Obaba is a small, remote village in the heart of the Basque Country, full of characters and full of character. If you haven’t read, or at least heard about, Bernardo Atxaga’s prize-winning, genre-defying ‘short story collection’ Obabakoak, you would not know that in describing Obaba thus I am engaging in a kind of literary game, the kind the author himself plays with readers of his book. Obaba, you see, is only a village as much as Llareggub is a village; it exists in the mind of its creator, and has therefore enjoyed an ongoing life – or series of lives – in the minds of the readers of perhaps the most celebrated Basque language work ever committed to paper. Atxaga (1951-) is well aware of the absurd situation in which he finds himself, as the ‘Shakespeare of Euskera’. Being the leading writer of the generation that came of age in the years when the arrival of democracy in Spain meant Basques could write in their own tongue, Atxaga found himself having to (re)invent Euskera as a literary language.
Before Obabakoak appeared in 1988, to international acclaim, an estimated total of just 400 books had been published in Basque since the early 16th century. For me, this exceptionality alone means Obaba deserves its place alongside the West Wales setting of Under Milk Wood and Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Colombian town of Macondo as one of literature’s great fictional locations – and not only in the sense that it is a ‘made-up place’. Unlike the aforementioned places, which have supposed real-world counterparts in New Quay (and/or, perhaps, Laugharne) and Aracataca, you will not find even an equivalent of Obaba on a map. Atxaga’s skill has been to make Obaba the centre-point of an entire literary universe. Its title means simply ‘things and people of Obaba’. If anything, he has created a Basque Everyplace, within which no-one can be an Everyman.
Where that most celebrated of short story collections, James Joyce’s Dubliners, made a fictionalised version of the writer’s native city, Obaba is like the capital of Atxaga’s imagination. It contains infinities. My use of inverted commas around ‘short story collection’ is entirely deliberate. Obabakoak is a postmodern yet direct descendant of Dubliners, but also stretches its playful intertextuality across folktales and fairytales, literary theory and the modern short story. As well as being genre-defying, it is thought-provoking and utterly beguiling.
First and perhaps foremost, it is a writer’s book. Atxaga is a writer’s writer in the manner of Borges or Kundera, full of linguistic and literary trickery. The book begins with a writer, surrounded by books and by writing. The first section, ‘Childhoods’, is the most obvious descendant of the Joycean idea of tracing a life through lives, beginning at beginnings, exploring the smalltown lives of a schoolmistress and her charges. In the second section, ‘Nine Words in Honour of the Village of Villamediana’, which is both a self-contained collection of interlinked short stories and connected through various means to the rest of the book, the local literati discuss the very nature of storytelling. Their story is intertwined with their stories, their fictional lives linked to their fiction. For me, the rabbit in Atxaga’s hat is a story called ‘Maiden Name, Laura Sligo’, which cleverly does what the best here’s-the-twist-and-it’s-not-what-you-expected stories do whilst also feeding into the general flow of what might also be termed a composite novella. But Obaba is not only a postmodernist bag of tricks that demands a second and third visit just to understand its riches; it is a world in the best sense of the word. It is, to use the phrase Benedict Anderson uses to describe ‘real’ nations, an ‘imagined community.’ As a writer, and as a reader, it grows to become a world you long to be part of.
I often found myself in that rare, delicious wallowing state, infused with a sense of being buried deep inside layers of stories. Populated by characters who are themselves storytellers, in Obaba Atxaga creates a world that is akin to the idea of a dream within a dream. It gives rise to the thought that communities who place games at their very heart are those for whom it is clearest that life itself is, in many ways, a game. Not for one moment do I mean that life is not also, absolutely, deadly serious. The final sentence of Obabakoak captures perfectly the position and circumstances of Obaba’s composition (writing in Basque, and ‘representing’ the language against a backdrop of terrorism and political turmoil can not have been easy for Atxaga, a man who uneasily acknowledges he saw both sides of the conflict). Acknowledging the fears of ‘prison’ and ‘skull’ and ‘a sinister man dressed in green and wearing a top hat’, all squares in a mysterious board game called The Game of the Goose, Atxaga promises to ‘keep writing’: ‘the reason the board is there is for us to continue playing’.
The board, you are left to feel, is both the book and the world. Atxaga’s epilogue is entitled ‘By way of an autobiography’. It is here he claims ‘a particular view of life… a description of the tasks and the days we are allotted on this earth’, a game of both ‘Chance’ and ‘Free Will’, ‘a journey full of difficulties’. It is with this analogy that Atxaga himself (but not, perhaps, the man behind the nom-de-plume, Joseba Irazu Garmendia) steps out from behind the curtain. And it is here that he defines himself in reference to his country. Atxaga is, in his own words, ‘a Basque writer born in 1951’. Without a choice and through no fault of his own therefore, he is also a writer of exceptional circumstance; that he happens also to be a writer of exceptional talent has only added to the self-conscious burden that he carries. ‘By the time [he] was twenty-three’, the ‘Shakespeare of Euskera’ confides, ‘I had read all of the Basque literature that the dictator had not managed to burn.’
Obabakoak was born of the possibly unique situation of its writer’s having read everything in the language in which it was written, but also of his having supplemented the lack of national and linguistic antecedents with a thorough grounding in fiction from across the continents and centuries. Tellingly, Atxaga’s epilogue namechecks The Arabian Nights, Moby Dick and Kafka’s Metamorphosis as examples of works now available ‘in shops, in libraries, everywhere’. All three can be perceived as influences on the literary hall-of-mirrors that is Obabakoak. But where Atxaga’s autobiographical postscript really captures something of the late twentieth century zeitgeist is in its insistence that:
These days nothing can be said to be peculiar to one place or one person. The world is everywhere and Euskal Herria is no longer just Euskal Herria but – as Celso Emilio Ferreiro would have said – ‘the place where the world takes the name Euskal Herria’.
This simple phrase hints also of something hopeful for our own, twenty-first, century: a chance for progressive nationalisms based not on misplaced pride or blind prejudice, but on careful consideration of language and culture and for literature that is specific to a place but speaks to the world by reaching out, like all good stories do, across continents and centuries and invented boundaries.