Tales from the land of the Basques

Issue: 117

Joe Linehan

Paddy Woodworth, The Basque Country—A Cultural History (Signal Books, 2007), £12

“Yet many Basques today feel no identity with either Spain or France, and want independence, or something close to it”
—from the preface.

Bernardo Atxaga, “like many of his generation”, is an erstwhile ETA sympathiser who, “since democracy, has never supported violence”. So Paddy Woodworth describes probably the best known Basque language novelist. Woodworth, who does not miss a twist or a turn in the imbroglio that is Basque politics, also points out that Atxaga is opposed to “the tide of ‘anti-terrorist’ rhetoric which has swept many Basque intellectuals and artists”.

Woodworth writes in lovely language when telling us of all the icons of Euskal Herria—the land of the Basques—not just those of the political conflict, but also the literary, architectural, gastronomic and artistic ones. The author also offers lesser known, but equally fascinating, insights into ecology, gender politics, traditional music, Basque sports and mountains, all garnished with a little Basque magic. He sees, for example, that things bucolic and Basque are in danger of being lost: the native holm oakwoods along the Urdabai estuary nature reserve being encroached upon by eucalyptus and acacia, the mad speculative building boom or the decline of the traditional fishing industry

The author describes the class struggle in the emerging capitalism that was 19th century Bilbao, with its coal, iron, steel mills, shipyards and tenements on the left bank of the city’s River Nervion. “Directly opposite, new palaces loudly proclaimed the power of the industrial oligarchy, as if wealth had drained from one side of the river to the other and, magically transmuted, flourished on the other side.” And with equally rich and succinct language he explains the Carlist Wars (between traditionalists and smallholders on the one hand, and budding capitalists and “liberals” on the other) in the same century.

Today there is another fracture in Basque society—not religious or ethnic, but “primarily ideological”—looking either to Madrid/Paris or otherwise to some form of independent Basque Country. The author draws on the three distinct nationalist versions of events (Basque, Spanish and French), providing hitherto unnoticed or unreported insights—for example, the fact that the most famous of Basque women, Dolores Ibárurri, La Pasionaria, has been greatly ignored by Basque institutions, nationalists and mainstream socialists.

He argues that the Franco “dictatorship made a grim reality out of” the founder of Basque nationalism “Sabino Arana’s fantasy that the Basque Country was an occupied and subjugated nation” and the author’s conclusion on the role of the state in the current political/armed conflict is crushing: “the Spanish state has made its own criminal contribution to the cycle of killing” (a reference to state terrorism of the 1980s). “ETA can be considered…as the offspring of Francosim’s systematic rape of Basque culture,” he adds.

This is a book for all who have been to the land of the Basques, for anyone who is thinking of going there and for everyone who dreams of a place of much magic.