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Review: ‘Mundaca’ by Owen HarGreaves

This entertaining novel takes you on a journey back to one of surfing’s most fabled waves, in another era

Mundaka (Spanish Mundaca) is one of those waves many surfers have on their bucket list. Goofy-footers in particular make a dash for the picturesque Basque town that plays host to the fabled left with the thick, funnelling walls. These days when the fickle, river-mouth break roars to life intercontinental travellers must joust with the notoriously ruthless locals and surfers from all over Europe. The WSL hosted major events at Mundaka for a decade in the early 2000’s, and while responsible for some cherry pie, pro surfing moments, the wave’s inconsistent nature and low tide preference sometimes made it a problematic contest venue. 

However, these are all modern, surf-infused memories of Mundaka that filter through our minds when we open the pages of Owen Hargreaves’ compelling novel, ‘Mundaca’. Hargreaves returns us to the storied region in the early 70s, when the Basque separatist movement is in full swing with its vehement opposition to the ageing fascist, General Francisco Franco, who still clings to power in Spain. 

At its heart, Mundaca is about the youthful quest for adventure, the good times it can foster and the kind of trouble it can also get you into. The main character in the novel, Owen (the same name as the author) has just finished school in Australia and has designs on starting a medical degree. However, before he commits to several years of university he wants to taste a bit of the world so he heads to Europe. There’s also a secondary motive, his older brother John has ditched the family back home and gone walkabout in Europe, and Owen wants to track him down.

Owen journeys from France to Mundaka in Spain and soon falls under the spell of both the wave and the quaint town. This is the early 70s, so there is a genuine feeling that the lineups are less crowded and a sense of wonder still prevails. You don’t feel the cynicism that creeps in when a location becomes a blown-out ‘surf destination’. Hargreaves is actually quite restrained with his actual writing about the surf. Owen and his friends, it seems, are always waiting for the perfect swell to arrive at Mundaka. We get glimpses of the wave’s potential glory throughout the novel but the sparse references are used as a device to ratchet up the suspense – we know at some point the promised swell will hit and it will surely be a source of high drama.

Meanwhile, the town itself offers Owen many distractions. By night it is a place full of pokey but charming, dimly-lit bars where red wine offers solace from the cold, and swarthy fishermen might break into song. By day the town and surrounding landscape provide the kind of setting that may inspire one to take up painting and sketching – as Owen does to fill in the periods between swells. We tend to romanticise surf travel in the 70s and there is certainly much of the novel that makes you want to jump in the time machine and return to Mundaka in what was in many ways a simpler time.

Owen meets a cast of increasingly curious local characters, while there is also plenty of space devoted to the banter between his band of travelling friends who are from various parts of the world. Along the way, they vie for waves and the attention of the local girls, while becoming embroiled in a hilarious battle with the resident rat that haunts their dilapidated but well-positioned lodgings. The dialogue between friends has an authentic ring as Hargreaves successfully captures the mixture of mateship and jocular competitiveness that often permeates any surf trip amongst young men.         

Many a wandering surf traveller has fallen for a girl on foreign shores. However alluring they may be, such liaisons often have their sticky points – jealous locals and geographic obstacles amongst them. When Owen and his friends nudge closer to a few of the Basque girls, the travellers are referred to in derogative tones as ‘Extrajaneros’ by the Basque men. (Much of the book is spiced with Spanish phrases, which helps transport the reader into the world the author has created). Things get decidedly more complicated when it seems that the mysterious girl, Maite, who Owen has fallen for, has connections to ETA, a group of Basque radicals willing to adopt terrorist tactics in their fight against Franco’s reign. Soon the innocent surf adventure morphs into a tale of espionage. For much of the novel, you are never quite sure who is a spy for Franco and the fascists or how far Maite is willing to go in support of the Basque cause.

Mundaka almost qualifies as historical fiction; providing an intriguing insight into the plight of the Basque people, their pursuit of independence and the real battles they fought in the war against the fascists. For anyone thinking of heading to Mundaka, Hargreave’s novel is an entertaining gateway into the political forces at work in this part of the world. By the author’s own admission, many of the characters and scenarios are derived from his personal experiences. The veiled autobiographical perspective of the novel means that both the characters and the plot have an air of authenticity. Neither are overplayed in the subtle dance between political thriller, surf noir and romance novel. In terms of the surf novel genre, it’s also a book of rare depth – perfect escapism with an educational dimension. In the end, it makes us feel like we should know at least a little more about the history and politics of all the places we visit to find waves. AVAILABILITY: SEARCH ONLINE FOR ‘MUNDACA’ BY OWEN HARGREAVES.

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