by Bernardo Atxaga, translated by Margaret Jull Costa.
Maclehose Press, 338 pp.
The appearance of prominent work in translation is always cause for celebration, and the ever-expanding Maclehose Press international library list is a great source of the best of new literature from continental Europe and beyond. The latest release from this imprint is Bernardo Atxaga’s absorbing Nevada Days, which provides us with not only a truth-adjacent chronicle of the author’s time as writer-in-residence at the University of Reno—Nevada, but also a window onto the typically shrouded heritage of the Basque Country and the Basques who live in it. As one reviewer has written, Atxaga is “not just a Basque novelist but the Basque novelist”; ensuring the continued representation and relevance of a minority culture would be enough for one writer, but Nevada Days is even more than that.
It isn’t an easy book to categorise, but perhaps we should call Nevada Days something akin to auto-fiction, a recently developed written mode that we have seen most in literature in translation, most notably with Chris Kraus’ controversial I Love Dick. Work of this kind runs together autobiography and fiction without indicating which is which. When the author seems to be making a claim to factual reliability in the relation of specific details of character, time and place, it is up to the reader to parse the real from the imagined. And so it is that many of the typically short chapters in Atxaga’s latest work are presented as entries in a journal, others as emails to an interlocutor called ‘L’, and yet others as local newspaper clippings. Increasingly toward the end, these fragments give way to longer chapters presented as memoir pieces about the narrator’s childhood in the Basque Country. The effect of this blend is typical of auto-fiction—no explicit claim is made to the reliability of specific events or memories as remembered truth, and one is left to decide what really did happen and what did not.
This may sound like an unnecessary textual mystery. In unskilled hands, the blurred line between biography and fiction might be a gimmicky reach toward candidness and nothing more. But Atxaga is a writer comfortable in his abilities, and he understands that the way he writes is only a vehicle for empathy and human connection, not a style for its own sake. To that end, the style works in Nevada Days because through journal entries and journalism and memoir, the events the narrator relates are quotidian, unsensational, and so one’s ability to tell fact from fiction is immaterial to the book’s emotional heft, which hinges instead upon the quickening influence of the particularly stark desert atmosphere on the narrator’s hyperactive and unreliable memory. And insofar as his memories are concerned, they are surely the most unreliable pieces in the book, at least in detail, but the trust the author had built up with me elsewhere lent credence in my mind to the psychological claims those memories made upon the narrator.
The relationship between the narrator’s new surroundings in Nevada and the triggering of decades-old memories is clear from the very start of the book. Arriving in the city in 2007, almost everything he looks for, which he knows was once to be found in the landscape, is gone. Everything has already fled: all natural resources have been plundered, and the hardy Western frontier culture has gone with them. And as soon as he and his family land in the city at the beginning of the book, they are faced with monuments of the new economy: casinos. Early on, on the way home from a drive in the desert with a new friend, Earle, the narrator learns a little more of how Reno came to be the way he now finds it:
An hour later, we reached the junction of Highways 50 and 80. Suddenly, we were driving among trucks. From the other direction too it was mostly trucks, many of them with extra lights on the cabin, like the cars in carousels. We were driving home, and I felt as if I had been away fro a whole month. Time was different in the desert.
“Nevada!” Earle exclaimed. He sounded almost elegiac. I could nearly smell the scent of sagebrush that word gave off.
“This is a state that flourished thanks to four things,” he said. “Divorce, gambling, prostitution and mining for gold and silver.”
And the highway, I thought, looking at the trucks. But I said nothing.
“Most of the mines were mined out years ago,” Earle went on.
The narrator is quick to identify the desert as a site of revealed truth: once you have seen the desert, he says, everywhere else comes to seem like a “stage-set”, houses and hospitals and mown grass proof only of “the world’s soiling presence”. The blankness of nature in Nevada demands of the narrator a retreat into teeming memory. And so it is that the desert causes him to interrogate his memories for evidence, perhaps, of how “the world’s soiling presence” affected his young childhood and adolescence.
It is in these long passages of memoir, which are indicated as such in the chapter titles (e.g., ‘Conversation at the Funeral Home (A Memory)’), that the only lengthy narrative sections in the book are to be found. These are the chapters often set in the Basque Country of northern Spain, in the hills around the provincial cities of Eibar and San Sebastian where Atxaga himself grew up. The Basque Country stories are the real meat of the book—the compelling narrative of a school cross-country team’s rise and fall, for instance—and some of these are directly prompted by conversations with members of the Basque diaspora in northern Nevada, typically aged farmers and shepherds. There are other stories that feature prominent Basque exports, most of them successful boxers like Paulino Uzcudun. Marginalised heritage, as that of the Basques has always been, is that which is most firmly clung to.
Not only does the narrator find that casinos are the centre of economics in Reno, but of political life in the city too. At different times between September 2007 and May 2008, he attends the rallies of Democratic Primary candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Both candidates speak to crowds of hundreds of supporters at the Grand Sierra Resort, in an auditorium just down the corridor from serried, clanging banks of one-armed bandits and the gamblers who sit on stools in front of them. Given that we know the outcome of the 2008 and the 2016 US presidential elections, the narrator’s comments on these events seem rather poignant. Of Obama he is generally complimentary, commenting upon the admirably muted style that the candidate chooses against the gaudiness of the casino; Clinton, in his eyes, “looked like a loser”—she is “the pre-romantic choice”.
The narrator’s post at the university comes with a small, windowless office and no classes to teach. It comes to seem as if he has no responsibilities there beyond observation and worry. The only references to students in the book come when the narrator reads a series of stories in the Reno Gazette-Journal about students being sexually assaulted, a troubling pattern for a father of two daughters, and fretting about that situation apparently consumes his time in Reno more than almost anything else. It never truly seems, though, that his mind is fully present. His head and heart remain in the Basque Country, and the heart of the book is there too.