Harkaitz Cano’s Twist, recently released by Archipelago Books in Amaia Gabantxo’s translation from the Basque, both shimmies and shimmers on various levels, each of which exhibits its own twist. Like the famous Chubby Checker song, which was itself a cover or translation of sorts, this novel offers a new version of events that rocked the Basque world in the convulsive 1980s—a period when ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), an armed separatist group promoting the independence of the Basque nation, was not only active but also actively pursued by the GAL (Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación), which were illegal, government-sponsored death squads dedicated to destroying ETA and its influence in the region.
Officially disarmed in 2017, ETA used as its symbol a snake enveloping an axe, with the former representing politics and the latter armed struggle. Twisted around each other to suggest their inseparability, it is also ultimately a reminder that what lies at the heart of the Basque conflict is precisely the idea of separation: there is a nation that wishes to separate itself from the Spanish state; a Basque nation already separated by the French-Spanish border; and a broad separatist movement that includes those who wish to distance themselves from forms of violence like that carried out by ETA.
Focusing on a particular period to narrate part of the region’s broader history, Cano takes up the well-known case of Joxean Lasa and Joxi Zabala, two ETA militants who were kidnapped, tortured, and murdered by GAL operatives in 1983. In 1982, they had attempted to rob a bank with toy guns since their real ones had yet to arrive, and Twist imitates that gesture by creating fictional stand-ins for these figures. Soto and Zeberio ultimately face the same fate as their real-life counterparts, but they also find a way to live on through their friend Diego Lazkano, whose struggle with the deaths of his two comrades and his subsequent career as a writer form the narrative center of this expansive, incisive novel.
As it stretches across decades, party lines, and, briefly, the Atlantic Ocean, Twist traces both the immediate aftershocks of the disappearance of Soto and Zeberio and the echoes of this disturbing episode that never fully fade. It’s a novel concerned above all with braiding—or twisting—together storylines from many sides, including those of journalists, playwrights, parents, militants, and military figures. The youthful idealism of Soto, Zeberio, and Lazkano appears alongside the jaded reflections and questionable justifications of those who wronged them, creating a dissonant yet captivating polyphony.
Part of what makes the novel so compelling is the way it embeds the well-known act of violence—the disappearance of the two young men—within a broader context marked by many smaller aggressions. Of course, some of these are the result of misguided attempts to cope with the effects of that trauma, but they also demonstrate how it’s often a question of scale instead of clear separation. The one, in other words, is simply a slight twist on the other, as fathers exhibit cruelty towards their children and husbands behave badly away from their wives.
Like most fictional works so firmly rooted in the historical, Twist makes its distinctive contributions by exploring what might have never been recorded, by considering what might have escaped documentation or even recollection. One refrain—“He thinks it, but he doesn’t say it”—gets at the heart of this idea of thick description, of creating character through the combination of motivation and interiority. It’s the task of any novelist who confronts his surroundings, but it also has a particular resonance for Cano, who was only eight years old when Lasa and Zabala disappeared. Ten years later, he began studying law, and after his first year at school the bodies of the two young men were finally discovered. In his classes, Cano soon found himself studying the case from a legal point of view and he realized that it was a story “that deserved to be told with the tools of fiction.” Although he considered writing a non-fiction novel in the style of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, it was only many years later that he began composing the decidedly fictional but still historically faithful Twist.
In an interview, Cano has suggested that there are two types of creator: those who simplify and those who create. As he explains, screenwriters often need to be the former, whereas the novel allows you to be both. “My literary genes, my DNA,” he says, “are those of someone who complicates.” It’s on full display in Twist, which impressively ties together all of the well-known story types while adding a twist to each one: the search for one’s father, the courtroom drama, the affair between an older man and younger woman, and the writer struggling with finding and exploiting sources of information. Such complication ultimately makes a strong case for the continuing relevance of the novel as a form, given that it is one of the few that can effortlessly encompass so much.
The title of the novel remains unchanged in the transposition from Basque to English—just as it did when moving from Basque to Spanish in 2013—but everywhere else translator Amaia Gabantxo expertly locates latent rhythms in Cano’s prose and renders a number of different narrative voices. In some instances, it almost seems as if Spanish phrasing creeps in—the English “retook the conversation,” for instance, distinctly resembles the Spanish “retomó la conversación”—but I am tempted to hear it as a way of indicating, even if only inadvertently, the thoroughly multilingual context of the original Basque. That multiplicity is something that Gabantxo and Cano both emphasize in their respective versions, as the former leaves many Spanish phrases untranslated to remind us that although the work hails from Spain it is not necessarily Spanish and as the latter foregrounds questions of translation in the novel itself. One lengthy section, for example, depicts Lazkano’s efforts to translate an early Chekhov play into Basque. Here Cano—who has translated Anne Sexton and others into Basque as well as his own works into Spanish—not only displays a keen understanding of the challenges a translator might face but also performs the admirable feat of finding the perfect source text that will allow his character to continue grappling with his own preoccupations while translating.
If, for English readers, the most famous name in Basque literature remains Bernardo Atxaga, the appearance of Cano’s work is a welcome addition not only because it expands the range of work but also because it reminds us of the tremendous productivity and diversity of a language that often gets comparatively little attention, even in comparison to a close counterpart like Catalan. That’s not to say there aren’t any other recent translations from Basque: Ramon Saizarbitoria’s Martutene, considered to be the best novel ever written in the language, became in available in English in 2016 thanks to Hispabooks. Such a reminder is always timely, since, as Cano explains, “there’s something that English or German writers never ask themselves, and that is whether the tool they use will disappear . . . An English writer never thinks that his language might not exist in one hundred years, but those of us who write in minor languages do.” Let’s hope that translation remains not so much a means of preservation but rather the best way for one tool to sharpen another.
Sam Carter is an Assistant Managing Editor at Asymptote.
For more reviews from the Asymptote blog: