"«Not the singer, but the song» used to sing Hank Williams. I too find the song more interesting than who sings it. By the same token, in literature, the lives of the writers matter little to me. What's more, I believe that far from helping their work in some way, the writer's life stories mystify and muddy it. (Maybe that explains why editors are so given to publishing them.) Who cares about the likes and obsessions of the author of the book you hold in your hands, his sex, race or age? As a reader, I find such information a hindrace. There are more than enough intermediaries between the text and the reader as it is. The only thing all this information about the author seems to accomplish is to make us read with prejudice, according to our aesthetic, ideological or personal phobias. So here I will limit myself to saying that, since I started publishing in the early 1980s, I have produced three collections of poetry, three books of short stories, a sort of musical travelogue, and five novels. As the bard said, the rest is silence."
Montoia, X. "Biografía", in Olaziregi, M. (comp.), An Anthology of Basque Short Stories, Center for Basque Studies-University of Nevada, Reno, 2004.
© Estibalitz Ezkerra
© Translation: Kristin Addis
Throughout Montoia's artistic career, literature and music have gone hand in hand. After taking part in the creation of the band Hertzainak, he was a member of the band M-ak for several years before beginning to perform solo. Most of his works have been published by Susa: three volumes of poetry (Anfetamiña, Amphetamine, 1983; Likantropo, Lycanthrope, 1985; Narraztien mintzoa, The Language of Reptiles, 1988); the chronicle, Plastikozko loreak erregearentzat (Plastic Flowers for the King, 1998); the novels Non dago Stalin? (Where is Stalin?, 1991), Hezur gabeko hilak (The Boneless Dead, 1999), Blackout (2004) and Elektrika (2004), and two collections of stories, Emakume biboteduna (The Mustachioed Woman, 1992) and Gazteizko hondartzak (The Beaches of Gasteiz, 1997). With Elkar, he published the collections of stories Baina bihotzak dio (But the Heart Says, 2002) and Euskal hiria sutan (Basque City in Flames, 2006), and novel Denboraren izerdia (The Sweat of Time, 2003) . In 2006, he published a compilation of his poetry in the volume Bingo (Pamiela).
The Department of Culture of the Basque Government awarded Montoia the Media Prize for Gazteizko hondartzak in 1998, and in 2007, the Basque Literature Prize for Euskal hiria sutan.
Montoia first made his mark as an author with his volume of poetry, Anfetamiña (Susa, 1983). Since that time, he has published two other collections of poems: Likantropo (Susa, 1985) and Narraztien mintzoa (Susa, 1988). "The break with tradition manifested by (Bernardo Atxaga's) Etiopia (Ethiopia) has undoubtedly had its followers. One such author is Montoia, whose first collection of poetry, Anfetamiña, owes its title to certain verses in Atxaga's book. Indeed, Montoia made good use of Atxaga's work to achieve the rebellious and crushing spirit that suits his temperament so well. Montoia, who is no stranger to the marginal world of rock-and-roll, rejects the traditional distinction between noble language suitable for literary exercise and lesser, ignoble words. He makes a complete break with estheticism, and from the literary world, only those lycanthropes who have renounced it in a surrealist style, like Louis Aragon or, more corrosively, like Boris Vian, have interested him. The title of his second book, Likantropo (1985), is no coincidence. Montoia's last volume of poetry, Narraztien mintzoa (1988), shows that the author has honed his skill without giving up the sarcasm, black humor or bitter hopelessness that characterize his work" (Aldekoa, Iñaki. "La poesía vasca de los años 80 y 90" (Basque poetry of the 1980s and 1990s), Historia de la literatura vasca, Erein, Donostia, 2004, 231).
According to Koldo Izagirre, "Xabier Montoia's poems are more complicated than they appear; they are full of allusions and literary references, not only to poetry but also to local and universal topics, but this is not a concession to learned words, but rather a literary game used as necessary to shake the complacency of the informed reader or elicit a nasty smile. This is one of the special features of Montoia's poetry: provocation, which may sometimes be unpleasant but which always presents, despite its deterring tone, a greater or lesser discovery. Indeed, Montoia the nonconformist attacks both the Christian ethic and communist loyalty equally -he strikes at all different types of orthodoxies- consciously and shrewdly. The poet carries out a political and moral catharsis through exaggeration.
"...The poet has always been an inhabitant of the night, he sighs while looking at the stars, or takes refuge in the dark so the shadows won't frighten him. Xabier Montoia is a different sort of poet, however, to the extent that he is a creature of the night. He shows us desolate urban scenes, and places himself within solitude. He values hatred above love, and transforms the spirit together with the body, becoming amoral; he proclaims individuality. But paradoxically, he becomes brother to the wolf. Xabier Montoia's poetry is grounded in a great humility, a great solidarity with the condemned of the world that he hides so that it doesn't get out of control. His is a hatred of all that is usually declared to be beautiful" (Izagirre, Koldo. "Sarrera," XX. mendeko poesia kaierak, Susa, 2002).
The year 1991 saw the publication of Montoia's first work of narrative: the novel, Non dago Stalin? Later came the first title of the "Lives of the Dead" trilogy, Hezur gabeko hilak (Susa, 1999), which is set in World War I. "War and the senselessness of war: this is the destiny of the puppets who seem to be resigned to meeting death at the hands of a usually invisible enemy. There are no heroes in this book, nor actions to hold up to anyone as a model. On the contrary, the two main characters are corrupt and cowardly; they want to desert, but are too corrupt and too cowardly to do so. Similarly, neither friendship nor solidarity puts in an appearance in this book; in times of need, friend leaves friend to fend for himself. "Go to hell," says one protagonist to the other in one passage of the book. "I don't have to. We're already there," answers the other.
"Amid explosions and cannon blasts, Montoia shows us just how cold it can be in a stream or in the hell of the trenches. Perhaps because of this, the walls of the story -walls of ice- seem to have been carved in the coldest cold. It must be the temperature of death" (Epaltza, Aingeru. "Herioren tenperatura" (The Temperature of Death), Nabarra, October, 2001).
Not only fighting -the three works are all set in times of war- but also the relationship between the main characters or, to be more precise, the blood tie, serves as a bond in Hezur gabeko hilak and the other two books in the trilogy, since the protagonist of the last two books is the son of Etxegoien, who appears in the first. Additionally, if the battlefield of World War I was the setting for Hezur gabeko hilak, Blackout (Susa, 2004) "takes us to World War II and Paris under Nazi occupation. And the Paris of this novel lives in darkness, fleeing the Germans who forbad lights to be lit on the streets or in the homes. Paris is no longer a big party, but the territory of those without scruples, who know how to benefit from the slaughter. One such person is the protagonist of the novel, journalist Jean Etxegoien from Senpere, who drowns his nights in smoke and alcohol in the cabarets of Montmartre. Like those of the malicious and cruel characters in suspense novels, Etxegoien's ethics are beyond compromise or good behavior; if anything emerges from war, it is humanity's most wretched side. In this novel, which has the rhythm of a genre film, the reader will find an attractive literary representation of occupied Paris, but above all, the compelling story of a traitor who has no religion but jazz" (Olaziregi, Mari Jose. Sautrela).
The Algerian War is the theme of Elektrika, the last book of the trilogy. "A group of French soldiers lie in wait for an armed group of Algerians. Although at first it seems to be a typical military operation that could happen in any war, as the story of this attack develops, it takes on almost mythical dimensions. On the one hand, the French will suffer the attacks of the Algerian group, though it remains unclear who are the attackers and who the attacked. On the other hand, the author makes us bear witness to the savagery of the French soldiers as they push deeper into the northern African mountains. We stand before a descent into hell, a descent we share with the character, Jean Etxegoien, whose past is dark and unknown... but whose religion has awoken moral doubts in him, and thus he is the chosen example of this descent into hell, which is presented in such a way that the whole novel seems to be a long introduction to the final scene, in which Etxegoien plays the leading role. The writer is as interesting as ever in this novel" (Rojo, Javier. "Aljeriako gerran" (In the Algerian War), El Correo, January 12, 2005).
Montoia returns home, to the modern Basque Country, in his novel, Denboraren izerdia (Elkar, 2003). As Aingeru Epaltza says, "we owe to the literary works of Xabier Montoia not only a landscape and people -those of Vitoria- almost unknown in Basque literature, but also the will to examine the most painful aspects of our recent past and to face the present fearlessly. Without going too far afield, Denboraren izerdia clearly intends to go one step further: it tells the tale of a former activist well cared for by the political, cultural and media establishment and who returns to his homeland and a bitter encounter with his past.
"With this theme, Montoia could have produced the typical literary fare: a story of good guys and bad guys, clearly distinguishing the traitors from the true. The author does not fall into this trap, however. Using an impersonal and distant style and language finely chiseled as if with a knife, he brings out all the wrinkles in the story that such a character in such a situation can have, à la Peckinpah, to create the revelation -as beautiful as it is sad- of the irreconcilability of two world views that went their separate ways twenty years earlier. This is the parable of our present existence: the need to choose between dignity and happiness. Apparently, we will be whole only in death" (Epaltza, Aingeru. "Saldo basatia" (The Wild Bunch), Nabarra, September, 2003).
The Basque Country is again the setting in Montoia's most recent book, Euskal hiria sutan (Elkar, 2006). "Through as many stories as there are letters in the alphabet, (Montoia) tries to offer a complete portrait of the Basque Country as if the stories were the pieces of a puzzle. The stories have different situations, different points of view, different styles, but although they are completely independent, there is one thing that is present in all of them: the characters, regardless of their situation or point of view, all find themselves facing a void in their lives portrayed like a painful wound. Sometimes they face the void and win a small victory; other times, the void wins. But even in the former case, the victory is only an apparent victory since desperation prevails in these stories; even in their supposed victories, the characters end up losing" (Rojo, Javier. "Narrazioen alfabetoa" (The Alphabet of Stories), El Correo, March 14, 2007).
With respect to the genre of short story, in the collection of stories, Emakume biboteduna (Susa, 1992), a prime example of dirty realism, Montoia offers us penetrating and realist stories of love and the lack of it, in keeping with the provocative nature of the cover, a painting by Marcel Duchamp, while in his work Gasteizko hondartzak (Susa, 1997), "the (Spanish) Civil War and the postwar period serve as the point of departure for these stories, which take us up to the end of the last century. As in his novels, the author does not deliberately set out to give a documented historical testimony, but to present the history of the anonymous, that is, the experiences of people trapped in an extremely harsh situation. It could be said that the city of Vitoria is the true protagonist of Gasteizko hondartzak, a city portrayed as provincial and in which the lives of its inhabitants are conditioned and strangled by political and religious repression" (Olaziregi, Mari Jose, "Prólogo," in Pintxos. Nuevos cuentos vascos, Spanish edition of An Anthology of Basque Short Stories, Madrid, Lengua de Trapo, 2005).
In Baina bihotzak dio (Elkar, 2002), on the other hand, Montoia tells stories of homesickness for the Basque Country.
Further information about the author:
- To see the author's translated works, go to the List of Translations from Basque of this website.
- Literaturaren zubitegia.
- You can consult the website of the publishing house Susa where, among other informatios, you will find some poems by Montoia translated into English by Kristin Addis.
© Photo: Susa
© Likantropo: Susa
© Blackout: Susa
© Elektrika: Susa
© Denboraren izerdia: Elkar
© Emakume biboteduna: Susa