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)

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