The Basque Novel Comes of Age

Ramon Saizarbitoria’s Martutene, hailed as the best novel ever written in Basque and now available in English translation, is, among other things, a moving ...
Harbor in Donostia (San Sebastían, Spain)

Ramon Saizarbitoria’s Martutene, hailed as the best novel ever written in Basque and now available in English translation, is, among other things, a moving reflection on loyalty and commitment. The political scientist Judith Shklar once pointed out that there is a fundamental difference between the two. Loyalty, she wrote, is an “attachment to a social group” that is “deeply affective and not primarily rational.” In most cases, loyalty is not a matter of choice; after all, we have no say in the nation or culture we are born into. A commitment, on the other hand, is a “voluntary engagement”: a conscious pledge of sustained support.1 Because commitments are an act of will, they can be withdrawn when circumstances change. Reneging on loyalty is harder: it’s what we call betrayal or treason—in many cultures punishable by death.

Loyalty, commitment, and betrayal are at the heart of Saizarbitoria’s intricate, slowly unfolding plot. His characters live in or around Martutene, a neighborhood southeast of the city of Donostia (San Sebastián), in Basque Country. Born into a culture and language that was once oppressed to near extinction, they have turned their relationship to Basqueness from a fate-imposed loyalty into a life-guiding personal commitment. For Iñaki Abaitua, a gynecologist in his 50s, this means not only speaking Basque with his son, his colleagues, and his patients, but also fighting a lonely battle for professional integrity in an attempt to improve the region’s public health-care system. For Pilar, Iñaki’s wife, also a surgeon, it means keeping her father’s clinic operating independently. Martin, an aging novelist struggling under the weight of expectations, is committed to writing in Euskara, as the Basque language is known in Basque, despite its extremely limited audience and scant literary tradition. (It is estimated that the entire field consists of around three hundred authors and no more than 10,000 readers.2) For Julia, Martin’s partner and translator, committing to Basqueness means making Martin’s work available in Spanish, but also encouraging her adolescent son’s love of Euskaldun culture without allowing him to become drawn into the militant Basque nationalism that led to his father’s death. And while Julia finds plenty to criticize, even hate, in Martin as a person and lover, she admires what he represents in literary terms. To her “one thing is clear”: for Martin to write in Spanish “would be betraying the Basque linguistic community.”

Although narrated in the third person, the story is anchored in the alternating perspectives of Julia and Iñaki; it is through them that we get to know their respective partners, Martin and Pilar. At the novel’s opening, we find both couples’ relationships in choppy waters. What sets the plot in motion is the arrival of Lynn, a 33-year-old American sociologist who’s fascinated with the Basque country and rents a room in Martin’s house. She’s exuberant and informal in a way that her Basque friends—emotionally inhibited, class-conscious, and neurotic—find both disturbing and deeply attractive. Lynn’s irruption into their stagnant middle-class lives amounts to a small, extended earthquake. Eight hundred pages later, their relationships with each other and with their world have realigned—and Lynn herself is not left unscathed either.

Martutene single-handedly liberates the Basque literary tradition from its dependency on the picturesque.

Martutene is set some 35 years after the death of Francisco Franco, for whom Spain’s unity was so sacred that he employed all means possible to marginalize Basque language and culture throughout his almost 40-year dictatorship. The novel’s story unfolds in 2011, a turning point in recent Basque history. In October of that year, ETA, the paramilitary organization fighting for Basque independence, finally announced it would abandon the armed struggle that terrorized Spain for 50 years and deeply divided Basque society. The novel’s characters still carry the scars of that tense period. It has not only conditioned their worldview and allegiances, but confined their affective economy. For many Basques, solidarity with ETA—if not with its methods, then at least with its objectives—put a brake on their capacity to feel sympathy for the terrorist group’s victims and the victims’ families, who, to make things worse, were hailed as martyrs by the centralist Spanish right. Saizarbitoria’s characters are struggling to adapt to a post-ETA world. Even if they disapproved of the violence, which all of them eventually did, it still gave meaning to their lives. “Everything has changed,” Julia thinks to herself, realizing only now that she and Martin “used to see the consequences of violence as some sort of fatal, inevitable accident.” Something to live with, in other words, but not to condemn. Looking back, it’s hard for them not to be embarrassed by their refusal to see the victims’ pain.

With the threat of ETA practically gone, the act of writing in Basque is losing some of the political edge it long had almost by default. Saizarbitoria, who is 72 and is retired from his day job as director of a center for sociological studies, has, like Martin, always written in Euskara. In fact, his commitment to the language preceded his literary aspirations, as he explained in a testy public conversation last November with the best-selling Basque author Fernando Aramburu. Aramburu, whose novel Patria (Fatherland) won a prestigious book-of-the-year prize in Spain last year, moved to Germany in the 1980s and proudly writes in Spanish—a language that he calls his native tongue but that, as he explained during the event, as a Basque he had to work hard to learn properly. He has complained for several years that the autonomous government privileges Basque authors who write in Euskara; for example, by paying them an honorarium for giving talks in public schools. In effect, he said at the event, the authorities discriminate against those who choose to write in Spanish while co-opting those who write in Basque. To make things worse, he added, Spanish-language Basque authors have been more frequent targets of pro-independence aggression. Saizarbitoria tried to contain himself, but couldn’t help scoff. “If you really think,” he said, “that receiving four hundred euros [for a talk] … is going to affect the way I think or my freedom of expression, you’re insulting me.”

In the conversation with Aramburu, who is 15 years younger and can afford to live off his writing, a surly Saizarbitoria played down the value of his own work while being dismissive of the literary scene generally. (“I actually don’t like writers very much,” he said. “I prefer painters.”) He also waxed nostalgic about the period of “cultural underdevelopment” in which he came up. At that time, he said, writing in Basque engaged so few people that “roles were not defined; readers were writers, and anyone could write.” What is more, “Euskara had not been unified yet; spelling mistakes didn’t even exist.” While not saying so explicitly, his comments suggested that it was a time when writers’ commitment to the language was more pure, less sullied by ulterior motives. “Many in my generation began to write and publish by accident,” he said. “We never set out to be authors.” (Aramburu, in a moment of disarming honesty, confessed that what drove him initially was a sheer thirst for celebrity. He first hoped to be a famous athlete, and only when he realized he’d never be good enough as a cyclist or soccer player did he try his luck at writing.)


Monte Ulia, Euskadi

By Gabriel Urza

Saizarbitoria’s ambivalence about the standardization of the Basque language and the increasing importance of market-driven fame is ironic in light of his own contribution to the canonization of literature in Basque. His novel makes clear that the normalization of Basque politics—that is, the abandonment of armed nationalist struggle—cannot force people to renege on their loyalties. But he also shows that it certainly forces them to recalibrate their commitments, a process that produces its own neuroses, particularly guilt. Something similar has occurred in the literary field. For the Basque literary scholar Joseba Gabilondo, Martutene is a nothing less than a watershed, “the most important Basque novel yet.”3 But by the same token, the book also marks a coming of age. It seals the Basque Country’s definitive incorporation, as an autonomous unit of literary production, into global neoliberalism. To those who derived a sense of pride from their culture’s stubborn marginality, it is a victory that smacks of defeat—a loss of innocence that Saizabitoria’s story narrates clinically and critically through its five main characters. Ironically, the novel itself embodies that same globalizing passage—witness this English translation.

The author who first put Basque literature on the international map was Bernardo Atxaga, whose stunningly original story collection Obabakoak (1988) was translated into more than 25 languages. It included a confessional segment, “By Way of an Autobiography,” in which Atxaga explained the challenges facing a writer who chooses to write in Euskara. The real problem, he notes, is practical: there is a dearth of standards and conventions; for example, Basque lacks a regular repertoire of unobtrusive verbs to structure a dialogue. The relative poverty of the literary tradition in Basque, on the other hand, was less of a problem for Atxaga. Following Jorge Luis Borges’s example, he simply claimed the entire world’s literary archive as his own: “The whole of the literary past, be it from Arabia, China, or Europe is at our disposal; in shops, in libraries, everywhere. Thus any writer is free to create his own tradition. He can read The Arabian Nights one day and Moby Dick or Kafka’s Metamorphosis the next … and those works, the spirit that they communicate, will immediately pass into his own life and work as a writer.”4 Still, Atxaga quickly became a victim of his own success, says Gabilondo, trapped in the role of performing an exotic Basque otherness to Spain and the rest of the world.

Saizarbitoria’s Martutene single-handedly liberates the Basque literary tradition from this dependency on the picturesque. Instead of Atxaga’s timeless, magical world of a pastoral Basque Country, here we have five middle-class, urban adults caught in romantic complications, struggling with midlife crises and aging parents, and forced by history to face up to the ethical fallout of years’ worth of political fellow-traveling. What Saizarbitoria’s Martutene shares with Atxaga’s Obabakoak is a cosmopolitan take on cultural history that largely bypasses the Spanish tradition. (Skipping Spain comes with the territory: like the Catalans, the multilingual Basques have long seen themselves as worldlier than their sadly monolingual fellow citizens in the Spanish-speaking parts of the country.) But if Atxaga’s world-literary references are Kafka and Arabian Nights, the overwhelming literary presence in Martutene is Montauk, an autobiographical novel from 1975 by the Swiss writer Max Frisch, of whom Lynn, Martin, and Julia are all enthusiastic admirers. Yet here, too, there is an ironic twist. As it turns out, Basque authors’ entry into the global literary marketplace has, so far, been fully dependent on the Spanish-speaking cultural circuit—which, unlike the Basque milieu, is capable of generating cultural capital with a global exchange value. By now, in fact, canonical writers in Euskara occasionally see the Spanish translation of their work appear before the Basque original. (Some Euskaldun authors, in a heroic gesture of defiance, have refused translation into Spanish.)

With the threat of ETA practically gone, the act of writing in Basque is losing some of the political edge it long had.

If loyalty and commitment are at the heart of Martutene’s plot, fidelity is an important concern, too—and not just in romantic terms. When Lynn complains that the existing Spanish translation of Frisch’s novel is unfaithful to the German original, Julia considers retranslating it. As it is, translation and its challenges take up a good part of Julia’s ruminations. At one point, she struggles with a short story by Martin about the relationship of a high school teacher of Basque literature with a female student whose father, a federal policeman, is killed by ETA. Although the girl is from a Spanish-speaking family that embodies the repressive state, she has learned Euskara and developed a deep love of Basque literature. In the bilingual original of Martin’s text, the language the teacher and student choose to speak with each other when they meet at the wake carries an affective dimension that any translation is bound to flatten: “Having the text in a single language smooths away details, while the decision to write in one or the other in certain moments can be even more meaningful than the words themselves when it comes to creating an atmosphere, and sticking in a footnote to the effect that some word or phrase was ‘in Spanish in the original’ does not solve the problem.”

Saizarbitoria’s translators have faced the same challenge. In Martutene’s original text, as in Basque Country today, code-switching between Spanish and Euskara is an important marker. After all, few things signal the “deeply affective and not primarily rational” dimension of loyalty in Shklar’s definition more tangibly than language use.

This leads us to a bigger and perhaps more discouraging question. How much of Saizarbitoria’s literary achievement survives in the novel’s translations? I don’t speak Euskara, and have only been able to read the book in its Spanish and English versions. Both, though remarkably different, certainly give a sense of the novel’s scope and ambition. Still, I can’t help feel like I’m witnessing a tightrope artist reenact his walk across a mile-deep abyss—but between two trees in the backyard. As a reader I’m missing out on the most important part of the story: the depth of Saizarbitoria’s commitment to his language and its literary tradition. But perhaps this stubborn secret is also an act of defiance: precisely what, in the end, saves the text and its author from seamless absorption into the English-dominant universe of “world literature.” icon

  1. Judith Shklar, Political Thought and Political Thinkers, edited by Stanley Hoffman (University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 41.
  2. Joseba Gabilondo, New York-Martutene: Euskal Postnazionalismoaren Utopías Eta Globalización Neoliberalaren Krisiaz (Universidad del País Vasco, 2013).
  3. Ibid.
  4. Bernardo Atxaga, Obabakoak: Stories from a Village, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa (Graywolf, 2010), p. 286.
Featured image: Egunon Donostia! Photograph by Arrano / Flickr