The Awakening of Basque Literature
Bernardo Atxaga
Miren agur meabe1 (1)11111111
Miren Agur Meabe
Cano yankeestadium1
Cano Harkaitz
Felipe Juaristi Galdos
Juanjo olasagarre1
Juanjo Olasagarre Mendinueta
Kirmen Uribe
Rikardo arregi1111
Rikardo Arregi Diaz de Heredia
by Mari Jose Olaziregi
No image illustrates the development of the Basque language better than the furtive hedgehog rolled into a ball bristling on the first sign of danger. As Bernardo Atxaga suggests in his poem, the hedgehog, after a long period of inactivity, finally awoke in the 20th century. It may be said that these last hundred years have been the fullest and most interesting years of our literary history. Thus they shall be the focus of this article. Earlier in our history we find little to sing and dance about. Indeed, from 1545, when Linguae Vasconum Primitiae appeared, an anthology of poems by B. Etxepare, the first book in the Basque language, until 1879, a mere 101 books were published, of which only four can be safely described as 'literary'. We may say then that Basque literature is a recent phenomenon whose development was not blessed by kind socio-historical conditions. Indeed, its development goes hand in hand with the changing fate of the Basque language on which it is built.

Early works in Basque were published north of the Franco-Hispanic border. Etxepare's book was soon followed by others, each a watershed: the translation of the New Testament in 1571 and of certain Calvinist writings by J. de Leizarraga; Gero, a work by Pedro de Axular which appeared in 1643, considered a jewel of ascetic writing. Translations and further works of edification continued to appear, and in the 18th century the cradle of Basque literature lay south of the Pyrenees. In 1765 the Royal Basque Society and the Royal Seminary of Bergara were founded. Influenced by ideas of the Enlightenment, contemporary authors, Javier Munibe for example, brought renewed vigour to the cultural climate of the time. The years 1794 to 1808 were a period of exceptional activity in areas concerning the language. During this time the eminent linguist G. de Humboldt came to the Basque country. Subsequently, he brought the Basque language to the attention of European society. Many others followed in his footsteps. Romanticism saw artists and eclectics drawn to the ancient language, Wordsworth from England and the French writer Mérimée for example, who chose the name Carmen for the heroine of his famous novel.

All things considered, the final decade of the nineteenth century may be said to have ushered in a radical change in outlook which was destined to redefine future Basque literature in every way conceivable. At this time, the preponderance of edifying and religious works meets its end and a broader spectrum of literary genres comes to light. The years following the second Carlist war (1873-1876) mark the beginning of what some critics have termed the 'renaissance' of Basque literature.

During this time, the foundations of Basque nationalism were laid by Sabino Arana. Almost everything written in Basque during the first three decades of the 20th century bears the mark of Arana's hand. The supremacy of nationalist ideology affected literary production during the early decades of the century in two ways. First, the writing was tainted by concerns which lay beyond the field of literature. Second, the literature of the time missed the modernist boat which, in Europe, was a movement seeking to redefine language and deal in the splintered currency that were the forms of the day. This movement involved writers who subscribed to Ezra Pound's manifesto 'Make it new!' launched in 1930. This wind of change reached the Basque country much later in the century toward the 1960s. The Basque novel which took its first steps at the end of the 19th century in the works of D. Aguirre sought to paint an idealised world of fundaments, far from the industrial centres which had grown up in the Basque country. These books propounded a thesis whose three main arguments were faith, patriotism, and the Basque character of that patriotism. This model persisted until the 1950s.

After the novel, poetry is doubtless the most important genre of the first half of the 20th century. One strength of post-symbolist poetry was a literary tradition more formal than that encountered in narrative genres. This poetry finds its best exponents in Lizardi, Lauaxeta and Orixe who sought to explore resources of expression in Basque. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) dealt a terrible blow to Basque literary output. Lives were lost, many were exiled, and the victor practised severe repression. The use of Basque forenames was banned as were Basque inscriptions on tombstones in the cemeteries. All areas of culture, administration and social life fell under the shadow of the censorship imposed by Franco's regime.

It has been said that the post-war generation was pivotal for Basque literature. It offered a measure of continuity, and this was sorely needed. Poet jon Mirande wrote at this time. He exorcised the religious spirit which had haunted Basque poetry until the 1950s. Mirande was a heterodox, nihilistic writer who read Nietzche and owed much to Poe and to Baudelaire. Mirande published a novel, La filleule (1970), a sort of Basque version of Nabokov's Lolita. Both Mirande and Gabriel Aresti (1933-1975) belonged to what is now referred to as the 'generation of 1956' which sought to modernise Basque literature through incorporating into it ideas gleaned from other European literatures. Central to their concerns was to see Basque literature rid of the political, religious and antiquarian values to which it paid homage. This achieved, the aesthetics of literature would shine through. A series of events set in motion some years later during the 1960s - industrial and economic development, the consolidation of Basque-language schools, the unification of the Basque language, political action against the ban which Franco's regime had imposed on all cultural activity through the medium of Basque, literacy campaigns in Basque - all contributed to preparing the ground for a crop of new literary principles.

Moving on to the field of narrative during this period, the existentialist novel Leturiaren egunkari ezkutua (The Secret Diary of Leturia) by Txillardegi marks the beginning of modernism in the Basque novel. Some years later in 1969, Egunero hasten delako (Because it begins each day) by Ramón Saizarbitoria, an experimental novel influenced by the French nouveau roman, elbows existentialist poetics out and turns novel-writing in Basque on its head. The book heralds a new period in which experimentation with various forms of the novel are very much in vogue among the writers of the time. This display of literary wares culminates with the publication in 1976 of Ene Jesús (Dear Jesus) by Ramón Saizarbitoria.

During the 1970s, Bernardo Atxaga, the Basque language's greatest ambassador appears on the literary scene. (See Transcript 4).

The advent of democracy in Spain in 1975 meant that conditions favourable to fuller development of Basque literature as a independent activity could be encouraged. The statistics from this period speak for themselves: about 1500 new titles are now published each year; there are about 100 publishing house in the Basque country; 300 writers write in Basque (of which however only 10% are women); narrative forms are predominant, especially the novel, the preferred genre of readers of Basque in the last ten years. Since 1981, courses in Basque philology form part of the university syllabus. This in turn galvanises academic criticism and ensures the emergence of future generations of scholars. Major events such as the Durango Annual Bookfair, have become part and parcel of the calendar. The translation of the classics into Basque has enjoyed an unprecedented surge and the standard of the work continues to improve. Such is the present state of affairs that the works of many of the world's great authors - Joyce, Faulkner, Eliot, Chekhov, Celine, Kafka - now exist in Basque.

There can be no doubt that the weak link in the Basque literary machine remains the number of works translated into other languages. Of the 60 titles which have been translated into various languages, the works of Bernardo Atxaga stands out. His books have been translated into more languages than those of any other author (Obabakoak is available in 25 different languages), and have brought the author more success and recognition than any other. Despite our fine publishing industry, media and academic system, Basque literature runs the risk of giving the impression that it is not endeavouring to widen its readership.

There can be no doubt that Bernardo Atxaga's (see Transcript 4) Etiopia (1978) redefined contemporary Basque poetry. This book has become a cornerstone of modern Basque canon. The book appeared while Basque poetry, thanks to a wealth of literary reviews which served as a springboard for many writers, was experiencing its avant-garde period. Etiopia records the poetic fatigue which heralded the demise of modernism. In it Axtaga has shed excess ornamentation and distanced himself from the dramatic tone of his previous book Poems and Hybrids (1990). Now he seeks to tap into the essence of poetry once again. To do so, he recreates the language of poetry, dashing received idiom on the rocks with the help of a little Dadaism, and an approach which is both primitive and childlike.

Subsequently, in the 1980s, various poetic tendencies had their hour. One was the so-called poetry of experience. Poets such as Felipe Juaristi (Denbora, nostalgia) (Time, Nostalgia) (1985), Galderen geografia (A Geography of Questions) (1997), A. Iturbide, J.K. Igerabide and M.J. Kerexeta take a mixture of symbolism, aestheticism and personal experience as a vehicle for their poetry. Other authors, T. Irastorza for example, published poems of greater intimacy. During the 1990s, some very interesting poets have appeared on the scene: Rikardo Diaz de Heredia (Hari hauskorrak) (Fragile Sons) (1993), Kartografia (1998), G. Markuleta, Miren Agur Meabe (Azalaren kodea), (The Code of the Skin) (2000) or Kirmen Uribe (Bitartean, heldu eskutik) (Meanwhile, take my hand) (2001), for example. One group of writers was associated with the review Susa. 'Underground' authors writing a breakaway style of poetry, these include Izagirre, Aranbarri, Nabarro, Montoia, Otamendi, Borda. To their ranks they welcomed Juanjo Olasagarre (Gaupasak) (Nights), (1991), Bizi Puskak (Pieces Of Life, 1996), Puska Biziz (Living in pieces, 2000)), Harkaitz Cano (Kea behelainopean bezala) (Like Smoke in a Low-lying Fog, 1994), (Norbait dabil sute-eskaileran) (There is Some-one on the Fire Escape, 2001), and G. Berasaluze during the 1990s.

Fiction has held sway in recent decades. The wealth of literary reviews in the 1980s contributed to the development of the short story given its modest length. The works of J. Sarrionandia (Narrazioak, 1983) and of Atxaga, in particular the latter's excellent Obabakoak (1988), lead us into worlds of fantasy and imagination hitherto unknown in literary Basque. This tendency in the writing of modern short stories was furthered in the prose of Inazio Mujika Iraola in Azukrea belazeetan (Sugar in the Meadows) (1987) and by the realism of X. Montoia. Although collections of short stories have recently appeared, books by Pello Lizarralde, Iban Zaldua and Karlos Linazasoro for example, the end of the century, as is the case in Spanish fiction, sees the novel take the lion's share.

Today, fiction is the dominant medium in Basque. It is a prestigious medium and is, of course, the most profitable for the publisher. To appreciate the main trends in contemporary fiction, we might mention certain of today's outstanding authors, some of whom are exponents of the lyric or poetic novel which came to prominence during the 1970s. Representative of this genre are certain intimist texts which sit happily with 'the feminism of difference' current in the 1970s: Orain (1995) by A. Urretabizkaia, the prize-winning Eta sugeak emakumeari esan zion (1999) (And the snake told the woman) by Lourdes Oñederra, and novels by Juan Luis Zabala: Zigarrokin ziztrin baten azken keak (The smoke of a lesser cigarette butt) (1985), Kaka esplikatzen (1989) and Agur, Euzkadi (2000) (Bye, Euzkadi). The latter works bring to mind Handke's delight in symbolic detail or the ever-present despair in the world of T. Bernhard.

Another type of novel which has been all the rage recently in the Basque country is the crime-novel in all its many forms. Whereas most novels published during the 1970s betray a preoccupation with matters linguistic and with classic English whodunit models, since the 1980s other elements associated with the modern thriller and with American romans noirs have become apparent. Interesting spy-novels include Izua hemen (Fear Here) (1991) by J.M. Iturralde, Ur uherrak (Muddied Waters) (1995), Rock´n´Roll (2000) by A. Epaltza, and The Lone Man (1994), by B. Atxaga, a psychological thriller which has won several prizes; the unsettling murder mystery Katebegi galdua (The Missing Link)) (1996) by Jon Alonso, and Beluna Jazz (1996) and Pasaia Blues (1999) by Harkaitz Cano.

As well as traits already mentioned, realism is to the fore in many recent works. The works are enhanced by a myriad of new perspectives and points of view. Fantasy is present in certain works while others remain formal. An increasingly outward-looking tradition is now producing novels which deal with important historical or political events in our world.

As well as the realist novels of Atxaga, the most recent novels by Ramon Saizarbitoria are worthy of mention: Hamaika pauso (Uncounted Footsteps) (1995) and Bihotz bi (Love and War) (1996), where the story makes memories its starting point. In his most recent book, Gorde nazazu lurpean (2000) (Let Me Rest), Saizarbitoria has included five excellent stories which talk, once again, about his two main obsessions: the cruelty of the Spanish Civil War and the problems of communication between men and women. Finally, mention should be made of how Juan Mari Irigoien has brought a South American flavour to our novels with Babilonia (1983) (Babylon), and also of Anjel Lertxundi whose work derives from constant poetic revitalisation. His early neo-realist work (Goiko kale, 1973) made way for writing which owes more to literary conjecture than to particular events. In Lertxundi's work, we embark on a literary voyage, an intertextual voyage enriched by various poetic traditions, his novel Azkenaz beste (1996) (A ending for Nora) being a good example.

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