ATXAGA, Bernardo

(Asteasu, 1951)

"I was born in Asteasu (Guipúzcoa) on the 27 of July of 1951, or at least, this is what very reliable witnesses have assured me. I was baptised in the local church as "José", since these very reliable witnesses thought there would be much paperwork in times to come, and so, a name of many syllables would be a nuisance at the hour of signing my name. I thus became José Irazu, and as such wandered through schools and universities until 1973, when I graduated from the University of Bilbao with a degree in Economics. The year before, in 1972, I had taken the strange decision of inventing for myself a second name -a little longer than the original: "Bernardo Atxaga"- and of signing with it a small play and a short story.

It is said of me I've always wanted to be a writer, and that from that will came all the rest, both my literary activism-I hold the world record in the specialism known as CST, "Conferences in Small Towns"-and my attitude, perhaps a little ridiculous, of being a professional writer. In fact, I recall those years, the seventies and eighties, like a desert where it was difficult to find a justification for writing in a minority language and for a society more inclined towards pamphlets than poems. If I persisted in the intent, it was due to the fact that, from the publication of my first books (the novel Ziutateaz (About a City) in 1976 and the poetry collection Etiopia in 1978) I managed long legions of like-minded readers and the explicit support of persons as renowned as the poet Gabriel Aresti, the linguist Luis Mitxelena, the cultural agent Leopoldo Zugaza, the singer Mikel Laboa or the novelist Anjel Lertxundi. I also received support and many other things-advice, information, critical commentaries-from my colleagues at the magazine Pott, especially from the writer José María Iturralde and from the musician Ruper Ordorika.

In 1988 I published Obabakoak, the book that has brought me certain fame. With it I won the Premio Nacional de Literatura (National Prize for Literature), and also, thanks to the translations, a publicity I had never imagined. Already turned into a bilingual writer, I later wrote novels such as Gizona bere bakardadean (The Lone Man), Zeru horiek (The Lone Woman) and, recently, Soinujolearen semea (The Accordionist's Son). Apart from this, I have signed-always as Bernardo Atxaga-songs, children's stories, play scripts, uncollected poems and stories; a motley set of texts in which it is not difficult to perceive the mannerism of a writer who, as a flamenco singer would say, managed to cross the desert in the only possible way, playing in all styles and with a little help."

Atxaga, B. "An Introduction after G. K. Chesterton", in Olaziregi, M.J. (comp.), Pintxos. Nuevos cuentos vascos, Lengua de Trapo, Madrid, 2005.

©Mari Jose Olaziregi

©Translation: Cecilia Rossi

Bernardo Atxaga (pseudonym of Jose Irazu Garmendia) was born in Asteasu (Gipuzkoa) on July 27th 1951. Surely, the desire to emulate the great authors of universal literature and the aim of avoiding Franco?s censorship were among the reasons that led him to adopt this pseudonym. He has a degree in Economics from the University of the Basque Country, is a member of the Euskaltzaindia-Royal Academy of the Basque Language and, above all, is a passionate lover of literature who has demonstrated one can be genuinely universal writing in euskera.

To speak of Atxaga today means to speak of the most widely translated writer in the Basque language of all times, as well as the Basque writer who has been awarded the most prizes. The list of awards received include, among others, the Premio Euskadi (the Euskadi Prize) (1989, 1997, 1999), the Premio Nacional de Narrativa (the Spanish Prize for Narrative) (1989), the Premio Milepages (the Paris Milepages Prize) (1991), the Premio Tres Coronas de los Pirineos Atlánticos (the Atlaintic Pyrenees Three Crowns Prize) (1995), the Premio Eusko Ikaskuntza-Vasco Universal (the Eusko-Ikaskuntza-Basque Prize) (2002), the Cesare Pavese Prize for Poetry (2003), as well as the Premio de la Crítica Española (the Spanish Critics' Prize) (1978, 1985, 1988, 1993, 2003). In any case, it can be argued that the thousands of readers Bernardo Atxaga has across the world, together with the favourable welcome his work has enjoyed, have led to his inclusion on university programmes worldwide or on lists of indispensable authors of the 21st century, such as the "21 Top Writers" proposed by the British newspaper The Observer in 1999.

Throughout the period of over thirty years that Bernardo Atxaga has been professionally dedicated to literature, he has published volumes of poetry (cf Etiopia, 1978; Poemas & Híbridos (Poems and Hybrid Texts), 1990), novels, plays, children's books and books for young people, as well as hybrid texts which tend to play upon the borders between essay and fiction. But the book that has not only won him much acclaim, but also turned him into an award-winning author, is the short story collection Obabakoak (1988). Translated into twenty-six languages, it is, without doubt, the book that has made Atxaga the Basque writer most widely known beyond our borders, and the author to have received the most awards. The emotional landscape of Obaba can be described as a virtual infinite where the narrator's memory begins weaving a fabric suggestive of stories, which thread together the meta-narrative reflection with strategies of literature of the fantastic. In order to do so, Obabakoak's narrator sets off on an intertextual journey that starts with A Thousand and One Nights and ends with references to the great masters of 19th and 20th century literature. This literary homage is translated into quotations from stories (such as the well-known "The rich merchant's servant"), plotlines (such as the stories from Chekhov, Waugh, Maupassant in "Regarding stories"), paraphrasis with thematic-formal transformations (as in "Wei Lie Deshang"), plagiarisms (as in the story "Torture par espérance" by Villiers d'Isle Adam in "The crevasse"), parodies, imitations and so on. As if these references would not suffice, titles such as "Margarete and Heinrich, Twins" (cf G. Trakl) or "E. Werfell" (cf F. Werfel), speak of an expressionist substratum to some of the stories in this collection. All in all, it is an intertextual journey which allows the author to reflect on the relationship between literature and life, or the struggle between nature and culture.

After Obabakoak Atxaga has published stories in various anthologies, such as Cuentos apátridas (Stories without a Fatherland) (Ediciones B, 1999), Relatos urbanos (Urban Tales) (Alfaguara, 1994), Una infancia de escritor (A Writer?s Childhood) (Edición de Mercedes Monmany. Xordica, 1997). He has also published books in which he has included his most recent short narratives, such as Un traductor en Paris i alters relats (A Translator in Paris and Other Stories) (in Catalan) (La Magrana, 1999), or Tres declaraciones (Three Declarations) (Fundación BBK, 1997). Having distanced himself from fantastic literature, Atxaga resorts to humour and irony to tell tales in which experimental and avant-garde traits are still foregrounded.

Among his novels we can highlight Bi anai / Two Brothers (1985) (1995), a moral fable about an innocent man's sacrifice, and his realist novels: Gizona bere bakardadean / The Lone Man (1993) (1994), Zeru horiek / The Lone Woman (1995) and Soinujolearen semea / The Accordionist's Son (2004). The first one of these novels, The Lone Man, has been translated into twelve languages and received important prizes such as the Premio de la Crítica (the Spanish Critics' Prize) in 1993 and the "Premio Euskadi de Plata" (the Euskadi Silver Prize) in 1994. It was also shortlisted for the "Premio Aristeión" (1996) and the "International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award" in 1997, among others. Foreign reviews of the novel, as well as Spanish ones, were excellent and highlighted the literary quality of the text. The novel can be considered a thriller that tells the story of Carlos, a former member of E.T.A. who runs a hotel together with some friends, and who one day decides to hide in his bakery two E.T.A. terrorists who committed a terrorist attack in Euskadi a few days before. Carlos's behaviour has terrible consequences for the group. But, above all, The Lone Man retells Carlos's inner struggle, a struggle which is determined by the loss of his revolutionary ideals. Worth highlighting are the lyric tone of the work, its continual recourse to imagery and memory, the use of heterotopic spaces (the hotel), the excellent dosage of suspense, or the wide intertextuality of well-known Marxist writers.

The Lone Woman (1995) is another example of a novel structured around a character. The work narrates Irene's bus journey from the moment she leaves the prison in Barcelona until she arrives in Bilbao. The protagonist has decided to leave the ranks of a terrorist organisation to reintegrate into society. The journey between Barcelona and Bilbao thus becomes the protagonist's inner journey. Through her dreams and the poems she carries with herself in her case, Irene attempts to find moments of peace and face the uncertain future awaiting her at home. Worth highlighting in this text is also the presence of heterotopias, such as the prison, the hotel, the bus or the convent, as well as motifs such as the sky, which serve through their recurrence to reflect the protagonist's tormented inner self.

The Accordionist's Son (2004) is, undoubtedly, Bernardo Atxaga's most ambitious novel. The complete success this novel had among the thousands of Basque readers has been confirmed by its ten translations and excellent reviews, such as the one published in The Times Literary Supplement, which affirmed that The Accordionist's Son is the great Basque novel of all times. The novel's protagonist, David, reminisces on his Californian ranch his childhood in Obaba and the painful awakening to the terrible events that took place during the Spanish Civil War and the years which followed. However, this Obaba outlined in the novel is no longer a place where fantastic events occur without an easy rational explanation, but a distant arcadia, a small locus amoenus inhabited by the happy peasants Virgil sang to. And in this novel it is precisely Virgil who guides the narrator through the hells of his youth. The attack on Gernika, the terrible executions and disappearances of the post-civil war years, or the outbreak of terrorism in the sixties, all soar across the sky of Obaba. And again, the restitution of the past has an ethical function in Atxaga's text, since he reminds us once more that History is a narrative discourse offering an interpretation-one made, of course, from the point of view of the winners. Once again, the reader surrenders before a prose that comes across as deceptively simple, where landscape and characters are intimately linked and where recurrent elements become disturbing evidence of the dangers that lie ahead. And this is because The Accordionist's Son demands an intensity of reading akin to that of a Chekhovian story and which undoubtedly has the virtue that Kafka demanded from the good books: it breaks up that icy sea we carry inside. History and memory, reality and fiction, love and death, these are just some of the dichotomies that underpin this well structured novel.

Further information about the author:

© Photo: Basso Canarsa

© Obabakoak: Erein

© The Lone Man: Harvill

© The Accordionist's Son: Random House