"I never made the conscious decision to become a writer. When I took my first steps, to write was not a "job" one could have; I was a student and in those days writing was one more way in which the fields of politics and culture could be approached from the ranks of a political party. From some current professional perspectives, perhaps that kind of political activism is now remembered as a sacrifice, or even with pity, but we used to live happy, like penniless lovers. I then continued to write in prison; I was a professional prisoner and used to write to try and forget my situation a little bit. And then, free once again -or free in some way or other- I have had no choice but to become a professional fugitive, but nothing has been or is more present in my life than writing. But I wouldn't say I am a professional writer, at least, not yet. If I were, I would be a writer in that other sense meant by Thomas Mann, to the extent I find writing extremely difficult and painful."
Etxeberria, Hasier, Bost idazle Hasier Etxeberriarekin berbetan (Five Basque Writers: Interviews with Hasier Etxeberria), Alberdania, 2002, 25.
©Mari Jose Olaziregi
©Translation: Cecilia Rossi
Joseba Sarrionandia has a degree in Basque Philology, writes for newspapers and literary magazines, is a translator, a member of Euskaltzaindia (Royal Academy of the Basque Language) and co-founder of the literary Group POTT, which had a powerful influence on the Basque literature of the 1980s. He was in prison for being a member of ETA in 1980 until his escape in 1985. His is a literary career which, together with the traditional genres (poetry, fiction and essay), is open to experimentation and the writing of hybrid texts representative of an innovative concept of literature, such as Ni ez naiz hemengoa (I am Not from Here) (Pamiela, 1985. Spanish: No soy de aquí, Hiru, Hondarribia, 1992. Translated by Bego Montorio; German: Von nirgendwo und überall, Verlag Libertäre Assoziation, Hamburg, 1995. Translated by Ruth Baier), Marginalia (Elkar, 1988), Ez gara geure baitakoak (We Are Not Ourselves) (Pamiela, 1989) and Han izanik hona naiz (Having Been There, Here I Am) (Elkar, 1992). Other works by Sarrionandia remind us that he is a renowned fiction writer who deserves a prominent place in the current Basque literary scene. His best known short story collections are: Narrazioak (Narrations) (Elkar, 1983. Translation into Catalan: Narracions, Ed. Portic, 1986. Translation: J. Daurella), Atabala eta euria (The Drum and the Rain) (Elkar, 1986. Spanish Critics' Prize) and Ifar Aldeko orduak (Northern Times) (Elkar, 1991). His prose is poetic, abounds in metaphors and suggestive images and incorporates fantastic elements and references to folktales and traditional stories. In these volumes of short stories the reader will find sirens and ancient mariners which speak of the author's affinities with writers such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge or Herman Melville, characters such as Guinevere or Galahad who pay homage to narratives of the Arthurian cycle, sordid sceneries reminding us of Poe's tales, as well as extremely original meta-narrative stories. Sarrionandia's fiction writing also includes novels such as Lagun Izoztua (The Frozen Friend) (Elkar, 2001. Spanish Critics' Prize) and Kolosala izango da (It Will Be Colossal) (Txalaparta, 2003).
Moreover, Sarrionandia's career as a translator of works such as T.S.Eliot's The Waste Land, The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner by T.S. Coleridge, and The Mariner by Pessoa deserves special mention. Apart from these works, he has also translated poems by Baudelarie, Melville, Rilke, Auden, Dylan Thomas, Pavese gathered in his book Izkiriaturik aurkitu ditudan ene poemak (1985), as well as a selection of stories by universal authors such as Bierce, Kafka, Picabia, García Márquez, among others, translated in collaboration with M. Sarasketa for the volume Hamahiru ate (1985).
Sarrionandia's poetic career has placed him in a prominent position in the current Basque literary scene. The volumes of poems written to date include titles such as Izuen gordelekuetan barrena (Through the Hiding Places of Fear) (1981), his first collection, which has inspired many contemporary Basque young poets. This volume was followed by Marinel zaharrak (Ancient Mariners) (Elkar, 1987), Gartzelako poemak (Poems from the Jail) (Susa, 1992) and Hnuy illa nyha majh yahoo (Elkar, 1995). Some of these poems and song lyrics were translated into Spanish, English and French and included in Hau da ene ondasun guzia (Ed. Txalaparta, 1999). Moreover, some of Sarrionandia's poems have been collected in anthologies of contemporary Basque poetry, such as: Antología de la poesía vasca, Aldekoa, I. (ed.), (Visor, 1991); Poesía vasca contemporánea, Hernández, P. (ed.) (Litoral, 1995); 8 poetas raros, Gallero, J.L. & Parreño, J.M. (ed.) (Ardora, 1992) and Six Basque Poets, Olaziregi, M.J. (ed.) (Arc Publications, 2007).
The themes that thread through Izuen gordelekuetan barrena (1981) are the journey and uprootedness. Just as it is evident in the opening poem of the collection (cf. "Logbook"), this journey is made across seven European mythical cities and in each of them homage is paid to a well known poet. It is a journey whose final destination is exile (cf. "To Return Home"). Kavafis, Pessoa, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Kafka echo through this book where quotations and cultural references abound.
As Sarrionandia himself says in the prologue to his book: literature is, after all, meta-literature. After the death of God and the Author in the post modern age appropriation of other texts, of other voices, has become indispensable. The stylistic richness, the musicality of poems, the diversity of the images used (among which worth highlighting are that of the labyrinth or the ancient mariner) are some of the elements to consider.
Marinel zaharrak (1987) includes a selection of poems from the previous collection and adds poems written both while the poet was in prison and after his escape. It is a book where a pessimistic and disappointed tone reigns, a book in which the cultured tone of the previous volume disappears and in which there is a clear scepticism regarding the power of literature (see the poem "Literatura eta iraultza" / Literature and Revolution). Just as the poet says, the prisoner is condemned for ever, thus showing his affinity with poets such as Maiakovski or Villon, with whom he shares, precisely, the fact of being condemned.
Hnuy illa nyha majah yahoo. Poemak (1985-1995) (1995) is the meaningful title of Sarrionandia's last volume of poems, a title which paraphrases a quote from Gulliver's Travels meaning "Take care, my friend." Apart from the theme of death, omnipresent in the whole of the poet's work, we can foreground that of exile, which runs throughout this last volume. The book is structured in ten sections including thematically diverse poems, even tales, such as: "the death of the hero, exile, the ancient mariner as memory, hope and rebelliousness, childhood, and the past country and the imaginary future of the country... also present is the theme of love" (cf. Lourdes Otaegi: "Twentieth Century Poetry"). The quotation from Eliot opening the text ("Time present and time past/ Are both perhaps present in time future", No. 1 from Four Quartets), points to the collapse of the ideal of progress or time. The same idea is foregrounded in the story which opens the book and in which past, present and future times merge. But the book also includes poems from his previous collections, which are placed in a chronological order.
Exile, childhood as a lost paradise (=utopia), and even the heterotopias which appear in works such as the novel Lagun Izoztua (2001) conform the spatial corpus of Sarrionandia's literary universe. In Hnuy illa nyha majah yahoo, the poet does not hesitate to use the first person plural and affirm that we shall always be exiled, that homecoming is absolutely impossible, since home, the fatherland just as we knew it and desire it, has ceased to exist. It is an impossible return for a poet who, in spite of the famous statement that to write poetry after Auschwitz was barbaric, does not hesitate to affirm that true poetry is possible and still needs to be written.
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 also find some poetry by Sarrionandia in the Basque Poetry Portal and in the website of the publishing house Susa.
© Kolosala izango da: Txalaparta