Monthly Archives: December 2011

A Few Thoughts on Basque History and Fiction

The Basque Country is about twice the size of Rhode Island, a relatively small area, but Basques have moved to Madrid, Barcelona, and the Americas.  The Basque experience isn’t limited to a singular patch of soil.  In fact I would say that one of the unique aspects of Basque Literature is the question of identity that has resulted from their diaspora.  Therefore, a lot of literature is being written outside of the provinces or about living outside the provinces.

What makes Basque literature so exciting is how new everything is.  The University of Reno’s Basque series was published in the aughts (the decade of the 2000s) and most of Bernardo Atxaga’s works were published in English during the 90s.  It feels like everything is up for grabs.  It is like when Emerson and Thoreau were creating American Literature.  Every piece that is published becomes a brick in the foundation of Basque Literature.  Certainly, people have been publishing for the past 150 years in the Basque Country, but the quantity and quality of work being produced right now is unlike any other period.

One of the basic facts that I have come across in my studies of Basque fiction is that there isn’t a rich tradition of Basque fiction, at least not compared to Bertsolaritza, improvised songs that are performed at competitions.  Also, we must keep in mind that some older writers who were born in the Basque Country are considered Spaniards by English scholars.  Unamuno might be one of the most famous Basque writers, but he is typically known as a Spanish writer in the English speaking world.  And part of this is tied into Spanish/Basque nationalism, a complex and touchy subject for many Basques.

After the Third Carlist War, the central government of Spain revoked aspects of self-rule that had provided the Basque Provinces a great sense of autonomy.  Spain was a country made up of many nations of people and there was tension between the central government of Madrid and the many fueros, which functioned like regional governments.  Navarra, Catalonia, Galicia, and the Euskal Herria (the Basque Country) all possessed some level of self-rule within 19th Century Spain.  But throughout Spanish history there has been a battle between centralization and federalization.  This came to a head during the Carlist Wars and the Spanish Civil War.  During these periods local regional governments where viewed as a threat to Madrid’s central power.

So, what is the relationship between Basque nationalism, history, and Fiction?  While this is an extremely complex question, my primary concern is how stories function and not how stories promote a certain political ideology.  When these topics define characters and character development, I will address it within the realm of fiction and not history.  Why?  Because this blog is directed towards the art of writing and reading.

That being said, I will look to non-fiction texts to better understand the Basque and Spanish.  Iberia (1968), by James Michener, which will represent a much different Spain from John Hooper’s The New Spaniard (1986), and The Basque History of the World (1999), by Mark Kurlansky.  These texts will complement each other in framing different perspectives on life in Spain, as well as offering supplemental reading to the fictional texts.  I believe these texts will help frame the context of what it means to be Spanish and Basque, and they will help me to become a better reader of Basque Fiction.

I plan on pairing books to create a deeper discussion of the fictional material, especially with regards to the topic of nationalism and terrorism, in particular matching Bernardo Atxaga’s The Lone Man, which deals with ETA, and philosophical texts like Joseba Zulaika’s Basque Violence and William T. Vollmann’s Rising Up, Rising Down: Some Thoughts on Violence.

On a personal note, I find it distressing that a majority of English press coverage about Basque life is ETA related; I don’t plan on focusing too heavily on the topic of terrorism, but it brings to the forefront the importance of cross-reading.  Nationalism, ETA, terrorism, and violence are extremely complex, but these topics play a role in understanding Basque Literature. I am interested in how writers tell stories about such complexities.  How does one write about terrorism without overly simplifying the subject matter?

In the next post I will explore B. Atxaga’s “Teresa, Poverina Mia”, which can be found in An Anthology of Basque Short Stories, published by the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno

Liburuak: The Books of the Basque Country

There is the physical world we live in, and then there is the world we imagine.  Walt Whitman imagined an America, as did Mark Twain, Jack Kerouac, and Aimee Bender.  Each of these writers played with the idea of life in America and used language and stories to create an America, a literary America.

This series will explore how Basque writers have created an imaginary Basque Country.  I plan to read and write my way through all my Basque books in order to get to know the inner landscape of the Basque people and to study how Basque writers use language to tell stories.

A few notes on myself.  I do not have an ounce of Basque blood in my body, but for whatever reason I began to think (some might say obsess) about the Basque language and narrative starting in 2008.  So what do I find interesting?  First, the thing that Basques identify with most is language: Euskara.  As a writer I identify with the English language in a much different way than your average person.  Every day I read and write for hours.  Language defines me as it defines Euskadi (the Basque country).

Second, the Basques are one of the oldest ethnic groups in Europe, many say THE oldest.  But at the same time, they ride the wave of modernity.  They were some of the first to sail the world during the Spanish Empire, mined and forged metals during the Industrial Revolution, and they experienced a Diaspora under Franco.  This last factor is a tragedy but has also defined the Basque people in the twentieth century.  It’s logical to think that their homes can be both Boise and Bilbao, San Francisco and San Sebastian—there is one foot in the old world and one in the new world—on one level this is their contemporary life.

Third, Franco made the teaching of Euskara illegal and the language should’ve died.  Thank God it didn’t.  Since Franco’s death, Euskara has shot back and many Basque Natives are bilingual—speaking both Spanish and Basque—not to mention some speak French or English as well.  When the illegal status of the language ended with Franco, it bounced back with vigor.  What used to be something whispered in barns and kitchens is now plastered throughout the internet.  Anyone can sign up for a class at a subsidized rate because the Basque government is willing to fund this project.  And there are many books being published and read.  Large presses, such as Penguin, have released titles like The Basque History of the World.  The University of Reno has released an entire series called Basque Literature.  And Independent presses, like Miss Nyet, have released thrillers such as ETA: Estimated Time of Arrest by Dephine Pontvieux, a Franco-American fan of the Basque Country

My desire is to create a blog where English speakers can discover Basque literature.  I studied English Literature and creative writing at university; for the past five years I have been writing fiction and non-fiction for a number of publications.  As a graduate student I taught British Romanticism and Critical Analysis.  I believe that close reading and writing about these texts will provide me with a richer reading experience and hopefully spark some interest in reading (and rereading) these text.