ZABALA, Juan Luis:
Goodbye, Euzkadi

At dusk

"The ertzaintza!" Lauaxeta felt the scream surge from the depths of his soul as he stared at the lettering on the vehicle approaching the bench he was sitting on.

No one heard the scream. Lauaxeta looked around him and, mustering his self-control, kept the thoughts this first surprise had provoked private: "The car has the word ertzaintza printed on its sides. The very name we came up with when we dreamt up the Basque police! Even the number plates are unique to the ertzaintza, to our police! Our own people, our own ertzaintza are patrolling the streets! We didn't die in vain! Could it be that we won the war in the end? Could it be that Euzkadi is now free?"

Although he didn't say a word, Lauaxeta kept staring at the car, which in turn made the driver keep a watchful and mistrustful eye on him as he drove past.

The writing on the side of the police car surprised him more than his sudden, unexpected resurrection had. Lauaxeta had died in 1937; he could remember every detail of his execution in the cemetery of Gasteiz. And now, all of a sudden, he had materialised out of nowhere. Some hidden force had torn him from the darkness of death to bring him back to the brightness of life. He resurrected suddenly, found himself sitting on a bench in a square, dressed in an elegant pre-war suit, wearing a tie and glasses, without a trace of the beard that had grown on his face before he was shot. He didn't know where he was or at what time in history he had resurrected; what city he was in, what year it was. Nor did know how long he would stay there, and above all, he didn't know what the purpose of his return was.

Deep down, he wasn't very concerned by all this. The recently resuscitated Lauaxeta was more concerned with the nature of the world that had materialised in front of his eyes than with his personal destiny. After all, he was perfectly comfortable with his death and he wasn't even much troubled by religious doubt. As a matter of fact, he hadn't seen any proof of the existence of God after his demise. He had spent the indefinite lapse of time since submerged in an empty, dark nothingness. But he didn't need any proof; the newly resuscitated Lauaxeta still preserved the same fervent beliefs he had held when alive.

When the ertzaintza car disappeared from his field of vision he looked around him - he saw big buildings, shops, taverns, people walking here and there, many cars on the tarmac; in fact, the strangeness of the cars made him wonder whether he was in the 21st century. The area, however, reminded him of Gernika - though he didn't quite know why this was the case. He was thinking that when he read the words "Gernika Garbiketak, S.L." advertising a cleaning company on the side of a white van. If indeed he was in Gernika many years must have passed since the bombing destroyed the town.

He stood up and walked in the same direction the police car had headed. Suddenly, he came across a sign that said ertzaintza. A plaque on one of the buildings on the other side of the road said Gernika-Lumo, a street sign next to it Don Tello Kalea. Ahead of him he recognised the Arriaga palace, one of the few buildings to have survived the bombing. He was standing in front of the ertzaintza headquarters. Quite near the place where the fascists arrested. Lauaxeta remembered how his pale hands shook when his captors handcuffed him. He remembered how humiliated he felt that he wasn't able to control this obvious sign of fear.

He was arrested three days after the bombing, on April 29, 1937. Gernika was totally destroyed, but the church of Andra Mari and the Assembly House, the Casa de Juntas, survived the attack. Where they still there? Was the tree of Gernika still standing? Lauaxeta knew where he was now, and he knew were to go. The church of Andra Mari suddenly appeared before his eyes, and soon afterwards he reached the entrance of the Assembly House. He thought it odd that there were no guards at the door, but when he went in he saw a man sitting in a sentry box. He was probably an ertzaina, because he was wearing the same uniform as the policemen he had just seen inside the car - a red jumper and beret.

Even though he had read things written in Basque on the ertzaintza car and on the street signs, he didn't know what language to use to approach the policeman in the sentry box. "Come on, don't be a coward," he told himself, "they aren't going to execute you because you speak in Basque now. It would be absurd to have come back to have that happen again."

"G'day to you, ertzaina, sir, and may the Lord protect you," said Lauaxeta in Basque.

"And the same to you," said the policeman in the sentry box, looking puzzled at the strange solemnity of that besuited odd man, who seemed unsure of where he was.

"I would like to know... could I possibly... go in?"

"Go ahead, of course, go ahead. Entrance is free."

"Many thanks, ertzaina, sir, many thanks."

The withered trunk of the Ancient Tree was in the outer garden, but Lauaxeta didn't stop to look at it. Burning with curiosity, he pressed on and walked in. After crossing the Assembly Room feeling nervous and expectant, the Tree of Gernika appeared before him, the live oak which had been planted in 1860. He stopped in front of it, choked with emotion.

However, seeing proof that the oak still stood - in the words with which lehendakari Agirre, the Basque president, had sworn his oath - "firm on Basque ground," didn't clarify the two questions that had been burning in his mind since he had resurrected and seen the ertzaintza car: "Could it be that we won the war? Could it be that Euzkadi is now free?" Hoping to find an answer to these questions he walked away from the tree and examined the surroundings, mingling with the tourists and visitors who took photographs at regular intervals. The possibility of having to talk someone made him feel fearful and ashamed, so he decided to read the information panels that filled the room they called the Stained-Glass Window Room.

He found the answer to one of his questions in one of them. "Euskaldunen Herria / El Pais de los vascos," it read. The Country of the Basque People. All the texts were in Basque and Spanish, just like the title. Lauaxeta read the text in Basque: "Euskadi, or Euskal Herria, is the country of the Basque people. A country of ancestral roots, culture and language, euskera. At present, its seven provinces are separated into three political and administrative regions: The Basque Autonomic Community and the Navarra Autonomic Community are in Spain; the third, Iparralde, is in the Department of the Atlantic Pyrenees in France." The section describing the Basque parliament read as follows: "The Basque Autonomic Community has its own parliament, which consists of an equal number of representatives from each Historic Territory (25 each). A lehendakari or president is chosen by the members of this parliament to rule the Basque Government, as the Autonomic Statute of Gernika stipulates. Both institutions, the parliament and the Basque government, are based in Gasteiz."

He didn't find any information regarding the war that started in July 1936 on any of the panels in the Assembly House, so he couldn't find out how it ended, but judging from what he had seen and read in the hour he had spent in the building, he supposed that his side had won the war, that the republicans had finally managed to defeat the fascists. He couldn't otherwise understand the three autonomous Basque provinces, or the existence of a Basque parliament, or a Basque government, or a lehendakari... or indeed, ertzaintza!

He would have liked to have some sort of confirmation of this, but he didn't dare ask the policeman in the sentry box when he walked past him. Doing as the rest of the visitors, he left the Assembly House without saying goodbye.

***

I had just separated from my wife when Lauaxeta resurrected, and I was feeling quite depressed. Without Sorkunde I was merely a lonely 40-year-old, and I felt ancient; I was entering "the dusk" of my life, as Lauaxeta would say; my heart was "riddled with clouds," as Iņigo Aranbarri would say.

By then, I had already been playing with the idea of resigning for a while. I had been the culture editor for Euskaldunon Egunkaria, a Basque newspaper, for a long, long time. In fact, since the birth of the newspaper. I had lost the motivation, the excitement of new beginnings. I was sick of the artists, writers, musicians, actors, cinema and theatre directors, improvised verse singers, dancers and so on with whom I had to deal on a daily basis; I couldn't stand them anymore. Most of them thought they were the centre of the universe and felt their oeuvre was a terribly important, practically indispensable monument in the history of humanity. The humble ones, on the other hand, were either pitiable wretches or pathetically ambitious hypocrites. At least that was how I saw them; that was how the routine of so many years made me see them. It is impossible to understand this unless you go through it: year after year, day after day, hundreds, thousands of book and magazine presentations, of painting and sculpture exhibitions, of art installations and performances, of thousands of songs and CDs and symphonies, meetings with actors, clowns, and puppeteers, traditional and ballet dancers and their choreographers, evaluations of improvised verse and poetry competitions and literary awards, homages and honorary degrees, anniversaries, obituaries and funerals... and what for? Whatever for? For the sole purpose of doing away the last speck of interest in culture anyone could ever have! In the end, if I am honest, the only things that sparked my curiosity - or, more accurately, my morbid interest - were the most acerbic disputes among all these personages. But even then, most of them tended to repeat themselves cyclically and follow the same patterns. They could become quite predictable and, frankly, boring.

But around that time I wasn't very interested in anything outside work anyway, so I remained tied to my trivial engagements and routines. I was born in Aizarnazabal, the most remote village in the Urola Valley, but was quite young when I moved to Tolosa after I married Sorkunde. When she left me, however, I rented a little flat in Andoain, near my work, on Kaleberri, the same street in which Martin Ugalde, the writer and honorary president of Euskaldunon Egunkaria was born. Back then, the first thing I did when I returned from work was to switch the TV on. I would watch the stupidest programmes and the dullest football matches. I would eat some pizza or a sandwich that I had bought in my local tavern. More often than not I would take a few bites and leave my food unfinished and curl up on the sofa with the bottle of wine I had opened to accompany my dinner. I would never get up until the bottle was finished.

I saw myself quite accurately reflected in an improvised verse of Manuel Lasarte's entitled "To a drunkard bachelor from his neighbour". With the concision that improvised verse requires, Lasarte had portrayed a carefree forty-something who was incapable of settling down. A man with a liking for drink, which, according to the author, he had indulged in since young. I wasn't such a hardened drinker as the bachelor in Lasarte's verse, but otherwise we were very similar.

I enjoyed hiking in the mountains during the weekends and holidays. That was, as a matter of fact, my only sensible occupation at the time.

***

It was eleven thirty by the clock of Andra Mari's church. As he walked around the streets, Lauaxeta had to make a great mental effort to accept that he was in Gernika. He felt very intimidated walking by those huge buildings that looked like beehives, and the speed the cars travelled at gave him a fright or two.

After a short while a display of newspapers and magazines made him stop in front of a bookshop. He felt very nervous and excited. His eyes rested first on the front cover of a magazine: a colour photograph of a young topless blonde occupied the whole front cover, demanding his attention. Once he managed to calm down the agitation the disturbing vision had provoked in him he read the newspaper headlines. He jumped from one to another in a daze, because he was so shaken up he couldn't read anything through. And then, suddenly, he noticed a newspaper that was thinner than the rest. He was completely stunned when he realised that the whole front page was written in Basque. And he was damned if that wasn't a photograph of himself on the top right hand corner. "Today marks the 60th anniversary of the execution of Estepan Urkiaga "Lauaxeta,"" read the caption. In smaller writing, underneath, he read: "The poet and journalist, born in the province of Bizkaia, was executed in Gasteiz after being arrested in Gernika." Euskaldunon Egunkaria had a special five-page spread about him. It started on page 23 and ran to page 27. It was June 25th 1997. Sixty years had passed since his execution. Now he knew.

He let a long while pass. Once he thought he had his agitation, nervousness and uncertainty under control he thought he would be able to speak, so he entered the bookshop.

"Good morning, miss," he addressed the shopkeeper very timidly, "could I please have a copy of Euskaldunon Egunkaria?"

"That'll be 125 pesetas," said the girl as she handed his copy over.

"Unbelievable! 125 pesetas!" thought Lauaxeta, though he didn't say anything. He was worried - where could he find such an absurd amount of money? He hadn't considered this aspect until now. How would he cope without money? He put his hands in his pockets and felt a few coins and a lot of banknotes in one of them. "Thank you God, thank you."





Š Zabala, Juan Luis. Agur, Euzkadi (Goodbye, Euzkadi), Susa, 2000.

Š Translation: Amaia Gabantxo