5 January 2010

All right. Let’s try this again. I apologize already for the italicized word-salad.

I. Ande o no ande

El mundo entero es un Bilbao más grande. So, at least, writes our most famous bilbaíno, Unamuno, in a poem used as an epigraph to a novel by El Correo columnist Juan Bas (not our most famous bilbaíno) called Alacranes en su tinta, a shaggy gastronomical tour welded to a thin crime plot, so entirely set in Bilbao that you can follow our protagonist on a city map. It’s been translated into everything from Italian to Norwegian — but not into English — and has the patchy, jocular tone of a lot of books by columnists-turned-authors. I keep picturing Dave Barry’s first crime novel.

The title doesn’t translate well unless you know that calamares en su tinta is a common dish, squid literally in their ink (it’s good! The sauce is black, and it’s served over rice) and that the novel is advertised as “una novela diferente.” Different how? — well: An “incomparable esperpento” (wonderful noun, means a thing strange-looking, ungainly, quite a sight) “humorístico-grastronómico-erótico-criminal.Know these two things and a novel titled Scorpions In Ink makes all the sense in the world. (Scorpions In Their Ink, maybe? In Their Own Ink? How many words is too many?) I’m about halfway through (it was my airplane reading), and haven’t gotten to the plot yet; the back cover promises a Jesuit bishop, a sadistic opera singer, a Bilbao-Athletic coach, an ETA military chief, and a nationalist politician all as keys to a atormentada venganza, but I haven’t met any of them & I don’t know anything about a tormented vengeance.

The twin engines of the novel so far are instead the thrill of recognizing particular streetcorners & the loving descriptions of pintxos bars. (We are in Basque country, kids. There are no tapas. There are pintxos, micro-cuisine, tiny delicacies displayed on barttops.) There is an entire index in the back given over to compiling the different pintxos mentioned — copa de fois gras en gelée de tempranillo y pera carmelizada, say, or muslito de cordoniz deshuesado en sarcófago de hojaldre. There is also, for the reader interested in improving his Spanish, a raft of colloquial & profane dialogue — although you won’t get far in mixed company repeating Me cago en tu puta madre.

Juan Bas, for those of you interested, has also written two young adult historical novels, one called El oro de los carlistas, and the other Glabro, legionario de Roma. I can only guess at what novels about Roman legionnaires & Carlists by this man would be like.

The entire world is a Bilbao writ large is what Unamuno writes on his way to proclaiming the brotherhood of man; Bas seems to be using it more by way of self-absorbed synecdoche. Bilbao is a city of the ría, of iron & coal, of banking & shipping, ringed by green hills, a dark, unlovely industrial town by all accounts until very recently, when it was ornamented by the billowing, sail-like Guggenheim & a flock of related civic infrastructure — modernist bridges, a tram line, a slick, well-designed metro, riverside parks. The civic pride of Bilbao rivals Boston, another medium-sized port town with a chip on its shoulder, and it reminds me of the proverb (refrán), said of of bilbaínos: Ande o no ande, caballo grande. Which is to say, in what can only be a loose translation, A big horse is a big horse, whether it races or not.

II. Desberdintasunak

So. I’m as far away from where I was last year in Spain as I can be in a country this size: facing the north Atlantic instead of the Mediterranean, traditional homes in white plaster & dark wood beams, two storeys with the ground floor a barn for the animals whose bodies warm the upper floors in place of vaguely Roman or Moorish atriums & painted tile. Green hills & rainfall instead of sunburnt expanses of olives, wine with lunch instead of pale lager, pintxos instead of tapas — and in place of dialect Andalucían (the rest of Spain sees it as a hick accent, uses it for comic relief) there are instead signs bilingual in Euskara & Castellano, Basque a mysterious & ancient language isolate, the only one in Western Europe, a thicket of xs and ks and zs unrelated to anything around it & pronounced in at least seven different dialects that are only mostly mutually intelligible.

Everyone says hello and goodbye in Basque (aupa, agur, instead of hola, adios), even in Bilbao, where few native Basque speakers are born. (Basque is a rural language, a language of the villages — go an hour east into the mountains and it predominates). Ethnic Basque men look a little like out-of-work rock stars: black curly hair, black clothes, piratical silver hoop earrings. There is a Basque St. Nicholas figure, Olentzero, a charcoal burner from a village in the mountains who has red cheeks and a corncob pipe and a typical Basque beret and is merrily drunk & potbellied and brings the children presents on Christmas. Three million inhabitants in the administrative unit known in Spanish as País Vasco and in Basque as Euskadi, a third of them ‘ethnic Basques’, whatever that means, more Basque speakers in the north of Navarre and over the Pyrenees in France.

Spanishness is denied in many small ways — tortilla española is simply tortilla con patatas, not Spanish at all but just with potatoes. Politics here is accompanied by violence; you don’t talk about it. There are silent gestures: flags hung from windows, graffiti, the Spanish governmental seal spraypainted away on billboards. But I can never tell how much I’m imagining — the silence is so vast everything I get is secondary. I wrote a week after I arrived that “in Jaén, the local Guardia Civil were genial, ineffectual men with potbellies; here, they’re nervous & young & carry automatic rifles with matté finishes that match their flack jackets,” but I think I’m projecting for the sake of a good-sounding sentence. I don’t know enough to know what I’m seeing, I don’t even know enough to know how to ask.

My New Year’s resolution is to take to heart the admonition I copied out from Tom Bissell’s Virginia Quarterly Review demolition of Robert D. Kaplan, something that has had a lot to do with not having written here in the last six months:

I believed then and believe now that the travel genre has much to answer for. Travel writers are seldom scholars. They are, by inclination if not definition, transients and dilettantes. All that can save the travel writer and redeem his or her often inexpert perceptions of foreign people and places is curiosity, a willingness to be uncertain, an essential emotional generosity, and an ability to write.

In that spirit, I have (as I promised some months ago), emendations & corrections to offer tomorrow; in the meantime, uncertainty & inexpert generalism for today!

(The title is, as far as I could make sure, Basque for differences. -ak forms plural nouns.)

One Response to “Desberdintasunak”

  1. Julia Says:


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