Martutene by Ramón Saizarbitoria (tr. Aritz Branton). Hispabooks. 816pp, $19.95.
The 2013 publication of Martutene earned Ramón Saizarbitoria his second Euskadi Literature Prize and helped to cement his status as one of the patriarchs of Basque literature. A grand and audacious novel, Martutene is just over 800 pages and presents a nuanced perspective of the contemporary Basque experience. History, politics, language, and culture ripple through the characters’ daily interactions. Saizarbitoria dramatizes the best and worst of the contemporary Basque experience—national pride and cultural intolerance, as well as gastronomy and terrorism.
It is important to recognize the cultural significance surrounding the English publication of this novel. Saizarbitoria has published twelve books, yet he is most likely unfamiliar to most American readers of translated literature because only one of his books has appeared in English: Rossetti’s Obsession, published through the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. Yet he is worthy of much greater renown. One of the impetuses for the publication of Martutene in English was the book’s energetic reception in Spain; among other commendations, the jury of the Euskadi Literature Prize (2014) declared it “the most important novel of Basque-language literature and the top one in terms of quality too, destined to be the core of the Basque canon.”
Set in Martutene, a neighborhood in the city of Donostia (San Sebastián), the book centers on two couples struggling to maintain their relationships. It opens with a short preamble about how one of the couples meets at a conference on literary translation. Julia acts as the focal character through whom we are introduced to Martin, who describes the desire to write “a novel in which nothing happens” that begins with a chance meeting at an airport.
This scene sets up a couple motifs that run through the entire book. Martutene opens with characters in the midst of a chance encounter discussing a book that begins with a chance encounter. This use of parallelism, repetition, and commentary creates a sense of self-awareness within the reader that the text is indirectly commenting on itself. But this approach stands in contrast with other metafictional texts that often utilize a self-reflexive narrator. By shifting the focus to characters, the novel feels grounded in realism but still possesses a self-awareness that surfaces throughout the book in the sense of characters having destinies. This metafictional parallelism is most evident in the multiple conversations about Max Frisch’s Montauk. In Martutene an American sociologist named Lynn has a love affair with Abaitua. In Montauk there is also a woman from New York named Lynn having love affair. The overall effect is akin to reading a frame-narrative, like Arabian Nights, where embedded stories are structured in a way that allows for the manifestations of themes.
This chance encounter becomes the inciting incident that tugs at the plotline and brings attention to the author’s particular kind of realism. Early in the story, Martin rents out the penthouse suite in his building to Lynn. He calls her “the penthouse girl” but is unaware that the phrase is the equivalent of calling her “the porn girl” until Julia, aggravated by his use of the expression, points it out. But the term proves apt: shortly after arriving, Lynn begins an affair with Iñaki Abaitua, who begins sneaking through Martin’s yard for late night rendezvous. The voluminous lovemaking sessions keep Martin awake all night and exhausted all day. Lynn has fulfilled the role of the penthouse girl. What begins as pun becomes fate, a central theme in the book.
To a certain extent, Lynn reinvigorates Abaitua, liberating him from a sense of emotional chaos. He is a veteran doctor who has become accustomed to death, whose marriage has fallen into routine, and who behaves like an absent father. He is not a villainous character, just a bit apathetic. In one scene, he loses a child patient due to not reaching the operating room as a result of an unnecessary delay. The death deeply affects a naïve resident but not Abaitua, who ends up comforting the resident.
There are a couple noteworthy aspects of how Saizarbitoria wrote this scene. First, the episode is loaded with medical jargon, and, second, as Abaitua comforts the child’s father he doesn’t admit that he is responsible for the death. Nor does he admit it to his wife or Lynn. He obviously knows he is in the wrong. He has cut himself off from any sense of agency. Here Abaitua seems to use fate as way of handling the child’s death. This lack of agency effects his relationships with others, including his wife Pilar and mistress Lynn.
While deeply infatuated with Abaitua, Lynn struggles to engage him on an emotional level because:
[S]he could see that he was a man who was tired of life and that she wasn’t going to find it easy making him happy, but seeing him so tender and in such need of tenderness, she understood right then and there that her greatest adventure was going to be trying to get him to be happy. It was bad luck meeting as they had—he was already quite old—but finding the love of your life isn’t something that happens to everyone.
Just after the child’s death, Lynn invites him to help deliver a Peruvian woman’s baby in a farm shed a few hundred yards from a hospital. He initially refuses but over time comes around to the proposal. Together they deliver the baby. On some level, he reclaims his agency in life and seems to have exhorted his free will as a result of his relationship with Lynn. His new sense of liberty, driven by a new found sense of morality, plays out in a number of ways in the book.
So much of Martutene focuses on the characters’ inner lives. Lynn makes Abaitua become more sensitive to right and wrong, and this comes to a head when two colleagues, Orl and Arrese, lie to a mother who has just lost her son. They blame her for suffocating her son while breastfeeding. Abaitua finds this cruel and sees this as a result of their negligence—not fate. This stands in contrast with the previous child’s death. As a result, he tells the mother that she did nothing wrong and promises to help her obtain justice. If Lynn transforms his character and helps him to regain a sense of empathy and agency, she also helps dramatize his transformation and reveal his suffering.
In order to foreground the private lives of the characters, Saizarbitoria relies heavily on narration and the omniscient third-person point of view. For him, narration is more than a technique to summarize and consolidate. But this book isn’t a cold and distant 19th-century novel written from a godlike perspective. Rather, in many ways this text is an extension of high modernism; like Marcel Proust, Saizarbitoria uses memory to unpack the life of his characters, maintaining an involved relationship with them. Here, one can see how he presents the desires of different characters—providing emotional description for Harri and Julia.
Harri’s greatest desire is to inspire Martin to write a story in which she features as a character. But she’s unable to keep his attention for long. His eyes suddenly dart toward the pages of a book, or he turns the television on very obviously, and when that happens, Julia listens even harder, so that Harri won’t get angry. But her efforts are in vain, because what matters to Harri is having Martin listen, and she always gets angry enough to stop being polite.
This passage exemplifies how Saizarbitoria uses point of view to build scenes, that mental landscape being where most of the story takes place. Cognition and emotions are foregrounded. Martutene is very much about beliefs, perceptions, feelings, memories, and the associations of its characters. The story proceeds through this internal landscape, often progressing from one association to the next, as did Proust.
Saizarbitoria also pushes the text towards an encyclopedic scope that includes a wide range of culturally significant subjects. Just as James Joyce said that he wanted to create a picture of Dublin so that were the city to disappear it could be recreated out of Ulysses, so does Martutene create a fictive Donostia.
At the end of the book, the reader discovers a bit of the rivalry between Bilbao and Donostia when Abaitua and Pilar travel to Bilbao on business. Not only do they walk through the city, they discuss how Bilbao has turned its back on the Nervión River and how the Guggenheim Museum has transformed the sky. Once known as a gray and ugly port city, Bilbao has successfully redefined itself as cosmopolitan city that participates in the global economy and possesses an iconic skyline. Meanwhile, Donostia continues to live in the past and maintains a provincial mentality. So has the Basque brotherhood that existed under Franco’s regime transformed neighboring cities into siblings squabbling over this and that. In this way, Martutene contains history, politics, architecture, culinary arts, multiple languages, and every other cultural signifier that defines the contemporary Basque experience, using all of these digressions in an attempt to include the entirety of the Basque world.
As Tom LeClair states in The Art of Excess, “An elephant is not better than a butterfly. In fiction, the novel is not better than the short story; the lumbering power of a large novel is not better than the beautiful grace of a novella.” He continues to argue that masterworks take full advantage of possibilities and language to represent cultural wholes. Certainly that is what Saizarbitoria has done. But the story is ultimately about the characters, ending in the most dramatic of fashions, pulling at many of the book’s themes. One can read this book to gain insight into Basque literature and culture. One can read it in contrast to the scale of Tolstoy or the style of Flaubert. One can read it in contrast to modernism or postmodernism. But ultimately, this book should be read for the deep impression it will leave on its reader.
Jacob Singer’s writing can be found at Electric Literature, The Collagist, and the Colorado Review. His recently finished picaresque novel, inspired by corporate conspiracies, punk rock, and video games, is available to interested parties. He can be found on Twitter @jacobcsinger.
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