blackbirdonline journalFall 2018  Vol. 17 No. 2
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Review | Nevada Days
Bernardo Atxaga
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa
Graywolf Press, 2018

spacer Nevada Days (Graywolf Press, 2018)

Every American reader ought to seek out literature in translation, especially when that literature comes from a writer who has trained his or her eye on the English-speaking world. There doesn’t feel like a better time than now to read about America written from the passionless viewpoint of someone who doesn’t call this country home. In Nevada Days, Bernardo Atxaga does just that from Reno, Nevada, as writer-in-residence, a role both literal and comically symbolic. The book reads like an expedition narrative, a journal kept during Atxaga’s nine-month university residency in the “Biggest Little City.” With neat headings to a well-organized structure of sundry vignettes, Nevada Days gives us a “residency” perspective dislocated from its traditional form. Atxaga fictionalizes some aspects of his experience, toying with the reader’s senses, lulling them with an autobiographical voice that always seems to have a sly smile. The fictionalized elements are difficult to locate, like a hiker lost in the desert. Atxaga uses his time in the American West to muse on a variety of subjects, including anecdotes about prominent members of the Basque American community in Nevada and personal memories from his home in Gipuzkoa, Spain. Through cleverly subtle plotlines, readers witness how nine months in Reno is enough time for Atxaga to experience the contradictions of the American psyche, the consuming and confusing nature of the desert landscape, and the comforts and estrangement felt during explorations of multicultural terrain.

Atxaga is a unique voice in English translation. Margaret Jull Costa has expertly rendered the text into English, having translated many other works by Spanish and Portuguese authors. But as a self-translator, Atxaga transposes his writing from Basque to Spanish, crafting his work through a cross-cultural process of exhibition. The way the text is transmuted makes Atxaga’s work a unique object of multiculturalism. With that background in process, Atxaga’s voice seems to emanate from the ether in Nevada Days, floating downwind from mountains in the Basque region to the elevated desert floor of the American West. This is perhaps why his writing often inflects a certain global twang. In one of his novels, Seven Houses in France, Atxaga focuses on the Belgian colonial presence in the Congo with a cast of psychologically disturbed characters. The novel’s title refers to property owned by a captain of the Belgian forces stationed in the colony, but the novel takes place far removed from those seven houses, in a remote village in the jungle. The seven houses are never visited by any of the characters within the timeline of the novel, creating the dislocating sense of the colonialist desire—to harvest raw materials valuable enough to gain wealth in Europe. Seven Houses in France and Nevada Days exhibit Atxaga’s interest in displacement, both physical and psychic.

In Nevada Days it’s hard not to admire the relaxed narrative voice of Atxaga. The book’s structure successfully weaves several narrative strands in a meandering sort of way. The reader oscillates from passages revealing the story of Paulino Uzcudun, the famous Basque boxer who fought Max Baer in Reno on July 4, 1931; to the experiences of seeing Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton deliver early campaign speeches to excited crowds in the conference halls of casinos; to confusing dreams and the garden-variety observations of someone in a foreign place. Either way, an American reader can delight in watching an outsider watch us.

It’s also easy to admire Atxaga the family man. He portrays his daughters and wife as adventurous companions, without whom it would be difficult to appreciate Atxaga alone in the desert landscape. They seem to solidify and bolster his character, as the best families seem to do, and are therefore a comforting presence for both Atxaga and reader.

In one charming scene, the family has set out on an exploratory road trip: “spring vacation was nearly upon us, and we asked Earle where he thought we should go. He didn’t hesitate. We should, he said, visit what was known as Indian Territory.” So the family sets out, making their way through Nevada into Utah and then into Arizona, where somewhere near Mexican Hat they find themselves low on gasoline and seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Atxaga recreates the tension of the passing miles as he and his wife Ángela nervously monitor the fuel gauge and check their map, hoping to come across a gas station while their daughters sleep: “We had been driving for three hours when we saw the wood, a green fringe on the edge of the sandy desert, and shortly after that, a crossroads.” This is the stuff of high drama in the desert expanse. Atxaga captures the expansive essence of the landscape, “what was known as Indian Territory” by their university host and friend, and stuffs it into his family vehicle. The tension builds until they come to a dangerous, near-vertical unpaved road that leads them to civilization and its petroleum products. While the passage is both tense and funny, one almost wishes Atxaga took the extra time to make some comment about the desolation and lack of services of the “Indian Country,” so-called by their wealthy white host. But, perhaps wryly, Atxaga remains strictly an observer.

Then there is the raccoon, a recurring character who lives in the garden of their residence and seems to stand watch over the safety of the family. The raccoon is a reliable, neighborly presence like a living talisman and a symbol of the complicated coexistence Americans have with the natural world. The raccoon is there during the drawn-out drama of a local murder case that disrupts the calm of the author and his family. When it’s discovered that the young girl was taken not far from where the family is staying, a grim foreboding takes hold, and news of the ongoing investigation plots along the arc of the narrative until a very close-to-home incident surprises both author and reader.

Alongside the real-life dramas is Atxaga’s wily use of fiction. Although labeled a novel, it doesn’t feel like one. Again, a metaphor about the desert expanse seems appropriate—the fiction seems a mirage, a trick meant to seduce and confuse. Or perhaps it’s simply a necessary categorization, which feels ultimately false. Whether it’s in dreams, stories from youth, or the details about the people Atxaga encounters as he navigates the American West, it’s hard to determine where the fiction lies, and so the book becomes a kind of treasure hunt, encouraging readers to search for clues. Later in the book, a section with the heading “The Story of Adrián and Nadia (According to the Version Heard on the Banks of the Truckee River)” goes on to relate the life story of a man from Guipúzcoa whom Atxaga meets in Reno. Such a heading invites us to question the narrator’s reliability. The story is written in such vivid detail, most likely shaped by both Adrián’s telling and Atxaga’s own familiarity with the region. Either way, the storytelling is delightful.

Elsewhere the headings provide a comforting structure to the book. Often matter-of-fact and honest, the headings serve as snapshots for the reader, as though assembled in a photo album and elucidated by Atxaga’s dreamy, bard-like voice. Such headings include “Lunch at Harrah’s Casino,” “Walgreens Drugstore,” “Halloween. Monsters,” and the mysterious series of headings titled “Message to L.,” in which Atxaga sends postcard-like emails to an unnamed acquaintance. All of these headings make for tantalizing cinematic images before readers delve into each story.

A poignant moment in the narrative, which shows Atxaga’s willingness to stray into unknown territories and make crucial judgements, occurs when the author attends the funeral of a soldier killed in Iraq. Having seen information of the soldier’s death in the local newspaper, Atxaga decides to drive to Lake Tahoe in order to attend the services. Along the way, he muses over poetry, the landscape, and the construction of the Union Pacific and Central Pacific Railroad by exploited Chinese immigrant labor. It’s a relief when Atxaga makes clear the problematic grandeur of the American landscape.

With reporter-like detail, Atxaga records the procession of the funeral, capturing the mood and intimate details of the scene, until finally breaking into a blunt, personal aside: “because of my imperfect English, I found it too tiring to listen to every speech and decided to go and look at the photographs on the table.” Upon reading some memorial leaflets containing poems titled “Through the Eyes of a Child” and “The Soldier’s Creed,” Atxaga tells us, “I was thinking how false the poems were,” before describing a poem of his own, which he had recited on a radio program after the 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid, a poem he now finds woefully deficient. The soldier’s funeral and Atxaga’s winding drive home seem to offer the writer-author some valuable perspective: “The steep slopes and bends that had overheated the car engine hours before made driving difficult and they were, besides, a metaphor for what was happening to me and that poem: bend to the right, bend to the left, look out, a precipice ahead, a pothole, bend to the right again. I braked, or, rather, I reached a decision: I would delete that poem the moment I got home and turned on my computer.”

The ultimate pleasure of Nevada Days is watching a writer wander. Whether across physical landscapes or cultural ones, Atxaga has pulled off a bold conceit in crafting a book around a writer-in-residence’s function of exploring, observing, and recollecting. Writers are apt to stray, digress, and drift from the beaten path. In Nevada Days we get to see a real professional do just that in a region rich in tableaux. One can see how the barriers of culture might affect a person navigating landscapes, history, and current events. Nevada Days is not a critique of American culture or the American West; it’s an exploration of territory both physical and metaphysical. Like active listening, reading allows us to enter someone else’s world and language. It’s a unique opportunity to witness an international author undergo that process in the confusing space of the American West. This terrific book leaves readers appreciating how exploring cultural boundaries—instead of simply observing them from afar—creates a deeper and more enduring empathy.  end

Bernardo Atxaga is the author of eight novels, including, Nevada Days (Graywolf Press, 2017), Seven Houses in France (Graywolf Press, 2012), The Son of the Accordionist (Harvill Secker, 2007), and Obabakoak (Erein, 1988), winner of Spain’s National Literature Prize. Atxaga also writes poetry, essays, song lyrics, and children’s books, often in his native tongue, Euskara the Basque language. His books have been translated into thirty-two languages.

Margaret Jull Costa is a British translator of Portuguese- and Spanish-language fiction and poetry, including works by José Saramago, Javier Marías, Eça de Quieroz, and Fernando Pessoa. She is an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE), a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and a four-time recipient of the Oxford-Weidenfeld Translation Prize, among other distinctions.

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