Few and far between are the “popular” books on the Basque Country that give an overview of the people, the land, and the culture of Euskal Herria. The Basque Histroy of the World, by Mark Kurlansky, is probably the most well-known. Now, Paddy Woodworth, author of Dirty Wars, Clean Hands: ETA, the GAL, and Spanish Democracy (an excellent book, by the way, that I highly recommend), enters into this area with his The Basque Country: A Cultural History.
We read The Basque Country as part of the book club my wife, Lisa, has organized for our Basque club, the New Mexico Euskal Etxea. It has been a long time since I read Kurlansky’s book, so I may misremember some of the details.
For the most part, I really enjoyed The Basque Country. I think Woodworth took a fairly balanced view of the Basque Country, looking past the “glossy” surface of things and examining the “nitty-gritty” if you will, the politics that infuse everything that is Basque. At times, I think he went a bit too far. Especially in the first half of the book, it felt like he couldn’t say anything positive about the Basques without a corresponding negative spin. FOr me, this was epitomized by his comments on the company AZTI, which is trying to respond to, for example, declines in fish populations due to overfishing and finding alternatives for the future. They have developed an unmanned drone to scour the seas and find schools of fish. Woodworth couldn’t leave it at that, and essentially chastises the company for developing what could become a tool of war. This seemed too much to me, especially after all the negative spin he had done before.
Woodworth is definitely not a friend of the nationalists. His most negative comments are often reserved for them and their policies. He criticizes them for using the traditional symbols of the Basque people — the basseri, the dancing, the music — for political purposes, for not letting the country evolve past those symbols, for keeping the country stuck in the past in some sense. This is an interesting dichotomy in the Basque Country. The image of the country is strongly tied to these traditional images, but the Basque Country is nothing if not dynamic, always pushing their resources to be at the leading edge of industry and technology. In the past, this was exemplified by their mining and steel production, which lead to some of the modern conflict between traditional Basque culture and a more modern, urban populace, as many of the people who worked in the mining industry were immigrants from other parts of Spain. Today, the Basques are at the forefront of several more modern technologies in the information technology areas. It will be interesting to see how these efforts further modify the Basque cultural landscape.
Even if Woodworth was negative towards nationalist policies, I still felt he was more balanced than Kurlansky’s effort. Reality may lie somehwere between the two, and a more balanced perspective might be found by reading both books and “averaging” what the two authors say. Kurlansky definitely glorifies Basque traditions much more than Woodworth, though Woodworth finds his most exhuberant descriptions of the Basques when he is in the small villages experiencing traditional festivals.
And, Woodworth is not immune to the mystique of the traditional Basque life. Much of his book is spent wandering the villages of Nafarroa and Iparralde, describing their history and their ancient traditions. While this gives a nice introduction of some lesser seen parts of Euskal Herria, at the same time I felt that what I might call the “modern” Basque Country, the intersection between the urban and rural, the modern and traditional, was neglected as a result. The traditional values and practices are certainly an important part of the Basque Country and its identity. However, in my mind, it will be how those traditions are incorporated into a modern and vibrant country that will determine the future of the country. If the Basque Country is to become a modern nation where Euskara can thrive in a modern setting, the language and traditions can’t be relegated to the rural, traditional villages. It has to become part of the urban setting, has to be a language in which science, politics, and technology can be discussed. In that sense, I would have preferred to see more of that intersection between modern and traditional. That is, in my opinion, where the real struggle for the future of the language and the cultural will occur.
I am definitely interested in what you thought about the book. Did you feel differently? Did you love or hate the book? Please share your thoughts with the rest of us.