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)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent