Mark Kurlansky,
The Basque History of the World
(Knopf, 1999)

Mark Kurlansky, the acclaimed author of such works as Cod and Salt, has written a wonderful book on the Basque people who occupy four provinces in northern Spain and three tiny provinces in southwest France.

I have always admired the Basques. They recognized European fascism in the 1930s and fought it when they could have compromised. The infamous destruction of the Basque town of Guernica, immortalized in art by Pablo Picasso, shocked the world. The new Guggenheim Museum of Bilbao in the Basque country is one of the world's greatest modern buildings. The Basques were probably the first Europeans to discover Canada. Reading Kurlansky's The Basque History of the World refreshed this information and sparked my interest in visiting the Basque country.

The perfectly titled The Basque History of the World is the tale of a little "country" that does not appear on any maps but changed the world in many small ways. But, first and foremost for Kurlansky, a food writer, it is about gastronomy. As Kurlansky would no doubt agree, it's virtually impossible to get a bad meal in the Basque country. Kurlansky peppers his history with famous Basque recipes, putting them in historical context. However, while a history, his tale is also a kind of compendium of "basqueness."

The origins of the Basques are mysterious. They speak a language (Euskera) unrelated to any other and have distinct genetic traits such as blood type and ear shape. They seem to have inhabited their small corner of the Pyrenees for millennia.

Kurlansky traces the Basques from Roman times (when they first appear in history) through moments such as their development of the whaling industry, their discovery of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, their involvement in the founding of the Jesuits (Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier were Basques) and the persecution of Basque women as witches during the Inquisition. Famous Basques include Elkano, the commander of the first ship to sail around the world; Simon Bolivar, the liberator of much of South America; composer Ravel; writers Unamuno and Pio Baroja -- the list goes on.

The Basques really emerge as a people in history during Spain's two 19th-century Carlist wars. Conservative Basques fought against liberal Basques to determine the future of Spain. But Sabino Arana, the father of Basque nationalism, wanted Basques to stick together as Basques and carve out their own autonomy. In fact, they voted 97 percent for this status in a referendum in 1936. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) the Basques created a progressive autonomous government that fought alone against the dictators of Europe in a prelude to World War II.

Kurlansky recounts how Spanish dictator Francisco Franco suppressed the Basque language and culture, and shot and tortured many thousands of Basques during and after the Civil War. Basque soldiers joined with the Allies in hopes that their territory would be liberated from the fascists at the end of the World War II, but this did not happen. Eventually, NATO accepted the Franco regime and betrayed the Basques. This betrayal gave rise to a faction within the nationalist movements that, frustrated with the lack of progress against the dictatorship, turned to violence.

The return of democracy to Spain two decades ago brought back some freedom to the Basque Country. The Basque autonomous government in Euskadi now has an official role in promoting Basque interests. The Basques also have some language rights in neighbouring Navarre, but very little in the French region known as Iparralde. However, the group ETA (which stands for "Basque homeland and freedom") still tries to change the political situation through violent means.

Kurlansky deals directly with the question of ETA. While not condoning violence, he simply takes the position that state violence and terrorist violence are equally reprehensible. He says the Spanish state's means of dealing with ETA have been particularly brutal, and have included many civil rights violations including those of innocent people. (Indeed, currently in 2003 the Spanish authorities have closed down the one Basque-language daily newspaper and a leftwing nationalist political party because of presumed, but unproven, allegations of connections with "terrorism.") Kurlansky has been criticized elsewhere for alleged sympathy with ETA. Having read this book carefully, I can find no evidence of such sympathy.

Kurlansky's one significant omission is that of the extensive cooperative movement in the Basque country. According to some estimates, worker cooperatives employ one in five workers in Euskadi. These cooperatives emerged after the Civil War as a response to the frustrations of unemployment and fascism. The Mondragon co-op system has become a model for the world. But, as this book is not called the "Basque Encyclopedia," this could be considered a quibble.

A people that has been occupying the same territory for, some believe, 10,000 years will find ingenious ways of coping with adversity. They've seen many conquerors come and go, have figured out how to live on marginal land and how to keep families together in thriving communities. As Kurlansky points out, the Basques have much to teach the rest of the world. As such, this book does much to advance the profile of this remarkable people and their struggles.

- Rambles
written by David Cox
published 14 June 2003

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