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Euskal Idazleen Elkartea

Txema Garcia-Viana Arenales "Kartxi" > Extracts

Narrative (short story and novel)

2004 Abraham's Book |

A breeze gently bent the tops of the cypresses above the graves. Amazingly more people showed up at the cemetery than at the funeral for my grandmother. Many of them I only knew by sight; and others I had never even set eyes on. Ainara, my wife, held tightly onto my hand and drew Maddi to her side. My wife knew very well how much I embodied my grandfather's shadow, and I was eternally grateful to her for the effort she was making to hold the family together in difficult moments.

Coinciding with the priest's first words some not so young people opened out a flag of the Republic and a fairly long, anti-fascist banner; they held their fists in the air and kept their faces firmly set (out of fury, perhaps?). The priest was somehow caught unawares by this display and stared at me, as if in reproach for failing to warn him in advance. I shrugged my shoulders and signalled to him to carry on. He repeated the first words of the prayer, this time somewhat huffily.

Suddenly a strong gust of wind whipped up the dead leaves; it somehow made the people lose the complete stiffness they had earlier on, because they were forced to shelter from it, and caused the service sheet to fly through the priest's fingers. I remember how my thoughts were blown hither and thither, my innermost thoughts, which I had once regarded as the mainstay of my character, were being attacked, my inner balance was being eaten away and consumed, as if an insatiable worm was attached to the folds in my soul.

I shall turn my thoughts to my grandmother.

The beginning and most important part of this incredible story belongs to that remarkable woman who lies alongside the man who had apparently been my grandfather (which was the way he would have wanted it). She was the first to tell me about my grandfather and whenever she spoke to me about him, each aspect of him -as if he had been captured in thousands of mirrors- would be revealed to me in between tears shed out of pain, which would slip one by one down her wrinkled face, so that, by the time I noticed, they had all disappeared.

So my grandmother told me about that model man who exuded nothing but goodness and generosity. When I was little, my grandfather was my hero. I think that all of us, or most of us at least, need a hero when we are children. If only to know how to behave, even though our cowardice or stupidity is very often sufficient reason to bring us back to stark reality. Grandfather was a Basque soldier, afterwards, when the Basque Country fell, he fought as a militiaman in Catalonia and in the end in France, against the Nazis bravely fighting fascism. Normally, these words were enough to make one's schoolmates green with envy. At the end of the day who would not have wanted a grandfather like that? In my explanations I purposely included words, like Maquis, or the betrayal of Santoña, which I was thoroughly familiar with, but which my schoolmates did not fully understand. That not only gave the story credibility, it somehow gave me a touch of wisdom. There were difficult moments, but there were undoubtedly happy times as well!

The fact is grandmother, our dear grandmother, lies alongside a man whom hardly anyone knows now. It goes without saying that this hardly corresponds to grandmother herself; but it will soon become clear that there are many doubts about this, too.

Let me pick up the thread of the story! I received a very strange letter. From the envelope I could see even before I looked at the seal that it was not normal, just from the way it looked. When I read the name of the sender, I put it in my shirt pocket trembling. I drank my way through the whole afternoon inside a pub in Donostia (San Sebastian), afraid that what was concealed in the cream-coloured envelope might have the capacity to destroy the basis and being of my childhood. Then once again with my vision blurred I reread the sender's grand name: Ministère de la Défense Nationale.

The letter, when I looked at it, gave few details. In two words: in the region of Picardie, in a small village called Anizy the remains which could belong to Francisco Lopetegi had unexpectedly been found under some building works to renovate a farmhouse. Therefore it was indispensable to go to Paris to identify the body, if there was any interest in repatriating it. I was left open-mouthed. Identify a body that had lain in the ground for about the last sixty years? For an instant I saw myself stuck in a maze of bureaucracy that leads nowhere. But memories were at stake: those relating to my grandfather, my grandmother and my childhood. So there was sufficient reason to justify such a journey; that is what a humble voice deep down inside me was telling me. But enough of trying to justify myself. Yet it was curiosity, more than anything else, that prompted me to go to Paris.

I travelled by plane first class. All expenses would be paid by the Ministry of Defence, as that excessively laid-back civil servant with the pale complexion explained to me in due course, we owe that much to the heroes who laid down their lives for our liberty.

I have nothing more to say about the trip, but before going into the ministry building I spent a couple of hours wandering up and down the nearby streets to see whether the knot in my stomach would loosen. But it was no good. After that I went inside that spectacular post-modern building and waited, half swallowed up in a black, leather sofa watching the civil servants quietly going to and fro.

According to the information they offered me, my grandfather's body was not in fact the only one discovered in that place. Fierce battles had apparently been waged between the Maquis and the Nazis in that area; the bombardment had been heavy, too. Perhaps they had died in a battle against the Nazis and their comrades themselves had buried them. When I heard those words I was slowly taken back to the era of massacres and heroic deeds, glory and hate; and I wonder if at one moment while the official was speaking, a tear was longing to escape from the corner of my eye. And just when I thought that the information they had to give me was being channelled through the greyest of protocols, came the surprise. Many other objects had also appeared in that grave apart from the bones. A small, metal box had prevented them from being eroded by the elements. Ordinary things, it seems. a couple of photos and some sheets of paper and a letter written in an unknown language. From the sender and addressee that appeared on the letter it had been possible to deduce that the mortal remains could be those of Francisco Lopetegi and they contacted the family. If I confirmed that these things had belonged to my grandfather, they would undertake, if we wanted, to repatriate the body; likewise, in return for laying down his life for France, he would be given a medal and a diploma -as they said: the usual honneurs militaries post-mortem-; likewise, if there was a chance that his widow could receive a small pension from the Ministry, then I would be provided with the necessary forms.

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