Bilbao – New York – Bilbao

Kirmen Uribe
Elizabeth Macklin
Publication Date: 
Wednesday, October 15, 2014
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Translated by Elizabeth Macklin.

The day he knew he was going to die, Liborio Uribe took his young daughter in law to the Museum of Fine Arts to show her a picture. Liborio had spent his entire life at sea, like his son José, living out unforgettable adventures which would later fade into obscurity. Years after, faced by the same painting, Liborio’s grandson Kirmen, a writer and poet, uses these family stories to write a novel.

Bilbao–New York–Bilbao takes place during a flight to New York and tells the story of journeys by three generations of the same family. The key to the book is Liborio’s fishing boat, the Dos Amigos: who are these two friends, and what is the nature of their friendship? Through letters, diaries, emails, poems and dictionaries, Kirmen creates a mosaic of memories and stories that combine to form a homage to a world that has almost disappeared, as well as a hymn to the continuity of life. It is also a reflection on the art of writing, and lies between life and fiction.

Like W.G. Sebald, J.M. Coetzee or Emmanuel Carrere, Uribe finds new narrative forms within fiction without sacrificing authenticity or accessibility for the reader. As leading El País journalist Juan Cruz says, Bilbao–New York–Bilbao is “a splendid novel, which the reader acknowledges like a hug”.

Uribe has succeeded in realizing what is surely an ambition for many writers: a book that combines family, romances and literature, anchored deeply in a spoken culture but also in bookishness – and all without a single note of self-congratulation. – Times Literary Supplement

The novel is set in an absolutely modern territory, the usual place of key writers of our time such as Emmanuel Carrere, WG Sebald, Orhan Pamuk and JM Coetzee. – Sudouest

This book is as beautiful as a memory. – Le Figaró

Uribe’s literary proposal is entirely fresh and innovative. A novel of our time. This writer who comes from a ‘small country’ begins his journey through the field of universal literature, searching for transnational communication. – Mainichi Shimbun.

A splendid novel, which the reader acknowledges like a hug. – El País

Beautiful. It has the rare quality of attending to tradition without sounding like folk, and being modern without rejecting those that were so before.

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Review from Shiny New Books

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Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite

bilbao ny bilbaoBilbao – New York – Bilbao is Kirmen Uribe’s first novel; it won the Spanish National Literature Prize in 2009, and now Seren Books have published Elizabeth Macklin’s translation from the Basque as part of their ‘Discoveries’ series. On one level, this is a novel about three generations of Uribe’s family (or at least a fictionalised version of them): his grandfather Liborio, a fisherman whose boat was strikingly named Dos Amigos (“Two Friends” – but who were they?); his father José, who fished the waters around the islet of Rockall in the North Atlantic; and Kirmen himself, the writer. Through its tales of the fishing boats, it’s also more generally a novel about that disappearing way of life.

On another level, though (perhaps a more fundamental one), this is a novel about art, and what it means for an artist to draw on real life as source material. Uribe describes visiting the Bilbao Fine Arts Museum and viewing a mural by the Basque painter Aurelio Arteta (1879-1940) of people going to a country fair – this painting is at once a general representation of the changing social order, and a depiction of specific people. Uribe also tells of how Arteta refused a commission to paint a picture revealing the horror of Guernica (a commission that would go to Picasso), preferring instead to be with his exiled family in Mexico. The author comments that this is “the very crossroads an artist often ends up facing. Personal life or creation (p. 13)” and wonders what he might have chosen in Arteta’s situation.

Uribe concludes that he can’t be sure, because he hasn’t lived through those circumstances; but still he had an analogous choice to make when transforming his family history into fiction. His solution, as he tells us, was to include the making of his novel in the text itself – the process of research, the interviews and correspondence. It’s here that Macklin’s translation really shines, giving Uribe’s novel in English that feeling of being woven together from strands of found documents, reported anecdotes, experience, and imagination.

Uribe uncovers some surprises during his research. For example, his aunt tells him about a terrible accident that took place in 1908, when a number of boats sank in the bay of his home town, Ondarroa. When he looks into the event further, however, Uribe discovers that the disaster actually took place off Santander, some 160 kilometres away. “The tragedy had been so huge that when [people] remembered it they even changed the place of death. They brought it nearer…Memory brought the bitterness closer (p. 40).”

There’s also the old family story that José lost his wedding ring at sea, only for his sister-in-law Margarita to later find it inside a hake that she was cleaning. Uribe tells that he published a poem based on this, and received correspondence from many people claiming that something similar happened to them – but an academic then explained to him that the tale of a lost gold ring being found inside a fish is told throughout European history. Uribe reflects that Margarita belonged to a generation that lived through immense social change; perhaps old anecdotes like that were something for her to hold on to. “[T]hese stories themselves are the most important thing,” he suggests, “whether they’re true or false (p. 57).”

So life twists and grows larger in the telling, and we can see that happening with Uribe’s novel, too. At one point, the author contemplates what his project might have been like had he focused on his maternal grandfather, a rather different character from Liborio – and we’re reminded that all this familial material has explicitly been selected and shaped, however ‘natural’ it might seem. Then there’s the flight from Bilbao to New York around which the book is organised: it’s ostensibly while taking this flight that Uribe thinks through how he’ll write the novel – but, as far as the reader’s concerned, it remains an open question whether the flight really happened, or even how far we should take the Kirmen Uribe character narrating Bilbao – New York – Bilbao as being Kirmen Uribe the author.

But perhaps, to follow Uribe’s lead, that doesn’t really matter. What we have in Bilbao – New York – Bilbao is a novel that slides from fact to fiction to the space between and back again. Ultimately, you can’t tell one from another; and the book becomes all the more effective for it.

30/01/2015 - 09:49
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This ingenious and original historiographical novel tells the story of its own writing, as Uribe explores the history of his family and the Basque Country fishing community of which they have long been a part. Framed by the author's plane journey to the States, the web of digressions is mapped by ever-lengthening and constantly entwining cultural tendrils as the family diffuses around the world, led off by his father's trawler. The intersection between truth and storytelling is a particularly potent theme, contrasting the prosaic and the poetic, the pragmatic and the romantic. It's a view from the inside of the novel, looking out upon the reader in consideration of what might prove engaging, a metafictional conceit made engaging by the genial candour of Uribe, or at least his novelistic avatar, as he explores the process of researching and honing his book.

Huge credit must go to Wales-based indie Seren Books for bringing this book to English-language readers; it's extraordinary that this winner of Spain's prestigious Premio Nacional de Literatura wasn't picked up by a major publisher.

jonathan Ruppin – Foyles

19/12/2014 - 15:42
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Maya Jaggi

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Kirmen Uribe’s novel Bilbao-New York-Bilbao (Seren Books), translated by Elizabeth Macklin. A reflective insight into three generations of Basque family history, it is crafted with the structure of a trawler’s net by one of Spain’s most exciting young novelists – who writes in Basque – and is the perfect read for anyone on a plane.

19/12/2014 - 14:27
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Alexandra Büchler, director of Literature Across Frontiers

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Kirmen Uribe’s Bilbao – New York – Bilbao (Seren Books) translated from the Basque by Elizabeth Macklin is a mix of travel writing, family history and reflections on Basque culture and its place in today’s world. It is a book about journeys, the many journeys made by Uribe’s father and grandfather on Basque fishing boats and his own travels as a writer who has inherited their language. Read this if you want to be moved by the simple prose of an author who is primarily a poet.

19/12/2014 - 14:26
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Bookmunch Review

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Bilbao New York Bilbao is an almost real/not-quite-fiction meditation on connections, or rather disconnections. It’s about loss: the diminution of relationships through distance, be that geographical, physical or emotional; and loss over time, through the passing of years.

Indeed a melancholy pall hangs over the author’s words, as he pieces together the tattered map of his lineage. But the mood is sombre and reflective, rather than depressing – if the reader picks this up at the right moment in their own lives, it’ll more likely strike a chord.

What was also enjoyable, from the perspective of a Briton, was to be taken somewhere foreign: the author succeeds in making the Basque country, at the turn of the last century, come to life. However, whilst the author is reaching for the existential nausea of classic European literature, he doesn’t quite get there. The story, the journey of the book is very personal, however for readers unfamiliar with the Basque country of that era, with Spain, with even Europe, they will likely need orientating. And that’s left wanting. There are too many threads, and many of them nascent – no singular thought or idea is developed long enough to allow the reader to settle. This is then compounded by a veritable army of supporting and fleeting characters: at a prosaic level, three are just too many names for the reader – the foreign reader – to keep in reference.

Any Cop?: For lovers of art, especially the history of art, this work could be a treasure trove. Moreover, there is something of a parable in here – a lesson, a sadness that haunts many in an age of migration. However, to use the analogy of the fishermen that are key to this story, the author fails to throw the reader a line. And that’s a real shame, as once on-board, the eulogy is worth hearing.

Tamim Sadikali – Bookmunch

20/11/2014 - 09:34