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Jose Antonio Arana Martija > Extracts

Essay (literary and non-literary)

From Seedling in Orbelaun to Tree in Arantzazu |

September 9th. The journey to Orbelaun Farm in Mendata (Bizkaia). The day of Our Lady of Arantzazu. Two places that mark the boundaries in the life of the Franciscan and poet Bitoriano Gandiaga-Artetxe come together on the same date. In both places we will recall that the delicate seedling of Orbelaun grew into a mighty tree at the Shrine of Arantzazu (Gipuzkoa).

We know very little about Gandiaga's physical biography, because he was an ordinary human being in that respect. In contrast, much has been said and written about the life of his soul and the fruits of his spirit, because they make up the fertile, prolific side of him which should be remembered. As someone wrote in the weekly magazine Hemen in 1987, if one were to put into practice the title of the article, "Gandiaga or the soul's poetic strip-tease", one would need research and books to get to know the inner feelings he wanted to keep hidden. Gandiaga himself said: "This silence [of mine] is afraid of words". We know that he was reluctant to speak in front of people.

As far as his physical biography is concerned, what little we know is that he was born on a farm called Orbelaun in Mendata on October 8th, 1928. We have few details about his childhood, apart from what he told us in the journal Hegats (1997). Even though Mendata was the village of his birth, his parish was that of Santo Tomas of Arratzu, because it was the one nearest to the farm. He first went to school in Nabarniz and lived in the house of an uncle while his mother, Anastasia, was ill for long periods of time. Bitoriano remembers how his mother taught him to use the verbs properly, because he did not form them grammatically; she used to correct him on these occasions. We are told he also used to go shopping in Aulestia. And the young lad, who was a virtual monoglot, went from that environment to the monastery of Arantzazu in 1940 and from there to Forua (Bizkaia), Zarautz (Gipuzkoa) and Erriberri or Olite (Navarre), where he wrote his very first article for the journal Gure Izarra in 1949. When he had completed his theological studies in Arantzazu, he said his first mass in Arratzu (Bizkaia) on September 19th, 1954. He declared in a handwritten note that his work would henceforth be devoted to 'teaching' at the school run by monks in Arantzazu. The only trip he made outside the Basque Country was to attend a Theology course in Madrid. That inspired the book he wrote in 1977, Uda batez Madrilen (One Summer in Madrid).

By then he had won prizes for his poetry. In 1954, the very same year he entered the priesthood, he won an award for his poem Begion lore ("Flower of My Eyes") in Zarautz (Gipuzkoa); it was the very town where Lizardi had written his poetry.

1962 saw the publishing of his first book of poetry, Elorri ("Thorn"), for which he received the Jose Antonio Agirre award; two years later he won the Olerti award. He had a number of his works published in the journals Euzko Gogoa, Arantzazu, Egan, Euskera and Olerti. The feelings and insights that poured out from his heart onto the paper seemed like the very heartbeats of his soul.

After reading Elorri, Antonio Arrue, a member of the Academy of the Basque Language, referred to the following four Basque poets (Euskera, 1963-64): Iratzeder, Mirande, Gandiaga and Aresti; the last three have passed away. On October 30th, 1964, Aresti proposed Gandiaga for the position of associate member of the Academy. His name was also put forward to become a full member of the Academy and occupy the seat left by Eusebio Erkiaga, but on September 30th, 1993, Xabier Kintana was elected to that position. Gandiaga agreed to the nomination, but revealed his tremendous inner modesty when he declared warm-heartedly: "We all go through unguarded moments and I said yes." But he could not turn down the nomination as an honorary member of the Academy: this came on October 27th, 2000. That nomination was an honour for Gandiaga, but it was no less of an honour for the Royal Academy of the Basque Language to have a first-class writer on its Parnassus. Previous to that he had won other awards like the Golden Feather award at the Book Fair in Bilbao in 1998.

Words, onomatopoeia and linguistic games played a prominent role in Gandiaga's poetry. According to Mitxelena, Gandiaga does not strive for tone, but for silent music. And silent nature produces this poetry of silence. He once said: "The wind arrives full of stories" and that is why "I frequently engage in monologues". And when he wonders what literature is, the answer comes from within himself: "The skill in manipulating words in accordance with the subject." In other words, playing with words in the same way as the winds make autumn leaves dance, manipulating them according to whim. Another of Gandiaga's gifts was the way he used a rich variety of adjectives, as Juan Otaegi tells us in his thesis (1994). Mikel Lasa left us the following words in writing: "While Oteiza was turning stones into images, Gandiaga was turning images into words. He had no qualms whatsoever about playing around with words." Was Gandiaga perhaps one of the fourteen Apostles, as far as Oteiza was concerned? Or does the silence of the void perhaps come to Gandiaga from the voids in Oteiza's Apostles?

With respect to Oteiza, the Gero publishers brought out Hiru gizon bakarka ("Three Men on their Own") in 1974 together with illustrations by the sculptor. In this book Gandiaga got involved in politics that was not to the judge's liking, and the latter summoned him to provide an explanation. Gandiaga responded to the questions thus: "I am a tree. I happened to be born here, I have my roots here, I live thanks to these surroundings. I have simply written about what is happening to me here." Gandiaga's answer resembled that of someone who was out of his mind, but he knew very well what a tree rooted in the earth was, because he used to plant about 50 trees around Arantzazu every year. But after being hauled before the judge he did not recant what he had said in his book: "The concerns I committed to paper are still alive."

And they lasted throughout his lifetime. Despite the decision that Basque should be used in the church services for the general public, a chapter or assembly was set up in 1970 to decide whether the monks were to use Spanish or Basque in the liturgy inside the monastery. They decided, 'for charity's sake', that Spanish should be used, because there were Spanish-speaking monks in the monastery. Gandiaga could not be brought round to the idea and as it seemed to him that Basque also deserved charity, he would sing the psalms in Basque a little apart from the group, not in the choir loft like all the rest, but beneath it. There was a man there on his own singing the psalms under the choir loft.

We have already referred to silence, Words and stillness: "I shall put this silence of mine into words" and that is what he does in his book Denbora galdu alde ("In favour of wasting time") in 1985:

But I am sorry
that this silence should simply die without being expressed,
without anyone knowing it
and without ever
receiving anyone's help.


Bitoriano's body became lifeless on February 21st, 2001. The bells of Arantzazu broke the silence. And the clamour of silence came down to us. His poems fell silent; like rays of light they started to illuminate our small heaven and the greatness of God. To the sounds of bells one February, in the cold month of the wolf ( ), Gandiaga left us and opened his eyes in the beyond, spreading his unwritten poems in the heights of heaven. This is what he wrote for posterity:

I don't see
anything beyond
what my eyes can see.
But when I have gone beyond,
I've seen further,
And the further I've been, the more I've seen.

And this is what he wrote as an epigraph:

Whatever my wishes,
there's no retreat from death,
which I meet head-on.


Of all the people I have known, only Gandiaga had a serious smile, and he always smiled when he spoke to men or birds; deep down inside there was always a serious side to his poetic creations, a deeply rooted, established feeling. All I can do is read the words of another Basque poet, Juan Mari Lekuona: "Poets can be good, or very good or Gandiaga."


( ) February is Otsaila in Basque and means, literally, the month of the wolf.







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