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The Accordionist's Son by Bernardo Atxaga

The Accordionist's Son (2003)

by Bernardo Atxaga

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Couldn't finish this book, so this is only a partial review. Atxaga was recommended to me as the best contemporary Basque writer who has been translated into English. (The person who recommended him says Luisa Etxenike is actually the best.)

Annie Proulx's endorsement on the back cover kept me going until around page 100: her notion is that the novel "at first beguiles us with its leisurely flow like a late summer river, but it is a dark river with streaks of blood seeping from the muddy banks of the past."

What stopped me from finishing "The Accordionist's Son" was the first part of that sentence. The first 50 pages are like "a late summer river," but that's to say they are deeply sentimental, treacly, soporific, retrospective, ponderous, steeped in the passage of time, powdered and scented with loss and history, bathed in golden light, muzzily nostalgic.

For example there's a brief chapter describing a wondrous cord that the narrator sees as a boy. It's like a rosary, and it has objects tied to it: piece of coal, a piece of burnt wood, and some coins. The narrator describes how, as a boy, the man who made the cord explained it to him: it was a mnemonic for selling insurance. (The burnt wood reminds us that even stable things can go up in smoke, and so forth.) Then, after the salesman made his pitch using the cord as a mnemonic, he gave it to the boy, saying that he'd never need it again because even with its help he was losing his memory; then he got in a car and went back to his home, presumably for ever. That was really quite enough heavy-handed nostalgia for me, but there was more: the narrator then explains that he'd forgotten the cord until he came to write the book, and then he realized he could "go from subject to subject just as the fingers of the insurance salesman had gone from the piece of coal to the charred wood or the butterflies." (p. 44)

A hundred pages in, blood is seeping, as Proulx says, but it's done in such a gentle, gradual, and grandiose and self-involved way that it made me more nauseous than sympathetic.

One last thing: the entire book is founded on a premise that can only be described -- as far as I read -- as a mistake. The book begins slowly, with a framing story. (There's even an "Internal dedication" on page 45, when the book finally gets underway.) That in itself was hard to bear, because it's the sign of a much older kind of literature, where the reader's enchantment increases each time the story is reintroduced, reframed. Somehow, for some readers, stories within stories increase the realism. The notion here is that the writer was the best friend of the author of a memoir, written in Basque. The author of that memoir dies before "The Accordionist's Son" opens. The narrator of "The Accordionist's Son" takes the memoir written by his friend, and tells his friend's widow that he'll rewrite it, adding a voice the way someone might clarify a carving in a tree by deepening and sharpening its features. From that we understand that the book we're going to read is written twice over, and should have two voices in it. But the opening of the rewritten memoir, which occupies most of "The Accordionist's Son," is about the dead friend's children, and it's written as if the children belong to the friend. But they don't! And the next section is about how the author of the memoir courted his wife. It is written in the dead friend's voice, but we, as readers, know it's actually written, or re-written, by the friend. The effect is bizarre, as if the author of "The Accordionist's Son" has stepped into his dead friend's life and is courting his wife. Of course you're not supposed to think of it that way, but if you're paying attention to authorship, you simply have to.

Awful, sentimental, annoying, hopelessly old-fashioned. ( )
  JimElkins | Apr 4, 2012 |
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David Imaz, the teenage son of an accordionist, begins to suspect his father participated in the execution of villagers accused of being Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. Twenty-five years after the war officially ended, political, even inadvertently political, choices remain deadly, but fear of Franco's civil guard neither darkens the innocence or exuberance of the young nor lightens the guilt of their parents. In Obaba, grudges and friendships are long-lasting and deep, and secrets are buried only shallowly.… (more)

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