#RivetingReviews: Eleanor Updegraff reviews WATER OVER STONES by Bernardo Atxaga

It isn’t often that an author explains themselves. But then, it seems that Bernardo Atxaga is no ordinary author, and Water Over Stones, the latest of his works to be translated into English, no ordinary book either. This work of quiet magnitude, which sits somewhat fluidly on the spectrum between novel and short-story collection, concludes with ‘An Alphabetical Epilogue’ penned in the author’s own voice: a series of fragments in which he explains some of the novel’s inner workings and brings this polyphonic tale to an unexpectedly touching conclusion.

Opening in 1972 and concluding in 2017, Water Over Stones is a series of interlinked stories that tell of life in the Basque mining town of Ugarte. Characters appear and reappear throughout the novel: the main protagonist of the first section, Elías, a young boy who has stopped speaking following a traumatic experience, returns in later sections as a figure now only discussed or seen in photos, living far away in Austin, Texas. His childhood companions, twins Martín and Luis, disappear for a time, only to resurface each in his own section, one now linked to political terrorism, and the other trapped in a nightmarish case of mistaken identity. Both find themselves spending long periods in hospital, a setting that reveals one of the novel’s main preoccupations: the fragility of the human body and how our minds are both trapped within and entirely distinct from it.

Illness and the prospect of death loom large in this novel, even in the lives of children, yet Atxaga is gentle with his characters, on the whole allowing life to continue to burble along. Significant experiences stand out from the everyday routine, leaving their mark on each person and their environment so that, as the sections progress, we gradually see the town transform. The shift is often subtle, conveyed more by Atxaga’s dialogue-rich prose than any particular event descriptions, and encompasses changing universal attitudes as well as the political conflicts specific to the Basque Country.

Water Over Stones is not a novel of grand passions, but rather adopts a quiet register that feels infused with compassion for the small struggles, triumphs, loves and losses that go hand in hand with being human. The text is packed with detail, yet Atxaga’s gaze is capable of moving wider, too, often choosing to focus on animals and landscapes. Wild boars, dogs, flowers and, of course, water recur throughout the novel, thematic threads that help to bind the sections together and combine with copious references to food, music and popular culture to give a strong sense of time and particularly place. Even the one chapter that moves away from the Basque Country, taking us on an unexpected journey into a television programme filmed under the hot Texas sky, is hugely atmospheric, as well as being a tongue-in-cheek nod to our propensity for ‘escaping’ – as indeed we are with this novel – into other people’s often unenviable lives.

‘Words are not like distilled water,’ Atxaga writes in his epilogue, ‘without substance, untouched by life and the world.’ Nor is any individual life – as we see with such clarity in this novel, each one of our actions sends out ripples that nudge the lives of others. Just as ‘water over stones’ is a metaphor for the way in which life unfolds, a constant progression of ups and downs, sometimes more turbulent, sometimes more still, so too does the author use carefully selected language to convey the small mundanities that are the chief substance of human existence. It is a care that has been echoed by Margaret Jull Costa and Thomas Bunstead in their crisp translation of Atxaga’s work, which doesn’t attempt to impress with showy descriptors but instead adopts a pleasantly engaging tone, from which recurring motifs and attention to details such as date, time and weather stick out like anchor points as the story sweeps us along.

A slow burn, Water Over Stones is one of those luminous and surprisingly memorable works of fiction that sink into the reader’s conscience almost without our noticing. Enthralled by the many smallnesses that make up the day, the way we react to them and to each other, and the interconnectedness of lives, Atxaga has written a beautiful novel that cements his place as one of the pre-eminent voices in Basque literature.

Reviewed by Eleanor Updegraff


By Bernardo Atxaga 

Translated from Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and Thomas Bunstead

Published by Maclehose Press (2022)

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Eleanor Updegraff is a freelance writer, editor and literary translator born in London and now based in
Vienna. Her translations and writing have appeared online and in print, including in
No Man’s Land, Lunate, Panel and Stanchion.

Read Eleanor Updegraff’s #‎RivetingReview of LÕWENHERZ by Monika Helfer

Category: The Spanish RiveterApril 2023 – The Spanish RiveterReviewsThe Riveter


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