Some (doubtful) answers about language, literature, culture and politics in the Basque Country

[On August 10th, at the Edinburgh Book Festival, I had a talk with the Scottish writer James Robertson, in order to present the literary correspondence that we had during the first half of the year 2019, within the project Chekhov vs Shakespeare and the Scotland Goes Basque initiative, promoted by the Etxepare Institute. Magnus Linklater moderated the meeting, and sent James and me a number of questions to guide the debate. These are the answers I got for that day (I would like to thank the Edimburgh Book Festival and the Etxepare Institute for the invitation, and Iñaki Villar for certain suggestions regarding the language)].

What similarities do you find between Basque and Scots (if any)?

They are very different languages, morphologically, Scots being Germanic and Indo-European, and Basque, pre-indo-European. On the other hand, the status of Basque as a language is not in question, no one today considers it to be a dialect, as it sometimes happens with Scots; at least that’s what I have learned in my correspondence with James. In recent years, the challenge for Basque has been to become a language that serves for everything in terms of communication: from having a street conversation to teaching multiple matters or even researching into nuclear physics, and this anxiety or concern doesn´t mean, as I see, a great deal to Scots speakers: they are more aware that Scots can be used in some contexts, and English in others. You’re not as burdened as we are because of diglossia, it seems to me.

But, above all, I think there are a great deal of similarities between both languages, because they share barriers all minority languages are used to sharing: contempt from some monolinguals; having been regarded historically as languages ​​of peasants and wild people; facing difficulties to grow and spread within the hegemony of larger languages ​​in this increasingly globalized world. All this equalises, to some extent, Scots and Basque.

What is the essential difference between dialect and language?

I guess it’s mostly political. A language is a dialect with an army, that is to say, with a state. Or, rather, a dialect with a national conscience. In the case of Basque, as I said before, it is not necessary to have any of that to be considered a language, as it has no living relative known: Basque can’t be a dialect of anything because it hasn’t any known relatives.

But it always helps to have a state or some kind of national consciousness: if Basque has survived for the last 100 or 50 years until now it is, to a great extent, because Basque nationalism has claimed it (Ramon Saizarbitoria explains it very well in his essay Aberriaren alde (eta kontra), [For (and Against) the Homeland]). But we might have time to talk about this later.

In the book James collected some words from Professor Alan Riach, who claimed that “a language is a dialect with a literature”. But, as I answered to James, if that is what turns a dialect into literature, we, Basques, are as good as dead, at least if we don’t resort to the rich heritage of our oral literature. Because written literature has been traditionally scarce, clerical (catechisms and sermon books, mostly), and of little literary interest; in that matter I do agree with Saizarbitoria, an author who shows little appreciation for that kind of literature, in contrast to other well-known writers  such as Anjel Lertxundi or Bernardo Atxaga, who usually worship it.

Anyway, taking into account the development of our contemporary literature, that of the last fifty years, it can be said that our language meets all the requirements, because in that brief historical period the literature written in Basque has taken a great leap forward. It’s a literature in which at the same time, and for the first time in its history, different generations of writers work together (and compete with each other). In fact, you’ll find a good sample of that literature at the Festival these days, if you want. And there are still more that deserve attention, writers like Katixa Agirre, Rikardo Arregi, Uxue Apaolaza, Iñigo Astiz, Irati Elorrieta, Aingeru Epaltza, Angel Erro, Karlos Linazasoro, Ana Malagon, Juanjo Olasagarre, Beñat Sarasola…

How do your separate languages reflect the culture of your country?

The Basque language reflects only a part of the culture that is created in the Basque Country, since most of the population (around sixty per cent) doesn’t understand it and, therefore, can neither speak or write in it. As a result, Spanish is the language of most of the literary and artistic creation in our country (and French, of course, in Northern Euskal Herria). In fact, the most important cultural centers for what is produced in Spanish are outside the Basque Country, in Madrid or in Barcelona, ​​and, therefore, those cultural productions, and their authors, want to have success there;  in the Basque Country it doesn’t happen as in Catalonia, where Barcelona is a Catalan cultural center but also a Spanish one (in fact, a very important part of the Spanish publishing industry is settled in Barcelona; while in the Basque Country the most powerful publishing houses are the ones which work in Basque language).

However, those who write or create in Basque language have a more centripetal vision, targeted exclusively or primarily to the Basque public (or, to be more accurate, to the Basque-speaking micro-public).

This has some consequences. Regarding literature there can be little mistake, because, unlike a Scot, a Basque who doesn’t know Euskara cannot understand a novel written in that language. Perhaps that is why visual arts have had such a great role in Basque cultural production, especially in the sixties and seventies: great sculptors such as Oteiza or Chillida did not know Euskara (although they loved it), but, as sculpture doesn’t have a language (in theory), it worked; in fact, both of them were often concerned about naming their sculptures in Basque, so they were considered super-Basque. And that is why, I fear, Basque gastronomy has acquired such an extravagant cultural range in recent times, because it’s a (cultural?) activity without a language.

This creates some friction, because those who, like me, write in Basque, for example, have fewer readers, but somehow we feel sheltered by them, we have more direct contact with them, and publishing periods are (in general) shorter to writers in Basque compared to the average Spanish writer (I’m talking about the time that passes since your manuscript is sent until the acceptance letter is received, for example), it’s also easier to get a review of a book of yours. But we mustn´t forget that we are talking about micro-audiences, of course. Basque-Spanish writers, in contrast, have to strive in a wider market, where there is a fiercer competition, and where they usually are not writers of a “national” rank, like the fewer ones who write in Basque, but of a “provincial” one.

Is your poetry or fiction enriched by your language/dialect?

I have to start explaining why I write in Basque. In fact, my mother tongue is Spanish, and the language I learned at school was Basque, when, at the end of the Franco regime, some Basque speaking schools or so called ikastolas were finally allowed. Anyway, most of my literary education was in Spanish, and when I started writing, “naturally”, I did it in Spanish. It is true that at that time I wasn’t much concerned in Basque literature, because the “classics” they taught us at school did not seem at all interesting to me, in general, as I’ve pointed before. So for the first fifteen years of my literary career, I wrote in Spanish, mostly fantasy and science fiction stories.

What triggered the change was the political situation of our country, our “Troubles”: at one point I thought I should write about it, and I didn’t like the first stories I had written on it in Spanish anymore; they did not persuade me, they didn’t sound quite right, as if they had a false echo. I threw them into the trash, of course, and literally. The solution was to write in Basque, to change my literary language. So I wrote some new stories on the subject and they worked, or that is what seemed to me, anyway. And I found a publisher for them quite soon, and I was able to see that they had an impact on the public (small but impactful). Since then, Basque has become my main creative tool.

Well, this is a story I tell myself and I don’t know to what extent it is completely true. I am sure that other factors have also influenced me, for example, the fact that I started teaching in Basque (which led me to improve my language skills), and that I began to read more Basque literature, thanks to some authors I started to know at the time, such as Bernardo Atxaga (here to be found at the Festival), or Juan Garzia, or Arantxa Iturbe, or Xabier Montoia

But for me it was somehow a way to deal with a literary challenge. The Bengali-American author Jhumpa Lahiri, as you know, changed her literary language from English to Italian, and this is what she said about the first short story she wrote in Italian: “I don’t know if it works. I don’t have the critical skills to judge it. Although it came from me, it doesn’t seem completely mine. I’m sure of only one thing: I would never have written it in English”. I can say something similar: I had this feeling that I wouldn’t write this story about our conflict in Spanish. But, unlike Lahiri, when I finished it, I was sure it was better than the ones I had already written in Spanish about that issue.

So I started writing in Spanish, and only later I did become a Basque language writer. Spanish has a richer and more abundant literary tradition, and a great weight of the Baroque in its “literary constitution” (if it can be said like that): a weight that can sometimes be very difficult to handle, and which must be tamed so it doesn’t get out of control, and become too rhetorical and bloated.

The Basque language, because of its literary history, has developed a drier language, which, paradoxically, I think adapts better, at least in the case of prose, to the demands of contemporary literature. So I think Basque (to learn how to write in Basque) has saved me to some extent from developing a hollow and overloaded prose.

And, paradoxically again, even if most of my current literary production is done in Basque, I think the fact I mentioned before has helped me to write better also in Spanish, when I write in that language (because I haven’t given up writing in Spanish).

You are writing for a minority audience. Does that matter?

Of course it matters: for example, I’m calmer when I write in Basque than when I do it in Spanish, because my father cannot understand what I write, so I feel much freer…

Seriously speaking, I am of the opinion that a writer doesn’t have to think much about his or her audience, because if he/she does that, you run the risk of becoming a slave to the readers. Well, if you are a writer of best sellers, of course, you can´t forget to take into account the mass of readers, and, of course, in that case it doesn’t make much sense to write in Basque, because at  most you will get/reach 40,000 readers, perhaps, or, luckily, 80,000 or 100,000 (that is the highest figure for a fiction book in Basque, and thanks to the fact that it entered the educational circuit, which means it became a mandatory reader in the Basque language subjects);  anyway, if that’s what you want, as a writer, it is better to write in Spanish, or, why not, in English.

But if you are an “average” writer, the audience is a factor to discard, rather than to consider, I think. And in that case it doesn’t matter in which language you write: you always have to write with ambition, in order to achieve the best short story, the best novel, the best possible poem. Because, after all, you can resort to translation, if you want to reach a wider number of people. And if the book is good, if it really makes a contribution, it might end up being translated, and hopefully it will reach, with greater or lesser fortune, a greater audience. One more reader than in Basque is already a success, for me. Because, as Basque writer Bernado Atxaga pointed out, readers are achieved one by one.

How far is language tied up with nationalism?

In the Basque case, quite tightly. As I said before, one of the reasons for the survival of the language, especially in the hard years of Francoism, was that it became one of the landmarks of Basque national identity. Before it was also important, symbolically, but not so much, because the first nationalism, which emerged 120 or 130 years ago, was based much more on Catholic religion (the Basques had to be the most Catholic guys in the world) and race (Basque race was the purest of the entire Peninsula, of course). Language was an important part of identity, but it was accessory, because by that time (late 19th century) a large part of the population of the territories claimed by Basque nationalism didn’t speak Basque anymore. It was the new nationalism of the 50s and 60s that placed the language at the center of Basque identity, which is better than race, because a language is always more integrative than blood, since it can be learned. (It’s a pity, however, that nationalism of that era left us with other illnesses, such as political violence and its consequences, but this is another different issue, of course… There’s more about that in the book of my correspondence with James Robertson, anyway).

But all this also means a limit for the expansion, the recovery, and the use of language. Under the impulse of that nationalism, and after the end of Franco’s dictatorship, the teaching of Basque has improved a lot, and the amount of people who know Basque has increased substantially.

But the same has not happened regarding its use. Unfortunately, those who are not Basque nationalists (or those who are Spanish or French nationalists) don’t share the enthusiasm of many Basque nationalists for the language. And, on top of that, I’ve the impression that the most “identity based nationalism” is going backwards in the Basque Country, especially among young people, who may be nationalists and even pro-independence, but who no longer care so much about the language issue. A bit like in Ireland, and maybe here in Scotland, it could be said.

How important to you is European, rather than national, culture?

It’s difficult to answer that question, because I don’t know very well what European culture could be. And on the other hand, I am divided between two cultures, the Basque and the Spanish one. Spanish culture is part of my education (and of my roots), and it is hard for me to give it up, although Basque culture (the culture created in the Basque language) is what I have chosen, somehow. I feel part of the two cultures, just as I feel part of the two literary systems, Basque and Spanish. It’s already neurotic enough for me…

The great imperial and unifying projects have failed in Europe: since the end of the Roman Empire there has not been an empire that has been able to take over Europe (every time an imperial project threatened to succeed, the other powers allied against it and prevented that from happenimg).

What am I trying to say with that? Simply that the very thing about Europe is its diversity: in fact, the respect for the radical diversity of the countries that compose it has been the key element for a united Europe. It must be said that, Europe, as we know it today, began as a mere custom union, and it still is that to a large extent. And I think the same happens in the cultural field: Europe, if anything, means cultural diversity. It means multilingualism. It means protection of minority languages. Without that, without that multiplicity, I guess there is no European culture.

That is why I believe that the best way to make European culture is to contribute to your own national, or regional, or local culture. Writing in the language in which you feel more comfortable. And, consequently, promoting translation, which is what holds us together: not standarization, not three or four “big” languages, but translation, which seems to me to be a very important sector of European culture, maybe the most important.

Do critics treat your work as less important because it is written in a minority language?

No, I don’t think so. When a work by a Basque writer is translated, especially into Spanish, it competes with the other works on an equal footing. In fact, sometimes the work doesn´t show that it was originally written in another language, that it’s a translation, because it is the author himself or herself who is in charge of the translation. So success depends on how good the work is, the friends or enemies you have among literary critics, or/and luck, of course. In fact, since the late 1980s some Basque writers such as Bernardo Atxaga, Mariasun Landa, Unai Elorriaga or Kirmen Uribe achieved some fame in the Hispanic literary world, and even, at certain level, globally too.

Even on some occasions the fact that the work has been written in a minority language can give more visibility to it. But I would say that this might have been more common, in the 80s and 90s, when it seemed that Spain accepted its plurinational reality better; but I fear that, if that ever happened, it’s no longer the case. Anyway, once the translation barrier is crossed, I believe that no one minimally intelligent considers that the work can be less important, per se.

Another question is whether works are being translated or not. That is where I see a lack of interest from the cultural structures of the majority languages ​​such as Spanish, French or English. That’s the barrier to overcome. And in that sense I think things are getting worse, there is less and less interest from the “big” cultural establishments in our “little” literatures. Fortunately, initiatives such as those at this Festival can do a lot to reverse this trend.

Has the Basque language suffered from political opposition?

Of course, especially during the Franco regime, and also before, by the governments of the Hispanic Monarchy, which throughout the Modern Age became increasingly centralist. It was banned from administration, justice, education, media etc, so it became less and less significant, socially.

Nowadays, as Spain is a more decentralized state, that opposition is not so tough. But it’s still very much alive in the part of the Basque Country that belongs to France, and in Navarra, a region where Basque is not an official language in the whole territory.

And since the extreme right and centralizing tendencies are rising again in Spain, it’s not surprising to see that the attacks against the Basque, or against Catalonian languages, are becoming increasingly numerous.

What is the best way of preserving a language?

I don’t know. If I knew, I would be writing essays or pamphlets on the subject, and not short stories, as I do. The only way, I suppose, is to use it and encourage its use. To make it official, to bring it into the educational system. To protect it with active policies of positive discrimination, considering it has been discriminated for centuries and, therefore, has not had the same opportunities to develop as official languages ​​(in our case, Spanish and French).

That is the least we could do. But regarding what is happening in the Basque Country, or what happened in Ireland, it is clear to me that it is not enough. Perhaps we have implemented these mechanisms too late…

I have done my best, in my field. I write and teach in Basque. I run a book club in that language, because sometimes people are lazy and prefer to read in the language they have always read more, and in which they have more books in supply, as French and Spanish readers do. And I have treated my daughters with the language, something that my grandparents did not do with my parents, for different reasons. Beyond all that, I really don’t know what can be done… I would like to be more optimistic, but, no matter how much I try, I can’t.


[Photograph by Juan Dopico Massobrio].