Towards the end of Patria, Fernando Aramburu’s sprawling examination of the human cost of Eta’s four-decade-long terror campaign, a character attends a talk by an author who, as it happens, has written a “testimony to the atrocities” and their enduring consequences.
While he suspects the writer’s heart is probably in the right place, he reckons “nothing will really change because someone’s written a book. So far, it seemed to him, Basque writers hadn’t paid very much attention to the victims of terrorism. They were more interested in the killers, their crises of conscience, their emotional backstories – all that stuff”.
Aramburu’s novel, translated into English as Homeland and adapted as an HBO series that begins this Sunday, aims to go some way towards redressing the balance. Over the course of 642 pages, it follows two Basque families whose lives and relationships are fractured and almost destroyed by Eta’s violence and its legacy.
The writer, who was born in San Sebastián but has lived in Germany since the mid-1980s, initially wondered what another book could say about 40 years of bloodshed. And besides, he told the Guardian, “bad books can come out of good sentiments; in fact, that’s something that happens quite often”.
But Patria has become a literary phenomenon in Spain and beyond, selling more than a million copies since it was published four years ago. The book is into its 35th print run and has been translated into more than 32 languages. And now there is the HBO series.
“I wasn’t expecting it to be such a big success,” said Aramburu. “But let’s say its something that any writer might legitimately hope for. It’s the first time it’s happened to me and I’m happy.”
Its success, however, has overflowed the narrow confines of the literary world and seeped into much of Spanish society.
As the author points out: “It’s a constant topic of conversation, and something that sparks countless debates on the radio, on TV, and in the newspapers – but also in bars, schools, on the streets and, of course, among political groups.”
Although the plot is centred on the murder of Txato, a decent man who is harassed and eventually killed for defying Eta’s attempted extortion, Patria is equally, if not more, concerned with the toll his death takes on those around him.
But it also explores Basque culture and society, and chronicles many of the huge changes in Spain over recent years, from the end of Eta to the advent of same-sex marriage.
“It’s about many things that are universal and that you don’t have to be Spanish to understand,” said Aramburu. “It’s about family matters, journeys and illnesses, love and conflict between couples, sport, labour issues and all kinds of other things that affect normal people.” There are also, he added, “some funny anecdotes”.
Despite the novel’s popularity – and Spain’s apparent willingness to reflect on a conflict that left more than 800 people dead – the adaptation has not been without controversy. Two years after Eta dissolved itself, and almost a decade after it renounced the armed struggle for independence, the wounds it inflicted remain as raw as they are deep.
Earlier this month, HBO unveiled a billboard juxtaposing an image of Txato’s wife cradling her husband’s body with one of a naked and shackled Eta prisoner in a police interrogation cell.
The decision provoked anger and a threatened boycott from those who were angered by the suggestion of any moral equivalence between Eta’s atrocities and the Spanish state’s response – which included the use of paramilitary death squads.
The novelist, too, has come under scrutiny after the online newspaper eldiario.es noticed similarities between some of the details of the novel and information contained in Lo difícil es perdonarse a uno mismo (Forgiving yourself is the difficult thing), a memoir by repentant former Eta member Iñaki Rekarte that was published in 2015.
Aramburu said that he had read many books on Eta – including Rekarte’s – to research Patria and check details on subjects such as weaponry and hiding places.
“I did a lot of homework for my novel so that my characters, all of whom are made up, could find themselves in real scenarios and would act in a realistic way,” he said. “There isn’t a single sentence in my novel that isn’t mine.”
The author says his geographical distance has yielded two benefits: not only has it given him perspective, it has “let me know what other people think of one’s own country – which is always instructive”.
Writing the book also allowed Aramburu to examine his own memories and feelings as a Basque.
“I was very upset about the victims and very angry that a group of people organised themselves and took up arms to force their project on others – and that that was applauded by a part of society,” he said.
“I thought that literature would help me, on the one hand, to make a protest as someone who believes in democracy, and, on the other, to leave a written memory of the horror that we lived through.”