unions and other vested interests. That makes it desirable to seek bipartisan support for the more controversial ones, such as labour-law changes. In the past four years, Spanish politics has been characterised by a rancorous bitterness. But Mr Rajoy's concession speech was dignified, and Mr Zapatero wisely responded with a promise to work “without tension, without confrontation”.

Defusing Spain's regional tensions also demands a new bipartisanship. Here Mr Zapatero threw caution to the winds in his first term, drawing up a new statute for the Catalans and negotiating with ETA, the violent Basque separatist group, in the teeth of PP opposition. Yet the Catalans always seem to demand more concessions, and other regions tend to copy them. The talks with ETA failed (the terrorists seem to have been responsible for the killing of a retired Socialist councillor in the Basque country two days before the election). And Basque nationalists are threatening to go ahead with a referendum this autumn on their future status in Spain.

Unity among politicians helps solve big questions of national identity. Britain had to adopt a bipartisan approach to settle its Northern Ireland problem. Spain's experience suggests that it needs to do the same.

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Always Politics? Naaaaaaaahh...

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Free Tibet

Declare independence!
Don't let them do that to you!
Declare independence!
Don't let them do that to you!

Declare independence!
Don't let them do that to you!
Declare independence!
Don't let them do that to you!

Start your own currency!
Make your own stamp
Protect your language

Declare independence
Don't let them do that to you
Declare independence
Don't let them do that to you

[x4] Make your own flag!

[x6] Raise your flag!

Declare independence!
Don't let them do that to you!
Declare independence!
Don't let them do that to you!

Damn colonists
Ignore their patronizing
Tear off their blindfolds
Open their eyes

Declare independence!
Don't let them do that to you!
Declare independence!
Don't let them do that to you!

With a flag and a trumpet
Go to the top of your highest mountain!

[x6] Raise your flag!

Declare independence!
Don't let them do that to you!
Declare independence!
Don't let them do that to you!

Raise the flag!

by Bjork