Mar 312010

ETA: Estimated Time of Arrest
By Delphine Pontvieux
Miss Nyet Publishing

As I’ve said here several times before, I think it unfair to directly compare the worth of a book by a full-time writer on a major press with one by a part-time self-publishing author, if for no other reason than the tremendous amount of editorial advantages held by the former — after all, a full-time author signed to a large publishing company will have at least a full-time editor, copy editor, proofreader and agent at their disposal, all of them making fine-tuned changes to that manuscript that a self-published one simply doesn’t receive, not to mention the entire army of student volunteers that full-time writers sometimes have if they are a professor as well, which they are in so many cases. So it’s always a real delight to come across a book like Delphine Pontvieux’s ETA: Estimated Time of Arrest; because although you should be aware from the start that it’s not much more than a beach-and-airport political thriller, it’s a good enough one that it could literally be picked up right this second by Random House for a million-copy print run with no changes needed, a rare occurrence for a book like this which is basically one step above being self-published. (So that is, it’s put out by an actual company called Miss Nyet, but which was started by the author specifically to put out this book, the situation that many people are referring to when they use the term “basement press.”)

And in fact I suspect one of the reasons this book is so effective is that it’s set in a milieu that’s rarely discussed here in the US; that of the Basque separatists who live in the borderland between Spain and France, a place that the French-born, globetrotting Pontvieux (now a Chicagoan) is obviously quite familiar with, and which turns out makes for an almost perfect setting in which to base an exciting political potboiler. For those who need a little primer (and forgive me if I get some of this wrong — I’m getting most of my info from the novel itself), you can think of the situation in Basque in much the same terms as the more well-known Northern Ireland; for a long time a tiny independent nation surrounded by the various Great Powers (much like its nearby neighbors Monaco and Luxembourg), during the fascist Franco years it was taken over by Spain and subjected to a brutal process of assimilation, which like the Irish Republican Army (or IRA) inspired the formation of a paramilitary nationalist organization, known there as the ETA. But by the 1990s, twenty years after the fall of the Franco regime, a compromise of sorts had been struck, which gave the Basque region an autonomous political status while still officially remaining a part of Spanish and French territory, with an end to imperialistic hostilities and the official public right again to celebrate Basque history and culture; and again, much like the IRA, it was at this point that even more and more locals started questioning the effectiveness or even need of a continued ETA, making them much more controversial and not nearly as automatically supported by separatists as when they were fighting literal fascists hellbent on destroying them.

And like the best political thrillers, Pontvieux takes no official sides in ETA, but rather uses the complex situation itself to tell an epic and far-reaching story, essentially centered around a young good-guy named Lorenzo Izcoa, swept up as a teen into the romanticism of the paramilitary movement but then eventually falsely accused of blowing up a police station, during a mass protest that turned chaotic. Like the early work of Tom Clancy, then (which I happen to like alot), Pontvieux uses Izcoa’s situation to examine a whole series of communities and locations related to the issue of Basque independence — from rural Mexico where he spends time as a fugitive, to the alps of southern France where he is brought in by the group to do one last favor, from a mountain hippie community full of environmental activists to the weary police inspectors of big-city Espana. Pontvieux uses all these settings to examine the issue of Basque separatism and terrorist violence from all kinds of different angles, thankfully enfolding these more philosophical issues into the action itself, instead of simply lecturing us like so many mediocre political thrillers do; and along the way, she bases an important aspect of the plot on her personal love for freehand rock-climbing, a natural addition within the beautiful yet treacherous mountain terrain of southern France and northern Spain where our story largely takes place.

Now, like I said, this is a genre project through and through, and you will need to be an existing fan of people like John LeCarre to have even a chance of enjoying ETA; but as far as that’s concerned, this is definitely on the high end of the quality scale for that genre, a quickly-paced page-turner that I imagine most fans of political thrillers will find themselves flying through. What a great week it always is when I get a chance to stumble across a book like this, one that far exceeds both my expectations and its publishing circumstances. It comes highly recommended today to those who are fans of such work.