In 2004, Madrid’s commuter train system was hit with coordinated bombings three days before Spain’s general election. This event serves as the historical backdrop for Gabriel Urza’s All That Followed. When the bombs ripped through the Atocha train station, causing the carriages to “burst from the inside as if they were overshaken cans of soda,” leaders of the Partido Popular (Spain’s conservative political party) immediately pointed fingers at the Basque separatist organization Euskadi Ta Askatasuna (ETA). These accusations set the novel’s narrative in motion—a narrative of remembrance and regret, politics, secrets and lies, and coming to terms with the ghosts of one’s past. With his debut novel, Urza has created not only a work of ideas sprinkled subtly like txirimiri, the Basque word for a rain that’s “so fine that an umbrella is useless against it,” but also a highly stylized piece of literature that lends itself well to rapid page-turning.
In the fictional town of Muriga, a Basque stronghold at the foot of the Pyrenees, the Atocha bombings “[tear] the stitches from a wound nearly six years healed.” The wound is the kidnapping and murder of a young, rising, politician, Jose Antonio Torres, by even younger “revolutionaries.” Boys, really, who, while playing the game of separatist and terrorist, have broken the rules: “Graffiti is acceptable, as are rubber bullets and tear gas. An unjust or overly lengthy prison sentence was against the rules. Killing, by either side, was always against the rules.”
The rules broken throughout the novel lead to pain and suffering—to punishment for everyone. Urza tells his story in the distinct voices of three Muriga residents: Mariana, Iker, and Joni. Mariana is the widow of the slain politician and a woman falling out of love with her husband. She’s obsessed with new smells, sensations, and feelings she believes come from her transplanted kidney. The radicalized youth, Iker, jailed for his part in Torres’s death and kidnapping, narrates from his cell, and is full of regret for the future he lost. And Joni, a friend to Mariana and teacher of Iker, is an American who’s lived in Muriga for 50 years and still considered an outsider, a “foreigner, extranjero. Stranger.”
Urza alternates between these voices in a difficult balancing act of minimalist vignettes that turn a candle to the Basque Country, illuminating its dark, complicated corners. Each narrator cautiously circles their past life that led up to the Torres murder—carefully probing the old wound, gently picking at its scab. And while they each offer a different lens through which to view the crime, and the town, it’s Joni who holds the story together.
The old American, despite having lived in Muriga for so long, is the only one with enough distance to see the community from the outside in. He’s never truly been accepted—even when he was living with a Basque woman whose father was shot through the head by Franco’s henchmen. It’s his outsider status that, in part, has given him his wisdom and insight into the town. At the end of the book, Joni is able to see the things others can’t until it’s too late. While recalling the execution of his wife’s father, he realizes something about his town: “I remember the saying I heard once, how the Basque Country’s history can be divided in half by the Civil War, and it occurs to me that perhaps that bullet has never stopped moving through our town. That it is still traveling through Muriga, striking one of us down every now and then.”
Urza himself has a strong Basque heritage on both sides of his family. While attending college in the Basque Country, he no doubt experienced things both political and cultural that influenced the writing in All That Followed. In many ways, Joni can be seen as his analog, expressing the way Urza must have felt in the Basque Country: at once a part of culture and at the same time clearly at arms length.
The Basque writer Miguel de Unamuno once said that “suffering is the substance of life and the root of personality, for it is only the suffering that makes us persons.” All That Followed may be centered around a dead man and the past, but at its heart it’s a book more concerned with the pain the living carry and the future it has shaped.
Gabriel Urza’s All That Followed is available tomorrow from Henry Holt and Company; to purchase it, click here.