Thursday Book: The survival of the perfect Europeans

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The Independent Culture
The Basque History of the World

by Mark Kurlansky

(Jonathan Cape, pounds 15.99)

MARK KURLANSKY'S last book Cod mentioned that when John Cabot "discovered" Newfoundland in 1497, the Basques had beaten him to it. They had already established a highly lucrative industry there, supplying salt cod to the whole Mediterranean. Kurlansky wrote with such admiration for these fishermen, who knew about America but were canny enough to keep their mouths shut, that he seemed more interested in them than in their quarry. So it is no surprise that he should follow the unlikely success of Cod with a diligently researched, entertainingly anecdotal and lovingly partisan history of the Basques.

Kurlansky begins by explaining that these people are physically distinct - thought by some to be descendants of Cro-Magnon man, who lived 40,000 years ago. The Basque language Euskera, unrelated to any other, includes several terms for tools derived from the word for stone - aitz. As Europe enters the third millennium AD, getting on for a million of its citizens will be speaking a language that has its roots in the Stone Age.

Euskadi, the Basque country, comprises seven provinces: four in Spain, three in France. It has never been truly independent but for centuries enjoyed considerable autonomy, with a legal authority based on the fueros - local customs as essential to Basque identity as the language itself.

Yet Kurlansky is less concerned with the Basques' origins than the remarkable fact of their survival. His book is because that survival has always depended on international engagement. Their mountainous country is lush, but not rich. This is one key to Basque continuity - invaders marched through but were rarely tempted to stay. The land could not support its population, so first they turned to the sea. Before exploiting cod, Basques were the first commercial whalers. They were also great shipbuilders; it was not Magellan who first circumnavigated the globe but a Basque named Elcano.

The Basques, Kurlansky argues, were always involved in the wide world. One aspect of their struggle for self-determination has been a rejection of French and Spanish insularity. "No word less describes the Basques than the term `separatist'," he writes.

The book's first half chronicles the Basques' vigorous relationship with the world beyond and the tenacity with which they nurtured their identity, from prehistory to the bombing of Gernika in 1936. The second half illuminates the international community's shameful treatment of the Basques since then. They fought with great courage against Fascism in the Second World War - not just smuggling Allied pilots over the Pyrenees, but attacking German troops left in Southern France. The Basques believed that the Allies would drive Franco from Spain, and their nationhood would be recognised. But Franco's anti-Communist stance in the Cold War, and the bases he could provide for the Americans, were deemed more important.

The Basques fared little better with the transition to democracy. The new Spanish constitution precluded any plebiscite on independence. While arrests, torture and murder continue, Basque fugitives have nowhere to flee to now that France co-operates with its EU partner and sends them back to Spain. Yet it is the European Union, Kurlansky believes, that offers the best hope for the Basques. They are a nation defined by culture and language rather than territory. They make, though they don't print, money. The Basques, then, are the perfect Europeans so long as the EU prospers. Should it fail, Basque culture will have to dig in and fight once again.

As in Cod, Kurlansky makes telling use of recipes to reveal his subjects. He does not shy from the violence of ETA or of the Spanish state (each has killed about 800 since 1968). His portrait of Sabino Arana, who organised the first public demonstrations of Basque nationalism, reveals a racist bigot. This fairness is one among many qualities of this important book.

Kurlansky ends with a wonderful description of a txarriboda, the slaughtering of a pig at an ancient Basque farmhouse - probably illegal under European hygiene laws. But the point is, everyone knows what they are doing, and who they are. The final sentence encapsulates Basque aspiration - Garean gareana legez ("Let us be what we are").