My aunt has a story about Bernardo Atxaga, the Basque Country’s most read and translated author. She lives in a village of scattered houses and rolling hills that faces the Bay of Biscay and the Cantabrian Sea to which it belongs. That day, she happened to be in a neighboring province’s capital. Here is how she tells the story: She was at a café with a friend, seated near the window, when her friend pointed across the street. “Look,” the friend said. Bernardo Atxaga was walking into the post office. “It’s the writer.”
That’s the story.
I was expecting more, too.
But such an anecdote, as brief as it is, speaks to the position Bernardo Atxaga holds in Basque society. Like Euskera, the isolate and pre-Indo-European language that he writes in, Atxaga’s fame may be unique. It was a short story collection through which he rose to eminence. Obabakoak won the Spanish National Prize in 1988 and has been translated into 32 languages. Since then, he has remained the English-reading world’s primary access point to the Basque Country. While there has long been a dearth of Basque authors translated into English, we’ve recently been treated to Martutene by Ramon Saizarbitoria and Still the Same Man by Jon Bilbao, both from Hispabooks. Before these, there was Kirmen Uribe’s Bilbao – New York – Bilbao, with Gabriela Ybarra’s The Dinner Guest coming this month and Patria by Fernando Aramburu arriving to our shores next year. Nevertheless, it is Atxaga’s stories of village life, with its joys and nightmares and magic and the ways in which the political interrupts and informs it, that, for the last 30 years, have defined Basque literature for so much of the world’s readership.
Which is peculiar given that so many of Atxaga’s major works are, in part, set outside of the Basque Country: The Lone Man in Catalonia, Seven Houses in France in the Congo, The Accordionist’s Son in California. Congregated as they are along the coastline, Basques have long looked out at the sea and felt the pull that drowned Narcissus: Perhaps I can find something of myself in it. Yet, while home may have disappeared behind the horizon, the idea of it looms larger than a swell ever can. Atxaga’s characters are not spared this. The tension of the home they left and, for many, cannot return to persists through their days so that even the most innocuous incident acts as a reference point, a portal that transports them back to the Basque Country.
Such is the case for Atxaga’s newest work Nevada Days, a genre-blending novel that chronicles Atxaga (or a character who bears his name and biography) and his family’s nine months in Reno, Nevada, where he serves as the writer-in-residence at the University of Nevada Reno’s Center for Basque Studies. In brief journal-entry chapters translated into English by the inimitable Margaret Jull Costa, Atxaga’s grand curiosity never dulls or wavers, nor does his wife’s and two daughters’. Part of the thrill of Nevada Days is to marvel at a family’s ceaseless desire to explore America at a crossroads during the limited time they have.
The family disembarks in Reno in the fall of 2007, a moment in American history when our war on terror has slipped into the routine, relegated to a background noise we hardly notice anymore. Atxaga, however, has not yet been made deaf. Instead, he arrives in Reno so finely tuned as to be able to hear the silence or, as he writes, “what you subjectively experience as silence.” For the Americans he will call his neighbors, colleagues, and friends during the next nine months, this silence is what we accept as reality, what we don’t protest: military helicopters as common as hawks in the sky, the anesthetizing bad news reaching us from Iraq and Afghanistan, health insurance too expensive to afford, biased documentaries and news programs that celebrate our military history, the business of incarcerating a large percentage of Americans, elementary schools running active-shooter drills, the economic exploitation of brown bodies, sexual assaults on college campuses, etc. Atxaga becomes the frog introduced late to the boiling pot in which the rest of us obliviously sit.
The silence is an interesting space for Atxaga to position his novel. The Basque Country and, in it, the fictional village of Obaba where Atxaga’s characters primarily hail is a loud dinner table at which the whole population—the rich and poor, politically left and right, dreamers and realists—sits. The absence of that community here is immediately felt. The suburban streets are as barren as Nevada’s deserts, and the air-conditioned casinos are vacuum-sealed—no sound, only a green light, emanates. It is the eerie silence of the American West, of great spaces. But it is also the silence that affected so many Basque immigrants who came to states like Nevada to work as shepherds. The silence that can be a gulf separating them from the home they left, a silence upon which they project the past. Just as it no doubt did for those who wandered in solitude through Nevada before him, Atxaga marvels at how “thoughts and memories [keep] getting mixed up in my head.”
The memories are often of his own country’s wars—the Spanish Civil War, the dictatorship that followed it, the violent separatist movement in the Basque Country these produced, and how this history bound and tore families and his community.
Atxaga’s characters are helpless to such memories. They’re overwhelmed by them, carried off before ultimately being returned to the present, richer for having made the journey. Contrast this with the collective remembering that Atxaga finds Americans participating in. During one of his first nights in their new home, he stays up to continue watching a World War II documentary after his wife and daughters have gone to bed. “Everything in the documentary,” he observes, “that appealed to heart and guts was aimed at the present, not the past.” Months later, on Veterans Day, one of his daughters returns with a book that a veterans association produced for the children. In it, there is an exercise to add vowels to incomplete words like “turr_t,” “g_n.” “On Veterans Day,” the book reads, “we should honor and thank those who have fought in the United States Army defending our freedom.” When Atxaga’s two daughters are running around a war memorial for Nevadan soldiers lost during “America’s various wars,” a woman there yells at them for not “showing some respect for the dead,” insisting, in essence, that they bow their heads and remain silent like her. Atxaga doesn’t offer his own critique, but by then, he has given the reader enough such instances that we wonder what this woman’s silence has allowed and what respect our country has for its young men and women to perennially send them off to foreign lands where our freedom, Mr. Magoo-like as it is, has wandered off and once again must be defended.
A country, one hopes, can only take so much of this. So when politicians come along promising change, to break that silence, America, especially its youth, works to elevate that voice. This is late 2007 and early 2008, and as such, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton make several cameos in the novel. Partly because this is the swing state of Nevada but also because the family is determined to experience all that they can during their nine months there, they often stand in line to listen to the two Democractic front-runners. Though history will prove him wrong (the book was originally published in 2013 and presciently features a section devoted to Clinton’s fainting spells), to Atxaga’s credit, he includes his bet for who should win. “She was a great speaker,” he writes. “The other candidates, and especially Barack Obama, may have garnered more applause, but she garnered more silence, more respect.” Which is why, especially in America in 2008, she won’t win. The silence, as Atxaga observes throughout Nevada Days, can be fatal.
It is a silence that troubles him. Early in the book, a University of Nevada, Reno student is sexually assaulted. Atxaga is greatly affected by the news article and is troubled by the lack of attention it appears to receive among those he comes into contact with. When he mentions the attack to one of the university’s professors, she is surprised. “No one had said a word about it,” she tells him. The assaults continue, but the cops prefer not to spread alarm. Atxaga moves through the library astounded by the students. “All of them seemed perfectly calm. But were they?” It takes months for the community to get as worked up as he is, and as is the American way, we shift quickly from ignorance to hysteria. At this point, “fathers went to pick up their children [from school] wearing a gun at their waist.” The attacks multiply, encircle Atxaga’s neighborhood. The police chief tells the community, “We must carry on as normal, but without allowing ourselves to succumb to a false sense of security. We must remain vigilant.”
Such is the America that Atxaga and his family encounter: an alert and anxious nation where the “current of daily life keeps flowing,” despite the threats. “We always return to our daily life,” Atxaga observes. “We have nowhere else to go.” Nevada Days won the Euskadi Prize, the Basque Country’s highest literary prize, in 2014. One assumes that the novel was a fascinating sort of travelogue for his Basque and Spanish readers—a report on America from one of their country’s most gifted storytellers. For Americans, though, in the five years since the novel’s publication, the chronicle of Atxaga and his family’s unflagging enthusiasm as they look for this thing called America may offer us something far more necessary—what the family discovers is the prologue to the country we find ourselves in today.