The second section of the collection, Nine Words in Honour of the Village of Villemediana, has the weakest plot but best communicates the reality of life in a small Basque village, and makes for very pleasant reading.
The unnamed narrator has taken refuge in Villemediana to clear the “ferns and mosses” from his heart. He occupies himself by getting to know its inhabitants with a Louis Theroux-like inquisitiveness and equanimity, collecting portraits of village elders, shepherds, lonely woman, squalid men, and even a pretentious dwarf. It continues the focus on the outcasts or discontents, defining the society by its borders.
But for all its apparent foreignness, there’s something universal about the setting that reminded me of writing on country Australia, with its insularity and toughness, and its lonely, quirky characters.
The third, last, and longest section, In Search of the Last Word, has a wonderful rambling structure as many of the characters tell tales, both true and imagined, and discuss literature.
The narrator, a writer, perhaps Atxaga himself, develops a fixation with whether a classmate was sent crazy by having a lizard put in their ear. The fixation leads him to the potential culprit’s bar, his home town of (where else) Obaba and to a meeting of his uncle’s literary circle.
Many of the stories in this section have no relation to the central plot, so much so that Atxaga could be accused of shoe-horning them, but I enjoyed reading them all so much that I didn’t mind the paper and string framing device.
However, the story that had the biggest influence on me, and sent me on a spree of trying to write something similar, probably does not even belong to Atxaga. It is called The Rich Man’s Servant, and is a fable in which a servant on a trip to the market receives a threatening look from Death, and tries to escape his apparent fate. It takes up only half a page and can only really be read on one level, but I loved it for its simplicity and depth, its broad-stroke style and the clarity of its rising and falling action. There is, maybe, too much of a focus on realism and clever description in modern literature at the expense of equally effective techniques from traditional tales.
In Search of the Last Word also includes chapters that venture into the realms of non-fiction, discussing what constitutes a good story, how to write a story in five minutes, and a very cheeky and accurate section on how to plagiarise. Hint: you steal the plot and call it a homage.
My biggest criticism is with the twist at the end of the main story. It is cheesy, and uses a device on which Atxaga is overly-reliant. I’m not saying he’s M. Night Shyamalan, but this is why, despite all his experimentation with form, I earlier accused him of being formulaic.
It’s possible I’m missing something, though, and the twist is a warning about the degeneration of the Basque language. This could be supported by the epilogue/autobiography, in which the author’s passion for his mother tongue is made clear. If anyone has done a closer reading and can enlighten me, I’d appreciate it.