After struggling for weeks – or actually, make that months – through Bolaño’s excellent but challenging Los detectives salvajes, I really needed something short, sweet, and decidedly less in-your-face high-brow. So I settled for a small novel I had (fittingly) bought in Bilbao back in April: New York-Bilbao-New York by Basque* writer Kirmen Uribe. Prepare, this review somehow got long and I got sucked into fundamentals.
It was perfect. It’s small (204 pages) and a non-trivial but entertaining read. The novel is woven around a flight from Bilbao to New York and based on Uribe’s own family history. In fact, it’s so close to his own life that I really can’t tell how much of it is actually fiction. Little stories Uribe collected from the inhabitants of his native fishing village Ondarroa, from other writers and poets, and from all kinds of other sources are woven together. Using (fictional?) e-mails, letters, transcripts of recordings and diaries, he pieces together a vivid puzzle of three generations and a way of life, intimately connected with the sea and the traditions of the Basque Country, that is slowly being lost.
For his innovative writing in New York-Bilbao-New York, Uribe won the Premio Nacional de Narrativa (Spanish national literature prize) in 2009. And while at first sight the fact that there isn’t really a plot and this is not really a ‘novel’ in the traditional sense might seem tedious, it was actually a very pleasant and relaxing read.
What I kept wondering, though, was the extent to which New York-Bilbao-New York could speak to anyone who has no idea about the Basque Country. Uribe, like many of his fellow countrymen, is very proud of his people’s culture and traditions, and this shines through in many aspects of the novel. So for anybody not familiar with this cultural backdrop, reading the book might require a bit of Googling and Wikipedia research on the Basque language (Euskera), the Basque Country, and its (recent) history (there, I’ve made it easy for you).** Towards the end of the book, Uribe wonders why Basque literature hasn’t made it into the canon of world literature. It’s a good question, and many reasons can be cited for it (Basque is a language with a very rich oral, but little written tradition, it was forbidden under the Franco dictatorship, and so on), but I think one of the reasons – at least for recent Basque literature – is that it is quite self-involved. Two books very successful in the region – Bilbao-New York-Bilbao and Obabakoak by Bernardo Atxaga – are both excellent, but readers with no connection whatsoever to the Basque region might not feel easily at home in either novel. With Bilbao-New York-Bilbao, Uribe wants to reach out. I think he’s onto something and has made a start. After all, he won a national-level prize, so at least the jury ‘got’ Bilbao-New York-Bilbao.
But it’s a little bit like with Latin American literature. In El Insomnio de Bolívar, Jorge Volpi comments that for Latin American authors, it was difficult to move beyond writing ‘Latin American’ novels (and someone who wrote about other places was looked at strangely). Maybe it’s a bit the same with Basque literature, obviously for different reasons and on a smaller scale. Does it have to move beyond the Basque Country and Basque culture before really ‘making it’ outside? Or would that mean that it’d lose its distinctive flavour and become amalgamated into Spanish or wider European literature?
So far, Bilbao-New York-Bilbao hasn’t been translated into English or other languages for an audience outside the Iberian peninsula (and Latin America), but it’s available in Basque, Spanish, Catalan, Galician and Portuguese. I hope it gets translated though, because I really wonder whether it would have a shot at becoming a success.
OK, so after this rant, here comes the
*The original, published in 2008, is in Basque, and the translation to the Spanish is by Ana Arregi.
**I’m linking the Wikipedia entries here, but they have to be taken with a grain of salt. The Basque issue is a controversial one and this shines through in the articles. Also, the fact that I link them does not necessarily mean I agree with their respective slants.