On the morning of March 11, 2004, ten bombs exploded on four commuter trains in Madrid. By the time the smoke had cleared, nearly 200 people had been killed; more than 1,800 were wounded, many gravely. It was one of the worst terrorist attacks in history; years later, several Islamists of North African heritage were convicted of the bombings.
But in the days that followed the attack, many in Spain reflexively blamed the attacks on ETA, the Basque separatist group that some countries consider a terrorist organization. At the beginning of Gabriel Urza's novel All That Followed, Joni, an American teacher who's lived in the Basque town of Muriga for decades, reacts to the news of the bombings: "...there was also an underlying air of shared guilt, of collusion in the bombings that had left, as of last night, one hundred and ninety-nine victims dead. ... Muriga has experience with these acts that erode the soul of a people."
All That Followed ends before Joni finds out ETA wasn't responsible, but it probably wouldn't have mattered to him — he, just like all the other characters in Urza's searing debut book, bear the scars of a region that for centuries has been beset by violence and frustrated attempts at self-governance. It's a novel with an end at the beginning, one that assures the reader that while things might change, they probably won't get better.
The novel is told from three points of view. Besides Joni, who moved to Muriga as a young man and stayed to teach English, there's Mariana, whose politician husband is kidnapped and assassinated by a group of young Basque separatists, and Iker, serving time for that crime. Joni and Mariana are estranged friends; Iker was Joni's high school student.
The three move in and out of one another's lives. Joni's chapters form something like a de facto frame for the novel, as he recalls the years when he first moved to Muriga, falling in love with a Basque woman whose mother loathes him. Later, he meets Mariana and her husband, a conservative politician running for office in unfriendly territory, and Iker, a bright but rudderless boy who spends his days smoking pot and playing at radical politics with his friends.
Mariana, meanwhile, is recovering from a kidney transplant, and tending to her daughter while her husband, José Antonio, campaigns for office. When he is killed she breaks down, torn between sorrow and guilt. She's unable even to decide where he should be buried: "Where the body should be left was a concern that seemed to ignore the real question: why was there a body in the first place?"
Perhaps the most interesting character is Iker, Joni's student, who dreams of moving to another town with his girlfriend and starting a new life. But he gets caught up with his fellow wannabe revolutionaries, and is convinced to participate in José Antonio's kidnapping despite his doubts about the plan: "We would act infuriated, thinking of ourselves now in the company of Gandhi and Guevara and Castro, and not the bored kids that we were. I don't think we knew exactly what was worth fighting for — or at least I didn't. ... We were just kids playing a game..."
All That Followed is a rarity in fiction: a thriller with an ending that's essentially revealed at the beginning. But this isn't the kind of novel that depends on a plot twist or a shock ending to work; the reader is drawn in not because we want to find out what happened, but why it happened. And Urza's writing is so strong — both tough and lyrical, unsparing and beautiful — that it's difficult to tear yourself away.
Violence doesn't need a reason, and it's obviously futile to try to make sense of a murder. But Urza does a wonderful job explaining how three lives can become hopelessly intertwined and hijacked by history. Joni, early in the novel, allows himself to imagine "a bullet spinning back into the rifled barrel of a stolen pistol." It's an impossibility, of course, a moment of magical thinking, but perhaps not much more impossible than the reality of an entire town shattered by one split-second bad decision. Urza knows that we live with these impossibilities every day, that they've become pedestrian to us. And it's that kind of brutal wisdom that makes All That Followed such a bold, stunning book.