Mari Jose Olaziregi


“Basque Literature for children and violence ”

Dr. Mari Jose Olaziregi

University of the Basque Country-Spain.

IBBY EC member 2004-2006

• Literature for children and young adults written in Basque. A brief introduction.

Any introduction to literature written in the Basque language begins for the most part with a discussion of statistics concerning the language and the country which are its base. This is doubtless a necessary presentation for a literature that is largely unknown and written in a minority language. This is the purpose of the following lines: to introduce very briefly the historical, sociological and literary features which have shaped literature written in Basque.

For example, The Basque History of the World, written by journalist Mark Kurlansky (2001), offers details of interest for any Anglo-Saxon reader. As the author says, we speak Basque, the oldest Western European language, a language with only 700,000 speakers in all; our country measures only 8,218 square miles, a plot of land a little smaller than New Hampshire; this territory is divided between Spain and France but as Kurlansky states, “Basqueland looks too green to be Spain and too rugged to be France” (p. 18). Additionally, a number of instances in which the adjective “euskal” is featured are specifically mentioned, as are the fame of our cuisine (the preparation and conservation of codfish, for example); our well-known sport, jai alai (Basque handball); our most famous religious figure, Saint Ignatius of Loyola; our excellent contemporary Basque sculptors Jorge Oteiza and Eduardo Chillida; and the Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao.

We could say that the socio-historical situation of Basque is due to the rather late evolution of our literature. From 1545, when the first Basque book was published (Bernard Etxepare’s Linguae vasconum primitiae), to 1879, only some 100 books were published in Basque. These numbers began to rise at the beginning of the 20th century, when Basque literature began to gain strength.

The preeminence of the nationalist ideology caused the literary production of the first decades of the 20th century to be shaped again by extraliterary forces. The genre of theater was, without a doubt, the most popular of the time, comprising nearly 50% of literary publication. It is in this context that the first work of theater for children, Nekane edo neskutzaren babesa [Nekane or the Protection of the Virgin] (1922), was written.

The modernization and stabilization of Basque literature for children and young adults began in the 1960s. However, it was not until the 1980s that literature for children and young people written in Basque truly started to become established. If there is any critical event in the history of Basque literature, it is the death of the dictator Franco in 1975. Only then did Basque literature begin to establish the conditions necessary for its development (the bilingual decree, which expanded the corpus of potential readers, official funding for publishers and distributors, funding to protect production in Basque…). At present, 20-25% of all works published in Basque are literature for children and young adults. Every year 60 to 70 new works of literature for children and young people are published in Basque, and if we look at the statistics from 2002, we see that a total of 1,586 books were published in Basque, of which 344 were literature for children and young people. The average print run is generally 1,500 to 2,000 copies.

The adjective that best defines the current literary state of Basque literature for children and young people is “eclectic”. As in the case of Basque literature for adults, the textual poetics, trends and typologies are highly 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.

Aproximately 50 writers and 25 illustrators populate the present Basque literary system. Nevertheless, only a very small number of writers, about 7, are able to make a living from their literature and from activities related to their creative work such as giving classes, conferences and workshops, or by contributing to the press. On the other hand, although Basque literary institutions, and the university in particular, incorporated the teaching of literature for children and young people in the 1990s, thereby legitimizing this type of literature, the same cannot be said about the place of Basque literature in the literary sphere of the Spanish state. Statistics such as the fact that only 3 Basque authors, Bernardo Atxaga, Juan Kruz Igerabide and Mariasun Landa, have been included in the canon of 100 works of literature for children (see El País, 5 April, 2003), or that only one Basque author has ever won the National Prize for Literature for Children and Young Adults (Mariasun Landa, in 2003, for A Crocodile Under the Bed) are cases in point. However, these reflections would be incomplete if we failed to take into account the recognition that Basque literature for children and young people in general, and some of its authors in particular, have had in the last few years.

• Violence and contemporary literature for children and young adults in Basque.

The so-called Basque problem and, specifically, the problem of the terrorism of ETA, have undoubtedly been our greatest problem in the last few decades. As Kurlansky’s book reminds us, terrorism has been the topic of fully 85% of articles published in the United States on Basque issues. Nevertheless, since ETA declared its permanent cease-fire on March 22, 2006, Basques have been living in a time of optimism and hope, hoping to see, at last, the possibility of solving this tragic problem which has brought so much suffering in recent decades.

With respect to Basque literature, although for many years it has been accused of living on the bounty of Basque sociopolitical reality, it is certain that in the last decades of the 20th century, and especially beginning in 1990, we have seen an increasing number of works of fiction that take a literary look at this political reality that holds such importance for the Basques. Although today’s realist novels deal with their surrounding reality, most often they mimic it subjectively. The themes of the realist tradition resurface in the contemporary realist novel: identity crises, uprooting, historic events, etc. But, as mentioned above, another recurrent subject is the Basque terrorist group ETA.

And with respect to literature for children and young people in Basque, could we say that political violence and the topic of terrorism have become the preeminent literary topic of the last few decades? We believe not, at least not to the same extent to which it has been a dominant topic in Anglo-American culture (Reimer, 1997), nor to the same extent that the conflict appears in texts for young people in Northern Ireland (Benito de la Iglesia, 2005). Although it is certain that critical realism, modernized with themes that have recently appeared in our literature (family conflicts, immigration, senior citizens), is the prevalent typology of Basque literature for children and young people and the one that seems to be most attractive to the processes of canonization (López Gaseni & Etxaniz, 2005), the truth is that there is less political violence than we might think in works written for younger readers. Furthermore, if we examine the reading habits of modern young Basques, we see that among the most popular works, very few belong to this thematic trend. Specifically, I obtained remarkable results on surveys which I carried out for my doctoral thesis of 3,000 Basque people aged 14 to 18 about their reading habits, likes and dislikes (Olaziregi, 2000).

If we examine our recent literary production for young people, there is no doubt that, rather than texts that deal explicitly with the topic of Basque violence, works of fiction that stress a pacifist and conciliatory message predominate, or texts in which the Basque sociopolitical context appears as a backdrop or general stage for the events being narrated.

The career of our most international author, Bernardo Atxaga, deserves a special mention. He has published a series of texts during the last two decades that are a good example of the attraction that postmodern literary texts for younger readers have for the adult audience (cf. Thacker, 2002). One such novel for young people written by Atxaga is Memoirs of a Basque Cow, translated to date into 10 languages and whose international reception was excellent. The protagonist is the cow Mo, who decides to write her memoirs and thus to record the early years of her life on a Basque farm where members of the resistance against Franco were hiding out. The importance of reflection, a reasonable attitude and openness to dialogue are values which are reiterated in this excellent novel by Atxaga (Olaziregi, 2005).

In any case, it was in the last decade of the past century when the topic of political violence was first dealt with explicitly in Basque works for young adults. Ainhoari gutunak [Letters to Ainhoa] (1990) by Basque writer Joseba Sarrionandia is a fictional text in the form of a collection of letters which the narrator, who is a fugitive from justice, writes to a girl named Ainhoa, the daughter of the family that hid him during his flight from the police. The content of the letters is varied and includes, in addition to very short stories, observations on movies, books and classic characters... and also touches on the situation of the jails where there are Basque political prisoners. The narrator uses the term “war” to refer to the Basque conflict (p. 8) and mentions the Basque “children of war” who are born in prison (p. 43) and whose parents are classified as “fanatics and terrorists” (p. 36) by the Spanish government, and as “fertile and heroes” by the “revolutionaries” (p. 36). For the narrator, these prisoner parents have, above all, a “human dimension” (p. 36). There is no doubt that Letters to Ainhoa has special significance for the Basque reader, who would be familiar with the autobiographical background of the book; Joseba Sarrionandia is a member of ETA who has been a fugitive since 1985 when he escaped from the prison at Martutene in Guipúzcoa.

Harri barruko bihotz borrokak [The Sentimental Struggles of Stones] (1999) is a book of stories by the writer and journalist Juan Luis Zabala. It includes three intertwined stories in which the characters and situations are repeated, and whose sociopolitical context is the same: the Basque Country during ETA’s cease-fire in 1998. The main characters of these stories know each other, they are almost neighbors. They learn of the detention of a group of young people that they know and of the following accusations of torture made by them. The portrait that Zabala paints in the book speaks of a generation of young Basques who, though near to the objectives of ETA, do not support its methods (p. 70) but do support their friends in the face of accusations of torture.

The paratext of the last text that we are going to discuss, Txakurraren alaba [The Dog’s Daughter] (2000), by writer Xabier Mendiguren Elizegi, is truly provocative. The Basque nationalist left has used the term “txakurra” (dog) to refer to the national police and the civil guard, police forces which are felt to be forces of occupation. The protagonist and narrator of the story is Teresa Márquez, an adolescent from Zaragoza who goes to San Sebastián to live after her father, an officer of the national police, is transferred there.

The narrative climax of the text stems from the detention of some of Teresa’s friends and from the knowledge that her father is one of the police agents accused of torturing them. The confrontation with the paternal figure serves to confirm in her the desire to be integrated into Basque society and, at the same time, to allow her to admit that her own father is but another victim of the system (p. 186). The end of the story could not be more eloquent: Teresa manages to learn Basque and integrate herself into the Basque world, in order thus to claim an identity which is not shaped only by the fact of being the daughter of an officer of the national police and belonging to a different culture, but by the fact of being open to new nuances, new meanings, a many-hued Basque identity. It is notable that there is no questioning of armed conflict; only the suffering which both sides have experienced as a result of the conflict is underlined.

As we have seen, the topic of Basque political violence has generated universes of fiction for young adults that have tried to portray and exorcize many of the demons that still, unfortunately, continue to live among us. It remains only for us to wish that we will know a near future in which this topic will be narrated in the past tense, in the farthest possible past.


Bibliographical references

Benito de la Iglesia, T. 2005. “Jóvenes en el conflicto norirlandés: The Beat of the Drum, de Martin Waddell”, in Veljka, R. et al. (eds.). Mundos en conflicto: Representación de ideologías, enfrentamientos sociales y guerras en la literatura infantil y juvenil, Vigo: Universidad de Vigo, 107:119.

Douglass, et al. (eds.). 1999. Basque Politics and Nationalism on the Eve of the Millennium, Reno: Basque Studies Program-University of Nevada.

Etxaniz, X. 2005. “La violencia en la literatura infantil y juvenil vasca”, in Veljka, R. et al. (eds.). op. cit. 185-192.

Kurlansky, M. 2001. The Basque History of the World. New York: Penguin.

López Gaseni, M. 2000. Euskarara itzulitako haur eta gazte literatura: funtzioak eraginak eta itzulpen-estrategiak. Bilbao: UPV-EHU.

López Gaseni, M. & Etxaniz, X. 2005. 90eko hamarkadako Haur eta Gazte Literatura [La literatura infantil y juvenil de la década de 1990]. Iruñea: Pamiela.

Olaziregi, M.J. 1999. “La lecture et les jeunes basques”, Nous voulons lire! 131, 89-94.

_______. 2000. “Aproximación sociológica a los hábitos de lectura de la juventud vasca”, Oihenart 18, 79-93.

_______. 2003. “Mariasun Landa’s Literary Universe, Or the Awakening of Basque Children’s Literature”, Bookbird, 41:2, 35-41.

_______. 2004a. “Literatura infantile e xuvenil vasca: diálogos desde a marxe”, Boletín Galego de Literatura. Monográfico: Para entenderte mellor. As literaturas infantís e xuvenís do marco ibérico 32, 2º semestre 2004, 121-139.

_______,2004b. “Foreword”, in An Anthology of Basque Short Stories. Reno: Center for Basque Studies-University of Nevada, 11-27.

_______. 2005. Waking the Hedgehog. The Literary Universe of Bernardo Atxaga. Reno: Center for Basque Studies-University of Nevada.

Reimer, M. 1997. “Introduction and Violent Children’s Texts”, Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, 22:3, 102-104.

Steiner, G. 2004. La idea d’Europa. Barcelona: Editorial ATMArcadia.

Thacker, D. 2002. “Playful Subversion”, in D. Cogan Thacker & J. Webb (eds.). 2002. Introducing Children’s Literature. From Romanticism to Postmodernism. London: Routledge, 139-150.