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Metalite rature for a new millennium: reading Bernardo Atxaga.

Mari Jose Olaziregi. Trans. Amaia Gabantxo. Waking the Hedgehog: The Literary Universe of Bernardo Atxaga. Reno, Nevada: Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada, Reno, 2005. 354 pp. ISBN 1-877802-28-X

Discussions of contemporary Basque literature inevitably involve consideration of the work of Bernardo Atxaga, the best known and most widely read contemporary Basque writer. Atxaga writes mainly in Basque and sometimes does his own translations into Spanish. His work has been widely translated into dozens of languages. (In order to get an anecdotal sense of the extent to which Atxaga dominates contemporary Basque letters, consider that a recent Google search returns 154,000 hits for the search term "Bernardo Atxaga"; Ramon Saizarbitoria, another contemporary Basque novelist, returns 11,000 hits and Miren Agur Meabe, a young poet, brings less than a thousand hits.) Much of Atxagas popularity can be explained by the extraordinary success of his collection of stories Obabakoak, first published in 1988, translated by the author into Spanish in 1989, and into dozens of other languages in the years following. (Note: the English language edition includes the subheading "a novel", an interesting change that reflects the rather problematic status of this work regarding genre, an issue Olaziregi addresses at length and which will be referred to below.) Atxaga has been credited with revitalizing Basque literary prose and is generally considered a masterful and innovative storyteller. Thus, Waking the Hedgehog: The Literary Universe of Bernardo Atxaga, the first book-length study in English of Atxagas work, is a welcome and overdue contribution to literary criticism in this language. (The book was originally published in Basque in 1998. The challenge of translating from Basque to English must be a tremendous one and it appears that Amaia Gabantxo has performed the task well.)

Waking the Hedgehog (the title comes from a poem included in Obabakoak in which the author compares the Basque language in the XXth century to an awakening hedgehog) offers a comprehensive review of Atxagas literary production, from his early experiments with theatre, prose and poetry in the 1970s to his most recent novel, Soinujolearen semea, published in Basque in 2003 and translated into Spanish {El hijo del acordeonista) in 2004. Olaziregi's discussion of individual works is preceded by introductory chapters on "The Basque literary system", "Bernardo Atxagas literary universe", and "International reception". These chapters are quite well done overall and will be particularly useful for readers who have little familiarity with Peninsular literatures. The remaining chapters cover the aforementioned early experimental work, Obabakoak, literature for young people, the novella Two Brothers, two realist novels from the 1990s {The Lone Man and The Lone Woman), and finally, the most recent novel.

It is important to note that Waking the Hedgehog is part of the Basque Textbook Series, a collection published by the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno, and as such its aims are primarily didactic and oriented towards readers who will be approaching Atxagas work for the first time and in English. Each chapter ends with a "Lesson" (Lesson One at the end of chapter one, Lesson Two after chapter two, etc.) in which we find sections on "Learning goals", "Required Reading" (texts in English and Spanish), "Suggested Reading", and "Written Lesson for Submission".

Olaziregi's study is informative and does an excellent job of articulating the extraordinary richness of Atxagas creative universe. It is particularly effective in terms of delineating the principle literary and cultural maps that orient his fiction (rural Basque life, Borges, Calvino, the Oulipo group and other XXth century European vanguards, metafiction, fantastic literature ...) It is noteworthy that she includes two chapters on literature for young people, with significant attention given to Behi euskaldunbaten memoriak {Memories of a Basque Cow; Memorias de una vaca), a lyrical, contemplative novel that is also stylistically innovative. (The Spanish version made a strong impact on the family of this reviewer.)

The centrality of Obabakoak in Atxagas literary universe is evident: no less than three full chapters are dedicated to it, the third of which ("An Intertextual Journey") illustrates particularly well Olaziregi's adeptness as a reader. Relying principally on the categories of transtextual relationships outlined in Gerard Genette's Palimpsests, she discusses two of these (intertexuality and hypertextuality) at length. The discussion of plagiarism, part of the broader consideration of hypertextuality, is strong in that it explains the richness of its presence in Obabakoak, but her analysis of Atxagas intentions seems underdeveloped: "The message that the author suggests through the idea of plagiarism is very attractive: originality--absolute innovation--is impossible in literature. As we have seen, the protagonist of Obabakoak says, 'all good stories have been written already, and if a story hasn't been written, it's sign that it isn't any good'" (147). Leaving aside the detail that plagiarism is not an idea, this example, in fact, is illustrative of both the study's overall strengths and weaknesses. Olaziregi's chapters contain a wealth of information and there is no question that she brings to her readings of Atxagas texts a very solid grounding in both literary theory and in Western literary canons in general. And in the third chapter she does an excellent job of explaining the cultural and political contexts in which Atxaga developed as a young writer. On the other hand, the parts of her study that are focused on textual analysis do not always fulfill their potential. This is the case, for example, with the second chapter on Obabakoak, which includes a well done discussion of the fantastic in this work and a consideration of ideas about fantastic literature that Atxaga outlined in a 1982 essay. The explication of Atxagas complex and varied textual strategies, especially regarding multiple narrators, is superb. However, the chapter ends somewhat abruptly by concluding that narrative distance leads to an increased sense of doubt and disquiet on the part of the reader. Exactly what disquiet entails and what it might suggest in terms of the novels larger themes is not made explicit. In fairness, this reluctance to further develop some of the broader questions she raises may reflect the books didactic intentions.

Olaziregi's generally excellent readings are significantly challenged, however, by the books one indisputable weakness: careless editing. The text has numerous typos, redundancies and omissions. Individually, these are usually minor oversights that are insignificant; however, their accumulation in some instances reaches a level where it creates a serious distraction. In chapter thirteen ("The Lone Woman"), for example, we read that the protagonist "arrives in Bilbao in the bus" (233) and that the bus "could be thought to be a variation in the theme of the ship" (235). We are told that in prison there was a "lack of mirrors", yet the very next sentence informs us that the "mirrors in prison were rarely more than two feet high" (236). On page 239 we are reminded that Paul Valery observed that a "lone person is always in bad company". Given that we were offered that exact reminder in chapter twelve, it reads here as carelessly redundant. These are just a few examples. Yet, this chapter also includes excellent insights into the ironic nature of the protagonists return home, which Olaziregi reads as a diasporic journey into exile. It is unfortunate that this admirable discussion did not receive the benefit of careful editing it deserves.

Waking the Hedgehog is a very useful and welcome book. Readers will gain a thorough familiarity with Atxagas work and will also benefit from suggestive discussions on the limits of traditional genres, the nature of fantastic literature, and metafiction, among other topics. The big lesson this study suggests is that Atxaga is a readerly writer, a storyteller who is keenly aware of the varied processes, challenges, and gifts of the art. Given the title's suggestive allusion, it is somewhat surprising that Olaziregi's study does not give more attention to the linguistic and stylistic particularities of Atxagas writings. Similarly, given that so very few readers have access to the Basque original, some discussion on the nature of the translations into English would have been helpful. That study awaits us.

Mark C. Aldrich

Dickinson College
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Author:Aldrich, Mark C.
Publication:Confluencia: Revista Hispanica de Cultura y Literatura
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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