Imposible Symmetries

25 August 2019

What is the relationship between the culture created in Basque and that created in Spanish in the Basque Country like? There is a politically correct answer which, despite not being a lie, is not very interesting: that this relationship is becoming better and better. The old automatism that ideologises the language, the weight of former prejudice is blurring. The time of blocs is gone, hooray for the cracks, since flowers grow in cracks. But microprejudice persists, subtle and concealed, untouchable. We have become accustomed to judging each other by mere appeaance for too long, and that bad habit will not disappear overnight. To be honest, there is a trick in that first question, as it is presupposed that those who work and live in Basque are a closed and defined group. And that’s not the case. Because all Basque creatives are erdaldun (Basque word that is used to describe a person who speaks a language that is not Basque; generally Spanish or French), and we often speak Spanish, whether in situations that are related to work or not. Because our basqueness is intermittent. Because almost all of us are, above all and in our everyday praxis, erdaldun. And then, some of us, are also euskaldun (Basque speakers), in some places, for some of the time. Therefore, Basque culture lovers are continuously moving boundary stones, the lights and shadows of self(translation) are their daily bread. Apart from doing their job, they see themselves in a position where they’re required to represent their environment, to be some sort of proselytiser or preacher. «So, what’s up in your little world?», we are asked sometimes. To the ridiculously long list of tasks that a Basque creative already has, that of the special correspondent needs to be added; we talk to people about our own culture in our homeland as if we were tourists travelling around Albania. Looking at it optimistically, we could say that our effort is our capital; being part of groups that have different scales and using different languages makes us richer. We are in charge of the marketing of our little world, accidental promoters, counsels for the defence. The fury that the lack of visibility generates in us is to be blamed for that, surely. Those who take in the last news about Beyonce, Rosalía or Paul Auster through osmosis, hardly notice that there are people creating culture around them as they understand that the immovable Basque circle is endogamous and the thing that we create is not for them. Or rather, is not appreciable.

It is arduous to earn a living from a vocation like ours, and that in itself should create some sort of «class conscience» among us, a solidarity between professionals of the same trade, regardless of the language that we create in. And so it is. Language, in fact, is not determining, as when it comes to achieve mutual understanding, aesthetic affinity might turn out to be more important. But that is not completely true: the eyes of those who write in Spanish are, understandably, more attentive to the tendencies, literature supplements and controversies that come from Spain, while as for me, the issues that stimulate them leave me completely indifferent. Those who create in Spanish seek to plunge into the Spanish market, and, killing two birds with one stone, they also try to plunge me into that market. I feel as if I were an Albanian writer in those cases. I feel as foreigner in my own land. Whereas they? They are content with receiving distant scarce news from the world that functions in Basque. «Give us some headlines, please». As if they meant: «It is a wide world; even curiosity has its limits». And they are absolutely right in that point; according to statistics, Basque speakers don’t usually get any Shakespeare in the Christmas lottery.

Basque musicians, film-makers, actors... are valued both here and abroad. Everything goes smoothly as long as Basque remains in a level of a kitsch characteristic that could be labelled as local colour. What Amets Arzallus stated not long ago is undeniable: we all support Basque language, as long as we don’t give it a central role. Since, when it comes to feeling proud of a culture, it feels much easier to feel proud of a culture that has no language. Here, we have seen two clear examples of that in the last decades: cooking and sculpture. It is not a coincidence that those two fields are the ones that have been chosen to, pardon my obscenity, sell our country abroad. What is more, we could say that what sculpture represented in the past is now represented by cooking, as if Zygmunt Bauman’s liquid modernity, which is so often mentioned these days, had liquidated Chillida and Oteiza, transformed them in some materic way, since gastronomy is sold as ephemeral sculpture. Nevertheless, when we talk about «a culture without a language», we are yet again employing a trick, as those chefs and sculptors have, in almost all cases, become stars through Spanish.

We have been fooled to appreciate the symmetry of bilingualism, but the weight of that symmetry is carried by one side only: «Can you repeat in Spanish what you’ve just said in Basque?» they say with the best intentions, serving «everyone’s understanding» as an excuse. And we take the bait, in spite of the fact that we are presenting a book written in Basque. We are constantly asked for the translation of the original, for the partition of our hard disk. Excuse me, but that it not symmetry but subordination.

Some years ago, a writer claimed his right «not to be able to speak Basque». A certainly peculiar claim. What if we apply the aforementioned symmetry in this case? What level of criticism would face a Basque writer if they dared to claim «their right not to be able to speak Spanish»?

Some might say that’s a characteristic of these times, that it’s a free choice, that is part of globalisation, that we ought to embrace multiculturalism. Ivan de la Nuez, however, criticises both models in his very appealing essay «Teoría de la retaguardia»: multiculturalism would be the way to put «each beast in its cage», while globalisation could be described as the way to introduce «all the beasts in the same cage, provided that those beasts are sufficiently tamed». What cage do we want our world to be in? Is a choice between caged a free choice? I have used geometry to explain our situation, but perhaps zoology would be more helpful to deine some aspects, since languages also fight for physical and symbolic space. Basque, in particular, for survival.

Translated for PEN International by Sara Goiria and Barney García