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10 books to immerse yourself in 21st century Basque literature

By Jon Pagola

The list that follows brings together the soul of Basque literature, a combination of prominent names as well as authors just coming out of their shells. Together they make up a sort of dream team of Basque letters. Many of these books have been translated into different languages, received multiple awards, and some have even been made into films. Ten books written in this century, ten great reads, literary treasures bound to reward their readers with riches.

1. SPrako tranbia (Unai Elorriaga, 2001)
Unai Elorriaga was only 29 when he won Spain’s National Prize for Literature in 2002 for SPrako tranbia (A Tram to SP). His first novel opened the doors to a new generation of Basque writers and caused a literary revolution. What was his debut novel all about? What was so special about it? Who was this young writer? The story of Lucas, Marcos and Maria is a coming together of young and old in an original narrative style. Aitzol Aramaio adapted the novel to the screen in Un poco de chocolate (original title). ‘Unai Elorriaga’s is one of those books that appear so rarely,’ wrote Felipe Juaristi in the Basque newspaper El Diario Vasco.

2. Lagun izoztua (Joseba Sarrionaindia, 2001)
Joseba Sarrionandia is one of the most brilliant writers in Basque literature. He is also one of the most enigmatic. In 1985, Sarrionandia escaped from the Martutene penitentiary in San Sebastian, hiding himself in one of the loudspeakers at a concert given by the Basque singer Imanol Larzabal. His whereabouts remained unknown for over 30 years. Now living in Cuba, his novel Lagun izoztua (The Frozen Friend) became a bestseller and won the Critics’ Prize for the best prose in Basque. Revolving around the topic of exile, this is the closest ‘Sarri’ has come to an autobiography: ‘Although it’s fiction, I felt closely connected to the characters and circumstances described in the novel,’ he explained to the magazine Argia.

3. Soinujolearen semea (Bernardo Atxaga, 2003)
Here we have a writer of universal appeal. Since the undisputed success of Obabakoak (1988), every new book out by Bernardo Atxaga is an event in itself. And the effect generally spreads in different directions. His book Soinujolearen semea (The Accordionist’s Son) is paradigmatic: it was translated into nine languages, brilliantly adapted for the stage in 2012, and made into a film by Fernando Bernués in 2019. One of Atxaga’s most personal and representative stories, The Accordionist’s Son traces the friendship between Joseba and David from the Spanish Civil War to the end of the 20th century.

4. Bilbao-New York-Bilbao (Kirmen Uribe, 2009)
Another stunning debut. Kirmen Uribe triumphed in style with his first novel, clinching two of Spain’s most coveted literary prizes: the National Prize for Literature and the Critics’ award for best Basque-language novel. Delving into the waters of autofiction, the story takes place on a flight from the Bilbao airport to New York’s JFK, following the story of three generations of a family. The writer from Ondarroa regularly participates in international literary events. The Harvard Book Review wrote that ‘Uribe’s literature deepens its roots in the Basque Country, but it’s completely universal’.

5. Twist (Harkaitz Cano, 2012)
Harkaitz Cano is a Basque culture multitasker. He works as a literary translator, is both lighthearted and classy (he used to be a TV scriptwriter and is joined at the hip to the world of comics) and admits to being a ‘frustrated musician’. Twist, Cano’s fourth novel, earned him the Euskadi Prize for Literature, among and other accolades, and has been translated into half a dozen languages. While the story is fictional, Twist opens with an event that was like a dagger to the heart of an entire generation of Basques: the 1983 kidnapping, torture and murder of ETA members José Antonio Lasa and José Ignacio Zabala by the paramilitary organization GAL.

6. Martutene (Ramon Saizarbitoria, 2013)
His writing has been likened to Tolstoy’s greatness and Flaubert’s obsession with stylistic precision. But it is the echoes of Max Frisch’s Montauk that ring most clearly in Saizarbitoria’s novel Martutene. This is not just another title in the illustrious career of Ramon Saizarbitoria, one of the great renovators of Basque literature. The 720-page treatise on the Basque Country was only been showered with awards and praise, but marked a new milestone in the author’s career. As Basque linguist Gorka Aulestia once said: ‘We are before a conscientious architect who erects harmonious, well-assembled literary architecture that begs for careful reading’.

7. Bidean ikasia (Arantxa Urretabizkaia, 2016)
The Hondarribia parade has been held since 1639 to commemorate the town’s liberation from the French troops of King Louis XIII. In 1993, a group of women wanted to take part in the parade, but their demands were met with a backlash. Arantxa Urretabizkaia, one of the leading voices in Basque literature, decided to tell the story of the struggle of these women and the bitter events that opened wounds and stirred consciences. Urretabizkaia won the Euskadi Prize for Literature in 2017. In the words of the jury, ‘The book is the achievement of a writer who has managed to take a mature look at the big picture of the situation.’

8. Jenisjoplin (2017, Uxue Alberdi)
Writer and bertsolari (a singer of bertsos, improvised musical verse in Basque tradition). Uxue Alberdi belongs to a rising generation of Basque women writers who combine the local with the universal and have a distinct feminist voice. Jenisjoplin tells the story of Nagore Vargas, a young woman from Bilbao who works in a community radio station and finds herself in a terrible mess. The Basque political conflict is the jumping off point for a dramatic personal story, but also a beautiful love story and the meaning of family. Jenisjoplin, Alberdi’s second novel, won the Basque readers award 111 Akademia.

9. Bihotz handiegia (2017, Eider Rodríguez)
Something quite unusual happened with Eider Rodríguez: for the first time ever, two Euskadi Prizes went to the same person in a single year, one for Rodríguez’ comic book Santa Familia and another for her book of short stories, Bihotz Handiegia. Although she is from the town of Errenteria in Hegoalde (the Basque region south of the French border), Rodriguez lives in Hendaye, Iparralde (the northern Basque region). It’s no coincidence that the stories in this book cross borders that separate two communities, but also two realities that unite them forever. The years Rodríguez spent in Paris and Madrid forged her identity as a writer. She says she felt like a foreigner, a sentiment shared by the characters in these six stories.

10. Azala erre (2018, Danele Sarriugarte)
The youngest member of this dream team and one of the most talked about names in literary circles. Danele Sarriugarte (Elgoibar, 1989) became known with her first novel, Erraiak (2014), which won the Gipuzcoa booksellers guild award. This time she tackles friendship, envy, success and shallowness, set in the world of art. The story illustrates the dependence on social networks of its two young protagonists and all the rumours that swirl around them. ‘A writer should ignore the racket that is so often created on Twitter,’ says Sarriugarte.


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