Bilbao–NewYork–Bilbao by Kirmen Uribe

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Translated from the Basque by Elizabeth Macklin

Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite

Bilbao – New York – Bilbao is Kirmen Uribe’s first novel; it won the Spanish National Literature Prize in 2009, and now Seren Books have published Elizabeth Macklin’s translation from the Basque as part of their ‘Discoveries’ series. On one level, this is a novel about three generations of Uribe’s family (or at least a fictionalised version of them): his grandfather Liborio, a fisherman whose boat was strikingly named Dos Amigos (“Two Friends” – but who were they?); his father José, who fished the waters around the islet of Rockall in the North Atlantic; and Kirmen himself, the writer. Through its tales of the fishing boats, it’s also more generally a novel about that disappearing way of life.

On another level, though (perhaps a more fundamental one), this is a novel about art, and what it means for an artist to draw on real life as source material. Uribe describes visiting the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum and viewing a mural by the Basque painter Aurelio Arteta (1879-1940) of people going to a country fair – this painting is at once a general representation of the changing social order, and a depiction of specific people. Uribe also tells of how Arteta refused a commission to paint a picture revealing the horror of Guernica (a commission that would go to Picasso), preferring instead to be with his exiled family in Mexico. The author comments that this is “the very crossroads an artist often ends up facing. Personal life or creation,” and wonders what he might have chosen in Arteta’s situation.

Uribe concludes that he can’t be sure, because he hasn’t lived through those circumstances; but still he had an analogous choice to make when transforming his family history into fiction. His solution, as he tells us, was to include the making of his novel in the text itself – the process of research, the interviews and correspondence. It’s here that Macklin’s translation really shines, giving Uribe’s novel in English that feeling of being woven together from strands of found documents, reported anecdotes, experience, and imagination.

Uribe uncovers some surprises during his research. For example, his aunt tells him about a terrible accident that took place in 1908, when a number of boats sank in the bay of his home town, Ondarroa. When he looks into the event further, however, Uribe discovers that the disaster actually took place off Santander, some 160 kilometres away. “The tragedy had been so huge that when [people] remembered it they even changed the place of death. They brought it nearer…Memory brought the bitterness closer.”

There’s also the old family story that José lost his wedding ring at sea, only for his sister-in-law Margarita to later find it inside a hake that she was cleaning. Uribe tells that he published a poem based on this, and received correspondence from many people claiming that something similar happened to them – but an academic then explained to him that the tale of a lost gold ring being found inside a fish is told throughout European history. Uribe reflects that Margarita belonged to a generation that lived through immense social change; perhaps old anecdotes like that were something for her to hold on to. “[T]hese stories themselves are the most important thing,” he suggests, “whether they’re true or false.”

So life twists and grows larger in the telling, and we can see that happening with Uribe’s novel, too. At one point, the author contemplates what his project might have been like had he focused on his maternal grandfather, a rather different character from Liborio – and we’re reminded that all this familial material has explicitly been selected and shaped, however ‘natural’ it might seem. Then there’s the flight from Bilbao to New York around which the book is organised: it’s ostensibly while taking this flight that Uribe thinks through how he’ll write the novel – but, as far as the reader’s concerned, it remains an open question whether the flight really happened, or even how far we should take the Kirmen Uribe character narrating Bilbao – New York – Bilbao as being Kirmen Uribe the author.

But perhaps, to follow Uribe’s lead, that doesn’t really matter. What we have in Bilbao – New York – Bilbao is a novel that slides from fact to fiction to the space between and back again. Ultimately, you can’t tell one from another; and the book becomes all the more effective for it.

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David blogs at David’s Book World.

Kirmen Uribe, Bilbao – New York – Bilbao, trans Elizabeth Macklin (Seren Books: Bridgend, 2014). 978-1781722053, 184pp., paperback original.

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