Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga is one of my favorite books. Certainly I have a little bias because it is by a Basque author, but it is simply a marvelous book, regardless of any personally leanings. I read it for the second time this summer as part of the New Mexico Euskal Etxea’s book club and rediscovered all of the charm and wonder that I first encountered over a decade ago when I first read it.
Using the fictitious Basque town of Obaba as a framing device, Atxaga tells a series of tales that are essentially independent short stories, but all with some connection to Obaba. Some take place in Obaba itself, others focus on people originally from Obaba. The town of Obaba serves to bring some cohesiveness to the collection.
I had forgotten some of the stories that really are great. Whether dealing with one man’s exploration of an old forgotten Spanish town, or the dreams of a man trying to escape his life through an elaborate crime, or even just the story of a man revisiting the mysterious circumstances surrounding the disability of an old grade-school friend, each story has a different style and different approach that individually explore the human condition in such a wonderful way, but collectively demonstrate the great skills of their author.
While the English version is a result of both Atxaga’s skill as a writer in Euskara as well as the translator’s ability to reword that Euskara into English, such that the line between author and text is a little blurred, the way words are used is just delightful. Take, for instance, this description from the chapter entitled “Nine Words in Honour of the Village of Villamediana”:
Imagine, for example, that you have a cockroach living in your house and one day it occurs to you to christen that cockroach Jose Maria, and then it’s Jose Maria this or Jose Maria that, and very soon the creature becomes a sort of small, black person, who may turn out to be timid or irritable or even a little conceited. And obviously in that situation you wouldn’t dream of putting poison down around the house. Well, you might consider it as an option but no more often than you would for any other friend.
That last line just completely changes the entire feeling of the paragraph. Or this one, from the same chapter:
What else was solitude if not a situation in which even the ticking of a clock can be companionable?
Overall, the stories, it seems to me, belong to that class of fiction that Borges contributed so much to, magic realism. These stories surprise the reader with their plot, but also explore those corners of the human experience, both the dark and light corners, that make life so rich, that make being human so, well, human. His characters all have their shortcomings, all have their foibles, and are the richer for it. There are no happy endings. There are endings that are happy, but just because that happens in real life at times. Just like real life, there are sad endings, and tragic endings, and Atxaga has all of those.
I highly recommend this book to anyone who is simply interested in a collection of great stories.