BOOK REVIEW / Waking the hedgehog: 'Obabakoak' - Bernardo Atxaga; trs Margaret Jull Costa: Hutchinson, pounds 14.99

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The Independent Culture
PLAGIARISTS need a method. It is best to pinch a clear plot-line - a Saki, not a Faulkner. Avoid the work of dissidents who may suddenly rise to fame and be read carefully. Stick to the classics, which people only pretend to have read, and if caught out, call it homage.

So runs the pragmatism of 'How to Plagiarise', one of the teasing stories Bernard Atxaga has set in the Basque village of Obaba in his odd-ball and winning book. Obaba is peopled with rascals, innocents, intellectuals, shepherds, hunters, village idiots (lots of these) and creatures of superstition. The mix is rather like an Isaac Bashevis Singer collection - of the middle European variety - only here one is more apt to be mischievously plucked back from a state of fairy-tale timelessness for a quick update analysis of the symbolism so far. Atxaga loves parody, riddles, manipulating texts within texts, which could of course all turn pretentious and hard-going if it weren't handled with charm and dexterity.

Just to clear up what the book is not: it is not a novel, despite what the jacket says. The stories fall into three sections and those in the third, 'In Search of the Last Word', are ingeniously linked into a narrative quest for a definition of what a story is. At a pinch you could call this section a novella, but the book is primarily and categorically a multi- faceted and rousing celebration of the short story.

Under any label, the tales roll on, Atxaga as convincing in the voice of an 11-year-old girl whose horse has gone to the knacker as in that of a windy old canon who won't admit he's had an illegitimate child. There is an ongoing mystery about whether a lizard can slip in through your ear to eat your brain and a personal favourite, 'How to Write a Story in Five Minutes', is complete with procrastination techniques.

In a prologue, Atxaga says that for four centuries only 100 books originated in the Basque language. Since the megalithic age this language has been 'hiding away like a hedgehog', fortifying itself largely on an oral tradition. Atxaga has not only awakened the hedgehog, but has brought it into the context of his own wide and idiosyncratic reading of world literature. This deft English translation derives from Atxaga's own translation from Basque into Spanish, which won Obabakoak Spain's National Literature Prize.

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