Txillardegi: Writer and politician who fought for Basque nationalism

Ned Thomas
Monday 30 January 2012 01:00

José Luis Alvarez Enparantza, known by his pen-name of Txillardegi, was a key figure on the left wing of Basque nationalism for over half a century.

One of the founders of the separatist movement ETA, he was at various times a fearless critic of direction and tactics, but always from within the left-nationalist position, now gaining wider acceptance, of the Basque people's right to self-determination. In the post-Franco period he was elected Senator in Madrid, representing the Basque Left, but he was no career politician and owed his reputation as much to his other activities as novelist, sociolinguist and public intellectual committed to the re-establishment and development of the Basque language.

Txillardegi was born in 1929 in San Sebastian, where his father had a small printing works. His early memories included taking shelter in the cellar when the town was being bombarded from the sea during the Civil War, and seeing the lorries of Franco's army rolling past bearing the slogan Viva la Muerte.

Although his parents could speak Euskera, the Basque language, their children were brought up speaking Castilian Spanish, as was common among the town's aspiring middle class. He heard some Basque within the family when staying with his grandmother and saw some written passages in his first school reader. But he had scarcely learnt a few words when the language was banned. He was 19 when he decided to learn the language; by then he was at university in Bilbao studying engineering. Until midnight he would prepare his coursework, then till three in the morning study Euskera from old books obtained clandestinely.

He had enrolled in an underground student's union, which led to his first arrest and imprisonment. In 1953, after his release he helped established the Basque cultural organisation Ekin, whose initial focus was on teaching the language and history. In 1959 Ekin transformed itself into the explicitly political ETA ("Euskadi ta Askatasuna", or Basque Homeland and Freedom), for which Txillardegi supplied the name. It was essentially a breakaway from the clandestine Basque Nationalist Party (PNV) organised by the exiled Basque government in Paris, which a younger generation felt to be out of touch with realities inside the country.

In the early 1960s ETA authorised symbolic violence against property, but it was not until 1968 that the first blood was shed, that of the Chief of Police in Irun who had directed the repression and torture of opposition groups. Txillardegi, imprisoned a second time, escaped across the border into the French Basque Country and resigned from ETA in 1967. For 15 years he and his wife Jone brought up their children in France, and for a while in Belgium. Conditions were difficult, for illegal refugees had no social security rights and the French government was ready to move exiles from the border zone in return for the Franco regime's purchase of Mirage jets. One of his sons, Joseba, is today a leading figure on the nationalist left.

Txillardegi and others resigned from ETA because of what they saw as Marxist-Leninist infiltration . But Txillardegi was also in his own way a man of the left, and a lifelong critic of the PNV, which he perceived as hiding its many accommodations with the state under a covering of Basque cultural identity.

Returning south after the death of Franco, Txillardegi helped establish ESB, the short-lived Basque Socialist Party, and later through the left-nationalist alliance Herri Batasuna, in whose name he was elected a Senator in 1989. On the eve of taking up his seat he was having dinner with Basque politicians and journalists at the Alcalá Hotel in Madrid when right-wing paramilitaries stormed the restaurant. Txillardegi flung himself under the table but one of his colleagues was killed, another badly injured. It was 20 November, the anniversary of Franco's death.

A man of many talents, Txillardegi used them all tirelessly in the task of rebuilding the Basque nation, whether contributing to the creation of Euskera Batua, the standardised version of the Basque language, or bringing his mathematical training to bear on sociolinguistic questions. His novels are credited with having broken the mould of the novel in Basque, and deal with the great questions of human existence rather than the surface currents of political life. He was a prolific essayist and contributor to the Basque daily Berria.

After ETA broke their year-long truce in 1999, Txillardegi became a severe critic of the movement, which he considered had become opportunistic and without ideological direction, a vanguard which had so lost touch with those in whose name it acted as to be completely out of control. He joined a new party, Aralar, which renounced armed struggle, but soon the pressure on ETA to disband was building from within the whole left-nationalist movement.

Txillardegi lived to see a new centre-left coalition, Bildu, reap the peace dividend, surging in the 2011 regional and local elections to take 26 per cent of the Basque vote and coming a close second to the PNV in the Basque parliament.

There is a sense, therefore, of a rounded life, and also of the end of an era. Those who knew Txillardegi will recall his energy and humour, his enjoyment of Basque life and his strong attachment to his home town of Donostia.

Jose Luis Alvarez Enparantza ("Txillardegi"), politician, novelist and sociolinguist: born Donostia (San Sebastian) 27 September 1929; married Jone (two sons, one daughter); died Donostia 14 January 2012.

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