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Mª Jose Olaziregi Alustiza > Extracts

Essay (literary and non-literary)

2004 | Center for Basque Studies, Reno (Nevada)

(.) Although we know that every literature gives rise to the dialogue between the particular and the universal, few Basque authors have managed to cross borders; for too long a time, few Basque authors have managed to make their voices heard in the canon of the monochromatic and monological panorama of Western literature. One of these few is Bernardo Atxaga, whose book Obabakoak (1988, published in English under the same title) can now be read in 25 languages; here he proposes a new cartography with which to brave geographical and literary frontiers: "These days nothing can be said to be peculiar to one place or person. The world is everywhere and Euskal Herria is no longer just Euskal Herria but (.) 'the place where the world takes the name of Euskal Herria". "2 (...)

To understand this map splashed with the physical geography of Basque, English readers can turn to Mark Kurlansky's The Basque History of the World3 in which the outsider will find many fascinating details about us: we speak Basque, the oldest European language, a language with only 700,000 speakers in all; our country measures only 8,218 square miles, a plot of land a little smaller than New Hampshire; this territory is divided between Spain and France but as Kurlansky states, "Basqueland looks too green to be Spain and too rugged to be France" (p. 18). Additionally, a number of instances in which the adjective "euskal" is featured are specifically mentioned: the fame of our cuisine (the preparation and conservation of codfish, for example); our well-known sport, jai alai (Basque handball); our most famous religious figure, Saint Ignatius of Loyola; our excellent contemporary Basque sculptors J. Oteiza and E. Chillida; the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao. and the provocative issue of terrorism, considered to be the biggest problem for the 2.4 million people living in the Basque Country. As Kurlansky's book reminds us, terrorism is the topic of fully 85% of articles published in the United States on Basque issues. We cannot deny that this harsh reality fundamentally colors our lives and thus it naturally appears in some of the stories in this anthology (Iban Zaldua's powerful story Bibliography, for example). Among other things, this is one of the purposes of literature: to exorcise demons, whether those of an individual or of a people. Literature of whatever genre is more truthful than either media reports or the official story given in history texts. This goal, that is, the discovery of truth, was considered by Edgar Allan Poe to be a characteristic of the short story and, if we accept this view, the reader will find in this anthology more than a few Basque truths. These truths question our fears, raise our ghosts, tell our dreams or, as André Gide would have it, recount our miseries.

And the writers in this anthology present these questions in Basque, in our ancient language of pre-Indo-European origin. Basque (Euskara) gives its name and its nature to our country, Euskal Herria, the land of Euskara speakers, and for that reason we have tried, despite its historical prohibition, despite its problems, to hold tight to our language through the centuries. In the final analysis, as G. Steiner reminds us, when a language dies, a way of understanding the world dies with it, a way of looking at the world. One way of holding onto our language and crossing our borders is to win new readers through translation. But borders, though a spur to literary creativity in the opinion of Claudio Magris, are a heavy burden for Basques. Thus few of our writers have managed to put us on the map in foreign countries and, though nowadays Basque reaches 87 million homes in Europe and 3 million families in the United States thanks to radio and television, no such thing has happened with Basque books. One of the writers in this anthology, Harkaitz Cano, paraphrasing W. C. Auden's Letters from Iceland, compares the situation of our literature to the solitude of an island, an old European island, nevertheless often visited by well-known authors thanks to translation - it is a pleasure to be able to read Joyce, Faulkner, Eliot, Chekov, Carver in Basque - but from whose shores few excursions to foreign territory have been made. In total, only 60 titles have been translated from Basque to other languages, doubtless too few for a nation of such dedicated travelers.

The socio-historical situation of Basque is the cause of the rather late evolution of our literature. From 1545, when the first Basque book was published, Bernard Etxepare's Linguae Vasconum Primitiae, to 1879, only some 100 books were published in Basque. Numbers began to rise at the beginning of the 20th century, when Basque literature began to gain strength; only then, in B. Atxaga's metaphor, did the hedgehog begin to wake from its hibernation.4 In a brief review of 20th-century Basque literature, we find the post-symbolic poets Lizardi and Lauaxeta in the 1930s; in the 50s and 60s, the Bilbaino Gabriel Aresti, an excellent representative of social poetry; and in the 60s new novelists who revisited and remodeled the typical novel of the late 19th century (Txillardegi, for example, was a follower of Sartre and Camus, and Ramon Saizarbitoria brought experimentalism to the Basque novel). Nevertheless, if there is any critical event in the history of Basque literature, it is the death of the dictator Franco in 1975. Only then did Basque literature begin to establish the conditions necessary for its development (the bilingual decree, which expanded the corpus of potential readers, official funding for publishers and distributors, funding to protect production in Basque.). Nowadays, of the 1500 books published every year in Basque, approximately 14% are literature, and among these, narrative is prominent at 60% of all published literature.5 But though this may be true, it's the novel that holds the central place in our modern literature; in ours, as in other literatures, the market is a controlling factor and the most profitable genre, the novel, therefore triumphs. (.)

The short story, this autonomous modern genre of adult literature and its craft, is a new phenomenon in Basque literature. A. Lertxundi's Hunik arrats artean (1970, Until Nightfall) is considered to be the first fruit of modern Basque short story. In it, we see the notable effects on narrative of both South American magical realism and the theater of the absurd (García Márquez, Rulfo; Kafka, Artaud). Other Basque collections of stories published in 1970 adopted traditional models of folk tales or the experimentalism that was then prevalent in novels. In any case, the 1980s were without a doubt a decade of strengthening and expansion in modern Basque short story. In our country as well as in others, the proliferation of literary journals did much to promote narrative, but in our case, the political situation from 1975 on additionally facilitated funding, literary prizes and the campaign for literacy. In 1978, the literary group POTT Banda (pott = failure) was formed in Bilbao, opening new literary universes to contemporary Basque narrative. Members included Bernardo Atxaga, Joseba Sarrionandia and Joxemari Iturralde, who in the 1980s published works that would change the panorama of Basque narrative. The members of POTT looked to English literary tradition (crime novels, the cinema, adventure fiction, etc.), and the works of J. L. Borges provided the essential path toward this tradition, the universal inheritance found in his labyrinthine library. Joseba Sarrionandia's Narrazioak (1983, Narrations) and Bernardo Atxaga's Obabakoak (1988) are considered to be POTT Banda's most illustrious contributions to the contemporary Basque short story.

Very slowly, from the 1980s onward, the typology of the Basque story became richer and richer and, as in the novel, today's panorama is truly eclectic. Adopting the characteristics that define this multi-faceted modernity, modern Basque short stories feature realism presented from an expressionist point of view, fantasy in the style of Cortázar or Borges (also known as neofantasy), metafiction, tales of a lyrical tone rooted in the past, stories that speak to us of the absurdity of life, minimalist accounts of daily life, hybridization. But above all, today's Basque narrative has abandoned the experimentalism of the 1970s in favor of the simple desire to tell stories and, especially among the writers of the 90s, the influence of the cinema, music and the media is ever more obvious. Finally, it is accepted that reality is like broken glass and that it is up to the reader to arrange the pieces. In the same way, the new hybrid stories, which break through the frontiers of the genre, demand a new type of dialogue with the reader, either through collections which propose new structures or ties between stories (such as in a short story cycle), or through almost chronicle- or essay-like fiction.
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