Overview of Basque Literature

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Oral literature

The Basque language has a rich oral tradition.  ‘Bertsolarismo’ – a form of popular poetry – sees improvised verses being recited aloud at public performances.  The performances take the form of public confrontations, with “bertsolaris” (poets) competing against each other to deliver the best ‘bersos’ (stanzas).  Traditionally, bersos would ‘attack’ their rivals on impromptu occasions without rehearsals, but these days performances are somewhat more relaxed, with performances taking place at social situations, festivals, and in public squares.  Bertsolaris may perform solo or in pairs, and competition between bertsolaris is fierce.

‘Bertsos’  consist of eight lines and four feet (the section of the berso placed between rhyming lines), with the last word in the foot being the rhyme. Berysos are set to a number of melodies, and while meter, rhyme and melody may all vary, they nevertheless have to adhere to strict rules.  Following these guidelines in improvised sessions exerts considerable pressure on bertsolaris during performances, as does thinking quickly for new ideas and lines ahead of time.

Written literature

The oldest known text in Euskara is that known as Linguae Vasconum Primitiae, a collection of poems written by Bernard Detchepare, which was published in 1545.  From the year of this publication to 1879, it has been claimed that only 101 books were published, of which only four can be described as ‘literary’.

Early Basque works were religious in nature, and included the translation into Basque of the New Testament in 1571 (only the second book to be published in Basque) and Pedro de Axular’s Gero – a literary version of the writer’s parish preaching, which is considered by some to be the most important work in Basque literature.  The late eighteenth century was an important time for the Basque language; a visit from the linguist G de. Humboldt drew attention to the language in Europe; and Wordsworth dedicated a poem he wrote to an oak tree which stood in Biscay on the spot where Isabella and Ferdinand had in 1476 pledged to respect the rights of the Basque people.

The general consensus among scholars is that the renaissance of Basque literature was the period following the second Carlist war (1873-1876), in which the focus on purely religious works broadened to include a wider range of literary genres.  The author and founder of Basque nationalism, Sabino Arana, played an important role in Basque literature during this time.  Indeed, literature was strongly influenced by nationalist ideology – partly because writers could not avoid writing about ideas which lay beyond the field of literature; and partly because the wider European movement in literature – Modernism – was not known in the Basque country until much later on.

The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) had a fundamental impact on Basque literature, with the regime of General Franco imposing a ban on Basque forenames, the use of Basque on tombstones at cemeteries, and the use of the language in schools.  For years the language suffered.  The collapse of the Franco regime in 1975, however, ushered in a new appetite for Basque literature, and a number of prominent writers emerged, including jon Mirande (poet, and author of the Lolita-esque novel La filleule (1970); and Gabriel Aresti, a poet whose work took a stance against Franco, and was subsequently banned.  One of the key features in the writing of this period is the move away from literature focussing on religious values towards more modern ideas connected to other European literatures and countries.   Basque literature flourished post 1975, the number of publishing houses publishing in Baaque grew to approximately 100.  It is during the 1970s that the writer Bernardo Atxaga emerges, who has gone on to become one of the most famous of all Basque writers, and whose whose novel Obabokoak was the first Basque novel to be translated into English.  

Today, fiction dominates Basque publishing output.

Sources: Eusko Jauklaritza Gobierno Vasco; Literature Across Frontiers; Bizkaia maitea.

Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/writersintranslation/magazineofliteratureintranslat/basquecountry/literature/

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