One Basque story

I really hate being faced with my own ignorance, but fortunately, through a lifetime of practice, I’ve developed calluses on the part of my ego that’s sensitive to such things.

Arts editor Brad Bynum passed me a book, Two Basque Stories, when I was looking for something quick for Western Lit, having procrastinated until the day before deadline. I never heard of the guy who wrote the book, Bernardo Atxaga, but it was slender with big type and pictures, so it was perfect for my needs.

Then I got into it, and discovered it was deceptively complex, so I had to do a little research on this Mr. Atxaga. Turns out his real name is Jose Irazu, and he’s probably the world’s best known Basque writer—hard to believe, I know, with Robert Laxalt’s roots in this very community, but just look on his Wikipedia page, and you’ll see what I mean.

So, please forgive me for going in with less gravitas than this book deserved, but congratulate me for figuring it out before I was a quarter through the first story. I’m afraid this review is too short to get much into the second story, “When a Snake Stares at a Bird,” which also features a Grandpa Martin, but I will note the second story has the lyrical beauty of the first.

The first thing that caught my attention was the overwhelming sense of sweetness and guilelessness that emanated from this writing. “Two Letters All at Once” reminded me of the way a child tells a story, taking a long path just to get to the beginning of the story, lingering at the story only momentarily before tripping off to a tangential topic, getting lost in the woods before accidentally finding his way back to the path and then back home, all the while seemingly unaware of the tension building in the reader.

This guilessness shows absolute guile and skill on the part of the author (and the translator, in this case, Nere Lete).

Essentially, for those who need a plot summation, “Two Letters All at Once,” is a story as told by Martin Agirre, an almost 80-year-old curmudgeon. He retired off the mountain where he was a shepherd in Idaho. It’s about the falling out his two best friends had back in the old country, a Basque village called Obaba, before Agirre came to the United States. Old Martin’s friends fell out over a wager about a feat of strength. Agirre knew that his friends were being manipulated by “managers,” but he never told them. He profited from their rivalry and moved to America with the proceeds.

Actually, I’m kind of surprised I could sum it up in a paragraph. Interspersed throughout the story were themes of his modern family issues—he lives with his son’s family—his adjustments to aging, a minor but irrevocable sense of loss and regret, declining health, drinking, sex, racism, fear of death, love and chocolate pudding. And love of chocolate pudding.

It’s a beautifully written book by a master storyteller. It’s kind of too bad I didn’t know that going in. It’s certainly worth a glance, and since it’s No. 6 in the University of Nevada, Reno’s Center for Basque Studies’ Basque Literature Series, it might be the beginnings of a collection. Even though I didn’t read this aloud—and maybe the peppered Euskara would make this difficult—I had the feeling it was a story that should be read aloud to the family during the holidays. It seems one of those classic stories that could bring a family together while they sit in front of the fireplace drinking cinnamon cider, maybe remembering the people who’ve gone on before us or eating a bowl of pudding.