A seductive, unclassifiable blend of autobiography and fiction set in Reno, from the preeminent Basque author
Nine months as a writer in residence can prove unnerving for anyone. For Bernardo Atxaga, newly arrived with his wife and two daughters, research at the Center for Basque Studies in Reno, Nevada, is anything but straightforward. The neon lights and harsh, windswept desert appear full of ominous signs: A raccoon that watches the house at night, eyes glowing. A series of sexual assaults on campus by an unknown assailant. A spider scuttling endlessly in a glass jar kept by a colleague. And the kidnapping and murder of a young college girl in the house next door.
Fragments of the Basque diaspora appear everywhere: A photo of the heavyweight boxer Paulino Uzcudun, who fought Max Baer in the 1930s. The funeral of a Basque sheepherder. Daily life also turns up some unusual charactersa university friend suspected of involvement in the assaults on campus, a friend who takes Atxaga for long drives in the desert where The Misfits was filmed, and cowboys at a Tex-Mex joint.
Nevada Days, told in a series of diary-like entries, mixes a constellation of lively incidents in Reno with memories from Atxaga’s childhood. The routines of everyday life are the only way to resolve the deep wounds of history and relationships, however fleeting or enduring. Trapped in the deeply alien landscape of Nevada, Atxaga weaves together past and present to see the West from a refreshing, if also ominous and unsettling, vantage.
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|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.10(d)|
About the Author
Bernardo Atxaga is a prizewinning author whose books, including Seven Houses in France and The Accordionist’s Son, have won international critical acclaim. His works have been translated into thirty-two languages. He lives in the Basque Country.
Read an Excerpt
Reno is always silent, even during the day. The casinos are airtight edifices, carpeted inside, and no noise spreads beyond the rooms where the slot machines and the gaming tables stand in serried ranks. You canr't even hear the traffic on the busiest road, Virginia Street, or on the freeways that cross the city, the I-80 and Route 395, as if they, too, were carpeted or as if the cars and the trucks were moving very stealthily.
When night falls, the silence, or what you subjectively experience as silence, grows even deeper. The mere tinkle of a bell would put the city police on guard. If a firecracker were to go off in a house, they would race there in their patrol car, lights flashing.
The silence was the first thing we noticed on the day we arrived in Reno, on August 18, 2007, once the cab from the airport had driven off and left us alone in front of what was going to be our house, 145 College Drive. There was no-one in the street. The garbage cans looked as if they were made of stone.
We unpacked our cases and went out onto the verandah at the back of the house. In the darkness, we could make out shapes, nothing more: rocks, tall plants that resembled reeds, and cactuses. The garden was quite big. It sloped uphill and was flanked by trees and bushes.
Ángela pressed a red button next to the back door, and the spot- lights on the wall lit up about 100 or so feet of the garden. At the top of the slope was a large house, and to the right, where the trees were thickest, a shack.
Izaskun and Sara ran towards the shack.
"There's something over there!" Izaskun exclaimed, grabbing her sister by the arm.
Near the cabin, I could make out two points, two small yellow holes, two shining eyes. They did not move or blink, inhuman in their fixity.
Before we left home, I had read a travel guide to Nevada, in which, among other dangers to bear in mind – in second place only to the sun – they listed rattlesnakes. However, according to the photographs and other information, they never left the desert. Those two small yellow eyes could not possibly belong to a reptile, I thought, but were more likely to belong to a cat. I couldn't be sure though.
There was a stick near the shack door. I picked it up and took a step forward. I was expecting some noise, some movement. Nothing. Only silence, the same silence we had noticed when we got out of the taxi.
My eyes were gradually getting used to the dark. I could make out a small head, and behind it, a striped tail.
"It's a raccoon," Ángela said.
Izaskun and Sara wanted to get closer, but, despite what Ángela had said, I told them not to. The guide to Nevada had not included raccoons among the possible dangers awaiting the visitor, but it had mentioned that some might have rabies.
The House in College Drive
It could have been a mansion like the ones you find in wealthy areas in American cities, because it had steps and a porch, and there was a delicate harmony in the design of roof, windows, walls; the steps, however, were crumbling, and the porch was barely big enough for one rocking chair. Inside, the habitable space was, at most, 130 square feet. The house was a mansion, but in miniature.
There were two bedrooms, one of them a reasonable size, large enough for a double bed, but the other so small that two single mattresses only just fitted in. The bathroom was narrow, and the corridor even narrower. The rectangular kitchen was divided into two halves. There was a fridge, sink and cooker in the first half, and, in the second – which was lit by the window that gave on to the garden – a square table with four chairs. Since there was no living room, the sofa and the television had been placed in the hall.
The house was full of old newspapers, advertising flyers and unopened letters, and our first job, once we had unpacked, was to throw away anything that was clearly junk. We saved a few copies of the Reno Gazette-Journal and a letter from the Bank of America bearing a stamp saying documents and addressed to a certain Robert H. Earle.
Second Night in Reno
I got up at two o'clock in the morning and went into the kitchen for a glass of water. I found Sara in the hall, next to the sofa. Seen from behind, in her nightdress, she looked like a little doll. She was staring at the frosted glass eye of the front door.
Seen through that eye, the casino buildings were blurred shapes, in which the dominant colour was red.
I called softly to Sara. She didn't hear me. I picked her up in my arms and carried her to bed.
August 21, 2007 NIGHT
We went out for our first evening stroll and walked about a hundred yards down College Drive as far as the highest part of Virginia Street. From there we could see the whole city: a web of glassy white lights with the casinos all lit up in red, green and fuchsia. In the distance, the lights thinned out until they were a mere sprinkling. Beyond that lay the utter darkness of the desert.
We walked along Virginia Street as far as the point where the I-80 passes underneath the houses, and next to a Walgreens we saw a few beggars. On the other side of the road, parked at the Texaco gas station, two police cars lurked in the shadows, watching.
A helicopter flew by overhead, very low, signalling its position with a flashing red light. It passed over the highway and landed on the roof of St Mary's, the hospital we had unsuccessfully requested to be added to our health insurance, only to find that it was too expensive for our coverage plan.
We left the street and headed off towards the university campus. It was dark. A single swan was swimming on Manzanita Lake, which skirted the building that housed the dining halls and the School of Mining. The swan glided effortlessly over the water, apparently carried by the breeze coming off the desert.
They were showing a documentary about the Second World War on television, and I stayed up to watch it after Ángela and the girls had gone to bed.
The narrator spoke in suave, soothing tones, and the old soldiers, now in their eighties, were speaking sadly of the comrades who fell in Normandy. The soundtrack was Henry Mancini's "Soldier in the Rain" and another equally slow, sad tune that I couldn't identify.
I remembered what we had seen on our way through San Francisco airport: British and Spanish flags everywhere, posters talking about the "war on terrorism" or about "America's friends".
The documentary suddenly took on a new meaning. We were in a country at war. It had been four years since George Bush decided to invade Iraq, and the American army had lost thousands of men. The narrator's suave tones, the sad notes of "Soldier in the Rain", everything in the documentary that appealed to heart and guts was aimed at the present, not the past.
I fell asleep in front of the television and found myself five and a half thousand miles away from Reno, in a hospital in San Sebastián. I was lying in a narrow bed, surrounded by metal bars, trying to attract the attention of the night carer my family had hired to watch over me. I needed to go to the toilet.
The carer took no notice. She was a young woman of about twenty-two. She was talking to someone on her mobile.
"Yes, I'm on the beach again," she said, patting the airbed she used to lie on to relax.
I knew that expression, and had heard it several times before. When she talked to her partner, she referred to the hospital room as the beach. It was her joke.
Afraid I might wet the bed, I tried to push down the bars keeping me penned in. When they wouldn't budge, I screamed at the carer to help me. She turned off her telephone and started scribbling on the pages of an illustrated magazine. I craned my neck over the bars and managed to read one of the things she had written: "I know that at times I may appear to be surrounded by an aura of sadness ..."
I tried throwing my pillow at her, but only succeeded in getting tangled up with the I.V. line in my right arm.
"I want these bars removed! I'm not a monkey in a cage!"
I woke up and opened my eyes. The black-and-white images on the screen showed a burning tank.
The real things in the dream were all mixed up. There really was a night carer who referred to the hospital room as the beach and scribbled sentimental nonsense on the pages of magazines, and there was a bed with bars around it in that hospital. The one doing the protesting, though – "I want these bars removed! I'm not a monkey in a cage!"
– wasn't me, but my father. Besides, the carer had nothing to do with it. I was the one refusing to remove the bars, so as not to disobey the nurses' instructions.
That Night's Film
The military planes were getting closer and closer to the Empire State Building, aiming rounds of machine-gun fire at King Kong, who had climbed to the very top. We occasionally saw the half-naked girl the ape was holding in one hand, or the people in the street below, staring up at him; but what filled the screen most of the time were those attacking planes. First, a shot of the pilot; then, the machine-gun fire; lastly, the roar of the engine. Repetitive, wearisome images.
When he was living on the island, King Kong had already killed the dinosaur and the giant snake, as well as abducting whole legions of young women, so he was hardly a stranger to violence, but he understood nothing about life outside the jungle. He didn't know what the red stain on his neck was, the wounds inflicted by the invisible bullets from the machine guns, and he raged rather feebly at the planes. He finally caught one and brought it down, but he could do little else, for there was no let-up. The other planes continued hurling themselves at him, firing endlessly. Ta-ta-ta-ta, ta-ta-ta-ta.
King Kong lost his footing, and only the aerial on the Empire State Building saved him from falling. The end was near. Sara, our nine-year-old, began weeping silently, as if to herself, and would continue to do so for the rest of the film.
King Kong suddenly realised that his final moment had come and he made one last noble gesture. With his dying breath, he carefully leaned down and deposited the girl on the ground. Then he fell. The screen showed him lying in the street, and we heard a voice saying that he had been killed not by the planes, but by beauty. And the film ended. Sara's tears, however, did not, for she was weeping inconsolably now.
There was no way of reassuring her, and we began explaining:
"You have to understand. They did hurt him, it's true, but he hurt others too."
Still sobbing, Sara answered:
"Yes, but he didn't know what he was doing, and they did."
We couldn't argue with that, and so we took her off to bed in the hope that Queen Mab would bring her dreams that would make her forget King Kong's fate.
Supper at Tacos
We went shopping in the mall at the junction of Northtowne Street and McCarran. As it was growing dark, around seven o'clock, we put our shopping in the boot of the car and went to have supper at a fast-food place, part of the Tacos chain. It was right there, on the other side of McCarran, on a hill.
You could see into the kitchen, which was only separated from the restaurant by a long counter, and the employees, all of them Latinos, were slaving away, preparing the food and putting it on metal trays like the ones you get in self-service places. The numerous customers would either collect their food in a bag from a window that opened onto the car park, so that they didn't even have to get out of their car, or at the counter itself. For people who preferred to eat in, there were about ten tables.
It wasn't an entirely run-of-the-mill place. It had a huge window that faced onto McCarran, framing the glittering, diamond-bright city as if it were a painting.
The girls chose the first table next to the door, just a few feet from a particular customer who had caught their eye. He was a young Latino, weighing about 280 pounds.
"Wouldn't you rather sit by the window?" I asked.
No, they wanted a table that gave them a good view of the young man. They were at once frightened and fascinated by his huge, round, shaven head, encrusted like a ball into a neck twice the size of any normal neck
The fat man kept glancing over at the kitchen. At one point, he got up and went to talk to one of the girls preparing the food orders. I assumed he must know her or that he was another employee on his break. He certainly wasn't a customer, because he wasn't eating anything. Apart from the girl in the kitchen, he only seemed interested in his telephone. He was constantly tapping at the keys, as if he were playing rather than actually making a call.
As soon as I sat down, I realised that my hands were dirty and so I walked over to the bathroom, just a short distance away. However, the toilet was occupied, and so I went back to our table.
"They're not really dirty," Izaskun said. "You've just got some of that Halloween make-up on them."
They called us to collect our trays, and before I did, I tried the toilet door again. Still occupied. A moment later, my hands were even dirtier than before, because the tray I picked up was sticky with grease.
"Why is this so dirty?" I asked one of the women serving.
Without a word, she gave me a clean tray and a handful of paper napkins.
There was a new customer in the restaurant now, standing by the door. He was dressed like a cowboy, in a fancy purple shirt with white piping. I guessed that he must have been the person occupying the toilet, which meant that I could now wash my hands. I was right. This time, the door opened.
There was toilet paper scattered all over the floor and a wet rag blocking the sink. I washed my hands thoroughly, doing my best not to touch anything. As I was leaving, I noticed that the wastepaper bin had fallen over, scattering bits of food, sweet wrappers and more toilet paper.
About ten people were now waiting at the counter. The last two were policemen. They had their caps tucked under their arms and looked rather humble, as though they were in a chapel rather than a fast-food outlet; however, the blue of their uniforms and the guns at their belts had the expected effect, and the other customers became strangely alert and silent.
The two policemen only stood in the queue long enough to observe the female employees, and ended up going over to the one who had been talking to the fat man. She pointed outside.
I thought perhaps a car was blocking the exit and asked Ángela if we had parked ours properly.
"You worry about everything," Izaskun said. "First it's your hands, and now it's the car."
The police left the restaurant as discreetly as they had entered and, for a moment, everything was very calm and quiet, as if Tacos really had become a chapel. Suddenly, the fat man sprang to his feet and ran over to talk to the woman at the counter. He moved lightly, quickly.
She was very offhand with him. Even though he was about eight inches taller than her and about 125 pounds heavier, she seemed to be the one looking down at him. At no point during their conversation did she stop filling plastic containers with food.
The place was empty now. There was no-one waiting at the counter, and only we and the fat man were sitting at the tables. He was still busy with his cellphone. Izaskun was reading a comic. Ángela and Sara were trying out the different-coloured make-up on a napkin. Seen through the window, the red, fuchsia and green casinos looked like cathedrals.
The door opened, and three policemen came in, the two from before and a third one, an older man. They went first to the toilet and then over to the counter and spoke to the offhand woman. In an attempt to understand the situation, I told the girls about the state of the toilet and about the dirty tray. Someone must have called the police to complain about the lack of hygiene. I remembered the cowboy in the purple shirt with white piping who I'd seen standing by the door.
The fat man got up again and went over to the three policemen and the young woman. They were talking in low voices; then the fat man and two of the policemen went outside. The third one, the older man, stayed chatting to the woman. She kept pointing angrily at the kitchen and raising her voice. She wasn't easily cowed.
Izaskun could see what was going on outside through the glass door.
"One of the policeman has put a little bag of white powder on the bonnet of the car," she said. "It looks like sugar or flour, but it's probably drugs."
We left the restaurant to go home and there was the fat man, sitting on the kerb, surrounded by policemen, with his hands behind his back in handcuffs. In that position, it was easy to see the tattoo that began on the back of his neck. A snake.
There were about ten police cars in the car park, and we had to drive around them to get out onto McCarran. Sara asked if the fat man would go to prison, and we all agreed that he would.
"For a month?" she asked.
I thought it would probably be for years, so I answered only vaguely.
"I don't think there was much stuff in that little bag, so I should think they'll let him out straight away," Izaskun said.
Just as had happened on the previous night with King Kong, the girls felt sorry for the arrested man.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Nevada Days"
Copyright © 2013 Bernardo Atxaga.
Excerpted by permission of GRAYWOLF PRESS.
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