Forgetting, Remembering: All That Followed by Gabriel Urza (Henry Holt and Company, 2015)

Julian Zabalbeascoa

 

Following the thirty-six years of Generalissimo Franco’s dictatorial rule of Spain, the country began its swift transition to a democracy in 1975. The surrender of power was quick and relatively drama-free, considering that this very political party had long ago instigated the violent military coup that resulted in the toppling of Spain’s previous attempt at a democracy.

A countrywide effort known as el pacto de olvido, the pact of forgetting, helped to ease this transition. This unwritten rule stated that no mention should be made in the political or public realm of the bloody acts perpetrated during the Spanish Civil War and the dictatorship it preceded. As one parliamentarian put it, “forgetting [was done] by everyone for everyone.” Spaniards and Basques and Catalans and Gallegos participated in this self-enforced amnesia because they knew that the passionate airing of grievances was what, in part, led to the three-year civil war that had buried so many. Best to let ghosts lie, leave the dead in their unmarked graves. “If you stir the shit, the stink rises,” as the Spanish saying goes.

This strained silence, set in a microcosm, weighs on the Basque townspeople of Muriga in Gabriel Urza’s masterful debut novel All That Followed. The cataclysmic act that had initially quieted them was the assassination of a foreigner living among them, and it is another act of violence that, years later, stirs the shit up again. When ten bombs rip through four trains leaving the Atocha train station, the attack kills 191 people and wounds another 1,800. Spain’s ruling party initially points the finger of blame squarely on the Basque separatist group ETA, a monster manifested by that generation of national silence. ETA had been responsible for decades of terrorist activity meant to earn the Basque Country its independence from Spain.

In the days following the attack at the Atocha station, most Spaniards provisionally accept the government’s narrative of ETA’s culpability, and it is during this time that the past unfurls and each of the novel’s three narrators must confront, once more, all they had reluctantly buried. The narrators are Joni, an American English teacher at the local school; Iker, one of his promising students whose politically radical friends aspire to impress ETA; and Mariana, whose husband, a Spanish councilman, is ultimately assassinated by Iker and his friends.

My disclosure of the novel’s most significant plot point— the murder of the councilman—does not act as a spoiler, since the reader learns within the first pages that Mariana is a widow and that Joni’s talented student, Iker, is responsible for making her one, and yet it is this fatal act that the novel builds toward. While reading All That Followed, I was not briskly turning the pages to learn how Iker would ruin his life by ending the councilman’s, but rather to continue untangling the riddle each narrator represents. Urza accomplishes the seemingly impossible—the more his characters reveal of themselves and others, the more mysterious their motives become. The Tao Te Ching as a story-telling principle: the more we learn, the less we know for certain.

Iker may be the only one behind a physical set of bars, but each townsperson is imprisoned by the past in his or her own way—Joni by the wife whose death continues to haunt him, Mariana by the transplanted kidney she recently received, and Iker by the ubiquitous “posters of young Basque radicals” he and his friends grow up surrounded by. And in another Taoist twist, their ultimate freedom comes from acknowledging the bars that hold them. But Mariana’s husband, like the political party he represents (the same, incidentally, that is the direct descendant of Franco’s), is incapable of understanding how his constituents are bound by the past. The children of the town, “these grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the Civil War, throw tennis balls against the ramparts” where the Guardia Civil, during the height of the war, had murdered “forty-eight men from a town of two thousand.” Meanwhile, the teenagers smoke and drink in bunkers that had served the citizenry before they lost the war, a loss that would result in the dictatorship’s attempt to suffocate most ex-pressions of their culture, including their language. “Your people,” Mariana’s husband tells her, speaking of the Basques, “the persecution complex they have.” This inability to empathize with the past is what dooms him. For a people and a country to ultimately heal and be able to turn the page of history, the novel affirms, they have to acknowledge their past deeds.

Toward the end of All That Followed, Joni recalls the saying he used to hear, how the “Basque Country’s history can be divided by the Civil War.” It occurs to him “that perhaps the bullet has never stopped moving through our town. That it is still traveling through Muriga, striking one of us down every now and again.” The townspeople have a better chance of surviving if they have their eyes out for it. Mariana’s husband, blind to the past and so much more, never stands a chance. For the others, however, there is hope. As the novel comes full circle, ending where it began, the past becomes a stage on which the narrators confront the secrets they carry and the universal fear that is born from the universal desire to be known and understood.
Julian Zabalbeascoa lives and teaches in Boston. His short stories have recently appeared or are forthcoming in American Short Fiction, Glimmer Train, Ploughshares, Post Road, Shenandoah, and Sonora Review, and have been translated into Basque by Asun Garikano for the magazine Erlea.