Bernardo Atxaga’s “Teresa, Poverina Mia”

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At this point in time I will say nothing about Bernardo Atxaga, except that he is the single most popular Basque writer in the world; for now, let’s focus on one of his tales.  In my opinion this story couldn’t be a more perfect starting place, because it exemplifies how one’s inner-life, the world of self-perception and imagination, influences how one lives in the world.

Atxaga dramatizes the relationship between Teresa’s mind and the world in which she lives by shifting the point of view (POV), allowing the reader to observe the protagonist from multiple angles.  Think of POV like a camera lens, except where film is limited to physical world, the written word has the ability to slip into the mind of a character, revealing thoughts and feelings.

This utilization of POV happens for the first time in the opening section, the focus moves from the physical world into the world of perception.  Here the author presents how the protagonist sees herself.  “Teresa had something wrong with her right knee, which meant that she had a slight limp, a fact that had been the cause of great sorrow to her ever since she was an adolescent” (31); this is the story’s first sentence, and it clearly ties Teresa’s body to her mind.  The following sentence notes that this defect “was nothing very noticeable” (31).  These passages have both the protagonist’s and the narrator’s POV; the narrator’s insight comments on Teresa’s self-perception and informs the reader on how it is influencing her life.  Self-perception seems to have an antagonistic role in this story; it is the thing which is keeping her from being happy.

This is a big idea in fiction.  There has to be something in the way of a character being happy.  This obstacle has to be overcome in order for the protagonist to go through some sort of change.  This tension in POV tips off the reader to that thing that’s getting in the way—in this case it’s the protagonist’s mind.  The narrator goes on to explain that on her fourteenth birthday an Italian tourist who stayed at her parents’ boardinghouse exclaimed, “Teresa, poverina mia!” which translates to “my poor little thing.”  Now the abstract thing, her self-perception, is tied into a phrase, a tangible memory that will haunt her.  For me, this is good writing.  Humans always tie emotions to memories, phrases, or events.  We all have nicknames we want to forget but can’t.

Teresa has an emotional breakdown, which she lies to her family about, and spends most of the night journaling about her lameness from an objective point of view (32).  Journal writing is one of those devices writers utilize to reveal a character’s inner workings to the reader.  What the reader finds in this section is adolescent melodrama: “the true extent of her misfortune”, “there was no hope”, and “love, of course, would be denied her.”

The story jumps ahead fifteen years, making Teresa twenty-nine, and the first thing the narrator does is directly point out the melodramatic confession, which gives the reader key insight to the protagonist’s growth; there is also more trust forming between the narrator and the reader, who wants a reliable and intelligent narrator to guide them through the story.  While the confession has been “almost forgotten” the words “continued to live in some fold in her brain, and sometimes, like a nagging refrain” (33).  In this passage Atxaga makes a case for how influential one’s emotional life can be, whether or not the person is even aware of it.

The story begins to pull away from the inner workings of Teresa’s mind and out into the world, but even there Atxaga uses characters to bring the subtext to the surface.  “‘Aren’t you forgetting that true beauty comes from within?’” her brother asks.  Then the narrator states, “Even the word ‘brother’ was no longer what it once was” (34), which does two things at once, it both reveals the protagonist’s relationship with her sibling and how denotation impacts a word’s meaning within the protagonist’s mind.  Good writing does at least two things at once.  Here Atxaga works on the theme and character development.

After a number of pages that focus on Teresa’s family life, there is an echo of poverina mia, a repetition hints at the protagonist’s emotional world.  At this point in the story the reader moves from 1979 to 1993 within two pages of text.  In that section the reader watches as Teresa’s family dies and her diary entries return, but they have become less melodramatic.

Repetition with variation is a subtle thing writers do to create and develop themes in a text.  For example, this phrase poverina mia is repeated but never in the same way.  It carries the emotional gravity of the beginning of the story but treated slightly differently throughout the story.  These echoes, which are intentionally created, allow for insight into the character’s psychology.  Here is one example of where an author’s controlling hand creates narrative structure and meaning in a text.

When you go back to re-read this story look at how Atxaga uses both the narrator and Teresa to tell the story.  Watch how he switches from third person narration to first confessions, how he moves closer to the protagonist and then further away—like a camera pulling in close and then pulling out to show a long shot.  Keep in mind that this short story covers a lot of time in the protagonist’s life.  It’s a great story for novice writers to look at with regards to manipulation of time and using different voices to move a story (both narrator and character).

Photo of Bernardo ATxaga1