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How a remarkable novel is helping Spain come to terms with the Basque Country’s violent past

While politicians remain at loggerheads, the arts bring resolution to the Basque Country's long history of violence.

How a remarkable novel is helping Spain come to terms with the Basque Country’s violent past
A girl reads a book next to graffiti supporting armed Basque separatist group ETA, 18 October 2007 in the northern Spanish Basque village of Lizartza. Photo: AFP

By Caroline Gray, Aston University

Western Europe’s last remaining home-grown terrorist organisation finally ceased operations in 2011 when Basque separatist group ETA declared a permanent ceasefire. And yet the decades of violence continue to cast a long shadow over Basque society and political life. As politicians on both sides remain as antagonistic as ever, novelists and other writers are taking on the challenge of tackling the subject with far more eloquence and nuance, telling stories that could provide a much-needed form of remembrance, catharsis and understanding.

Fernando Aramburu’s novel Patria (“Fatherland”) is a stellar example – and sets the bar high for others to follow. First published in Spanish in September 2016, it has reached a wider audience than novels on the subject written in Basque, and it has topped the bestseller lists – not only in the Basque region, but also in Spain every month so far this year. This is the novel that Spaniards are reading on the metro or bus on their way to work and packing in their suitcases to take on holiday. Translations into several other languages are now underway, including an English edition set for publication in 2019, the author told me.

 

In the past decade, Spain has been coming to terms with its 20th-century history of civil war and dictatorship, ever since the historical memory law of 2007 put an end to the unwritten agreement known as the “pact of forgetting” that had facilitated the transition to democracy.

Now, Aramburu has recognised that in the wake of ETA’s permanent ceasefire, there is another story that needs to be told and remembered in a sensitive and reconciliatory fashion. This cannot be achieved by politicians fighting over how best to facilitate ETA’s disbandment and address the legacy it leaves. It must be writers and other cultural practitioners who do that.

A history of violence

Originally founded in 1959 in opposition to Spanish dictator Franco’s suppression of regional identities, ETA persisted with its campaign of violence well into the 21st century, long after Spain’s transition to democracy. The separatist group has not killed since 2010, but its disarmament was protracted until April this year and its full disbandment remains pending. Moreover, politicians and society remain divided over controversial issues such as the treatment of ETA prisoners, who under Spanish law have their rights reduced and are subject to policies such as dispersion.

For too long, the Basque “conflict” was primarily portrayed, in a misleadingly simplistic fashion, as pitting Spain (or “the Spanish state”, as Basque nationalists put it) against the Basques. ETA itself, and the wider social and political movement linked to it, was responsible for propounding this vision to justify its existence. But sectors of the Spanish right then compounded the error by associating all Basque nationalism with ETA for their own political motives. In reality, however, one of the biggest tragedies caused by ETA is that it also pitted Basques against Basques.

Patria eloquently draws attention to this through its depiction of the impact on a typical small Basque village (which could be any one of many), focusing in particular on two once closely knit families that are torn apart when the father of one family ends up an ETA target while the eldest son of the other joins the terrorists. It is not only the relationship between the two families that suffers, but relations among parents and siblings within each individual family, too.

Aramburu is sensitive and sympathetic towards ETA’s victims and their families, and he conveys their suffering with tremendous poignancy. His real achievement, however, is to do so without descending into facile moralising or politicising. He shows the full complexity of the tragedy by seeing things from different perspectives.

This includes reflecting the way in which many naïve young Basques, brought up in pro-ETA towns and villages and subject to intense peer pressure, ended up buying into ETA’s ideology and somewhat unthinkingly obeying its orders.

Terrorism is unacceptable in any circumstances, but Spain’s way of dealing with it has not always been appropriate either – and Aramburu does not shy away from depicting the torture used on ETA prisoners or the violence wrought by the GAL, Spain’s covert paramilitary death squads back in the 1980s.

Family tragedies

This is first and foremost a novel of excellent literary quality that the reader is compelled to keep reading to find out what happens to the two families and whether there is any hope of reconciliation after ETA’s reign of devastation. The novel starts with ETA’s ceasefire and then darts back and forth to different periods of time in each chapter, telling snippets of the story in a non-chronological and non-linear fashion, keeping the reader waiting until the very end to get the complete picture.

Aramburu never intended for the novel to be political or didactic, but precisely for that reason, the end result can actually serve a much better purpose than most intentionally didactic novels. Propagandistic Basque novels portraying ETA terrorists as heroes or martyrs have tended to be intensely bad literature. But a brilliantly written novel such as Patria provokes the reader to think and reflect without him or her necessarily realising it.

For Basque citizens, the novel provides a sensitive portrayal of their community and its recent history. Perhaps even more significant, however, is the way in which the novel can contribute to an understanding in wider Spanish society of the complex social situation in the Basque Country prior to, and in the wake of, ETA’s ceasefire – something which is often quite misunderstood, due in part to Spanish politicians’ simplification of issues for electoral purposes. Once translations of the novel start to appear they will promote understanding even beyond Spain’s borders, while also providing a compelling read.

Through its popularity, Patria has far surpassed the author’s own expectations. Aramburu himself has aptly described this work as escaping his creative control as it becomes a social phenomenon with a life of its own.

The ConversationSpain may have been rather late in confronting the ghosts of the civil war and Franco period after years of attempting to brush them under the carpet, but lessons have been learned. Patria provides a healthy dose of understanding and remembrance about the Basque Country’s violent past by a writer who is well aware of the need to talk of the past sensitively, all the more so when politicians remain at loggerheads.

Caroline Gray, Lecturer in Politics and Spanish, Aston University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

BOOKS

Madrid Bookie: The intimate literary salon with big ambitions

Every month a growing group of book fans meets in a loft-style gallery in the Las Salesas district, on the edge of Madrid's trendy Chueca.

Madrid Bookie: The intimate literary salon with big ambitions
Pulitzer Prize winning Forrest Gander entertains the room. Photos: Celia Knight/Madrid Bookie.

The gathering is more immersive than a book club, less formal than a book signing and much more intimate than a literary festival.

Sitting among the guests are authors who have come to read from their latest work, discuss ideas with the guests and socialise over a glass of wine or a cold bottle of beer.

“The literary festival format can traditionally be a bit stuffy, but a more relaxed atmosphere allows spontaneity and magical discussions,” explains Andreas Loizou, the man behind the hugely successful Margate Bookie, a literary festival held every September in the seaside Kent town.

After moving to Madrid he realised that the Spanish capital was crying out for a similar event and teamed up with Vanessa Fabiano, an Italian-Swiss national living in Madrid and Giedre Pavalkyte, a Lithuanian living in Madrid, to put it together. 


The team behind Madrid Bookie: Co-founders Vanessa Fabiano (L), Giedre Pavalkyte and Andreas Loizou. Photo: Madrid Bookie

The Madrid Bookie isn't a literary festival per se, but a monthly social gathering of likeminded types – people who love to read and talk about books – to which one, or sometimes two, authors are invited to read from their work and then discuss.

Each event has so far been a sell-out and seen the gathering continue in true Madrileño fashion, by spilling into a neighbouring bar and continuing long after the event was scheduled to end.

“There's a wonderful sense of community built around reader and writer that breaks down the traditional barrier between author and reader. We have a very strict no-diva policy that sees everyone get together mingling in the bar afterwards.”

Events can become quite emotional and a long with a healthy dose of laughter they can also provoke tears.

At the first event, the room was brought to tears by Laura Garcia Lorca, who read a poem penned by her father (the brother of Federico Garcia Lorca) that she had found among his papers after his death. She revealed that her father, in view of his famous sibling, had never felt confident to show the world his own poetry but had left it behind for those closest to him to find.

“All there witnessed a very intimate moment, the first time the poem had ever been read it public and it was touching and beautiful,” said Loizou.

The most recent evening also had its share of raw emotion when Pulitzer Prize winning poet Forrest Gander read aloud from a collection he wrote about the grief of losing his wife and fellow poet, C.D. Wright.

The event also saw the first ever public reading from historian Giles Tremlett's soon to be published account of the International Brigades.

Other guests have included the Nigerian writer Nnamdi Ehirim discussing his ambitious debut novel Prince of Monkeys and poet Spencer Reese.

 “It's the kind of supportive space that invites the author to open up and take a risk,” explains Loizou. “Their audience is sitting down at their level in what is essentially a living room. It invites intimacy”.

The team behind Madrid Bookie met through Madrid's vibrant literacy scene, connecting first at a creative writing workshop and then teaming up with bookseller partners Desperate Literature, who offer books by the relevant authors for sale on the night.

More and more people are looking for social activities that have a focus, that are not just about meeting a group in a bar and drinking, but building a community of like-minded souls.

“We recognised a need for a focus point for high quality writers and give them an audience that was inquisitive and literary-savvy. There's a whole underground book club scene in Madrid with people wanting to meet and connect face to face and actually talk about things that are important to them,” insists Loizou.

“After the success of the Margate Bookie, I wanted to expand elsewhere and unexpectedly found in Madrid that there was a real buzz about the literary scene and a general revival in literature. We've just tapped into that community.”

Pavalkyte, who also runs the Discussing Books in English book club, has seen literary gatherings grow exponentially in Madrid. “We now have over 600 members, and many other English language book clubs are emerging in the city.”


Photo: Madrid Bookie

 The Madrid Bookie has started small, with events hosted by troupe an exclusive community for the world's most adventurous creative professionals, who host in their Space Next Door, a private apartment style event space on Calle de Fernando VI, but even bigger events are on the horizon.

“We've already planned a summer creative writing retreat in Sierra de Gredos, monthly events around Madrid and are talking about a Madrid showcase at the Hay Festival Segovia in September.”

The next event takes place on February 18th when co-founder of Madrid Bookie Vanessa Fabiano will interview Michael Scott Moore, an investigative journalist, novelist and avid surfer. Michael will discuss his latest book, The Desert and the Sea, a memoir about the 977 days he was held by Somali pirates.

For more information about Madrid Bookie follow them on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and for tickets CLICK HERE.

 

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