A Few Thoughts on Basque History and Fiction

  • Menéame0

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

One thought on “A Few Thoughts on Basque History and Fiction

  1. Bettina (the other Liburuak)

    Kaixo Jacob, I’ve thought about this issue as well. Basque writers such as Kirmen Uribe are increasingly trying to reach out beyond the Basque country, but it still feels very new, as you said, for all the respective historical and political reasons. Also, for just these reasons I believe that Basque literature has been quite self-involved recently, simply because this is the first time in history it’s openly allowed and encouraged to be that way. From my (foreign) perspective it seems that the Basques have a lot of thinking about their own identity to do still, and of course some are doing it through literature. I wrote about this a little bit here and I’d be intrigued to hear what you think: http://liburuak.wordpress.com/2011/06/18/kirmen-uribe-bilbao-new-york-bilbao-2009/
    Of course, there is also the outside perspective, which you touch upon at the end of your post. I completely agree with you that outside of Spain or, indeed, the Basque country itself, it’s reduced to political violence. Tell people you’ve been living in the Basque country and the first thing they will ask you about is ETA. Others just see it as just a part of Spain to start with, without any awareness of its distinct linguistic and cultural features. There is a huge task out there that I believe literature can contribute to tackling, and I also think this is where the challenge lies for Basque literature if it wants to transition out of its current niche existence: acting as a vehicle for making Basque culture known without becoming too focused on the distinctive aspects for people to follow, or too involved with the only aspects already known.
    I’m finding it hard to say well what I’m thinking in my head, but hopefully this makes at least a bit of sense?

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