© Estibalitz Ezkerra
© Translation: Amaia Gabantxo
Unai Elorriaga has a degree in Basque Philology and worked as a translator for the Labayru Institute for many years. Among the Galician novels he has translated into Basque are Agustín Fernández Paz's O laboratorio do doutor Nogueira (1998, Dr Nogueira's Laboratory) and Marilar Aleixandre's A banda sen futuro (1999, The Gang without a Future). He has taught literature as well as translation, and worked as a copywriter. He also writes regularly for newspapers, radio and television.
His first novel, SP-rako trenbidea (A Streetcar to SP) was published by Elkar in 2001 and received the Spanish Narrative Prize the year after that. Lucas, the main character, is an old man who has lived with his sister Maria since his wife died. Lucas does not ask much from life: he likes riding streetcars - as he did when his wife was alive - and watching documentaries about mountains on TV. Experiencing the bravery of the mountaineers through his screen, he daydreams about joining an expedition to reach the summit of one of the 8000-metre-high mountains. There are only fourteen in the world. Lucas would be content with climbing Shisha Pagma; it is the smallest of the mountains, but for the old man it holds a special appeal. Besides, he likes the sound of its name. Lucas himself does not realise it, but the people around him know that his memory is out of sync. No one dares mention the name of the feared illness but it is clear that Lucas is showing the first signs of Alzheimer's.
Elorriaga's favourite authors include Jorge Luis Borges, Julio Cortázar, Juan Rulfo and William Faulkner, and it is the influence of the latter that is most prevalent in SPrako trenbidea. Elorriaga emulates Faulkner's polyphony of voices in The Sound and the Fury to bring the world Lucas inhabits closer to the reader - a world in which, thanks to his shifting memory, fantasy and reality are no longer separable. There are scenes in the novel that stylistically remind one of Cortázar's Rayuela (Hopscotch, in Gregory Rabassa's English translation). An example of this is the scene in which Lucas decides to exterminate the woodworms he thinks live under his bed (it is noteworthy that insects are often fully drawn characters in Elorriaga's stories). The writing is direct, concise and intriguing; its lightness of touch opens a window to an otherworldly perception of the word and is a key element in this novel's success.
Two years after the publication of SPrako tranbidea, Elorriaga published Van't Hoffen ilea (Van't Hoff's Hair), which he wrote thanks to an Igartza grant given jointly by the Beasain council, the company CAF and the publishing house Elkar. The action in this novel takes place in an imaginary town called Idus. The civil servant Matias Malanda hopes to record testimonials from the town's most distinguished people with a tape recorder. Faulkner once said that when a person dies a library goes up in flames, and this novel can be said to have been inspired by that thought. Elorriaga gives voice to mundane characters; they do not have great events to tell about, but they overflow with dreams; they are the kind of people one can find in any town or city. Malanda himself is unlike anybody else; he is nothing like a grey civil servant. He loves encyclopaedias and is not afraid of insects, not even the swarms of bees that inhabit Idus. His determination to record the testimonials of people from the village is reminiscent of Danilo Kis' Encyclopaedia of the Dead - a book influenced by Borges' Universal History of Infamy, which in turn was influenced by Marcel Schwob's Imaginary Lives. In Kis' Encyclopaedia of the Dead, the Serbo-Croat author, emulating Borges, writes: "In the history of humanity nothing is ever repeated, things which at first sight appear the same are hardly similar, each human being is a unique star, everything happens always as well as never, everything is repeated ad infinitum in an unrepeatable way." The encyclopaedia Kis conjures up is unlike any other; it is made up of the lives of ordinary people. Such people would never be a part of History with a capital H, but their experience is no less important for all that, because in the end the knowledge each one of us stores is unique and irreplaceable.
This 'immortalisation' of the memory of ordinary people is similar to the customs of older civilisations, as this was their way of confronting death. Everything disappears, except memory. Elorriaga's attitude towards marginal literary characters may seem foolish, putting as it does children, old people and dreamers on a par with the triumphal arches Roman emperors built. But it would be more accurate to think of his work as an homage to those who live everyday life with expectancy, those who do not give up on imagination. Because Unai Elorriaga's writing is a game, a game full of hope. Death itself, when it makes an appearance, does so undramatically: it turns out Malanda arrived in Idus looking for a good place to die. As humans we have a right to choose where we live, but also where we die. However, the civil servant never appears concerned by his fate; moreover, he is delighted with the town that will give him eternal repose.
An interesting detail: towards the end of Van't Hoffen ilea, Malanda glances through Elorriaga's next novel, Vredaman (Elkar, 2005; Translated by Amaia Gabantxo as Plants don't drink coffee, 2009). The title itself is a nod to Faulkner, as one of the characters in As I Lay Dying is called Vardaman. Elorriaga has said that the word Vredaman does not mean anything, that it is just a game, like the interactions between the characters in the book. On the one hand, in Vredaman we have Tomas, who is staying at his aunt and uncle's because his father is ill. Tomas analyses what is happening around him with a child's matchless intuition. He wants to be intelligent and fix all the world's problems, and that is why he wants to capture a blue dragonfly: his cousin Iñes has told him that they are a very rare species and that if you catch one you immediately become intelligent. On the other hand, we have the boundless imagination of Tomas' uncle Simon - he wants to build a rugby field with the help of his friend Gur.
More information about the author:
- To see the author's works in translation, go to the list of books translated from Basque section in this website.
- The website of the author
- The website of Euskal Idazleen Elkartea-EIE (Basque Writers' Association).
- Literaturaren Zubitegia.
- NEA International Literary Award. Basque writer Unai Elorriaga and Amaia Gabantxo, translator of Elorriaga's novel Plants Don't Drink Coffee, discuss the book as well as the art of translation and the Basque language.
© Photo: www.mertin-litag.de
© SP-rako tranbia: Elkar
© Van't Hoffen ilea: Elkar
© Plants don't drink coffee: Archipelago books