Bilbao – New York – Bilbao – Kirmen Ube (translated by Elizabeth Macklin) – Winner Spanish National Literature Prize 2009

Over the last few years I’ve reviewed a number of “metafiction” works, from France Laurent Binet’s story of Heinrich Himmler and him struggling with historical fiction, to the vast works of Karl Ove Knausgaard who is struggling to write his opus whilst falling in love, having children and being a dad. This time I visit the Basque Region of Spain and Kirmen Uribe’s tale of his family history “Bilbao – New York – Bilbao”.
We know we’re possibly in for a bleak tale as soon as we read the first page, a story of loss:
Fish and trees are alike. They’re alike because of the growth rings. Trees have those in their trunks. Cut through a tree trunk and there will be the rings. A year for each ring, and that’s how you know what the tree’s age is. Fish have them, too, but in their scales. And just as we do with trees, we know by those growth rings what the animal’s age is.
Fish are always growing. Not us, we start shrinking once we’ve reached maturity. Our growth stops and our bones begin to knit together. A person shrivels. Fish, though, grow until they die. Faster then they’re young, and as the years go on more slowly, but fish always go on growing.
Winter creates the growth rings of a fish. It’s the time when the fish eat least, and that time of hunger draws a dark trace in the fish scale. In that winter season when the fish grows least. Not in summer, though. When there’s no hunger there’s no trace at all left behind in the fish scale.
The growth ring of a fish is microscopic, you can’t see it with the naked eye, but there it is. As if it were a wound. A wound that hasn’t healed up.
And, as with the growth rings of fishes, terrible events stay on in our memory, mark our life, until they become a measure of time. Happy days go fast, on the other hand – too fast – and we forget them quickly.
What winter is for fish, loss is for humans. Loss makes our time specific for us, the end of a relationship, the death of a person we love.
Each loss a dark growth ring deep down.
Our story is a family history recreated snippet by snippet, it is wrapped up in a “mystery” when our writer, Kirmen Uribe, decides to research why his grandfather’s shipping boat was called “Dos Amigos” (“Two Friends”). Who is this mysterious friend of his grandfather’s who our writer knows nothing about? So Kirmen travels, relives his memories, interviews family friends and acquaintances, gives us snatches of truth to rebuild his grandfather’s life and solve the mystery of the boat’s naming:
Dad was startled the day I took up the atlas and a ballpoint pen and went in to him. It wasn’t long after he’d retired from fishing.
I handed him the pen so he could draw the exact route they used to take to Rockall. He looked leery, as if another boat captain had asked him for one of his maritime secrets, the way to some hidden fishing ground.
He did it at last: Pass France, go up to St. George’s Channel and head northwest. That was the way to get to Rockall.
As I watched his nervous hand drawing, a strange sensation came over me. I understood that the mark Dad made with the ballpoint pen would remain in the atlas forever.
But at the same time something told me that he himself wasn’t going to be around forever, the mark in the book was forever but Dad was not. I felt fear, a terror at losing my father.
A boat’s captain never shows his navigational charts to anyone, when he goes ashore he rolls them up and takes them home with him.
Death doesn’t show us its charts, either.
As you can see it is a family tradition, a way of life, fishermen for generations, except for Uribe (he’s a writer), the fishing boat era has passed, made way for giant trawlers with fancy navigational gear, unlike the history of the Uribe family simple fishermen who knew the places where to catch the best fish, places where the waves are the largest on the planet, so large scientists didn’t believe the Basques, later these experts would secede.
Besides the journey our writer makes to discover the tale of his grandfather’s boat we learn about the Spanish Civil War, the propaganda films, we learn about plane trips and people who journey to New York (other passengers) and of course we learn of Uribe’s struggle to write the book we’re reading, we celebrate language, we learn of our writer’s “fiction”:
It’s weird the way memory works, how we remember in our own way, turning what at one time was presumably reality into fiction. It works that way in families especially. To remember the people who came before us, their stories get told, and from those anecdotes we know what a person was like. Roles get assigned to us and people remember us according to those roles.
This work is a celebration of life, of being from a small Basque fishing village, a celebration of family, an homage to an era long lost and a family connection. Through a raft of techniques Uribe slowly peels back the story of his family, we have emails, we have references to films, time elapses on the airplane screen, diaries of fourteen year old boys are discovered and relayed to us, and we learn of our writer’s relationship with his own step son.
Whilst in New York, Uribe visits a small museum that displays the collection of Henry Clay Frick. This leads his mind to think about works of art which display images in mirrors, he thinks of Diego Velazquez’s 1656 work “Las Meninas”:
In Las Meninas the other side of a picture appears. The author himself appears, Velazquez, painting a picture. What’s happening while the picture is being painted appears. The king and queen stand posing and a number of people are looking on. And in the background is the hazy image of that picture he will paint, the king and queen in the mirror. Las Meninas makes visible a picture’s insides and I reasoned that I had to tell the story of what’s inside a novel. The interviews that get done, the work in the archives, the research on the Internet. To put on display: all the doubts entertained and the wrong roads taken. On display: how the author himself has changed since beginning to write the novel.
And just as in Velazquez’s work the image of the picture being painted appears hazy, in the novel too the reader will only suspect what kind of novel the author is writing. The novel itself will never appear per se. Nevertheless, one must not forget that what’s most important in Las Meninas are the meninas, the young ladies-in-waiting, and not the royal couple. And not Velazquez himself. And in my novel too what’s most important will not be that still-unwritten novel, what’s most important isn’t the writer, but the flight itself. I mean, the movement is the most important thing, the process that leads to writer to write the novel.
Slightly reminiscent of, “The Life of Rebecca Jones” by Angharad Price, but with a lot more celebration of fiction and the art of writing is contained here. Finally this is a lament on the closed world of Basque literature, their “literary tradition” is “small, poor, disorderly. But the worst thing is it being a secret.” Thanks to Seren Discoveries (via Seren Books) for inviting me into the Basque house so that some of the secrets can be shared.

My copy was courtesy of the publisher (as you may not know if I receive a review copy of a book and I totally dislike the work, I actually don’t review it, if I pay I can be scathing, if it’s free I’d rather not be compromised by revealing my true thoughts – no fear with this one though, I thoroughly enjoyed it).
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