BOOKS / The deceptive caress of a giraffe: Nick Caistor speaks to Bernardo Atxaga about the rebirth of the Basque language

AS THE nationalities of Eastern Europe burgeon, it is easy to forget that just a few years ago something similar was happening in Spain. The Basques, together with the Catalans, the Andalucians and even the Canary Islanders, started to reassert their own identity as the Franco regime crumbled. The Basque language, which had looked like disappearing in the aftermath of the Civil War, began to be taught again in schools, to be spoken openly, and to be written in newspapers and books, free at last of censorship.

Born in 1951, Bernardo Atxaga was part of the first generation to express themselves anew in their own language. His early work , such as the novel Ziutateaz ('About the City', which has still only been published in Basque) was full of the violence generated by Franco's suppression of Basque tradition, but Atxaga says he soon came to realise that 'what was most important was to get out of the role of victim.

'For years, he explains, 'we thought the evil was outside us, was in the Franco regime, but when that disappeared, we had to realise it was also part of us. So we had to be critical of ourselves, to look rigorously at where we stood, and not simply write a literature of revenge.' His own response was to spend three years in he mid-1980s writing the novel Obabakoak (translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Hutchinson pounds 14.99), which was immediately hailed in the Basque country as one of the new generation's most important works, and was also a huge success throughout Spain when his own Spanish version was published in 1989.

Obabakoak, which Atxaga says simply means 'the people or things of Obaba', an imaginary village in the Basque country, shows that the rigour he mentions comes accompanied with a huge appetite for other literatures and for imaginative tales from all over the world. The book consists of short stories grouped in three parts, beginning appropriately enough with 'Childhoods' which are 'stories from outside time, the kind of stories my great-grandparents would tell, all the oral tradition we were denied until recently'. Even so, it is clear that there is a lot more to the book than a compilation of folk tales, with the authorial voice teasing, playing hide-and-seek, knowingly using the power of narrative to seduce and conquer the reader.

'Nine Words in Honour of the Village of Villamediana', the second part of the book, is what Atxaga terms 'my battle with memory'. In the setting of another imaginary Basque village, he explores the relation between history, literature and the kind of gossip that creates popular legends; while the third is mainly a discussion of the theory of writing with an 'uncle from Montevideo', plus a group of stories which illustrate the ideas put forward. Chapters in this section include 'How to Write a Story in Five Minutes' and 'How to Plagiarise'. However contrived this may seem, Atxaga holds the attention by his sheer craft, by the complete control he exhibits as he leads us through this 'game of the goose'.

He shows that, however recent Basque literature may be, it is not coming cap in hand asking to be admitted as a humble part of our 'great tradition'. Atxaga has well learnt the lessons of Calvino, of Raymond Queneau and other experimental French writers such as Georges Perec. Though some passages of Obabakoak show Atxaga is more than capable of constructing plot, character and all the other paraphernalia of the naturalistic novel, he comes down firmly on the side of literature as sleight of mind.

Atxaga himself describes the writer's attempts to invent literature out of 'memories, the events of one's own life and of the community you find yourself in' as that of a 'battle between giraffes'. He explains: 'When you see two lions fighting, you know what's going on: they roar, claw at each other, roll on the ground. But when you watch a pair of giraffes fighting, it looks as if they're caressing each other. They're not though, they're trying to break each other's necks: and that's the kind of struggle the writer is engaged in with language, with tradition, with sense.'

Atxaga is enormously active in promoting literature in the Basque country, giving conferences, setting up firms to publish new writers and to translate the world's classics into Basque. His next project is an attempt finally to come to terms with the experiences of his own generation under Franco, although he remains extremely wary of any label that sets him up as representing the 'Basque writer'. 'I'm suspicious of anyone who accepts being the symbol of a poor country, of a writer who is offering a marvellous new adventure,' he insists. 'I simply recount my experiences, the stories I can tell, and for the rest I remember a slogan Man Ray used for one of his films, the name of a house he saw in the French Basque country: 'Emmak Bakia: 'Leave me in peace'.'

(Photograph omitted)

Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West is on his 'Yeezus' tour at the moment

Music
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence star in new film 'Serena'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Some might argue that a fleeting moment in the actor’s scintillating, silver-tongued company is worth every penny.

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth stars as master magician Stanley Crawford in Woody Allen's 'Magic in the Moonlight'

film
Arts and Entertainment
U2 have released Songs of Innocence in partnership with Apple

musicBand have offered new record for free on iTunes
Arts and Entertainment
Brad Pitt stars in David Ayer's World War II drama Fury

film
Arts and Entertainment
Top hat: Pharrell Williams

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jonah Hill and Channing Tatum star as undercover cops in 22 Jump Street

film
Arts and Entertainment
David Bowie is back with fresh music after last year's hit album The Next Day

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith Richards is publishing 'Gus and Me: The Story of My Granddad and My First Guitar', a children's book about his introduction to music

music
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris has generated £4m in royalties from the music platform

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman stars as the Time Lord's companion Clara in Doctor Who

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Time and time again: the popular daytime quiz has been a fixture on Channel 4 since 1982

TV
Arts and Entertainment

To mark Tolstoy's 186th birthday

books
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

    Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

    The Imitation Game, film review
    England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

    England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

    Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

    Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    ‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

    Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week