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Universal truths from a small band of Basques

An Anthology of Basque Short Stories: Basque Literature Series;Edited by Mari Jose Olaziregi; University of Nevada Press: 222 pp., $19.95

April 15, 2005|Mark Kurlansky | Special to The Times

An Anthology of Basque Short Stories

Basque Literature Series

Edited by Mari Jose Olaziregi

University of Nevada Press: 222 pp., $19.95

*

LITERATURE often flourishes like certain kinds of plants, between the cracks in walls that gardeners have forgotten to tend. It can spring from the oppressed, impoverished, ignored. "An Anthology of Basque Short Stories," compiled by Mari Jose Olaziregi for the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, affords a glimpse of one such obscure and interesting literature.

Today, 2.4 million Basques live in seven provinces in the western Pyrenees, in an area squeezed in by Spain, France and the Atlantic Ocean. They are a people long defined by their language, Euskera. The word "Basque" comes from Vascones, which is what the Romans named them in 218 B.C. In the Basque language, the only word for a Basque is "Euskaldun," which means "someone who speaks Euskera."

Euskera is unrelated to any known language. It is one of only four European languages -- along with Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian -- not of the Indo-European family. The leading theory is that the Basque predate the arrival of such Indo-European speakers as the Celts, that Euskera is more than 4,000 years old and is thus Europe's oldest living language.

For a very long time, even Basques did not think it was a suitable language for writing, preferring Latin, Spanish or French. The first book entirely in Euskera was published in 1545. Between then and 1974, only 4,000 books were published, mostly on Basque themes. Since the 1975 death of Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, the Basques have produced a body of literature, and about 15,000 titles a year are now published in Euskera. This includes fiction, nonfiction, academic books, poetry, children's books and some translations of classics. The most exciting is the fiction.

The regional Basque government encourages this literature, effectively creating a market for poetry and short stories. The biggest criticism of the Basque literary scene is that writers are "too coddled," sheltered from realities of commercial publishing and too free to experiment. These writers get to be the Shakespeares of Euskera, defining the language with each work.

Modern Basque fiction is rarely about Basque identity or politics, although Iban Zaldua's "Bibliography" is set in a Spanish torture chamber. But even this story is about more than just the conflict between Basques and Spaniards. Many of the anthology's stories are set in the Basque provinces, just as a Midwestern writer might set a story in the Midwest. But it is simply a setting. And Miren Lourdes Onederra's "Mrs. Anderson's Longing" takes place in California and has no Basque characters. These writers are seeking universal truths. The best-known writer in the collection -- in fact the first and only writer to build an international reputation writing in Euskera -- is Bernardo Atxaga, a natural storyteller whose work is marked by curious detail and rich characters. He is one of those rare writers who can instantly seduce his readers. Another established writer in the collection, Joseba Sarrionandia, crafts a witty, half-page story that is completely satisfying.

Curiously, all these stories explore loneliness. There is no indication that this similarity is intentional. Is it a revelation about the lives of contemporary Europeans? These 18 stories offer U.S. readers a treat from writers who speak a strange but beautifully expressive language.

*

Mark Kurlansky is the author of "The Basque History of the World," "1968: The Year that Rocked the World" and the forthcoming novel "Boogaloo on Second Avenue."

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