Atxaga has written about the transition from Euzkadi to the now more consensual Euskadi, but evidently prefers Euskal Herria, meaning “People who speak Basque.” Euskal Herria “is like a little belt on the gown of a lady,” he says.
But that is where any hint of romanticism stops. The romantic views of those such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, the 19th-century Prussian philologist who stereotyped the Basques as a mysterious people dancing in the foothills of the Pyrenees, has fueled conflict, he argues. “When you put such romantic emphasis on things, conflict becomes inevitable,” leading to “an Orwellian sense of ‘We’re from this group, and we don’t want anything to do with that other group,’ ” he said.
Atxaga says he hates ideology, once memorably describing converts as “those who as soon as they step out of one paradise manage to find another one.” He recalls the advice of his late mentor, Gabriel Aresti, the great Basque poet of the 20th century, who once told him, “You have to choose between being a writer or a purist” — by which he meant a nationalist. In more recent times, Atxaga says, years spent abroad, including in the United States, at Stanford University and in Nevada, “enabled me to think all these things through.”
Nationalists have frequently offered a vision of the Basques as rural and marginalized. “But our country is really a sprawling metropolitan region,” Atxaga said. “It’s all part of one piece of metropolitan fabric, in which each place has its local legend, but in building it you need a context, a self-image.”
Atxaga’s books have been translated into more than two dozen languages, but he will always write in Euskera. “I belong to a universe in which it was the dominant language,” he said. “What matters to me is the language, which is something as human as walking — as Aristotle said, it’s what helps us endure.”
He regards the post-Franco revival of Euskera — spoken by about 700,000 of the Basque Country’s 2.3 million people, but proportionally more among the young — as “a small miracle” that he says he never expected. “Popular resilience and the texture of community in this society has always been very strong, and that is what has saved the country.”
“If there is something that Basque society in its entirety believes, it is that they have been the target of unmeasured and systematic aggression — toward Basques, their language and their culture,” Atxaga said. “The only result has been to place Madrid at a symbolic distance of 2,500 kilometers.”