Conversation / 17 July 2017

If You Want Justice in a Society, You Have to Fight

An Interview with Jose Irazu Garmendia, aka Bernardo Atxaga

In the beginning was the Basque word. Yet nobody was aware of this, since it had to wait thousands of years for its English translation. Credit for this goes to Jose Irazu Garmendia under with the pseudonym of Bernardo Atxaga, the first Basque writer to be translated into English, the most award-winning and the best-selling of Basque writers. The theory of Adam and Eve having been Basques was popularized by Orson Welles, in his documentary series Around the World with Orson Welles, while Bernardo Atxaga gently remarks that the story of Basques as the first inhabitants of Europe is only their romantic theatrical interpretation. Either way, the Basque history has something in common with the histories of other indigenous peoples. Like the natives of other continents, Indians and Aborigines, they were the victims of imperialism. Their struggle was made into art through Picasso’s Guernica, but there wasn’t a lot written about them. Most frequently, they filled foreign affairs news of the newspapers’ headlines because of the attacks made by ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna, "Basque Country and Freedom"), the Basque paramilitary terrorist organization. For Naomi Klein, Spain sets a good example as a society that has, precisely because of the attacks by ETA, metabolized their terror and has thus become more shock-resistant. Thanks to Bernardo Atxaga, the Basque fight wasn’t left behind, merely as a shining example for essays about terrorism, and the Basque language not the only an inexhaustible source of inspiration for linguistic debate. Through novels, written in a language with approximately 720,000 speakers, he sent the Basque history of anti-imperialism and terrorism, as well as their dreams and nightmares, into the world. I had a talk with him recently, while he was in Ljubljana as a guest of the festival World Literatures - Fabula, through which a new translation of his work was published the novel Nevada Days, the writer's diary of his few months’ stay in the US city of Reno, Nevada.


Caixo, caixo.

What happens when somebody speaks to us in our mother tongue unexpectedly?

Our mother tongue is the closest to the soul, we can even say that soul and language are same. In the novel Carmen by Prosper Mérimée, Carmen shocks the Basque captain, when she says something in Basque to him. Suddenly he feels close, he falls in love with her. When a foreigner speaks to us in our language, we feel he is respecting us, maybe loving us. And we all need friends.

One of your childhood friends influenced you so immensely, that you changed your name to his.

Yes, Bernardo was a boy I knew in primary school, ten years older than me. He is one of the heroes of my life. So when I had to use a pseudonym in the dictatorship, I chose Bernardo.

What is important for Basques today after the dictatorship?

Nowadays, two things matter to us. First of all, the language. The Basques are all of the people who are able to speak Basque, there’s no other classification. Culture is language. The second one is the need to organize the society by ourselves. Some say we need independence for this, others that we need federalism or autonomy. There are different paths, but the goal is sovereignty.

Can a nation be sovereign without aggression?

The basis of the reality is war, an eternal fight. Herod and Heraclites already wrote about this in ancient times. If you want justice in a society, you have to fight. My two daughters are harsh militants of feminism. I don’t think I am able to express how important this concept is for me. It is very important to realize that life is a battle. As a French politician from 18th century put it: “You don’t make politics, politics makes you.”

What happens to the fight when empathy enters it? In your novel Nevada Days, the character of Marilyn Monroe says: “If monsters would be loved, they would stop being monsters.” And your daughters feel sorry for King Kong.

Literature asks questions, which doesn’t mean it offers solutions. One of these problems is deciding between justice and empathy, which is false. There are monsters in this book: The boxer, for example, is an awful man, a torturer. And a monster is also one of the characters in our life. It isn’t easy to manage them, but we certainly should stop them. The fascists, torturers, predators. King Kong must die. Somebody should make the decision to stop them.

Who? Should we hand this over to the state, or should every individual take responsibility?

In this matter, I am a reformist. I know there are a lot of feelings, a lot of life outside of institutions, but in this case, we should leave it to the police, otherwise we would end up in chaos. Unless the monsters are in the first line of power, the new fascists - we should stop them, too.

You wrote that good literature makes us feel freer and less alone. What about the writing?

When I write, I feel there is somebody else writing with me: My phantom, somebody much braver than I am. The writing is out of my control, the hand is moving, sometimes into a direction that transcends me. While writing The Accordionist’s Son, I suddenly arrived at the mind of a torturer. To write is to enter a new territory, a remote landscape, but with time it is getting more difficult for me to step onto these territories, immerse into these landscapes.

Have a pleasant journey. Agur.