Water Over Stones by Bernardo Atxaga

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Translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Thomas Bunstead

Reviewed by Gill Davies

In his witty alphabetical epilogue to this novel, Bernardo Atxaga states that there are “two kinds of literature, the kind that offers you a voyage around the outside of something (Scandi-noir murders, high passions in the Chinese court of the twelfth century, lethal acts of betrayal on an American campus …) and the kind that requires the reader to make a further voyage, a voyage inside him or herself.” A simplification, of course, but it does hint at the unusual quality of Water Over Stones. The novel draws on the interior lives of its characters to move its narrative forward and create empathy and curiosity. The characters themselves seem ordinary, and not typical subjects for interiority. But the reader becomes steadily engrossed in their lives as the narrative builds up speed. The settings are unremarkable, geographically separate but linked through their inhabitants’ lives. People and places are slowly established, recording everyday, even banal, thoughts and events (for example, a woman thinks about her children as she cooks lunch for the bakery’s employees, the boys befriend a new boy in the village and carve wooden boats, a soldier has a tame magpie, a man has a traffic accident, a girl is taken to hospital with appendicitis). But as these events and their consequences develop, there is a sense of fatality and of underlying currents moving the characters forward.

The above-mentioned events take place over a period of fifty years and appear in sequences that initially seem quite separate but are interconnected and developing. There are six sections, ranging from 1970 to 2017 set in the Spanish and French Basque country, Madrid, and even in Texas via an American TV programme. In the first, in 1972 a boy, Elias, is sent away from his summer school, apparently because he has attacked a teacher. Some trauma seems to have made him mute and his mother senses that a stay with his uncle, a baker in Ugarte, may help him recover his voice. Local twins, Martin and Luis, befriend him and their adventures include an encounter with a wild boar, a motif that will recur later. At the end there is a shocking revelation. This section establishes characters whose lives will continue through the novel but in often disparate contexts. The connections unfold slowly with a satisfying emotional logic. The next section goes back to 1970 and explores the experience of four army conscripts in 1970, one of whom – Eliseo -will (“later”) make a difference to Elias’ life in Ugarte. It is nonetheless a free-standing episode, almost a short story, in which the young men seek ways to escape the boredom of national service. Routines are broken up by minor misdemeanours, taming a young magpie, a planned hunt for wild boar – and end with a tragic event.

The next section breaks more decisively with those that preceded it. Set in 1985, it concerns a middle-aged Frenchman called Antoine, visiting Nadia, a psychiatrist, in Bayonne. We have left the woodland scenes outside the barracks for a therapy session that reveals he is a loner, obsessed with his dogs and harbouring dangerous resentments. It is a shock to leave the setting and characters that have steadily become familiar to us but connections begin to emerge. Antoine, too, is connected with Ugarte and its people, especially the twins who used to play with Elias. He is a mine manager and Martin is now a trades union activist who was involved in a dispute there three years previously. There is also a sinister connection with Eliseo, now working in the village bakery.

So this is the pattern: short narratives, each section beginning as though it were quite separate from its predecessors, and then building to a surprising climax. The context is different each time, the narrative method varies and on one occasion the surprising climax is an anti-climax, not what we were anticipating. After Antoine’s bizarre episode, the next section has a new character and different tone. It’s quite a jolt to be in 2012, immersed in the point of view of Luis, now a middle-aged, rather dull, PE teacher and film fan who runs over a pedestrian with his car, crashes it and spends most of his time in hospital hallucinating that he is a character in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It’s a peculiar, sometimes funny sequence and a good counterpoint to the preceding one. His head injury also provokes confused memories of his family, that fill in some of the history for us while vividly depicting a character we have only briefly glimpsed before.

In the final section, his brother Martin, five years later, is in another hospital with his sick daughter. He remembers the boys in the village, the stream where they sailed their boats, the wild boar, his brother in hospital haunted by a film, the mine manager Antoine. It is not a climax or a summation of what has transpired but rather an insight into the inter-connectedness of human lives that flow like water over stones, merge with each other and move in separate channels. You can’t step in the same river twice; even in a seemingly static village in the 1970s change is happening, people are becoming restless, children are growing up, couples growing apart, and so on. The novel is embedded in everyday life but manages at the same time to make it seem profound, luminous and strange. This is really a remarkable novel.

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Bernardo Atxaga, Water Over Stones, translated by Margaret Jull Costa and Thomas Bunstead (MacLehose Press, 2022). 978-1529410044, 381pp., paperback.

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