Books: The undying land of blood and beret

Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky Cape pounds 15.99

The word Basque means one of two things to most people: a mountainous area on the Franco-Spanish border populated by men in berets, speaking a strange language; or terrorism. According to a recent study, 85 per cent of articles on Basques in the US press mentioned terrorism, while only last year the American government included the separatist organisation ETA on a list of organisations to which it is illegal to provide funds - an honour not accorded the IRA.

It is true that ETA's activities in the past have had spectacular results, such as the assassination in 1973 of Franco's prime minister, Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco. The killing of the dictator's closest ally, in the judgement of Mark Kurlansky, "was widely seen as the end of Francoism". But the Basques have paid a heavy price for ETA. Successive Spanish governments blamed it for 800 murders. Then, in September last year, its leaders suddenly renounced violence. In the same period, says Kurlansky, hundreds of Basques have been killed by the Guardia Civil or died in suspicious circumstances while in custody.

The ambivalence felt towards them by non-Basques is summarised by the experience of Enkarni Martinez, a Basque woman who was arrested and tortured by the police in 1994. When she was released, Martinez had 30 bruises on her body and had to be rushed to hospital for treatment to save a kidney. She approached a Spanish judge, Baltazar Garzon, who would later become famous for his attempts to extradite the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, to face trial in Madrid. "Do you want me to show you the marks?" she asked. She says that Garzon declined.

This incident is related towards the end of Kurlansky's book, a dazzling, wide-ranging narrative which more than justifies his curious title. The Basque people not only defy notions of national sovereignty - the majority live in four provinces in Spain, with the remaining nine per cent across the border in France - but they have had a disproportionate influence abroad as shipbuilders, fishermen and traders. As well as having a whale named after them, they developed their own type of salt cod which lasted longer than the one used by the Vikings, enabling them to sail as far as Iceland, Norway and the Hebrides. Kurlansky, an expert on fishing who previously wrote a much-praised book about cod, even speculates that the Basques might have reached North America before Columbus.

A merchant from the Basque town of St-Jean-de-Luz recorded in 1710 that French colonisers in Nouvelle France encountered indigenous tribes whose vocabulary appeared to include words in Euskera, the Basque language. Later linguists have claimed that members of the Huron tribe had names which could have been Basque in origin. There is no solid evidence that the Basques arrived in North America first, but Kurlansky keeps his options open by pointing out that fishing communities are naturally secretive, especially about the origin of their best catches. He also offers a recipe, one of many in this delightful and unconventional book, for a traditional fish stew called ttoro.

Euskera is an oddity among European languages, without linguistic relatives - an "orphan language", according to Kurlansky. Along with Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian, it is not even Indo-European, and its origins have never been satisfactorily explained. Its structure suggests it is very ancient, perhaps dating back to the Stone Age. Wherever it came from, its survival and links with Basque nationalism so infuriated Franco that he banned it, instructing inhabitants of the four provinces to "speak Christian".

This is hugely ironic, given that the Basques were known not just for their fierce independence but their devout Catholicism. Ignatius Loyola, founder in 1534 of the Jesuits, came from the Basque province of Guipuzcoa where his family had been successful mercenaries. A disenchanted contemporary wrote in the 16th century that "the Loyolas were one of the most disastrous families our country had to endure, one of those Basque families with a coat of arms over the door, in order to justify the misdeeds that were the tissue and pattern of their lives". But Loyola is revered by many of his fellow-countrymen as "the Basque saint", and it is a measure of Franco's paranoid vision that he regarded his Basque co-religionists as heretics.

More than that, the would-be dictator chose a Basque town - Gernika, better known as Guernica - to try out the modern machines of warfare which his Nazi allies offered him when he rebelled against the elected government of Spain. Waves of German and Italian bombers, including the brand new Heinkel 111, battered the town at just before five in the afternoon on a market day in 1937, when it was crowded with peasants, shoppers, refugees and farm animals. Franco's troops occupied Gernika three days after the bombing and eventually admitted to 200 casualties. But the real figure was far higher.

A profoundly conservative people, who traditionally supported the Carlist cause in Spain, had been turned into implacable opponents of a right-wing dictatorship. Basque nationalists claim that, in the years of supposed neutrality which followed the Spanish Civil War, 21,780 of their compatriots were executed. It is this background which is essential to understand the formation of ETA and demands not just for local autonomy - the traditional cause of Spanish Basques - but independence.

Kurlanksy handles this turbulent history with wit and a light touch. His book is far from being a dry history, including chapters on the Basque beret, billy-goat and cake. He also tells an old joke, popular in Bilbao, which conveys both the Basque sense of humour and a sense of being at the heart of things. A man goes into a shop in the town and asks for "a world map of Bilbao". "Left bank or right?" is the immediate response. It is evidently an assumption which Kurlansky, who lives in New York, has come to share.

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