Homeland, by Fernando Aramburu

In 2012, Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA) announced a ceasefire that, so far, appears to have finally ended decades of violent conflict between Basque separatists and the Spanish government. Just because there’s a ceasefire, however, does not mean that everything is peaceful. Fernando Aramburu’s monumental novel, Homeland, explores the lingering conflicts between families who were friends once but were then torn apart by violence.

Homeland drifts from character to character as it reveals the deep conflicts between the two central families. It also drifts back and forth and time, circling around important events and revealing secrets each time, and covering about twenty-five years. One family, headed up by the increasingly bitter Miren, appear to be firmly on the side of ETA and independence. Miren’s son, Joxi Mari, joins up with the organization as soon as he can. The rest of the family show up for demonstrations and willingly shun people who run afoul of ETA. The other family, under matriarch Bittori, were the victims of the ETA when a cell that included Joxi Mari gunned down Bittori’s husband. The families were once incredibly close. Miren and Bittori’s husbands were like brothers. Even Miren and Bittori had a friendship, even if it was a bit contentious. Their children got along well. But when Bittori’s husband ran afoul of ETA and, later, when he was murdered, an insurmountable wedge was driven between the two families.

Bittori’s husband’s murder is just one of the awful things that happen to the families’ members. A stroke, divorces, unhappy children, homosexuality, and more test the families for nearly 700 pages. (Seriously, this book is like a soap opera.) When I started reading the novel, I thought that the characters had a lot of emotional baggage that they could eventually reconcile, if they put in the work. As the novel continued, more emotional baggage appeared—so much so that I was surprised that any of the characters were able to grow past their traumas. My favorite character, Miren’s daughter Arantxa, is a quiet hero. Where other characters have taken immovable stances (diehard support for ETA and Basque independence, a determination to check out from everything, a desire to reclaim one’s place in the familial village), Arantxa is able to maneuver people slowly towards some kind of reconciliation.

There’s so much in Homeland that I could talk about it for ages. I am fascinated by stories that feature the toughest of ethical challenges. How do people in villages that have been torn apart by extreme violence or long sectarian struggle managed to live together once it’s over? Can it ever really be over? What principles are worth dying and causing misery for? Is violent struggle the only way to achieve cultural and political power? This book is an amazing achievement.

One quick word about the translation: there are some places where I detected missteps. Some of the word choices in the dialogue felt a little awkward, but I liked all of the Basque words that were scattered throughout the text. I struggled with some places where pronouns switched between first and third-person within the same paragraph and I lost track of who was thinking/speaking. I’m not sure if that’s what was in the original text or if they were translation issues. Apart from these little problems, I thought Alfred MacAdam did a terrific job.

San Sebastián-Donostia, Basque Country, where part of the novel’s action takes place. (Image via Wikicommons)

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