Twinning and Coincidences in Basque Country: Book review: Martutene by Ramón Saizarbitoria (tr. Aritz Branton)
One can look at a satellite view of Martutene, a southern drip suburb of St. Sebastian, Spain and seemingly can locate the house where it seems the writer, Martin lives and where Lynn rents out the top floor, and the bridge that the doctor Abaitua crosses, and the narrow path, and the hospital at the top of the hill, and the train tracks and station. It’s all a bit of eye spy where the street view becomes a rabbit hole of locating fiction in reality.
This is the venue for the daily events of three couples: Abaitua the doctor married to Pilar and who has an affair with Lynn the research assistant (that’s two) and Martin the writer and Julia his significant other (that’s the third). Martin and Julia are obviously meant to signify the arts, and Abaitua and Pilar the sciences, with Lynn, or even Saizarbitoria (trained as a sociologist) as some sort of bridge. All the relationships are in tatters. There’s the foundation.
“My God, this is longer than sorrow!” said Gabriel García Márquez. To be sure this is a long, long, long book. One basically needs a taxi to take it anywhere. It helps to have a couple millennia and a large bottle of txakoli. Now try to ignore the ugly flag/tree bark cover design and settle in. For what? Well, the characters argue about the aesthetics of the cloud of milk in tea, they debate whether one adds the tea first or the milk first. They debate whether wearing a beret makes one look grandfatherish. Thirty pages are taken up with their friend Harri discussing the chance meeting of a man on the airplane, then seeing him in the airport, and then leaving in a taxi. They wonder about Basque life. The mundane becomes extended. here. Think of the minutia of life caressed by long memories. Reading this novel like being a child and squatting down to watch ants go about their business, in slow motion.
I’ve been trying to figure out the exact feeling I’ve had while reading this and I think I may have finally found it. There’s a magician on the internet who pulls a Kleenex from a box and voila, another Kleenix magically appears. He blows a bubble, then catches it in his hand, voila the bubble has disappeared! That’s the feeling. Everything is overly committed and somewhat piffling.
It’s been stated that Martutene the most important book of Basque literature since Axtage and Uribe and Unamuno. I doubt that. Moreover I’m getting tired of the fetish for the hyping up of literature because it’s from uncommon places in the world. It’s a playbook that feels like exoticism mixed with microaggressive fawning.
There are two interesting story lines in this big novel. The first concerns Abaitua’s affair with Lynn, however I didn’t find this to be particularly developed or resolved. Abaitua’s ongoing self doubt, his middle aged crisis, his getting fired from the hospital, his crumbling relationship with Pilar, they just aren’t compelling. The second is Harri’s search for the man she met at the airport, a theme continued for about half the book and then abandoned for no reason I could discern. Her story, if followed through, would have made a delicious novel.
I found the style of the writing much like that of Tom Stoppard’s worst work, a list that I would start with Arcadia. Ugh, what an unending vexation at Lincoln Center that was. I’m going to coin a phrase here: Issue Dropping. By this, I mean works of art that simply drop a Wikipedia subject title and one line sentence about various issues in the domains of science, arts, philosophy, music, whatever, as though dropping it is both deep and meaningful. It’s neither. It’s superficial and annoying. Arcadia is built on this strategy. Read the Wikipedia page about Arcadia and under “Themes” you’ll see the play is about this and this and this, oh yeah, and this, and that, oh yes, and that and this too. In such instances I always think of Columbo and his catchphrase, “Uh, just one more thing…” I’m guessing this stuff is beloved by the upper-middle who repeat the subject title at cocktail parties where friends nod thoughtfully and dutifully knowing that soon it will be their turn. Issue dropping doesn’t work here either. No, we don’t gain any meaningful sense of Basque culture or Basque history or anything really from the novel. Basque may be a dying language or not, Basque DNA may differ from Spanish DNA or not, tradition may be a respectable relic, a functionable tool or not. Issues are dropped and there’s a bit of gentle debate by the characters but really there’s not enough of anything to be anything. My suggestion is, if you’re going to issue drop to this extent, just say your work is about everything in the universe, then you’re covered.
At one point in the book, Martin tires of news stories that are like works he has notes for and intends to write or that are similar to works he has written, he fears being accused of simply coopting real life into his fiction. But why should he be worried? This is a book of twinning and coincidences. A book the mysterious man on the airplane has is Montauk by Max Frisch, the same book that Lynn loves and that is pressed upon or falls into the hands of about everyone else. Thus Frisch becomes sort of a co-writer who never appears on the stage. Saizarbitoria even utilizes some of the stylistic technique that Frisch used in Montauk such as heading sections with phrases in capital letters. Julia sneaks onto Martin’s computer to only to find a character he’s writing might be her twin. Lynn, the research assistant Martin rents the apartment to, seems much like the Lynn in the novel Montauk. Her cat’s name is Max. Abaitua undertakes a May/November affair with Lynn, much as the author of Montauk did with the Lynn from that novel. When Pilar discloses her last name is Goytisolo we think of Juan Goytisolo and his great Álvaro Mendiola trilogy. Eventually we wonder whether the novel may or may not be about Saizarbitoria. We ask because associations and parallels are important, Martin models this for us, and we want to go farther out on the limb so as not to be surprised later by a character’s revelation. Montaigne is quoted in the book, “I am myself the matter of my book.” I would add regarding Martutene, except when I appear to be the character of another book, or I appear to be living out scenes from another book. Did Max Frisch experience the events detailed in Montauk or not? Someone says (there are instances where it’s impossible to know who’s speaking) “Who cares about that, it’s all fiction, at the end of the day.” Harri wants to know for sure. “Please excuse me, I studied science.”
Abaitua muses, “Two hours to sort out what could have been done in half an hour. A way with words is not a strong point in our country. In general people approach even the simplest matters in circular movements that close in on the issue little by little.” He didn’t have to convince me. After reading this book, I’m terrified of visiting St. Sebastian for fear that someone will start talking to me; 813 pages was more than enough. This isn’t language play as found in Joyce nor is it the encyclopedic novel as done by Gaddis nor is it the perceptive characterization of Tolstoy, all authors who wrote long novels that are still too short. I don’t mean to knock Martutene too much. Writing’s tough work and I admire anyone who finishes a serious novel, especially one of this length. Just this alone deserves kudos. But I also know, as a writer, that we at sometimes just overstep our boundaries or intentions.
The middle of the book shifts the spotlight to Lynn but she then disappears for all but a brief goodbye at the end, and then to Julia, but neither character has been well developed throughout so their stories seem shallow. But in a way this is a comment on all of the characters who are somewhat surface and who seem to almost always act the same way. By the 3/5 point of the novel events started becoming predictable, like an author ticking off a manner list of gestures: Julia mostly talks to her son Zigor about his late father, Lynn mostly chastises her cat when Abaitua visits, she mostly asks if he wants a drink, she mostly struggles with his belt, she mostly wears her shawl and mostly leans against the wall as he mostly dresses to leave. Mostly, a train goes by. Lots of trains go by in fact, mostly when Abaitua visits Lynn. People turn left, mostly left. It’s a long book so there’s lots of time for recurrences.
Some interesting observations are here that comment on the way writers work and read. They ring true. There are a few funny lines, for example, “¡Joder, cóme te huele!” that I will neither translate nor provide the context for. Or this line simply presented as a non-sequitor one liner attributed to a Swede, “I’d rather you helped out more at home instead of going to so many Feminist Party meetings.” There are a few insightful phrases that are enjoyable, about Frisch: “A man who shakes sentences the way you shake a broken watch.” Wait, I’m trying to remember what a watch is. Is that something grandparents used to wear when they walked 20 miles through the snow to school?
No event is too small for a mental meander. Here perhaps is a good example. While at a movie double feature, during the break Julia observes those near her. It’s written in a style that I’d say is most common throughout the book:
“A large bald man dressed all in black suggests they go out and have wine, “porque todo esto es un rollo” — because all of this is very boring — and the girl takes him up on the offer.
“Julia stays sitting down, looking at the man, who hasn’t lifted his eyes from his book. At one moment, he looks back, as if realizing she’s been looking at him, and now she’s absolutely sure he’s looked at her and gets embarrassed. She decides to get up.”
Maybe this sort of shifting style mixed with colloquial phrases is typical of the Basque language. Often the writing reads like stage directions, “Now Kepa’s the one who gets up and moves toward the balcony.” While Frisch writes, “I live, not with my own story, but with those parts of it that I have been able to put to literary use,” Saizarbietoria seems to desire to put everything to literary use. Let no action, no thought go unwritten. Then why chop out action? I looked again on the street view. Why cut description? Why not add the concrete arches, or the way the street splits. What about the river?
Miguel de Unamuno wrote in The Tragic Sense of Live (1913), “The greatest height of heroism to which an individual, like a people, can attain is to know how to face ridicule; better still, to know how to make oneself ridiculous and not to shrink from the ridicule.” Maybe the characters suffer in this book. Certainly the cat Max does. When Lynn leaves it gets locked in the upstairs apartment for more than a week or two, hard to tell, but nobody seems to mind. If the characters suffer, they certainly won’t be ridiculed. No matter what happens they all remain stoic.
A good deal of ink is spent as characters discuss the meaning of Frisch’s prologue about how Montauk was written in good faith, but the middle of Frisch’s prologue seems more apropos to Martutene, fitting what feels like the entire reason this novel was created: THEY MAY RECOVER HERE SOME FEATURES OF MY HABITS AND TEMPERAMENT (original text capitalized). Yes that’s good, we recall some of the features and habits. They are markers, signifiers of the characters. It all begins to feel like a sort of sign that says, “So and so slept here.” Tough to know whether anyone enjoyed anything. At the end of the novel most of the characters end up at the airport together, as though in a stage farce that lacks humor. It is here that the book reveals itself finally: It is recalled that Lynn confused up the Basque word zori, fate, with txori, bird. Yes they all, Martin, Julia, Abaitua, Pilar, and Lynn, are little sparrows, who lacking any sense of fate eventually fly away.