Contemporary Basque Literature

Contemporary Basque Literature
Cover of 'hamaika pauso' by ramon saizarbitoria (erein publishing house)
Cover of 'gasteizko hondartzak' by xabier montoia (susa publishing house)
Cover of 'eta emakumeari sugeak esan zion' by lourdes oñederra (erein publishing house)
Cover of 'elektrika' by xabier montoia (susa publishing house)
Cover of 'ehun metro' by ramon saizarbitoria (erein publishing house)11
Cover of 'blackout' by xabier montoia (susa publishing house)11
Cover of 'bihotz bi' by ramon saizarbitoria (erein publishing house)1
Lesson 13- the lone woman-the harvill press11
'If we look at the percentages for each genre we can see that, for example, in the year 2000 there was a 59% increase in the publication of prose fiction and a 10.1% increase in the publication of poetry. Other genres such as plays and essays had a weaker presence in our literary market: the publication of plays rose by 6.3% and essay collections by 5.8%...As regards translation, only 25 of the 256 books for adults published in 2000 were translations. However, the picture is very different when it comes to books for children and young adults: of the 371 books published that year, 204 were translations.'

Mari Jose Olaziregi (University of the Basque Country). Translated from Basque by Amaia Gabantxo.

Read also A Brief Look at Contemporary Basque Publishing.

This article will deal with the evolution of Basque literature in the last thirty years, in particular with prose fiction. The aim of the article is to shed light on the development of the different genres in Basque literature, and on the authors and works that have gained recognition in the last few decades.

In The Awakening of Basque Literature (Transcript 5), I wrote about the difficult path that Basque literature has trodden throughout the centuries towards becoming a structured literary system. Interested readers can consult that article to discover how Basque literature has evolved since the first Basque book was published (Bernard Etxepare's Linguae Vasconum Primitiae (1545)) and how specific socio-political conditions have defined our literature. Our best-known author, Bernardo Atxaga, has compared Basque literature to a hedgehog that has just woken up from a very long sleep, because it has only managed to gather strength - in other words, to achieve quality and manage distribution - in the twentieth century.

It has been said that literature written in Basque only became an institutionalized activity in the Basque Country in the 1950s. Or, to put it differently, only then did it begin to be created and distributed with a literary aim, unlike in the previous centuries (from the 16th to the beginning of the 20th century), when its aims had been purely religious or nationalistic. Things started to change in the 1950s and in the following decade, when many of the names that would go on to become important influences in the modernization of Basque culture started to emerge: people like the writer Gabriel Aresti, the philologist Koldo Mitxelena and the sculptor Jorge Oteiza.

The process of renewal and updating started to gain impetus in 1975, particularly in the peninsular Basque Country. This was the year Franco died and the socio-economic conditions necessary for encouraging the healing of the Basque literary system began to be formed. The granting of autonomy in 1979 and the 1982 bilingualism decree made the Basque language official and created the conditions for making it better known. By increasing the number of publishers, offering literary grants and encouraging literary prizes, the world of Basque literature became more dynamic than it had ever been.

The 1980s saw the establishment of institutions for defending the rights of people involved in literature: Euskal Idazleen Elkartea-EIE (the Basque Writers' Association - and Euskal Itzultzaile, Zuzentzaile eta Interpretarien Elkartea-EIZIE (Assocation of Translators, Correctors and Interpreters of Basque Language; see also Also in the 1980s, the first Basque philology department was set up at the University of the Basque Country. These were all essential contributions to the development of Basque literary criticism.

The publishing data presented by the sociologist Jose Mari Torrealdai in his book Euskal Kultura Gaur1 ('Basque Culture Today') speak for themselves: while in the years 1876-1975, 31.5 books were published yearly in Basque, in the years 1976-1994 that number rose to 659.2. Today, around 1500 books are published yearly in Basque. If we look at the percentages for each genre we can see that, for example, in the year 2000 there was a 59% increase in the publication of prose fiction and a 10.1% increase in the publication of poetry. Other genres such as plays and essays had a weaker presence in our literary market: the publication of plays rose by 6.3% and essay collections by 5.8%.

As regards translation, only 25 of the 256 books for adults published in 2000 were translations. However, the picture is very different when it comes to books for children and young adults: of the 371 books published that year, 204 were translations. It is clear from this picture that prose fiction is most popular in the world of Basque publishing.

In the years 1876-1935, the most widely published works were plays. The reason was that plays were perceived to be the most effective means of spreading nationalist ideology. Of all the works of literature published during those years, 51% were plays and only 18.7% were prose fiction. In the years 1936-1975, however, the most popular genre was poetry (27.9%), and the publication of prose fiction increased to 23.8%. The growing status of prose fiction took place simultaneously with the strengthening of the Basque literary system, and thus in the years 1976-1996, 48.5% of published books were works of prose fiction. The dominance of literary works in the publishing market is linked with the canonical place authors and prose fiction have achieved within the Basque literary system. In the last two decades, Basque literature has been guided by market forces, and these dictate that prose fiction - especially the novel - is most profitable.

Before mapping out the landscape of contemporary short stories and novels, I will discuss other genres that have played a smaller role in the world of publishing. Essay writing is without a doubt the smallest of them all. The most important essay writers of the 1960s were Koldo Mitxelena, Txillardegi and Rikardo Arregi. Joxe Azurmendi was very popular in the 1970s. After a quiet decade, essay writing re-emerged in the 90s. Essay-writing prizes, translations and the determination of some publishing houses have undoubtedly all helped reinvigorate this genre, but there were also a number of key titles that contributed to its popularization. These are: Joseba Sarrionandia's Ni ez naiz hemengoa (I Am Not From Here, 1985) and Joxe Azurmendia's Euskaldunak eta Espainolak (The Basques and the Spaniards, 1992). Other relevant names in this field are Patziku Perurena, Eduardo Gil Bera and Joseba Zulaika. In any case, the genre has become an attractive alternative for some of our better-known authors, who have lately published a number of essays. Ramon Saizarbitoria, for example, published Aberriaren alde (eta kontra) (For (and against) the Motherland, 1999) and Anjel Lertxundi brought out Mentura dugun artean (While We Stand a Chance) in 2000.

Bernardo Atxaga, an author who is fond of several genres, published Groenlandiako lezioa (The Greenland Lecture) in 1998 and Jon Alonso brought out Kamenbert helburu (The Camembert Objective) in the same year. Both are fine examples of hybrid texts that take the essay form as their point of departure. I have no doubt that this is a genre to be watched in the forthcoming years.

As far as theatre is concerned, the popularity of plays is a thing of the past; today, sadly, it subsists only thanks to institutional grants. The most important prizes in this genre are the Donostia Hiria and Toribio Altzaga prizes; and the most active publishers and magazines in the field are Susa, Elkar, Atezblai or Egan. The work that the EIZIE is doing on publishing translations of the classics in their Literatura Univertsala series is also very important. As for the most relevant playwrights, it is important to mention the modernization that Gabriel Aresti undertook in this genre, which was continued in the 1970s and 1980s by his protégée Bernardo Atxaga, who wrote experimental plays during these years. After the 1980s, under the influence of authors such as Daniel Landart, Luis Haranburu Altuna and Xabier Mendiguren Elizegi, Basque theatre veered towards the critical realism and historical drama. The 1990s brought a new crop of interesting names to the foreground. New realist drama, by Xabier Mendiguren, Guillaume Irigoien, Juanjo Olasagarre, Antton Luku and Enkarni Genua among others; plays about social problems by Ramon Agirre, Aitzpea Goenaga and Javi Cillero; new historical drama by Karlos Del Olmo, Mattin Irigoien and Luku. Other notable writers are Karlos Linazosoro and his theatre of the absurd, and Pantzo Hirigaray with his grotesque noir comedies.

Poetry is going strong, especially among the younger generation of poets. Many poets born in the 1970s have joined the Basque literary scene in the last few years. Some of them are: Kirmen Uribe, Asier Serrano, Igor Estankona, Jon Benito, Jose Luis Padrón, Urtzi Urrutikoetxea, Castillo Suarez, Anjel Erro and Ixiar Rozas. There has also been a concerted effort on the part of the University of the Basque Country to reissue volumes of well-known authors works. The collection XX. Mendeko euskal poesia kaierak (20th-Century Basque Poetry), published by Susa and edited by the writer Koldo Izagirre, is one such project. Another example of the genres popularity is the website, which is available to readers in several languages.

Also remarkable is the popularity of poetry readings. Mixing poetry and other arts such as music or painting, these events bring many people together. A very successful example is the show put on by poet Kirmen Uribe and singer Mikel Urdangarin: Zaharregia, txikiegia again. Una manera de mirar. Too Old, Too Small, Maybe (Gaztelupeko hotsak, 2003), which has had a sensational international reception. I should also mention some poetry collections that have been published lately accompanied by CDs containing readings and music: Bernardo Atxagas Nueva Etiopía (New Ethiopia, El Europeo, 1996) and Joseba Sarrionandias Hau da ene ondasun guztia (These Are All My Riches, Txalaparta, 1999) are two examples. Interestingly, the latter volume contains translations of the poets work into three languages.

The development from Aresti's social poetry took place during the 1970s, when the more existential poetry of authors such as Xabier Lete, Arantza Urretabizkaia or Mikel Lasa took over. Other authors took a post-symbolist stand - their aim was to move towards a more concise and synthetic style (e.g. Juan Mari Lekuona) or a deeper degree of introspection (e.g. Bittoriano Gandiaga). Koldo Izagirre also started writing in the 1970s. His Itsaso ahantzia (The Forgotten Sea, 1976) dabbled with surrealist aesthetics, but his poetry became more politicised in 1989 with the publication of Balizko erroten erresuma (The Realm of Imaginary Mills). In the same way, Joseba Sarrionandia undertook a journey that revisited Kavafis, Holan and Pessoa in a collection of poetry that made many references to high literature: Izuen gordelekuen barrena (In the Hiding Places of Fear, 1981), but he too moved closer to political poetry in Marinel zaharrak (The Ancient Mariners, 1987) and Huny illa nyha majah yahoo (1995).

But the book that truly shook the poetry scene of that time was Bernardo Atxagas Etiopia (1978): it set the standard for modern Basque poetry. The appearance of this collection, together with some of those mentioned above, took place during a period  1976-1983  in which Basque poetry experienced its most avant-garde moment, thanks to the proliferation of literary magazines that acted as springboards for many of these authors.

The early 1980s saw a variety of poetic trends, one of which was what was called the poetry of experience. Poets of the stature of Felipe Juaristi, Amaia Iturbide and Marijo Kerexeta combined their alliance to symbolism and aestheticism with their private experiences to create poetry. Other authors, such as Tere Irastorza, published poetry of a more intimate nature. Luigi Anselmis work (Zoo ilogikoa, 1985), Aurelia Arkotxas poetry, which is inspired by both geographical and literary journeys (Septentrio, 2001), or the powerful, ironic poems of Pako Aristi (Castletown, 1996) are also essential parts of the current landscape of Basque poetry.

Although the publication of poetic works has declined since the 1990s, new interesting voices have emerged in the last few years. Ricardo Diaz de Heredia (Kartografia (Cartography, 1998)), Gerardo Markuleta (Hauta lanerako-poemategia, (Electoral Poems, 1999)), Miren Agur Meabe (Azalaren Kodea (The Code of the Skin, 2000)), Kirmen Uribe (Bitartean heldu eskutik (In the Meantime Hold My Hand, 2001)), Juan Kruz Igerabide (Mailu isila, (The Silent Hammer, 2002)) are but a few examples. In addition, the group of writers who are associated with the magazine Susa and write more breakaway, underground poetry ­­­­ Izagirre, Aranbarri, Nabarro, Montoia, Otamendi and Borda  has grown. It now includes the new voices of Olasagarre (Bizi Puskak (Pieces of Life, 1995)), Cano (Norbait dabil sute eskilarean (Theres Someone on the Fire Escape, 2001) and Jon Benito (Aingurak erreketan , (Angels in the Rivers, 2001)).

Lastly, before turning to prose fiction, I would like say a few words about a genre that makes up 25% of the contemporary Basque publishing market: childrens and young peoples literature. The modernisation and stabilisation of this genre started in the 1960s (thanks partly to the influence of Marijane Minaberris books and the many translations that were published in those years). However, it was in the 1980s that childrens and young peoples literature written in Basque truly started to become established. Many books were published and many literary prizes were created during those years (the Lizardi, Baropea and Bilintx prizes, among others). Also, new and challenging literary styles started to emerge as young writers strove to renew the genre. For instance, Mariasun Landa wrote a critical-realist text such as Chan fantasma2 in 1984), Bernardo Atxaga and Anjel Lertxundi wrote fantastic tales such as Chuck Aranberri dentista baten etxean, (Chuck Aranberri at the Dentists, 1980) and La máquina de la felicidad, (The Happiness Machine, 1988), and Bernardo Atxaga wrote avant-garde stories such as Logalea zeukan trapezistaren kasua (The Case of the Sleepy Trapeze Artist). The protagonists of this literary renewal were authors and illustrators who during the 1980s joined what was then known as LIJ, a tiny artistic enterprise.

If I had to use one adjective to define the current literary state of childrens and young peoples literature, it would be eclectic. As with Basque literature for adults, the textual poetics, trends and typologies are very varied in this field of Basque literature. So much so that trying to use generic typologies to describe the careers of some of the most relevant authors would be problematic. An example is Mariasun Landas constant renewal of her own writing. She has moved from the critical realism of Chan fantasma to the minimalism of Iholdi (1992), to the nonsensical humour of Galtzerdi Suizida (The Suicidal Sock, 2001), to the absurdist style of Kokodriloa ohe azpian (A Crocodile under the Bed, 2003).

It would be equally difficult to describe the career of Bernardo Atxaga. One of his greatest successes was with the fantastic-realist novella Behi euskaldun baten memoriak (Memoirs of a Basque Cow, 1991), but he has employed many other literary styles. For example, the Bambulo series comprises works of historiographic metafiction, and Groenlandiako lezioa (The Greenland Lecture) is an experiment in genre hybridisation. Other canonical contemporary Basque authors are also writing in this vein. Juan Kruz Igerabide is one of them, and his poems and stories have found a readership inside and outside the Basque Country: Begi niniaren poemak (Poems from the Eyes Pupil, 1992); Botoi bat bezala/Como un botón (Like a Button, bilingual edition, 1999); Hosto gorri, hosto berde/Hoja roja, hoja verde (Red Leaf, Green Leaf, bilingual edition, 2002) or Jonas eta hozkailu beldurtia (Jonas and the Frightened Fridge, 1998) are some of his titles. Patxi Zubizarreta is another interesting author who has shown an ability to write gripping adventure novels for young people (e.g. Eztia eta ozpina (Honey and Vinegar, 1994), and Gizon izandako mutila (The Boy Who Was a Man, 1998)) and short stories of great poetic intensity (Usoa, hegan etorritako neskatoa (Usoa, the Girl Who Flew to Us). There is also the better-known Anjel Lertxundi, whose work bears the mark of realist fantasy, oral literature and metafiction, and whose novels for young people include Lehorreko koadernoa (The Land Journal, 2001) and Lurrak berdinduko nau (The Earth Will Have Me, 1990).

Other authors who have also made an important contribution to this field are Felipe Juaristi, who has written modern fables such as Ilarg

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