BOOKS / The deceptive caress of a giraffe: Nick Caistor speaks to Bernardo Atxaga about the rebirth of the Basque language
Saturday 12 September 1992
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'.'
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Frank Lampard's face drops when Holly Willoughby introduces him as a 'Man City legend'
- 2 'Do not give them a reason': Baltimore man divides police and rioters in hope of avoiding violence
- 3 X Factor in crisis as numbers of people auditioning plummets
- 4 Baltimore riots: Furious mother marches her son home live on TV
- 5 General Election 2015: Stephen Hawking says he will vote Labour
Fast & Furious 7 overtakes Frozen to become 5th highest grossing movie of all time
Poldark finale review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Avengers: Age of Ultron: Nearly 700 German cinemas refuse to show movie
The Visit: Watch terrifying trailer for M Night Shyamalan's latest horror film
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3 - review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton, really?
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
EU exit would hit UK economy much harder than neighbouring countries, study finds
Andrew Lloyd Webber: Phantom of the Opera writer mocked after issuing a warning about Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon
General election 2015: Labour will toughen hate crimes legislation surrounding Islamophobia