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Bernardo Atxaga: El hombre solo (1993)


El hombre solo produced a variety of conflicting thoughts as I read it and thought about it afterwards, and they somehow morphed into this huge post. Bear with me, I’d really love to hear what you think about some of these issues.

But first, a little context: protagonist Carlos is a former ETA activist now living close to Barcelona, where he runs a hotel with a group of friends, all of which had formerly been active in “the organisation”. The football world cup is being held in Spain, and their hotel has become the abode of choice for the Polish football team. On the face of it, things have calmed down, but underneath the magma of their previous lives is still bubbling, both in terms of their previous activism and the emotional variable geometry within the group.

I won’t say much about the plot itself, because it gets quite fast-paced towards the end and to spoil it wouldn’t be fair at all. The gist of it is: Carlos has decided to offer shelter to two wanted ETA members  at the hotel, which is teeming with police (not only) because the football team needs protection. As the race gets closer, he is forced to dig out his former activist knowledge and take some decisions that don’t just affect him, but the whole group, which is really much more like a close-knit family than a group of “friends”.

There are a few things I wanted to talk about in some more depth though. One thing I didn’t enjoy about El hombre solo was how long it took to get going. Really, I seem to remember it taking about half the novel until tension finally picked up. Then, however, Atxaga is excellent at building it up towards the climax. As it neared the end, I found it very difficult to put the book down. I suppose what I’m trying to say here is, if you do decide to read it don’t be put off by the sluggish start. If you’re looking for a thriller with quite some some tension and suspense, this is your book. This was the aspect of El hombre solo I enjoyed the most, although it did take time to get into it.

But there are some other aspects I’d like to discuss. One minor issue – but one that irritated me considerably – was that Atxaga was completely unwilling to use any strong language, and there was a lot of strong language implied, and the plot was begging for it. Deaf to his novel’s pleading though, Atxaga would only ever describe swearing (e.g. “la mujer maldecía” – “the woman swore”), when the situation would definitely have called for explicitness. This made the dialogue seem wooden and unnatural and somehow gave the book a “cheap”, almost trivial, feel. I honestly thought at first that I wasn’t going to enjoy it at all, mainly because of these tacky descriptions of swearing, the similarly tacky descriptions of sexual arousal, and the slow pace of the plot. I may well be giving the “swearing issue” far too much room here, but it really bothered me and I never quite got over it, even as the plot picked up.

El hombre solo almost makes it seem as though Atxaga was in a competition to pack as many themes as possible into the novel. If he had been, I’d say he would be a strong contender for the winning spot. Romance, politics, philosophy, thriller, you name it, it’s there. As a result, these themes – except for the thriller part, which really improves towards the end – are only superficially explored.

As regards romance, I’m not altogether sure it was even necessary. If anything, it gets the reader to ponder how political activism makes people unable to form real lasting attachments, but I’m going out on a limb here. Mostly, the romantic part is sort of annoying, because the women are, with the exception of the elderly Polish-Spanish translator accompanying the football team, all portrayed as… not very clever and quite shallow. The male characters, even if their personalities were flawed, had a lot more depth and were more than just accessories employed to introduce an additional element of complexity into the plot.

Regarding politics, I just wanted to know more. It’s all fair and well that Carlos was a former ETA activist still willing to hide a couple of wanted terrorists, but for the most part, the book is strangely apolitical. The motives for joining a terrorist organisation, or for leaving it for that matter, are not explored in a lot of detail. It is clear Carlos loves his home country and harbours socialist sympathies, but neither his nor the other characters’ radical nationalism is discussed in depth. Everything is kept at a very personal, emotional level. I’m thinking that in this aspect, El hombre solo is probably a child of its time – in the early 199os, after all, ETA’s terrorism and where people, including of course writers, stood on the subject was exponentially more sensitive than it is even today.

Likewise, the discussions of political philosophy remain superficial. We are told that the characters have inspiring discussions of Rosa Luxemburg’s work, but what exactly is so inspiring about them is left to the imagination. Atxaga tells us just that: the discussion was inspiring and they enjoyed it. I kept wanting more than such thin descriptions.

One thing El hombre solo got me thinking about with hindsight was how Atxaga manages to draw the reader’s sympathies towards a man who has committed a series of quite atrocious crimes (kidnappings, bank robberies, and so on). But I really came to suffer with Carlos as things get tight. Maybe this is even the point of taking such an emotional approach to these thorny political choices – not alienating the reader?

You can see I came away from El hombre solo with very mixed feelings. On the one hand, I got really drawn into it towards the end. Overall, I’d recommend it to someone with a bit of stamina looking for an exciting thriller. It’s much less deep than it could be, and I think themes-depth balance is tipped unfavourably towards a greater number of less explored themes.

Evaluation: 6/10

English title: The Lone Man
German title: Ein Mann allein


Author: bettinathenomad

Nomad. International Relations geek. Reader. Feminist. Swimmer. Boulderer. Runner. Hiker. Not necessarily in that order.

3 thoughts on “Bernardo Atxaga: El hombre solo (1993)

  1. I haven’t read this novel but one point you mention is very interesting to me and will help me improve the draft of a review I wrote yesterday. It’s the bit about swearing. I pay close attention to dialogue it’s one of the most important parts for me in narrative fiction and a test for authors. And so many excellent authors fail. I have been reading Véronique Olmi’s Un si bel avenir and the first think that struck me is the dialogue, so amazing and the protagonist swears, even in the innterior monologue. And she had reason to do so. I then thought how rare this is although it’s something most of us will do in some situations. I wonder if Ataxaga didn’t sacrifice authenticity for what he thinks is more literary, i.e. not swearing.

    • I completely agree with you Caroline, good dialogue is very important. If the dialogue isn’t credible, I think narrative fiction really suffers – it becomes difficult for the reader to be really drawn into it.
      As for this particular novel, I also wondered why Atxaga did this. It definitely seems like a conscious decision, because it’s so noticeable. I find your idea that perhaps he did it to make the novel more literary very interesting, because curiously, he achieves exactly the contrary.

  2. Pingback: Alice Walker: The Color Purple (1983) | Liburuak

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