Author, Basque Country, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Gabriela Ybarra, Harvill Secker, New York, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘The Dinner Guest’ by Gabriela Ybarra

Fiction – paperback; Harvill Secker; 140 pages; 2018. Translated from the Spanish by Natasha Wimmer.

The story goes that in my family there is an extra dinner guest at every meal. He’s invisible, but always there. He has a plate, glass, knife and fork. Every so often he appears, casts his shadow over the table and erases one of those present. The first to vanish was my grandfather.

So begins Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest, an intriguing story about inter-generational trauma and forgetting, with a particular focus on the long-lasting impact of terrorism on children and families in the Basque Country.

Billed as fiction, it’s really a mix of non-fiction, memoir and reportage as Gabriela attempts to unravel the truth about her grandfather’s violent and untimely death in 1977, some six years before she was born.

But it’s also a deeply personal look at what it is like to care for a terminally ill parent after Gabriela’s mother is diagnosed with colon cancer in 2011 and moves to New York for treatment.

The book works by linking these two deaths — one very public and sudden, the other private and dragged out — as a creative writing exercise in which Gabriela explores art, politics, family and grief.

It feels seamless and hypnotic to read, a bit like a long-form essay, and includes snippets of newspaper articles and letters, along with a handful of black and white photographs.

Kidnapped by terrorists

The book’s starting point is the kidnapping of Javier Ybarra, a prominent politician in Biblao, on Spain’s northern coast, by masked gunmen — members of the Basque separatist group ETA — who broke into his house and bound and gagged his family, including Gabriela’s then 28-year-old father. The intruders took Javier away and warned his children not to call the police until midday. A massive ransom was issued.

Some 20 days later, when that ransom was not paid, the terrorists sent a map showing where the body could be found. It was wrapped in a plastic sheet and dumped in a wooded area. (You can read more about the case via this Wikipedia entry.)

Gabriela did not know that her grandfather had been murdered until children at school told her of the rumours surrounding his death. It was not something her family talked about. She was largely unaware that it was her father who played a key role as the family spokesman during the traumatic days when Javier’s whereabouts were unknown. Such trauma, such personal history remained unspoken.

Then, when Gabriela’s mother died in 2013, she decided she needed to learn about her family’s past, almost as a form of remembrance. It was also a way to connect with her father, who had become a stranger to her.

The private made public

The Dinner Guest is a strange but beguiling book. It makes public so many things which would normally remain private, but the story of Gabriela’s family has always been news, at least for people of the Basque Country.

Perhaps the act of fictionalising elements and putting family history down on paper helped Gabriela to make sense out of what, on the face of it, seems to make no sense at all.

The Dinner Guest was published to critical acclaim in Spain, where it won the Euskadi Literature Prize in 2016. It was longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize in 2018.

If you liked this, you might also like:

‘The Lone Woman’ by Bernardo Atxaga: This story follows 24 hours in the life of a woman who boards an overnight bus to Bilbao carrying a suitcase full of books and a packet of cigarettes. A former terrorist, she has just been released from prison as part of an amnesty. 
20 books of summer, 20 books of summer (2018), Author, Basque Country, Bernardo Atxaga, Book review, Books in translation, Fiction, Harvill Secker, Publisher, Setting, Spain

‘The Lone Woman’ by Bernardo Atxaga

Fiction – Kindle edition; Harvill Press; 160 pages; 2011. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa.

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.