Bernardo Atxaga's Literary Universe

In Olaziregi, M.J. Waking the Hedgehog. The Literary Universe of Bernado Atxaga, Center for Basque Studies-University of Nevada, Reno, 2005.

Bernardo Atxaga
Jose Irazu Garmendia, better known as Bernardo Atxaga1, was born in Asteasu, Gipuzkoa in 1951. The landscape and people of this little village marked the author's childhood. A green mountainous landscape dotted with baserris, or Basque farmhouses, and the sound of people speaking Basque - people who enjoyed telling stories about animals and fantastic events. That is the world that Bernardo Atxaga grew up in, and the world he tried to revisit in his fantastic tales of Obaba - most poignantly in his acclaimed novel Obabakoak. This is how he explains it in an interview with the writer and journalist Hasier Etxeberria, in the book Cinco escritores vascos2:

When I wrote Obabakoak the journey was from the inside out, because of the place where I was born, because of the influence growing up there had on me.

People often say things like: "Atxaga describes the rural world, the baserri and the mountains, as if he understood everything". When I hear them say that I think: 'Poor you! If only you knew what's inside that rural world!' What I mean to say is that people often simplify things that are actually quite complex and make them into clichés (...).

When I started looking back into my childhood, I discovered a whole universe. It became a very important aspect of my life. I am not referring to the cliché, of course. Not at all. When I was nine, ten years old, I used to follow my father on his farmhouse rounds, collecting the electricity money. I witnessed that world, with the animals, the cattle - the homes without sanitation, often without light or running water (...).

Take this moment here: if I say witches now, for example, it means something to me, but there - there it means something else. Because I've seen many people say, with all sincerity, things that sounded like pure fantasy - but they told them as if they were true events.

Obaba is that universe.

Book seller in Ladakh, India, with the english version of Obabakoak in his hands

Book seller in Ladakh, India, with the english version of Obabakoak in his hands.

Obaba is an indeterminate place, a virtual infinity into which Atxaga has channeled a mix of memories and fantastic stories3 that have succeeded in persuading readers in all languages. It is much more than a mere transposition of the village of Asteasu in which the author grew up, because as we enter that emotional landscape, the universality of human feelings becomes more and more evident. As with Faulkner's Yoknapatawta or Juan Rulfo's Comala, the descriptions of Obaba suggest an "experienced" geography. As we shall see later, when we read Obabakoak in depth, these descriptions not only refer to places in the author's childhood, but also serve as a narrative excuse to invoke an older world in which magic, rather than logic, reigns. The opposition between nature and culture determines the outcome of events in Obaba, and this imaginary geography corresponds with a pre-modern world in which words like "depression" or "schizophrenia" do not exist, and animals can explain the unexplainable. For this reason, in the land of Obaba, it is possible to accept a child's metamorphoses into a wild boar, or to believe that a lizard can make you crazy by squiggling into your ear.

Atxaga has never been interested in providing a naturalist testimony of the Basque rural world, and it is important to state that his texts are far removed from what could be described as a mannerist or realist picture of that world. Atxaga has mentioned in several interviews Borges' assertion that though there are no camels in the Koran, that does not stop us from perceiving the reality of the scenery, the reality of that world. Through the stories that take place in Obaba, the author provides the reader with an insider's perspective into that primordial Basque world, a perspective permeated by Atxaga the child's experience of the language and worldview of the farming peoples of Asteasu, the village in which he grew up. For this reason the author likes to talk about the "interiors and exteriors in (Basque) literature" 4; the versions of a world, be they hostile or sympathetic, that we attempt to recreate in a text.

In any case, it was an enthusiasm for books, a great love of reading, which determined the author's literary vocation5. When, during the author's teenage years, the family Irazu-Garmendia moved to Andoain (an industrial town a few miles from Asteasu), the public library became one of his favorite places. Atxaga, who was nicknamed "Fyodor" (Dostoevsky) by his friends and threatened with failure by his teachers if he quoted Giovanni Papini in an exam paper ever again, published in 1971, aged 20, his first short story "Lo que anhelamos escribir" ("What We Hope to Write") in the newspaper El Norte de Castilla.

These were not the best times for Basque culture, because in the 1970s Francisco Franco was still head of the dictatorship that had started after the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) and affected the entire land. The following poem by Atxaga eloquently depicts the political reality of those years:

Partial Chronicle of the 70s

It was a time when everyday life spilled
cockroaches over people non-stop,
and everyone cried in their rooms
in sniffs or wails - both styles were good.
It was a time when people were afraid and screamed
if in the night a bell or a shot woke them -
and it was on the third-floor flat, or a mistake.

It was a time when we, the young people,
read pornography by the white
tiles of public lavatories, where
we, sometimes, had nosebleeds.
It was a time when winter came close,
and promised deaths, not all of them natural -
when deep in the heart everyone
hoped for a call, or a letter, and I did too.

And it was indeed winter, and geese flew
in the sky in a "w" formation,
and it was cold and rainy, and there was a strike
in the midst of an Asian flu epidemic.
And a bar owner, I remember, cited business
reasons when forbidding homosexuals from entering;
tramps reinforced their cardboard homes -
and squirrels, I remember, left the forest and
held up a supermarket screaming, Hands up,
Where's the safe with all the walnuts?

And then carriages full of silence arrived
to fight street by street, home by home,
against Nouns, against Adverbs,
and I was there, it was terrible, oh my God.
And the clinics gave out anti-everything pills,
the banks handed out multicolored leaflets
that read: Pray, but from work don't stray;
and one evening, at last, she called
from very far away, and her words reminded
me of love, and tasted slightly of honey -
It was a time when everyday life spilled
cockroaches over people non-stop,
and everyone cried in their rooms
in sniffs or wails - both styles were good. 6

It could be said that until the arrival of democracy Basque cultural life was practically clandestine. It lacked the essential structures that would allow it to develop as a Basque literary system. It was a silenced world that did not exist in the school textbooks of Basque children, and which often was associated, pejoratively, with the rural world, as something slightly "savage", and "exotic", and with environments (the rural or fishing communities) far removed from the urban cultural heartlands, whose language was Spanish. They were "heterotopias", in Foucault's sense: marginal spaces in which the Basque language developed during those years.

The situation started to change in the 1960s, when people such as the Bilbaíno poet Gabriel Aresti, the philologist Koldo Mitxelena, or the sculptor Jorge Oteiza burst onto the Basque literary scene. Gabriel Aresti especially was to have a great influence on the young Bernardo Atxaga, who had arrived in Bilbao to study economics. Bilbao is the Basque capital in which Atxaga is born as a writer, and here he discovers a renewed Basque literary universe, infused with modernity and avant-garde strategies. These are years during which political debate and the vindication of Basque language and culture go hand in hand, and groups such as Ez dok hamairu stage shows such as Baga biga higa, which have an enormous impact. Aresti encouraged Atxaga to write, and to read the Basque classics Leizarraga and Agirre de Asteasu. In Atxaga's own words:

I immersed myself totally in the universe of the Basque language and as a result I became the organic writer I am today - organic in the widest sense. In other words: I undertook two jobs, my own as a writer and that of "defender of Basque culture"; and you'll find I'm still doing that7.

Bilbao became the city, too, in which the group Pott ("Failure") saw the light. To this group belonged, among others, Bernardo Atxaga, Joseba Sarrionandia, Ruper Ordorika, Joxemari Iturralde and Jon Juaristi. They were active from 1978 till 1983 and published six issues of the magazine Pott, which would become a point of reference for later generations of Basque writers. As Joxemari Iturralde said, the members of Pott manifested their literary preferences clearly by concentrating on literatures from central Europe (Kafka, Werfell, Celan, and so on) and the English-speaking world (detective novels, film noir, adventure novels), as Borges had recommended in his essays. But, above all, the members of Pott defended the autonomous nature of literature. This, in the context of the era, implied a harsh denunciation of literature that served extra-literary objectives (nationalistic, linguistic, and so on). For this reason, Pott, like the magazine Pampina Ustela (1975), created by Atxaga and Izagirre in Donostia, appropriated the spirit of the avant-garde and defended the idea that, although the influence of the social context in the literary work cannot be denied, the writer is, before anything else, "engaged" in literary creation and the exploration of new aesthetic forms. The proposals put forward in Pott were a gust of fresh air in the Basque literary landscape of the era, and the number of prizes the different members of the group received proves that the Basque literary institutions were happy to welcome them. Atxaga and Sarrionandia were repeatedly awarded prizes for their short stories. In 1979, Atxaga received the 1st City of San Sebastian prize for his "Drink Dr. Pepper", in 1981, the XII Irun prize for his "Camilo Lizardi", and in 1983, the III City of San Sebastian prize for "Gauero aterako nintzateke paseiatzera" ("If I could, I'd go for a stroll every night"). Sarrionandia received the IX Ignacio Aldecoa prize for "Maggie indazu kamamila" ("Maggie make me a chamomile tea") in 1980, and the City of Bilbao prize for "Enperadore eroa" ("The mad emperor").

Reading a poem in Santo Stefano Belbo (Italia). Cesare Pavese Poetry prize, 2003.

Reading a poem in Santo Stefano Belbo (Italia), after recibing the Cesare Pavese Poetry prize, 2003.

Once he had finished his degree in economics, Atxaga abandoned the security of a job in a bank, and, after trying several professions (he worked at a printer's, as a book seller, as a teacher of Basque and as a scriptwriter for the radio), he decided to concentrate solely on writing at the beginning of the 1980s. He was in Barcelona studying philosophy at the time. Today, Bernardo Atxaga belongs to that small percentage of Basque writers (about 7% of 300 authors) who earn a living exclusively from writing literature. He has collected more prizes than any other Basque author to date8 and he sells more books than anyone else writing in Basque. In the years 1989-1998 he spoke at more than two thousand conferences. In other words, he is an eminently "exportable" author. The fact that in 1999 The Observer listed him among the "21 top writers for the 21st century" proves his literary stature abroad. So it is not surprising to find in Atxaga's bibliography, especially since Obabakoak, writings about famous contemporary people (such as his 1994 text "El diablillo Navarro", about the cyclist Induraín), about current affairs (his 1994 "Gula. Frenos al buen apetito"), or even about football (his 1995 "Sobre el tiempo. Una mesa redonda con un hooligan"). All of these texts exemplify the resonance this Basque author's oeuvre has had in the last few years. Atxaga has also published more and more collaborative texts that reflect his engagement with ethical causes. Some examples are the texts he wrote in 1996 for Atzegi9 ("A Javier", "Hara! Bi"), the one he wrote in 1994 for Amnesty International ("Alfabeto" (Prólogo), in Bilal, E. et al. ¡ Socorro!), and the pamphlet he wrote in 1996 for the Basque gay and lesbian platform Batzen.

I'd like to underline, as a preface to the analysis of his oeuvre, that Atxaga is an author who enjoys combining different forms of creative expression, and who happily subverts the structures of literary production by superimposing them onto other artistic expressions in order to enrich his creative universe. Thus Atxaga has written lyrics for many singers (Loquillo, Gurrutxaga, Muguruza, Ruper Ordorika, Mikel Laboa), and has contributed to many famous artists' catalogues (Zumeta, Chillida, Uranga, Sanz, Toja, Nagel, Ortiz de Elgues, Torres, and others). The last fruit of such collaborations with other writers, singers and painters is the book Nueva Etiopía (1996), which juxtaposes songs, interviews and poems with Zumeta's paintings.

Atxaga's presence in the Basque literary landscape

Lecture in San Sebastian, 1995.

It has been mentioned before that Atxaga started publishing in the 1970s, when Basque literature had become an autonomous social institution10. The democratic cultural heterodoxy that emerged from the socio-cultural changes of the 1960s created a favorable political situation for the establishment of the Basque literary system. The Law for the Normalization of the Use of Basque (1982), which was approved after the Estatuto de Autonomía was declared in 1979, gave new power to Basque literature and, thanks to the institutional aid for the publication of books in euskara, literary production increased considerably11.

In this new context, contemporary Basque literary writers have had to face a new challenge and address the growing aesthetic needs of their rapidly increasing readership. Some of those needs have been met by the powerful development of children and young people's literature in euskara in the 1980s. However, I would like to qualify this information by noting the fact that the increasing demand for children's books in Basque has too often been conditioned by the diglossic situation that euskara still experiences. It is true that nowadays more material is read and published in Basque than ever, but it is also true that reading in Basque is too conditioned by its being mandatory in the school curriculum. This practice of functional reading, which is widely used in Spain too, is more evident in the Basque case.

No sufficiently wide-ranging study of Basque reading habits exists, but a glimpse at the results of the survey (1990-1996) I conducted among 3700 Basque-speaking students for my doctoral thesis is enough to realize that there are many instances of the tendency I mention above12. The books in Basque that high school as well as university students chose to read in their spare time had been recommended to them at their educational institutions - whereas the books they read in Spanish were often recommended to them by their friends. In other words, while their reading in Spanish followed the usual line of being encouraged by friends' favorable comments, the books they read in Basque were exclusively related to schoolwork and, as a consequence, more often than not were not very highly regarded. Increasing the difficulty of the relationship between schoolwork and reading for pleasure, in my study I also found that the readings recommended at Basque schools were out of touch, that year after year the same books were recommended, and, most surprisingly, that translations were never included in the recommended reading lists. The fact that the responsibility for promoting literary sensitivity and a love for reading is given only to teachers has very grave consequences for Basque speakers, because new books or even catalogues from the publishing houses never reach this professional group.

The above-mentioned study also showed that very few Basque writers made it beyond the school sector. One of the exceptions was Bernardo Atxaga's Behi euskaldun baten memoriak (1991) ("Memoirs of a Basque Cow"). In most cases the book had been read as a result of a friend's recommendation. This is a very meaningful fact that highlights the gaps in contemporary Basque literature and demonstrates the need to promote Basque literature outside the school sector - but it also gives us an idea of Atxaga's popularity.

In any case, although one of the elements in any author's success index must be a good reception among his or her readers, we cannot ignore the influence other factors in the literary institutions, such as the critics or even the writers themselves, can have on the value or canonical status of an author. In Atxaga's case data confirming his status abounds. In a survey carried out by the sociologist Jose Mari Torrealdai among Basque writers13 a question that is closely connected to what concerns us was asked: Which authors have had the greatest influence on your work, both from the thematic and the stylistic points of view? The answers provided were very significant, because most Basque authors consider Bernardo Atxaga to be the writer who has influenced them most, more so than other canonical authors such as Axular, Agirre, Lizardi, Orixe, Aresti - or even Txillardegi, Saizarbitoria and Sarrionandia. Moreover, Basque authors were of the opinion that Bernardo Atxaga is the best contemporary Basque writer.

As well as the writers, Basque critics have had an important role in stressing the importance of Atxaga's contribution to letters. It should be underlined that many of his works are perceived as key points in the development of the different genres of contemporary Basque literature. One example is Atxaga's volume of poetry Etiopia (1978); in the words of Joseba Gabilondo, from the University of Nevada, this collection "set the standard for the canon of modern Basque poetry" 14. Iñaki Aldekoa, the renowned lecturer and editor, has described Etiopia along similar lines: "In the realm of modern poetry it was the most influential and the greatest stimulus" 15. On the other hand, and with reference to children's literature, Professor Xabier Etxaniz considered that Atxaga's Chuck Aranberri dentista baten etxean ("Chuck Aranberri at the Dentist", 1982), together with Anjel Lertxundi's Tristeak kontsolatzeko makina ("The Machine that Consoled Sad People", 1988) and Mariasun Landa's16 Txan Fantasma17 started a new era in children's writing in Basque. As for the rest of the genres, including the short story, writers as well as critics have unanimously agreed on the importance of Obabakoak (1988). The editor and critic Xabier Mendiguren has written that as far as the contemporary short story is concerned Obabakoak is unsurpassed in the "classic short story" period, which starts in 1983.


1 Atxaga has said that as well as being an attempt to emulate canonical authors, his decision to take a nom de plume was a result of the problems he faced with the Francoist dictatorship. Atxaga is his paternal grandmother's maiden name, and Bernardo is the name of a childhood friend.
2 "Five Basque Writers", Alberdania, 2002, pp. 346-347 (my translation, AG)
3 In an interview with Michael Eaude (The Guardian, 20/10/2001), Atxaga said: "Obaba is an interior landscape. You don't remember all the places of the past, but what sticks in the memory is this window, that stone, that bridge. Obaba is the country of my past, a mixture of the real and the emotional."
4 Moderna Sprak, vol. 91, 1, 1997, pp. 86-94
5 "I inherited the love of reading from my parents - from both of them. Not just from my mother, who was a schoolteacher, but also from my father, who always proclaimed the value of literature and used to say that reading was good for you" (cf. Etxeberria, H., 2001, p. 315)
6 Poemas & Híbridos, Visor, 1990 - translated from the Spanish by Amaia Gabantxo. This poem has been put to music by the singer-songwriter Ruper Ordorika and can be found on his LP Ni ez naiz Noruegako errege (Elkar, Donostia, 1983).
7 Etxeberria, H., op. cit., p. 323
8 Besides the Premio Nacional de Narrativa, which he received in 1989, many other awards confirm his status: the Milepages in 1991, the Tres Coronas de los Pirineos Atlánticos in 1995, the Vasco Universal in 2002, the Cesare Pavese Poetry prize in 2003.
9 A Basque association defending the rights of mentally handicapped children and their families (Translator's Note).
10 Lasagabaster, J.M. "Literatura y vida literaria", in AA.VV., Euskal Herria. Errealitate eta egitasmoa. Realidad y proyecto II, Donostia, Lankide Aurrezkia, 1985, pp. 427-433.
11 According to the sociologist Torrealdai, while 118 books were published in Basque in 1975, 600 saw the light in 1986, and in the last few years more or less 1500 new titles have been published yearly.
12 Cf. Olaziregi, MJ, "Aproximación sociológica a los hábitos de lectura de la juventud vasca", Ohienart, Cuadernos de Lengua y Literatura 18, 2000, pp.79-93
13 cf. Euskal Kultura Gaur ("Basque Culture Today"), 1997, Jakin, p.415
14 Gabilondo, J., "Kanonaren sorrera egungo euskal literaturan. Etiopiaz", Egan XLV, 1993, pp. 33-65
15 Aldekoa, I., Mendebaldea eta Narraziogintza, Erein, Donostia, 1998
16 Mariasun Landa was awarded the Spanish National prize for children and young people's literature in 2003. For a brief introduction to the author's work, see my article "Mariasun Landa's Literary Universe, or, The Awakening of Children's Literature", in Bookbird, vol.41, no.2, 2003, pp.35-41
17 Karmentxu and the Little Ghost, translated by Linda White, University of Nevada Press, 1996 29.