Language, History, and the Memory of Violence

Ramon Saizarbitoria’s massive 816 page novel is an object lesson in how different aesthetic and historical strands can memorably converge

Is there one word to describe Ramon Saizarbitoria’s massive novel Martutene? “Slow-burning” might do the trick. On paper, this book’s plot seems easy to describe, albeit fairly static: it follows the lives of two middle-aged couples — Martin and Julia, Abaitua and Pilar — as they go about their daily lives and begin to question the bonds between them. This is somewhat accelerated by the arrival of Lynn, an American, whose life intersects with both couples in interesting ways. So far, that seems familiar: the stresses of time on a marriage, the presence of a younger outsider; readers may well think that they know how this will play out.

Thankfully, there’s more going on here than the relatively tired dissection of relatively affluent lives in a prosperous city. Start with the title: Martutene is a neighborhood in the city of Donostia in the Basque Autonomous Region, not far from the border with France. A reference early on to a writer declaring “that he wasn’t going to use the murderers’ language any more” helps establish the mood. For all that the overall shape of this novel might look familiar, the fact that the struggle for Basque independence looms in many of these characters’ histories contorts the narrative in unexpected ways.

Structurally, events unfold at a moderate pace. Saizarbitoria alternates between the two couples from chapter to chapter, and doesn’t provide a lot of exposition up front, instead revealing information gradually–to the extent that, for instance, the reader doesn’t learn how Abaitua and Pilar met until over two hundred pages into the novel. The chapters focusing on them take on a more visceral quality, as befits their work–both are doctors. Martin and Julia, meanwhile, have more literary occupations: he writes and she translates. This, then, opens the door for plenty of literary references to be made, including one that recurs throughout the novel.

That frequently-referenced work would be Max Frisch’s novel Montauk. (Which, serendipitously, was released in a new edition by Tin House in late 2016.) Nods to it abound throughout Martutene: Frisch’s book is a recurring topic of conversation, the novel’s structure seems to be an homage to what Frisch used in Montauk, and young women named Lynn play a significant role in each. It’s an interesting choice, especially given that Saizarbitoria’s novel is nearly four times the length of Frisch’s–this is a book that could devour its predecessor several times over.

More broadly, it adds to the air of Martutene as a work in which books exist as tactile objects. One early reference to Montauk delves into the specifics of that particular edition’s design.

On the beach there are only two empty deckchairs and their shadows. It looks like a Hopper. The title’s printed at the top, MontauK, with the first M and the final K set bigger than the other letters and stretching down below the line the others are on, and in that lower space between them is the writer’s name, Max Frisch.

And this is a novel that’s littered with books. For all that a sense of history is never too far out of reach for these characters, neither is a sense of culture. Action and contemplation frequently take center stage, but actions read about, imagined, or remembered also play a significant part in moving the novel’s plot forward. Add in the fact that Martin’s fiction is periodically referenced, and the end result is a dense web of allusions, a heady yet stately approach to storytelling.

At one point halfway through the novel, Martin describes a recurring nightmare about a room that he doesn’t want to enter, but is forced to. There, he encounters a sinister couple. The passage describing the detail perfectly encapsulates the blend of realism and ambiguity that can occur in dreams–and the way that memories of them seem to bear even more information than might have transpired in the actual dream.

He says that he’s aware of some things even though they aren’t made clear in the nightmare. For instance, the woman is young and beautiful. He said he doesn’t see her face, or the man’s. But he does see some other things in great detail. For example, the woman’s negligée is made of satin, it’s salmon pink, and it has bows on its edges; she has long nails that are painted bright red.

It’s also indicative of the sometimes languorous, always deliberate pacing of this book–which can, at times, be frustrating. There are 800-page novels propelled by extensive plotting and 800-page novels propelled by mood and nuance; this is very much in the latter category. That isn’t to say that the book succumbs to inertia; quite the opposite, in fact. Eventually, the novel’s plotlines begin to converge; eventually, one of its primary characters will turn out to be harboring a horrifying secret.

Martutene is an intellectual novel, a meticulous work, and an object lesson in how different aesthetic and historical strands can memorably converge. It’s very much on its own wavelength, and it takes its own time in establishing its own rhythms; this is not a novel for the impatient. But its headiness and its depth make for a satisfying reading experience. It’s a deep immersion in the lives of its characters, with all of the discomfort and revelation that that can bring.

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