When I read stories by Katixa Agirre my curiosity awakens, and I feel nervous. What’s happening to me? Whether it’s a great event or something trivial, the main character will be affected as if there were a fast-moving stream silently flowing beneath the skin of apparent normality, movement which will leave its unavoidable mark by the end. Haven’t you realised that things aren’t as they seem? Tucked into a peaceful, carefully organised way of life there are so many frustrations, lies, desires, feelings of insignificance, obsessions; so much manipulation, desire to destroy, narcissism, cowardice, boredom, vulnerability, sensation of insignificance, lack of security, shame, treason, self-flagellation, hurt, guilt, jealousy, egoism … However, there is no space for sentimentalism in these stories. The dramas (these texts are made up of substantial dramatic components), whether in the first person or the third, are put to us from close by, in the way an impartial chronicler might. To such an extent that the strong endings leave it up to the reader to answer the questions which have sprung up while reading each story. In fact, openness and ambiguity are two of the writer’s main characteristics, and the reader has to take some time for reflection before moving on to the following story. How do we know when life is going to deceive us?
From the Forward by Miren Agur Meabe, Bilbao, January 2020
Travelling together was the best way to save money. That was why we got into a car with a couple we hardly knew.
I think that by then things weren’t going well between H and me, although we hadn’t realised it. That was why we sought out other people’s company, thinking noise from the outside would cover up the noise between us. That was why we got into a car with a couple we hardly knew. If we had realised, perhaps I would have spent the summer alone. It might have been a moment when a short break could have sorted something out. A summer break. At the end of the day, it was only three months, and I was going to work at the university in Reno. But H signed up too, his company having been one of the first victims of the crisis – in fact, a victim of it two years before the crisis had started, which is quite something.
He had been the owner of a small mobile-marketing business along with a further three partners; it had only lasted three years. Their greatest achievements: a virtual telephone guide commissioned by the Guggenheim Museum, which visitors could download via Bluetooth. He faced up to the disaster with optimism; it didn’t seem as if the dreams of his whole life had been flushed down the toilet from one day to the next. There will be new opportunities, he used to say, and when I told him that I had been given a grant to spend time at Nevada University that summer, in a city which was just four hundred kilometres from Silicon Valley, he felt that his most optimistic hopes were being fulfilled: he could come with me, take an English course at the university – the weak point in his curriculum, something which always gave him grief – and, perhaps, visit some company in the Valley, introduce himself, get some contacts, who knew.
Was I disappointed when I found out he was going to come with me? I don’t know, but if I was I didn’t admit it to myself. We made all the preparations together, quickly and efficiently. An apartment not far from the campus. An English course for H, which turned out to be horribly expensive. In my introduction email I said that I wanted to interview all of the lecturers.
Once we got there, I took my work seriously and ignored my jetlag. Reno’s neon lights and decadence did not distract me. We used to bike to the university. H went to a classroom full of young Asians, and I enjoyed the air conditioning in the library. The place I liked best was a room called Rotunda. There, surrounded by books, with a never-ending latte in my hand, I would spend the best hours of the day. Often I would just stare into the clean Nevadan sky for a quarter of an hour, for half an hour. H used to turn up by twelve o’clock, sit down opposite me and do his homework until it was time for lunch. He used to drive me up the wall with all those phrasal verbs. Try as he might, he couldn’t see the difference between ‘call off’ and ‘put off’.
I met Sandra in the library cafeteria after the fourth of July long weekend. I heard her speaking in Spanish with the Nicaraguan who used to prepare my lattes, and I think I introduced myself first. She was the vice chancellor for international students at the Valencia University psychology faculty. She wasn’t there for research like me: she was laying the ground for a student-exchange scheme between Nevada and Valencia universities. Sandra was too friendly right from the start, and I always distrust people like that. Even so, as I didn’t come across many friends out there – from the Basque Country there were only four track-suit-clad Basque University PE kids, and a pristinely dressed girl who wanted to write a book or make a documentary about Basque shepherds’ wives – and we started having coffee together every day. Three days after we met I had to bring H into our circle and sometimes, if Sandra had nothing to sort out and I had no interviews, we had lunch together. Our discussions were highly critical of the US and Spanish university systems, but we always made sure we included H in the conversation.
When there were a dozen or so days left before our return, Sandra’s husband, Jorge, arrived after taking a trip around America. By that time we had already agreed and thoroughly organised the journey that we were going to go on. A rented car, bookings in hotels in San Francisco and Las Vegas, and an imaginary line on a map, a line drawn without much imagination. We were going to go to San Francisco first of all and, from there, along Route 101, to Los Angeles. From Los Angeles we could have carried on to San Diego, but we didn’t have enough days and decided to go straight to Las Vegas – Sandra had told us that Jorge was a dedicated poker player – and, from there, back to Reno. H mentioned Silicon Valley a few times before we set off, but not forcefully enough, and in the end those corporate visits were left out; to such an extent that we never heard the word ‘networking’ again.
Jorge worried me a bit; although we didn’t know him at all, we were going to be in a car with him for who knew how many hours, and the worst of it was that on the first night we were going to have to share a room at the hotel too. That had been Sandra’s idea, coming to her as a result of hotel prices in San Francisco. She was tight with money, I was soon to realise.
By Katixa Agirre
Translated by Aritz Branton
This short story is available at booktegi.eus. Published with permission.
From ‘HESPERIA, CALIFORNIA’
From the short-story collection SUA FALTA ZAIGU
by Katixa Agirre
Translated by Aritz Branton
Published by Elkar (2007)
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Katixa Agirre made her debut in Basque literature with the short-story collections Sua falta zaigu and Habitat. After publishing numerous works of children’s literature, she published her first novel, Atertu arte Itxaron, in 2015, followed in 2018 by Amek ez dute (translated into English as Mother’s Don’t by Kristen Addis). Her latest novel, Berriz Zentauro was published in September 2022.
Aritz Branton graduated in English and History from the University of Salford. He worked as a translator in the UK before moving to the Basque Country. He works in Basque and English as a translator and university lecturer.