LONDON'S HAVRILL Press, which publishes excellent translations of masterpieces in some of Europe's "smallest" languages (Danish, Serbian, Hungarian) has probably surpassed itself with the publication of Bernardo Atxaga's 1994 novel, The Lone Man. Written in Euskera--the mother tongue of the Basque nation and one of the continent's oldest languages--this police thriller about Basque terrorism is probably the only such book to hit the English-speaking market in quite a while. The Lone Man is also, however, a dreadfully tedious read.
It is with some regret that I pass this judgment; Basques are nothing to scoff at, and the paramilitary activities of ETA, the Basque country's equivalent of the IRA, have forever lived in the shadows of the Ulster troubles. But Atxaga has woven a story so inert, so long, and so short on suspense that The Lone Man reads like an exercise in accurate record-keeping.
The outline of this novel is plausible enough. The year is 1982. Barcelona is hosting the World Cup and most of ETA's members have quietly left the organization to resume normal lives in the wake of Spain's newly established democracy. One of those former terrorists is Carlos, who, along with several other former comrades, is running a hotel not far from Barcelona. Carlos spends much of his time kneading dough in the hotel's bakery, his head filled with the seductive voices of his paramilitary past.
The hidden basement below the bakery, which Carlos sometimes uses for discreet sexual encounters, is now occupied by Jon and Jone, two members of the hard-line ETA faction on the run from the Barcelona police. Though Carlos's present loyalty to ETA amounts to little more than a vague nostalgia, he has taken the terrorists in anyway, endangering the reputation of the hotel and of his partners. As the anti-terrorist police move closer to target, Carlos hatches an elaborate plan to get the ETA hard-liners out of the hotel basement and into a safe house somewhere in the Basque country.
Condensed into a couple of paragraphs, Atxaga's story has the basic structure of superior thriller, but stretch it over 320 densely written pages, and it's thinner than a film of soap. Havrill Press and The Lone Man may be well served by a film adaptation--or a separate line of Cliffs Notes.