Fiction – Kindle edition; Harvill Press; 160 pages; 2011. Translated from the Spanish by
Bernardo Atxaga is an award-winning writer from the Basque Country, in the north of Spain.
The Lone Woman, first published in 1996, is his fourth novel (and follows hot on the heels of an earlier novel called The Lone Man, which Stu, at Winstondad’s Blog has reviewed). He has written another four since, but he also writes poetry, short stories and children’s books.
As you might expect from a Basque writer, there is a political slant to The Lone Woman. Set over the course of 24 hours, it tells the tale of Irene, a 37-year-old political prisoner and former nurse, who has just been released from jail as part of an amnesty.
She has no family or friends to meet her at the prison gates because “she knew that many of them despised her for leaving the organization and taking on the role of reformed terrorist, but she found it hard to believe that everyone felt like that, that all her friends from before felt like that, without exception”.
With just a suitcase full of books and a packet of cigarettes with her, she boards the overnight coach to her home town of Bilbao. There are a handful of other passengers on board, including a stuck up hostess, two nuns and a couple of strange men, whom she believes are following her.
[…] she too felt observed, scrutinized, persecuted, and she had the feeling that the eyes watching her were wrapping her in a sticky web that stifled her and trammelled her every movement.
As the double-decker coach wends its way slowly across the country, the narrative follows Irene’s innermost thoughts, including her worries about money and how she’s going to support herself now that she’s truly alone in the world. But the thing that plagues her most is the fear of being arrested when she gets off the bus, not for anything she might have done in the past, but for a violent act she committed the night before.
A meditative page turner
Deeply contemplative, The Lone Woman is written in carefully constrained prose, where every word counts, with a ripple of suspense underpinning the story arc.
While we never find out any level of detail about Irene’s past terrorist activities, nor how she got into the movement, it doesn’t really matter, for this is a book that looks primarily at the psychological impact on imprisonment and what it is like to suddenly rediscover your freedom.
After four years in prison, surrounded always by the same objects and by the same people, subject to the same timetable day after day, everything that she encountered outside seemed sharp and violent and dragged her spirits off on a kind of roller-coaster ride in which, with dizzying speed, white succeeded black, euphoria succeeded depression, joy succeeded sadness. The worst thing was that these ups and downs wore her out, sapped the energy that she was going to need from tomorrow onwards in the real world, not in the world of her dreams or on that bus travelling along an anonymous, almost abstract motorway.
It is also a deft examination of what it is like to be truly alone in the world, to face your past in order to move into the future and to seek comfort in artistic endeavours, such as literature and reading.
She took out a small key from her inside jacket pocket and opened the suitcase, thinking about the books she had packed. She wanted to have them near, to touch them, to open them at random and leaf through them. Now that she was out, they might not perhaps give her as much consolation as in prison, but she was sure that they would help her in what, to quote Margarita, was her “re-entry into the world”, because, like Lazarus, she had been buried and, like him, she had been restored to life.
This is my 7th book for #20booksofsummer. I bought it last year for reasons I cannot remember, and extracted it from my virtual TBR while on a recent week-long trip to the Basque Country as it seemed an appropriate location in which to read it.
11 thoughts on “‘The Lone Woman’ by Bernardo Atxaga”
I read this author’s Seven Houses in France and really liked it.
I definitely want to read more by him. I quite like the hypnotic nature of this one and it made me want to know so much more about the Basque separatist movement.
Like Guy, I read Seven Houses in France too (was that Stu’s Shadow IFFP jury, Guy?) and was very impressed.
How was the holiday?
I had a review copy. I don’t know about the IFFP.
*sigh* The perils of living on the other side of the world means that review copies from beyond our shores rarely make it over here…
Sounds like I need to read Seven Houses of France. The holiday was wonderful despite getting off to a bad start (plane delay at Heathrow meant we missed our connecting flight, the last of the day, and had to spend our first night in a crappy hotel near Madrid Airport). San Sebastián was beautiful. We had the most gorgeous hotel room, right by the water overlooking the entire bay, and were in the Old Town filled with dark, cool, cobbled streets lined with bars and eateries and little shops. We spent most of our days bar hopping, drinking local wine (€1.50 per glass) and grazing on pinxtos (elaborate bar snacks for €2 each). Came back feeling very relaxed.
There must be at least a chance that Europe in fifty years time will consist of lots of little countries – Yugoslavia’s already made a start. But you don’t say, did experiencing the geography of the book change how read it?
You’re probably right, Bill. Spain’s already experienced the very real threat of Catalonia trying to break free. Think it’s slightly more complicated in the Basque Country because the region spans Spain AND France. As to whether the geography of the book changed how I read it, I’d say no because so little is mentioned about it. But what it did do was make me appreciate the tensions a bit more between the basques and the Spaniards. It has also made me want to read more work set in this part of the world, which is full of beautiful scenery and reminded me very much of tropical FNQ with its forested mountains and pristine white beaches.