Traveling within the chapters of a book is my favorite past time. A novel can take me to exotic places in the cozy comfort of a couch. No grueling plane rides to deal with, no passengers crowding my space. At the speed of a Kindle download, I can be in the mud-slicked wharves of old London, the shikumen-crowded alleys of new Shanghai or the verdant hills of sunny Tuscany. This time, I bought an ebook ticket to Northern Spain in a region known as the Spanish Basque Country.
The Band of Gypsies by Enrico Antiporda takes place in the province of Vizcaya, a region long troubled by Basque secessionist upheaval. In this vibrant novel of youth and strife, we are introduced to Jaime, Allison, Bjorn, and Elena, four foreign students having their internships in Bilbao, Spain before finishing their final year of college and the eventual drudgery of lifetime work. They expected their stay to be memorable, filled with the golden experiences of youth and academic learning. But no sooner have they arrived in what they thought was an exotic Spanish city when turbulence sweeps them off their feet and throws them in the middle of the unrest. The psychological effects of the explosive protest rallies they witnessed in Bilbao, some of which resulted in gruesome bloodshed, are given no respite even in the safety of their boarding house. Jaime, the narrator, is mesmerized by his American housemate, the lovely and mysterious Allison Flynn who, unfortunately, happens to be romantically involved with a Spaniard that runs a secret ETA terrorist cell at the university. By this time, one can feel the cauldron percolating in the boarding house as Jaime is ensnared by the beauty of the American and finds himself caught in a potentially dangerous triangle.
The narrative, radiant in its imagery, has the flavor of romantic intrigue coupled with touches of magical realism. Whether introducing a character or a scene, vivid descriptions fill the pages of the book. One could almost smell the bitter cordite after a bomb explodes in a crowded plaza or see the sheen of blood coating the cobblestoned walk. Yet, there are instances of raw humor that counteracts the intensity of the narrative as when Jaime arrives in his first day of internship and meets his eccentric cigar-smoking, Mafioso-looking boss in an office so smoky “it looked like it had just been fumigated.”
The novel gives readers cultural glimpses of Northern Spain, touching on the reasons behind the Basque conflict but does not dwell on it too much as to interrupt its quick pacing. The magic of youth pervades throughout the narrative and the inclusion of sapient flashback stories within the major story arc, add depth to the characters. Readers would hark back to their college days when life was breathtaking and everything was possible. The intensity of the love affair between Jaime and Allison are touching, the mysteries of their troubled pasts, engrossing. One finds himself anxiously turning the pages wondering if the star-crossed lovers would ever be together or perish in a bomb blast. I’m not sure if this book is a literary novel, a suspense, or a romance. It may very well be all of the above. One thing you can be sure of: it is a beautiful novel. A wonderful heartfelt journey you will never forget.
Hmmm, I wonder where I’ll travel next?