Category Archives: Short Stories

“Black as Coal” by Xabier Montoia

  • Menéame0

Gernika, the Basque spelling of Guernica, might be the most internationally recognizable part of contemporary Basque history because of Pablo Picasso’s painting, inspired by the German Luftwaffe’s “Condor Legion” bombing raid of the market town, killing anywhere from 126 to 1,654.  The current population of the city is a little over 16,000.  It was never a center of industry, but it did house the regional Basque Government and was therefore was a significant target for Franco.

“Black as Coal” presents this event from a much different angle.  The story is about a young Basque boy who has an affair with a German pilot named Hans Schwarz.  It is told in retrospect with the speaker setting the stage in the opening paragraph by stating that he lost his virginity the day after the bombing of Gernika.  Here Montoia ties together the protagonist’s personal life with the Basque history.  What makes it so interesting is the story’s perversity: a Basque boy sleeping with a German pilot.  World War II films are often filled with French and Dutch women having love affairs with Nazis, women who after the war were shunned from society.  Yet this is a story of a secret affair and feels confessional.

The beginning of the story sets up the narrator’s sexual frustration.  “At first I thought I was the only sick one (144),” the narrator tells the reader.  The sickness he’s alluding to is homosexuality, which he refuses to clearly state right away.  On the third page of the story the reader begins to see the world through the protagonists eyes, “My eyes weren’t drawn to these girls he [Teo] admired so much, but to the stocky young workers who grabbed them boldly around the waist (145).”  In the next paragraph the narrator tells the reader, “Death was my only way out.”  Here the author creates tension between the protagonist and the world.  Therefore when the German pilot seduces the boy, we, the readers, are torn in two.  The audience knows that this pilot will be a part of the bombing raid but one some level the reader is empathetic to the protagonist’s situation.

In a comedic moment the narrator again shows the reader what he sees in the Germans: “I liked the Germans [….] They said please whenever they asked for anything and, once they had it, never failed to say thank you.  They were so different from the arrogant Falangists or the Italians who spent all day perfuming themselves and preening their mustaches.”  First we realize that the narrator is fighting against the Communists and with the Spanish and Italian Fascists.  I won’t even begin to get into the complexities of what was at stake, but on a simple level Spain was split between Communist/Socialist against Madrid’s Catholic/military/centralist forces.  It wasn’t simply Basque against Spanish.  There were Catholic Basques who fought against the God-hating Communists.  [For a heady read that really lays out the complexity of the war please read Hugh Thomas’ Spanish Civil War, a book I’m just starting.]  But the portrayal of the Italians is stereotypical and humorous.  And for a moment there is a weightlessness of young love in the story.

The reader follows the hidden love affair and how the narrator’s best friend, Teo, notices the marked change in protagonist’s mood.  The story’s climax comes in a moment of marked optimism.  The narrator gushes about how he loves his job and how he’s fantasizing about his lover.  Then he sees a plane with a trail of smoke, but instead of running away from the Heinkel 51, he runs toward it.  He’s convinced that Hans is in that plane.  A policeman keeps him from running into the arcade where the narrator would’ve died.  The city was under attack with an “inferno of the explosion: the whine of munitions, broken glass from the shop windows, shrapnel, ashes, and smoke [….] the policeman’s face was bloody and I could feel blood on my own cheeks as well.  I panicked then, worried about the pilot (155).”  I won’t go through the whole climax of the story.  Some things are better read, to be enjoyed by experiencing them the way that they were meant to be.  Tales should be read.

What I love about this story is how Montoia layered the text so that I would feel sympathy for this boy whose first love affair was tied in with his town being destroyed.  There are so many different ways the story could be told.  The narrator could’ve been a little girl instead of a boy.  But there would be less tension resulting from the secret love affair.  The pilot could’ve been a foot soldier from Italy (or Spain) but that wouldn’t have provided such a dramatic ending, one so intricately tied in with the historical event surrounding Gernika.

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A Few Thoughts on Basque History and Fiction

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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