Paddy Woodworth,
The Basque Country: A Cultural History
(Signal, 2007)

It is always exciting to pick up a new book about the Basque Country (Euskal Herria or Euskadi), that ever-changing and controversial part of Europe.

Woodworth is something of an expert tour guide, having spent time in Euskadi over the past 30 years covering it for the Irish Times. He wrote one of the best books in English about the state-sponsored terror campaign waged there in the 1970s and '80s (Dirty War, Clean Hands).

The Basque Country, as Woodworth recognizes, is a complex place. Not everyone can even agree where it is. He sticks with the standard definition, that it includes Navarra, a piece of southwestern France, as well as the present-day Basque Autonomous Community.

This book is a detailed guide: part travel book, part commentary and interpretation. The model is Mark Kurlansky's Basque History of the World, which Woodworth calls "beautifully written but unreliable." Both books purport to give a panoramic vision of that country, its history, its culture, its politics.

This book let me down a bit at first. Some of the writer's passion (as showed in his book Dirty War) seems to be drained out of him. Evidently, he is not crazy about the Basque government and its ruling party, the Basque Nationalists (PNV). His discussion of the Gernika and Urdaibai region is ruined by his constant complaints about the PNV's policies, its iconography, its treatment of artist and former nationalist Agustin Ibarrola and its perceived lack of a pluralistic vision of the Basque Country.

Speaking of unreliable, this book also contains a few mistakes of its own, mostly small. (The Zuloaga museum is in Zumaia, not Orio. Itziar is in Gipuzkoa province, not Bizkaia.) But, in general, his knowledge of the place is excellent.

Woodworth's choppy beginning is redeemed many fine chapters, rewarding a persistent reader, including the chapter on Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga: a very sensitive and balanced view. Likewise, his chapter on writer Pio Baroja and his local environment of northern Navarra is full of good information.

Useful bits also include a near-perfect tour of Bilbao and the Nervion Valley, stopping by the haunts of La Pasionaria (Dolores Ibarruri) in the iron ore towns of the hills above Trapagaran on the left bank. I did not realize, for instance, that La Pasionaria had been a waitress in La Arboleda, one of the cradles of Basque socialism. His picture of this area is for the most accurate, and he hits most of the chief sites of interest.

Conversely, Woodworth devotes only five pages to Basque music, which is lots if you are not musical, but insufficient for a decent understanding or flavour of an essential element of Basque culture. In fact, a couple of omissions and commissions in this short piece stopped me cold.

Earlier, in the Baroja chapter, he wrote negatively about the practice of Basques taking personal names and Basque-izing them (using letter K to replace the Spanish C, TX for CH, etc.) So it comes as a shock here when he refers in this chapter to Basque accordionist "Kepa Junquera" -- he actually Hispanicizes the name of the well-known musician who goes by "Junkera." Besides, to say that Junkera is the only contemporary Basque musician to achive an international following, is to ignore the existence of a list that includes Fermin Muguruza, Berri Txarrak, Ken Zazpi, Oskorri. And to say, as he does elsewhere in the book, that Bilbao does not have a real tradition in classical music is to ignore greats such as Arriaga, Guridi, Sorozabal, Isasi and many others.

Woodworth gives a fascinating account of central and southern Navarra, with its deserts, hermitages and small, inaccessible villages. He provides fascinating descriptions of fiestas in places like Laguardia (Biasteri) and Lekeitio. He deals with the superb Basque gastronomy, and of course the famous sport jai alai, or pelota. There's a good chapter on the French Basque Country (Iparralde) that reflects his research for his earlier book and a couple of days travel.

His main chapter on politics, "Don't Mention the War," a difficult and fraught topic, is a fair, balanced one. He well understands the many strands of nationalism, both Spanish and Basque (plus, in the north, French) and how these play and balance against each other. He clearly explains how political violence has affected Basque society. This chapter is focused and well-explained: it is truly the writer's area of expertise.

Yet this chapter has a very important omission. In 2003, Spain closed down the only Basque daily newspaper, Egunkaria, imprisoning many of the staff, for reasons that have never been fully explained. I would have been interested to read Woodsworth's comments on this, but alas, he is silent on it.

Generally, though, this is a well-balanced, informative book. Best of all, it shows that there is much, much more to the Basques than political violence, the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum and jai alai. There is plenty here to merit a read, for those with an interest in this fascinating corner of Europe.

review by
David Cox

22 May 2010

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