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Bernardo Atxaga's The Accordionist's Son follows, primarily, the childhood story of David, a boy growing up in Spanish portion of Basque Country shortly after the Spanish Civil War. While the small events of adolescence—friendship, love, school—loom large for David as they do for anyone his age, he's also confronted with the residual impact of the war. Specifically, David must come to terms with the Basque separatist movement that infiltrates even his sleepy rural hideaway, and the murky degree of his father's involvement in wartime executions.
The introductory section of The Accordionist's Son spells out the central trope of the novel. Joseba, a childhood friend of David's, narrates this section from the few days in 1999 following David's death in Three Rivers, California. He explains that before he died, David wrote a memoir in the Basque language and that he, Joseba, will be using David's story as the skeleton for his own retelling of the events of their growing up. That said, Joseba promises to be faithful to the spirit of David's tale but suggests that he will take creative liberties if he deems them appropriate: "I wanted to write a book based on what David had written... in the spirit of someone finding a tree, on which some long vanished shepherd had left a carving, and deciding to redraw the lines so as to bring out and enhance the drawing and the figures."
The story of David's teenage years, as reinterpreted by Joseba, follows this introduction, but not before a cluster of relatively lengthy dedications—from David's point of view—to David's wife, daughters, and childhood friends. After the story of David's adolescence comes a series of short sections recounting the last few days of David's life—complete with Joseba's visit to Three Rivers—which are themselves interrupted by three "confessions" written by Joseba about a brief portion of the time they both spent working underground with a militant Basque separatist group in the '70s.
While the novel in its entirety is not nearly as confusing as its framing device suggests, the story-behind-the-story layering proves distracting when its stitching shows. It's relatively easy to let go of the who's-telling-this-story question while immersed in the sections of the novel that describe David's growing up, but it becomes troublesome when present-day reflections resurface near the end.
The problem lives in Atxaga's refusal to deliver a straightforward, fictional memoir. Instead we have a fictional character, Joseba, telling the story of another fictional character, David, from David's point of view, and that story may or may not be an accurate representation of the “real” fictional David's life. Not to mention the added ambiguity when one considers that Bernardo Atxaga himself grew up in Basque Country and his given name is also Joseba. Atxaga undercuts the reliability of the narrator of the main portion of the novel in this way, but the reason for doing so remains cloudy. Why do we need Joesba's "David" to tell the story? Why not have Joseba tell his own story? Or, why not remove Joseba altogether and go with David's story sans middleman?
Structural concerns aside, Atxaga's descriptions of Basque and Californian landscapes are lovely, and he treats discussion of the Basque language with equal reverence. Beauty and fragility go hand in hand here; whether it's the spotting of an unusual butterfly or the way the Basque name for that butterfly rolls off the tongue, the threat of extinction necessitates that these things exist in a delicate balance and creates an almost otherworldly glow about them.
In his final days, David writes, "Love takes on different forms when we know that death is hiding behind the bedroom door: sweet, almost ideal forms, oblivious to the frictions and conflicts of everyday life." But we know that without those everyday frictions, the ideal forms would not exist. While David tends to analyze the personal and political events around him without actively seeking them out—he lives, to an extent, in a self-contained emotional bubble—his ruminations and internal conflicts would cease to exist without external turbulence.
Perhaps the layers of telling of The Accordianist's Son mimic the inherent inaccuracy of memoir. Even if David were retelling his own story, we could not be entirely sure that the events he recounts occurred just as he remembers. Or maybe Atxaga means to spur us to wonder what's survived intact through the variations. It could it be the very things that seemed so fragile—language, place, and childhood.