The Accordionist's Son A Novel

Bernardo Atxaga; Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

Graywolf Press




384 Pages


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David Imaz has spent many years living in exile on a ranch in California, far from his native Basque Country. Nearly fifty and in failing health, he decides to write the story of his youth in the village of Obaba, and the powerful, sweeping narrative that ensues takes the reader from 1936 to 1999. As a young man, David divides his time between his uncle Juan's ranch and his life in the village, where he reluctantly practices the accordion, a tradition that his authoritarian father insists he continue. He becomes increasingly aware of the long shadow cast by the Spanish Civil War.

Letters found in a hotel attic, along with a silver pistol, lead David to unravel the story of the war, including his father's association with the fascists, and the opposition of his uncle, who took considerable risks in helping to hide a wanted republican. The course of David's life changes one summer night when he agrees to shelter a group of students on the run from the military police. With affection and lucidity, Atxaga describes the evolution of a young man caught between country and town, between his uncle the horse breeder and his political father.

Few contemporary writers are as adept at exploring memory and evoking friendship, love, and happiness as Bernardo Atxaga. In this, his most personal and accomplished novel to date, he places those themes against the tragic backdrop of civil war and its aftermath and shows how they have affected the Basque people.


Praise for The Accordionist's Son

"A brilliantly inventive writer . . . Terribly moving and wildly funny."—A. S. Byatt

"The Basque novelist Bernardo Atxaga has spent his career moving between fairy tales and terrorism. His early works were set in the mythical Spanish town of Obaba, where birds, squirrels and snakes could speak. Later he turned out gritty novels about men and women backed into corners by their entanglement with the Basque separatist movement. These two worlds converge in The Accordionist's Son, a sprawling novel about the legacy of civil war in Spain that borrows characters from Atxaga's previous works . . . Stretching across most of the 20th century, the novel is framed as the memoir of David Imaz, a Basque exile. Dying on a ranch in Northern California in 1999, he steals away from his American family each night to document his early life in his native language. We learn he was raised in the peaceful town of Obaba, not far from Guernica, with only a dim awareness of the civil war that ended a decade before he was born. As a teenager he discovers a list of Republican sympathizers executed on behalf of the Franco regime in 1937. It is in his father's hand . . . Alluring . . . The abundance of detail adds credibility to the novel."—Jascha Hoffman, The New York Times

"This important novel from Atxaga about the still unresolved struggle for Basque cultural independence is both epic and intimate. Covering several decades and including a vast cast of well-drawn characters, the story focuses on David Imaz and the development of his political conscience. Growing up in the Basque village of Obaba, David spends much of his adolescence caught between the traditional peasant life of the workers on his mother's family estate and the more modern life of his school friends. When he learns of his father's past activities in support of the fascist government, David continues to sit on the fence until events touch too close to home. Along with a political story that will be new to many readers, this book also offers a universal coming-of-age story about friends, family, first (and second and third) love, and finding one's own path. Recommended for academic and public libraries."—Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Library Journal

"Atxaga returns to Obaba, the fictional village at the heart of his acclaimed novel Obabakoak, to tell a gorgeous and ambitious story about the Basque land and language. Much of the book is set in the 1960s, when David Imaz, the teenage son of an accordionist, begins to suspect his father participated in the execution of villagers accused of being Republicans during the Spanish Civil War. Twenty-five years after the war officially ended, political—even inadvertently political—choices remain deadly, but fear of Franco's civil guard neither darkens the innocence or exuberance of the young nor lightens the guilt of their parents. In Obaba, grudges and friendships are long-lasting and deep, and secrets are buried only shallowly. The narrative moves back and forth through time, from the 1990s, when gravely ill David reflects on his life from a ranch in California, to the war in the 1930s and through David's sometimes dangerous coming-of-age up through the 1970s. Originally written in Basque (and later translated into Spanish), the novel is a worthy addition to both Atxaga's body of work and the Basque canon."—Publishers Weekly

Reviews from Goodreads



  • Bernardo Atxaga; Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa

  • Bernardo Atxaga was born in Gipuzkoa, Spain, in 1951 and lives in the Basque country, writing in Basque and Spanish. He is a prizewinning novelist and poet whose books include Obabakoak, The Lone Man, and The Lone Woman. His work has won critical acclaim in Spain and abroad, including, most recently, the 2008 Mondello Prize.

    Margaret Jull Costa has been a translator of Spanish and Portuguese for over twenty years. In 2008, she won both the PEN/Book-of-the-Month Translation Award and the Oxford Weidenfeld Translation Prize for her version of Eça de Qeiroz's masterpiece The Maias.