Review: Kirmen Uribe, “Bilbao-New York-Bilbao”

Which creative forms best allow us to capture the complex tapestries that bind together the stories of individuals, families, locations, and their relations with the world? This is the question that drives Kirmen Uribe’s debut novel Bilbao-New York-Bilbao, which as long-time readers might remember, has been on my ‘to read’ list since before the summer. Uribe, now 40, is best known to readers of Basque writing as a poet – he won Spain’s Premio de la Critica de Poesia en Euskera in 2001 for his first published collection – but in fact, he’s hard to pin down into any one genre. He’s worked with textual, graphic, musical, dramatic, performative and visual creative forms, and excitingly for me, is also an active translator of poetry.

Bilbao-New York-Bilbao was first published in Euskera in 2008, when it won the Premio de la Critica de Narrativa en Euskera, and appeared in a Spanish translation by Ana Arregi in 2009 – although according to El Pais (in Spanish), it was a while before the Spanish translation found its editorial home with Seix Barral. Also in 2009, Edicions 62 put out Pau Joan Hernández’s Catalan version, while Edicións Xerais published the Galician version by Isaac Xubin earlier this year.

The novel interweaves various threads, but the one that holds the text together is the narrator’s journey by plane, from Bilbao to New York , which is represented both textually in the story of the flight and his conversations with his seatmate and visually, through recreations of the seatback information screens with information about the plane’s progress across a series of landmarks familiar to all of us who regularly travel that route (Chicoutimi, anyone?!). This thread functions as a way for Uribe to tear back the ‘4th wall’ of fiction and show us the nuts and bolts holding together his text, as he moves easily between emails, notes, conversations and other documents; as a novel, this – well, it isn’t really a novel, more a reflection on the art of writing somewhere between life and fiction.

The mystery at the heart of the novel, or at least the question that drives ‘Kirmen’s’ quest to find out about his grandfather Liborio, is why Liborio called his fishing boat ‘dos amigos’ or ‘two friends’ – and the answer, when it comes, is the perfect key to a book I just haven’t been able to get out of my mind since I finished it. But I’m not going to tell you what it is – you’ll have to read it for yourselves! (I think the English version is in progress …) Instead, here’s a video, made by Uribe, that gives a flavour of parts of the novel:

EDITED TO ADD: I’ve just found the reference I was looking for to the English translation by Elizabeth Macklin, who has translated others of Uribe’s works, and even appears briefly in this one! Here it is with a wonderful excerpt from Chapters 5 and 6. Congratulations, Elizabeth, this is just beautiful!


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