This Basque is Badass

Posted by @ 7:29 pm on December 18th, 2010

Strangest novel I’ve ever read? Obabakoak, composed in Euskara (Basque) by Bernardo Axtaga, who, the jacket copy tells us, had to translate his own book into Spanish so that it might find a broad European readership. (It worked.)

Before we reach even the prologue, the book tells us about The Game of the Goose (el juego de la oca), which is played:

on a circular board of sixty-three squares, the sixty-third being occupied by Mother Goose. The first person to reach square sixty-three wins. Geese can also appear on the other squares and if you land on one of these, you jump forward to the next goose and get another throw of the dice. If you land on less fortunate squares such as the maze, the prison or the square symbolising death (a skull or skeleton) you must either wait for another player to take your place, go back several squares or return to square one.

The Game of the Goose is an apt stand-in for the structure of Obabakoak, which contains not only stories set in the village of Obaba, but also in Baghdad, Amazonia, Hamburg, Castile, and China. I don’t want to give too much away, but The Game of the Goose reappears in the very short concluding chapter “By Way of an Autobiography” in which the book’s themes converge in an essay that conflates the life of the writer, the history of the Basque nation, the context of Basque literature, the prison, the skull, and a “sinister man dressed in green and wearing a top hat.”

Here is an excerpt from the chapter titled “Young and Green”:

‘Never go to sleep on the grass,’ our parents would tell us. ‘If you do, a lizard will come along and crawl inside your head.’

‘But how would it get in?’ we’d ask.

‘Through your ear.’

‘But what for?’ we’d ask again.

‘To gobble up your brains. There’s nothing a lizard likes more than human brains to eat.’

Obabakoak was out of print in the United States until last March, but thanks to the good people at Graywolf, it’s back in print in a handsome paperback edition. Atxaga’s official website (in Euskara, Castilian Spanish, and English) is at http://www.atxaga.com.