Ramón Saizarbitoria - the most important Basque novel ever. A Tolstoyan saga, dealing with the post-ETA era in the Basque lands, the challenges of modernizing and maintaining a Basque identity, and a Proustian inquiry into life


Ramón Saizarbitoria, Martutene, Trans. by Aritz Branton, Hispabooks, 2016.


Winner of the Basque Country’s Fiction Prize, Martutene is a unique novel destined to become an essential reference of Contemporary World Literature.
Abaitua and Pilar, a gynecologist and a neurosurgeon, and Martin and Julia, a writer and a translator, are two couples worn down by years of marriage who have slid off into a kind of bored decadence. Their group of friends and family complete an insightful portrait of post-independence movement Basque life in which the arrival of Lynn, a refreshing young American sociologist, will trigger unexpected events.
Martutene is a truly outstanding work of fiction in which life and art weave and tangle. An exploration of those thoughts and feelings that expose our miseries and our deepest fears as human beings.




"A disruptive romance illuminates complexities of ethnic and political identity in Saizarbitoria’s substantial novel set in the Basque region in Spain. . . . a probing and sophisticated work that is already being celebrated as a modern classic." Booklist, starred review

A sprawling novel of post–independence movement Basque life and its discontents.
Martutene is a tony residential district outside of San Sebastian, Spain, one of the most important centers of the modern Basque world. There, live two couples who, not having much else to occupy their lives ever since Spain granted the region autonomy, more or less, have slid off into a kind of bored decadence. Martin is a novelist whose keystone book, very much like this latest by Basque laureate Saizarbitoria, is “a novel in which nothing happens.” Dithering for years on a successor book, he lives in a kind of uneasy truce with Julia, a translator who reminds him daily, mostly without saying as much, of squandered ambitions. When she does say as much, well, does she: “What is it about this fucking novel that stops you from just fucking finishing it once and for all?” she thunders. Abaitua is a gynecologist, a profession, he jokes, that has allowed him “to get to know women better.” Perhaps not, since Pilar, a neurosurgeon, has grievances of her own. Into this milieu falls Lynn, an American sociologist who inhabits their world just as a character named Lynn does the world of Max Frisch’s novel Montauk, which is quoted and alluded to throughout the long proceedings; life and art weave and tangle, and in the end Lynn is as much symbol as character. But symbol of what? Perhaps of an assertive, all-conquering global Americanism. Suffice it to say that her presence doesn’t do much to improve the Basque characters’ behavior. Some of Saizarbitoria’s deeper themes may be lost on American readers, especially that of a kind of nostalgic nationalism—Julia and Martin’s house is overdecorated in the colors of the Basque flag, and it’s telling that when Pilar tells Abaitua off, he pauses, terrified by the look that’s in her eyes, to wonder why she’s speaking Spanish.
Saizarbitoria’s study of wobbly relationships is something of a Basque rejoinder to a Bergman film, for good or ill, glacially paced but rich in perception. —Kirkus Reviews

Martutene is probably the most important Basque novel yet to be written; this is a primus inter pares book destined to become the central piece of the new canon." —Joseba Gabilondo

“Martutene could well be considered the highest summit of Basque-language novels . . . This superb novel recalls the greatness of Tolstoy and the obsessive stylistic accuracy of Flaubert . . . It is a novel that rightfully deserves being included among the greatest novels of the twenty-first century.” —Angel Basanta

“A landmark Basque novel. Nothing compares to it.” —Jon Kortazar

“Perhaps one of the best novels, if not the best, ever written in Basque language.”—Suma Cultural
“Saizarbitoria is one of the greatest Basque-language writers . . . A veteran of Basque literature that has also been the first to write a modern novel.” —Benito Garrido

“I would dare say that nobody in our literature has shown such mastery in the creation of fiction characters.”—Hasier Etxeberria


The Basque language is a notoriously weird one: nobody knows where it comes from, as it’s not related to any of the other Western European languages, and it’s generally suspected to pre-date them all, some weird vestige of a prehistoric time shrouded in mystery. Virtually no one writes in it, in part because virtually no one can read it, and very few can translate from it into other languages. So that makes it all rather singular that this monumental novel of Basque literature—many call Martutene the most important Basque novel ever—has somehow arrived in English. It is a Tolstoyan saga, dealing with the post-ETA era in the Basque lands, the challenges of modernizing and maintaining a Basque identity, and a Proustian inquiry into life. Author Saizarbitoria has been publishing since 1969, and this is his grand edifice. - Scott Esposito


A middle-aged married mother flying from Heathrow to Bilbao becomes fascinated by a bearded man boarding the same plane. When a bag he’s holding breaks, spilling books into the aisle, she gives him a good strong Harrods bag and helps gather the books up. Grateful, and despite the crowd of frustrated passengers trying to get to their seats, the man reads a few words from one that has fallen open—“This book was written in good faith”—and offers it to the woman as a gift.
For weeks and months afterward she will regret not having accepted the book, not having made contact with this “intellectual looking” man who comes to infatuate her. It’s true men are “cowardly,” she reflects, but she too has not “been brave enough.” Desperate to track him down, she contacts Iberia Airlines, telling all kinds of lies to find out the identity of the passenger with the books. In the end, she will be exploited by an airline employee who makes inquiries on her behalf in return for drinks and even sex. On the very last pages of this eight-hundred-page novel, she will find her man again at Bilbao Airport. Their meeting is not described. This is Harri’s story.
A writer, male, and his translator, female, again in middle age, are on the brink of breaking up, their long relationship worn down by the writer’s monstrous self-regard. The translator spends her days compiling an archive of all the phrases the writer has underlined in the many books he has read. Well-established and well-heeled but desperately afraid of dying, the writer writes about another writer, his terminally ill alter ego Faustino Iturbe, and Iturbe’s troubled relationship with his partner Flora Ugalde (“misery is the only thing he’s given [her]”), who resembles the writer’s actual partner right down to the very obvious “mole on her jugular fossa.”
The translator has learned to access the writer’s computer, which he supposes is defended by a password, in order to read what he is writing about her and will eventually ask her to translate. Her dealings with other people are conditioned by her awareness that, having read the famous writer’s books, they know everything about her intimate life, at least as seen from his point of view—for example, the time she betrayed him and received a poem from her younger lover praising her for being “loyal, more loyal than anyone.” It is something the writer will never let her forget, though he is hardly without sin, one of his own betrayals having led to her contracting a venereal infection.
The only thing this unhappy couple seem genuinely to share is a preference for literature over life. They live in books and for books, often comparing their relationship with that of Jean-Paul Sartre and… - Tim Parks
David Colbert Goikoa:  TRANSLATION AND SELF-EXPLORATION IN RAMON SAIZARBITORIA'S MARTUTENE           
Literary translation has been seen by some theorists as a means of understanding intercultural relations. Within such an approach, the translation of literature in Basque to Castilian Spanish must be understood according to its particularity as the translation of a language with minority status even within its own territory into a dominant one, both of them socio-politically charged. This essay analyzes how Ramon Saizarbitoria’s novel Martutene, in its Spanish translation (2103), explores Basque inter and intracultural relations by maintaining the tension of Basque and Castilian within the text, by positing narration as a form of producing and questioning identity, and by incorporating within its diegesis a translation project that proves to be unsatisfactory. Article: PDF

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