The international reception of Bernardo Atxaga's works

In Olaziregi, Mari Jose, Waking the Hedgehog. The Literary Universe of Bernardo Atxaga, Center for Basque Studies-University of Nevada, Reno, 2005

As the Czech structuralist Jan Mukarovsky wrote, we can deduce established aesthetic norms from the critical reception of an oeuvre. For this reason, different critical methodologies (such as the aesthetics of reception, or systemic theories) have coincided in stressing the relevance of analyzing the reception of literary works among reading communities. This repertoire of aesthetic norms defined by the literary institutions of each literary system brings to mind another important aspect of literary analysis, namely that the nature of any text is primarily pragmatic: its meaning is created as it were through the reader, during the process of reading itself. An analysis of the reception of Atxaga's works will serve to prove this author's high status among different types of readers.

Although Atxaga has been writing professionally for many years, even today many readers are surprised to learn of the effects his writing has had outside the Basque frontiers - in places as remote as Japan or Venezuela, for example, where a book entitled La sonrisa de Bernardo Atxagai was published.

In the realm of Obaba. The reception of Obabakoak and Two Brothers in newspapers and literary journals


Obabakoak, english edition

Obabakoak (1988) marks the start of Atxaga's international career. The author himself translated the book into Spanish in 1989, and translations into other languages were done from this version into Catalan (1990), French (1991), Italian (1991), German (1991), Portuguese (1992), Dutch (1992), English (1992), and so on. To date, Obabakoak has been translated into 25 languages and has received the following prizes, among others: The Critics' Prize (1988), Spain's Narrative Prize (1989), the Euskadi Prize (1989), the Paris Milepages Prize (1991) and the Atlantic Pyrenees Three Crowns Prize (1995). The book was also shortlisted for the European Literary Prize in 1990. Foreign as well as national critics were highly impressed with Obabakoak, and their opinions validated Atxaga's literary propositions.

Obabakoak received very positive reviews abroad. Only a Dutch critic stated that the group of short stories making up the text lacked narrative intensity - the remaining 140 reviews I analyzed highlighted the quality of the work. The British press in particular praised Atxaga, writing that Obabakoak was "an exciting intellectual event" (cf. Pavey) and a "brilliant novel, full of life" (cf. The Observer). In Germany, critics described the novel as "a jewel" (cf. Lang), and in Portugal, the critic Guradado Moreira said it was "unmissable" and "essential".

But the review by the critic Suárez Galbán in the The New York Times Book Review (06/20/93) surpassed Atxaga's expectations. Under the title "A Village in the Palm of One's Hand", Galbán wrote that the work was highly original in the context of Spanish literature and that, even so, the characters and the situations the book proposed were essentially universal. Further, he wrote that in Obabakoak readers encountered a dexterous narrator who made them think about the world and their lives. The exuberance of styles and languages drove this critic to describe the book as a "delicious paella, Baroque and Spanish", and to highlight the seamlessness of its sumptuous style.

Apart from the general praise mentioned above, the other aspect that the critics remarked upon was the book's originality. In the Salon du Livre of 1995, the French critics Vitoux and Caccia expressed their surprise at Atxaga's style, and stressed the exoticism of the book. British critics also echoed the praise for originality, but they argued that Atxaga's writing followed the current literary tendencies in European writing (cf. Trangott, 1992). A. S. Byatt, president of the jury for the European Literary Prize in 1990, said that Obabakoak, in line with contemporary European tendencies, cleverly combined primal stories and motivations with modern meta-narrative techniques. Other critics, such as the Italian Melis (cf. Il Manifesto 05/15/91), wrote that the book's greatest asset was the narrator's ability to mix the traditional with literary modernity. From these critics' point of view Obabakoak proposed a literary journey from the particular - the Basque Country - to the universal.

But the fact that the book was originally written in Basque especially aroused the critics' interest - it was perceived as a novelty, as something exotic. In almost every European state critics and academics (Daguerre 1992, Gabastou 1994, Manera 1991, Degryse 1992, Steenmaijer 1992, Elzen 1992, et al.) wrote articles that attempted to throw light on the issue of Basque literature, or the Basque language, or even the Basque country itself. Eventually the "unpronounceable" (cf. Telegraph, 08/10/96) title of Obabakoak became familiar to many. The surprise caused by the fact that the book was written in a language of pre-indo-European origin that was spoken by such a small number of people was reflected in many of the titles heading the articles: "The Deceptive Caress of a Giraffe" or "Waking the Hedgehog" are but a couple of examples. There were also some surprising commentaries, like that of the critic Malicia (1992), who wrote that Atxaga was an "Iberian Walt Disney", or Steinick, a Swedish critic, who wrote obsessively about the lexical and symbolic similarities between the name Camilo Lizardi and the word "lizard".

But it was the incidence of intertextual references that provoked most comments from the critics. Classical texts such as A Thousand and One Nights or the Decameron were unanimously hailed as influences; but critics also discovered references to 19th-century authors such as Balzac, Chekhov, Maupassant (cf. Cameron, Manera, Steenmeijer), or Dickens and Tolstoy (cf. Manera), and postmodern authors, such as Perec, Queneau, or Calvino (cf. Caistor, Logie, Root). To this select group of influential authors, other critics added Borges (cf. Planes, Manera, Lang, Pisa), García Márquez (cf. Grent, Lang, Pisa) and Cortázar (cf. Steenmeijer, Lang, Pisa). Other noteworthy aspects that international critics remarked upon were the book's stylistic and structural peculiarities, the influence of oral tradition (cf. Lee Six, Traugott, Nisula), the use of fairytale-like narrative techniques (cf. Lee Six, Nisula, Grezia, Conrado), and the presence of meta-narrative texts.

As far as the reception in Spain is concerned, the fact that Obabakoak was awarded the Spanish Narrative Prize in 1989 meant that reviews, articles and interviews were published in newspapers, magazines and journals throughout the country in an attempt to satisfy the curiosity provoked by the awarding of the prize. Some of the articles' titles made reference to the book's exoticism: "The Mythical, Naive Realm of Obaba" (cf. Aizarna, 1989), "To Be Read by the Warmth of a Hearth" (cf. González Espina, 1989), "An Ancient Perfume" (cf. Pla i Arxé, 1990), or "Virgin Territory" (cf. Cambio 16, 1989). Other titles were very clear in their praise: "Literary Paradise" (cf. Pérez de Mendiola, 1990), "We Can Only Take our Hats off to Atxaga's Magnificent Obabakoak" (cf. Goñi, 1989), "Literature in its Purest Form" (cf. Armas, 1989). However, it must also be said that the Spanish critics were surprised that the book was originally written in Basque, and their surprise showed their ignorance of Basque literature. Some Basque writers, such as Iturralde (1991) or Juaristi (1989), published articles in which they attempted to fill that knowledge void. Equally noteworthy were the Spanish critics' comments linking Obabakoak to the 19th-century short story tradition and to the postmodern aesthetics of the 20th century (cf. Larrauri, 1989). Some stand out among these: Martínez de Pisón's "Instruction Manual" (cf. Diario 16, 06/23/89), or Iglesias' "Literature for the Next Millennium" (El Correo, 01/31/90), because they reminded us that the world is one great Alexandria and that, thanks to books, we can travel anywhere we like. I would like to finish this survey by noting that Basque critics also echoed the international opinion and praised the exceptional feat the book had accomplished in winning the Spanish Narrative Prize. Basque critics such as Lasagabaster, Aldekoa, Kortazar, Gabilondo and Azkorbebeitia underlined the book's literary value and its significance in the context of the recent history of our literature. It was obvious that Obabakoak had scaled a new peak in modern Basque literature and that things would never be the same again. Some critics analyzed Obabakoak's peculiarities more in depth in academic books. Some of these are: Aldekoa's Antzara eta Ispiluaii, Askunze's Bernardo Atxaga, los demonios personales de un escritoriii, and Olaziregi's Bernardo Atxagaren Irakurleaiv.

The success of Obabakoak is also corroborated by the many dissertations and Ph.D. theses written about Atxaga's oeuvre. Among the Ph.D. theses I can mention my own, "Literature and Reading: From Textual Strategies to Sociology in Bernardo Atxaga's Literary Universe"v, Ur Apalategi's *L?Evolution de la problématique littéraire de Bernardo Atxaga, du champ littéraire basque au champ universel. Socioanalyse du pathos atxaguien*vi and Sobolewska's dissertation "Intertextuality and Metatextuality in Bernardo Atxaga's Obabakoak"vii.

Two Brothers

Bi anai (Two Brothers), french edition, Deux freres.

The novella Bi anaiviii (1985) has gone through 14 editions in Basque and it is the title that, together with Bi Letter ("Two Letters All at Once", 1984) and Sugeak txoriari begiratzen dioenean ("When the Snake Stares at the Bird", 1984) made Atxaga popular among Basque readers. It has been translated into five languages (as well as Braille), and been well received abroad. Its reception in the Basque country was uneven; it received particularly bad reviews during the 1980s (reviews by Ormaetxea and Izpizua stand out), but in the 1990s Aldekoa hailed it as one of the best novels of the previous decade. It is interesting to contrast this with the reception of Bi anai when it was published in Spanish in 1995. The critics Mora, Castro, Goñi and Sánchez Lizarralde praised the narrative powers of the novella and proclaimed it a masterpiece. There were many comparisons to the mythic world of Obaba, and references were made to the fairytale tradition in many of the reviews. But, above all, the critics highlighted the text's ability to evoke images and symbols, its polyphonic elements, and its use of a fantastic register. Julian May in Britain's The Independent (11/24/2001) wrote that Two Brothers was "a Steinbeckian fable about Paulo and his huge, simpleton sibling, Daniel". After providing a breakdown of the plot and highlighting several important narrative elements such as the use of the interior monologue, or the animal's voices' role in the story, this critic concluded his review by stating that Atxaga had not yet found his narrative voice when he wrote this novella in his youth.

The reception of Behi euskadun baten memoriak ("Memoirs of a Basque Cow").

Behi euskadun baten memoriak, german edition.

A glance at the reviews and articles written about Behi euskaldun baten memoriak abroad shows that this book has contributed towards the breaking of the stiff and sometimes questionable mould of "young people's literature" by satisfying older generations of readers. The book's presence in the IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People) Honor List since 1994 and the commercial success of its ten translations attests to the book's excellence. Behi euskaldun baten memoriak sold very well in Basque and has been printed in more editions than any other Basque novel (16 so far) - but it is important to remember that the book was also a success abroad.

Most of the international reviews that I analyzed started by listing Atxaga's different works, then gave details of the plot of Behi euskaldun baten memoriak and finally praised the book's originality. Aribil (1995) highlighted the book's poetry and tenderness. The two reviews published in the renowned Revue des livres pour les enfants, praised the book's humor and originality above all things and said the book was a gift to all readers. Other reviews, such as the ones published in Inter Cdi or Mairie de Paris, mentioned the intertextual references to St. Augustine, and the narrative devices such as interior monologue.

But "Memoirs of a Basque Cow" was best received in Germany. A contributing factor to this was probably the careful translation that the historian Professor Ludger Mees, from the University of the Basque Country, did of the original Basque text, and the beautiful edition with which Albertliner Verlag launched the novel. By the end of 1997, the two editions of 5,000 copies each were sold out. Both editions were reviewed in newspapers as important as Die Zeit or Frankfurter Rundschau, and in them, Atxaga's novel was compared to Jostein Gaarder's Sophie's World (1994) because of its philosophical background. The renowned magazine Focus included "Memories of a Basque Cow" in its lists of the best seven books for November and December 1995 (Focus has an advisory panel of 25 critics, and the magazine is highly regarded).

As the critics Seub and Möller said, if Gaarder had wanted a bovine protagonist for his novel, he would have conjured up Mo. The philosophical aspect of the novel made it stand out, and this is probably the reason why these two critics said the novel was not just for young people, but that readers of all ages ought to read it. Another German critic, Kaiser (1995), pointed out that the references to the Spanish Civil War might be lost on German readers. But in general, most of the reviews (Müller 1995, Die Woche 1995) highlighted the text's philosophical qualities as well as its embracing of rationality and humanism as attractive propositions to all thinking readers.

The publication of "Memoirs of a Basque Cow" in Spanish in 1992 caused quite a stir and newspapers, magazines and journals such as El Mundo, El País, ABC, El Correo, Leer or Vida Nueva, as well as specialist journals of children's and young people's literature such as Clij, Alacena or Papeles de Literatura Infantil attempted to answer the demand for information. Atxaga himself said, in an interview with the journalist Ibargutxi of El Diario Vasco (07/09/92) that he was sure that the Spanish translation was going to be better received than the original Basque text. In his opinion, there were too many prejudices among Basque readers and a book aimed at "young readers" was at a disadvantage with the traditional "books for grown-ups".

The book received many very good reviews, of which I would highlight the following: Cobo's in El Mundo (07/02/92), Solé's in ABC, Barbería's in El País (09/05/92), and Ballaz's evocative article in Clij (nº 96, 1997). Cobo described it as a "literary jewel", and praised the poetic wealth of the work, as well as the dexterity with which the narrator had dealt with the different registers of style. With reference to this, he highlighted the text's "Warholism" - in other words, the original combination of French and Basque (Spanish in the translation) in Sister Bernardette's speech. The green, lush landscape described in the novel was another attractive aspect of the book in Cobo's opinion. Other critics, such as Barbería, pointed out the references to poets and musicians in the text. Barbería, like many others before him, said that the book would appeal to readers of any age.

In his article "The Social Function of Literature"ix, the writer and editor Ballaz made use of the romantic poet Novalis' statement that literature romanticizes reality, in other words, that it interprets it. In line with Savater's proposition in his La tarea del héroe ("The Hero's Job"), Ballaz defended the Basque author's decision to use fiction to illustrate the need for maintaining an ethical attitude in life - an attitude defined by reason and a critical stand against the world. In conclusion Ballaz praised the quality of "Memoirs of a Basque Cow" and Atxaga's ambition as a writer.

I should mention that there were also a few critics who doubted the literary quality of Behi euskaldun baten memoriak. The writer Pedro Ugarte, in an article in El Correo (09/23/92) described the book as an unexciting, "weak fabulation". In Ugarte's opinion "Memoirs of a Basque Cow" did not contain the evocative power of parables. He felt the only reason why he was writing the review was the author's status and fame. For him, the book was only suitable for children, not of very high quality and lacked ambition. Ugarte concluded his review by criticizing what he saw as the excessively positive reception of Atxaga's work abroad, which he put down to the fact that foreign critics were blinded by the exoticism of a work written in Basque. Thus in his review Ugarte attempted to move beyond the limits of a simple commentary on a particular book and put forward several extra-literary reasons which, in his view, explained Atxaga's success.

Not many reviews appeared in the Basque press and journals, and the few that appeared did not praise the novel very highly. Of the four reviews I analyzed for the purpose of this study, most expressed surprise at the novel. The critic Markuleta (1992) wrote that he expected something else, and that he was disappointed by the book. He also pointed out that he had needed to read the text twice to realize the philosophical dimensions of the novel. The writer and journalist Zabala (1992) said he did not consider "Memoirs of a Cow" to be Atxaga's best work, but that the book deserved to be read. In most of the reviews published in Basque, after describing the plot, the critics listed the narrative strategies the narrator had made use of. Zelaieta (1992) pointed out the Basque intertextual levels of the novel, and Olano (1992) remarked on the irony of the title and the book's engagement with the theme of marginality - made obvious by the fact that the main character was a cow.

It could be said that the lack of reviews and articles was later remedied, to an extent, by the many interviews of Atxaga that appeared in Basque newspapers and magazines (cf. Argia, Egunkaria). In them the author spoke about the novel's realist aspects, its intertextual references and stated that his intention had been to write a book that, like Treasure Island, would be admired by children and adults alike.

In the realm of fear: The Lone Man and The Lone Woman

The lone woman, english edition.

The Lone Man has been translated into 15 languages and received several important prizes, such as the Spanish Critics' prize in 1993 (it was also shortlisted for the Aristerion and the IMPAC prizes in 1996). The book was very well received abroad. In Italy, France and Germany the critics viewed it as an attractive, interesting novel. British critics in particular took very enthusiastically to The Lone Man, and the reviews published in the TLS (Horspool, 08/09/96) and the New Statesman (May, 08/02/96) underlined that Atxaga's novel was not a conventional thriller, and that location and action were developed symbolically through a use of evocative imagery that enriched the plot. Meantime, Gott in The Guardian (07/29/96) remarked on the originality of the theme and the rhythm of the novel, and Millar in The Times (08/03/96) said the novel was a captivating odyssey into the mind of the protagonist.

In Spain the reviews were equally positive. The critic Gracia in El Periódico de Cataluña (05/04/94) wrote that it was a novel "we can't do without", and Hernando in Tribuna (06/11/94) asserted that this was a novel by a great writer, a risky novel, full of detail and irony. The critics mentioned the sparseness of the prose, the seductiveness of the language, the subtleness of feeling, Atxaga's ability to evoke images and the novel's intense structure, like that of a puzzle (cf. Lizarralde in El Urogallo, Sep-Oct 94; Monmany in Diario 16, 04/03/94; Huelbes in El Mundo, 19.03.94). Basque critics, on the other hand, highlighted the novel's narrative pace and its ability to create suspenseful situations (Aldekoa in Bitarte 9 1996), the powerful dialogue and the plot structure (Juaristi in El Diario Vasco, 04/01/94), as well as the techniques borrowed from fantastic literature and the unreliable information the reader is presented with (Kortazar in Insula 580).

The Lone Woman is another example of a novel structured around a single character. The novel caused great controversy from the start, because its main character, Irene, is an ETA prisoner who volunteers for the Social Rehabilitation Plan, leaving behind, in doing so, both the organization and jail. For this reason the novel was harshly criticized by the radical nationalist left wing. A first edition of 20,000 copies of the Spanish translation came out in 1996 and sold out very quickly. The novel's political background resulted in many, long interviews with Atxaga. During these interviews Atxaga criticized the excessive political romanticism, which, in his opinion, was predominant in the attitudes of nationalist politicians in the Basque Country (cf. Diario 16 (05/31/96); ABC (05/29/96); Tiempo (05/13/96); El País (05/10/96); El Correo (04/17/96)). The critic Sanz Villanueva wrote in El Mundo (05/18/96) that The Lone Woman was a short, intense and intimist novel. The objectivity expected from a third-person narrative is put into question by the closeness with which the reader is made to experience Irene's feelings. The critics wrote that the novel was limited by its thematic development, and though its quality could not be doubted, it was generally agreed that it was a minor work in comparison with The Lone Man (cf. Senabre in ABC (05/03/96) and Díaz de Castro in Diario de Mallorca (06/14/96)).

The public libraries in Madrid nominated it for the IMPAC prize in 2001. Among the many reviews published abroad, I'd like to highlight James Hopkin's in the New Statesman (06/28/99), in which the critic praises the text's achievements: "In taut, elegant sentences which generate a sense of restlessness and foreboding, Atxaga reveals the uncertain mind of a fugitive fleeing the past and, by identifying only the salient details in each scene, he creates a disturbing, transitory world in which all proportion and compassion have been lost. (...)". Here Hopkin is referring to the effect of the sparseness of the prose, which invites the perception that what is being suggested, what is left "outside" the text, is more important than what is left in.

Required reading

  • Caistor, N., "The Deceptive Caress of a Giraffe", The Independent, 12/9/92
  • Fraser, A. & Mantel, H., "On the Critical List", Sunday Times, 6/9/92
  • Hopkinson, A., "The Age-Old Siege Mentality", Independent on Sunday, 25/8/1996
  • Malcolm, D., "Basque in Glory", The Guardian, 29/7/1996
  • May, J., "Tongue Tied", New Statesman, 9/8/1996
  • Suárez-Galbán, E., "A Village in the Palm of One's Hand", The New York Times Book Review, 20/6/93
  • Traugott, M., "Waking the Hedgehog", The Independent on Sunday, 30/8/92


i "Bernardo Atxaga's Smile", Fondo Editorial Pradios, Caracas, 1995
ii "The Goose and the Mirror", Erein, Donostia, 1992
iii "Bernardo Atxaga: A Writer's Private Demons", Saturrán, Donostia, 2000
iv "Bernardo Atxaga's Reader", Erein, Donostia, 1998
v University of the Basque Country, 1997
vi Université de Pau et les Pays de l?Adour, France, 1998
vii University of Jagwellonica, Poland, 1992
viii Two Brothers, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill, 2001
ix cf. Clij 96, 1997