Alacranes en su tinta

23 March 2010

Today I want to tell you about Alacranes en su tinta, which I started over Christmas & then left on my bookshelf for a while & then finally finished a week or two ago. I wrote in January, ‘I’m about halfway through, and haven’t gotten to the plot yet,’ and the reason why is, it turns out, because the novel consists of a few different pieces patched together, like a lurid quilt.

The first is a shaggy gastronomical tour of Bilbao, in which our narrator, Pacho Murga, embarks on an endless cab ride on New Year’s Eve, 2000, for undisclosed but apparently urgent reasons that have to do with (poisoned? we’re not sure) oysters. The narrative immediately grinds to a halt. We flash back to some months previous — he’s been cut off by his rich, hotel-dwelling father, and is lurching around having expensive taste in wine. Eventually he meets Antón Astigarraga, an eccentric alcoholic (with, we already know from the back cover, a tormented past) who whips up elaborate & delicious pintxos — deconstructed tortilla con patatas, a cup of foie-gras in a wine gelée and caramelized pear, a gazpacho of cockles & frozen cream in virgin olive oil, deboned quail thighs in a puff pastry sarcophagus . . . —  in a hole-in-the-wall in Casco Viejo. Also a pair of twins who own a bar — called Twins, in English — that specializes in dry martinis. They no longer speak to each other, for reasons that may or may not have to do with an infamous sexual substitution enacted on Ava Gardner in New York in the 70s.

When I left off, the Twins had just been found dead in an apparent dual murder, the present tense of the narrative was still in that damn cab, and the atormentada venganza promised by the back cover (which anticipates the plot by at least 150 pages) was nowhere to be seen.

At this point, a lengthy confession signed by Astigarraga is found, entitled Confessiones de un catador de Franco, and the bulk of the novel is taken up in relating this story, back in the late 60s, with a whole new narrator (there are occasional interjections from our poor, benighted Pacho Murga, who we’re realizing is a little dimwitted), and it’s a doozy, all sex-and-death and monstrous improbabilities.

In brief: catador (not in my dictionary, but I figured it out) means food-taster, which is to say that Astigarra’s father, and later Astigarra himself, taste Franco’s food before he eats it. Astigarra becomes the point man in an ETA plot to poison Franco, masterminded by his uncle Patxi, and things, of course, go horribly awry — Franco decides at the last minute that he’s a little carsick and not hungry, the food, already poisoned, is eaten as leftovers by Astigarra’s loyal father, who dies instantly, and Astigarra himself, who’d been promised an antidote, discovers it was a placebo,  & is sent into a years-long coma in which is is completely conscious, but unable to move, see, or communicate, for years, with nothing to think about other than the fact that his father is dead & his own death was part of his uncle’s plan all along.

While he’s under, he devises elaborate plans of revenge for the five architects of the plot, one of whom is a Jesuit who is sexually molesting him the entire time he’s in the hospital. The others, apart from tío Patxi, have become a famous opera singer, the coach for Bilbao Athletic, and ‘an important Basque politican.’

Well, now we’re in a narrative that is somehow tedious & overwrought at the same time — he becomes the priest’s lover just so that he can kill him, does the same thing to the opera singer, eventually joins ETA (to get closer to tío Patxi) & takes refuge in France (picture France in the 80s, ETA guys crowding the Basque bars just across the border, the French police not doing a thing . . . ), falls in love with a French girl whose father is a chef, learns how to cook, and then — just as things were getting back to normal, right? — she’s killed, tragically!, by a GAL assassination squad.

I’ll say this, at least I learned something. Because who or what, you ask, is the GAL? Well: turns out that during the 80s, a far-reaching conspiracy in the Spanish government siphoned public money to fund a deniable splinter group of French & Portuguese mercenaries & moonlighting Spanish national police called the Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación (GAL), whose purpose was to range up & about French & Spanish Basque country kidnapping, torturing, and assassinating ETA members, or people associated with ETA members, or people with Basque names.

Really, you say? Yes, really. The whole thing was exposed by El Mundo in ’87, and there was a trial (well — just read the wikipedia article; I’m not pretending to know any of this). And before the GAL, there was the BVE, the Batellón Vasco Español, which did for the post-Franco UCD government in ’75-’81 the same thing the GAL did from ’81 to ’87 for the PSOE. Apparently the GAL was in large part responsible for ETA’s continuing existence post-Franco.

Incidentally, there’s more ETA in the news this week — an ETA member killed a French policeman, which used to be absolutely against the rules (France was referred to by ETA as ‘our sanctuary,’ and the deal was that they’d use it as a staging area but refrain from violence). Meanwhile, an ETA member has disappeared & then been found dead mysteriously. Red graffiti asking, in Basque, Where is Jon? has erupted all over the walls & alleyways of Bilbao.

The political graffiti is always painted over in less than 48 hours. A friend of mine is taking pictures. In one of them, a long Basque sentence, red, on the wall of the river walk on my way to the market, the only other thing I can understand is PSOE-GAL, which is clear enough, really.

Anyways. The GAL assassination launches Astigarra right back into it: he kills tío Patxi, and the Athletic coach, in feats of arson & torture that seem unlikely to say the least, and then we’re brought more or less up to the present, where he’s planned, in a huge féte at the newly-built Guggenheim catered by his pintxos restaurant (brought to prominence by our narrator, who has been used!) an assassination attempt on the last remaining conspirator, that nationalist politician, who as it turns out is none other than the lehendakari Jon Ander Txoriburu!

The lehendakari is the Basque head of state. In a novel set in Bilbao, this reveal — killing the lehendakari in the Guggenheim — is the rough equivalent of staging your American novel’s climax as, I don’t know, a death struggle featuring the President of the United States on the roof of the Empire State Building.

Naturally, everything goes wrong, including a burro chase through the Richard Serra installation. It turns out, at the end, that our narrator has eaten poisoned oysters, and, in a surreal closing dialogue that reads like a college stage play, that the cab is driven by something that may or may not be God posing as a Galician, and that our protaganist died some time ago, and is being driven through a strange & desolate country that is no longer Bilbao, and then everything fades into the middle distance, punctuated by distant radio reports and broadcast Christmas carols.

It’s all entertaining enough, I suppose, even if the pacing is a little stop-and-go and the prose style reads exactly like a columnist-turned-novelist, which is to say, nice turns of phrase from time to time, lots of sex & torture, some name-dropping . . .

Here’s a nice sentence from early on, about a good wine: ‘. . . un tinto de Ribera del Duero, un Protos reserva del noventa y uno, fuerte y redondo como una buena blasfemia.’ (p. 52) — A red from Ribera del Duero, a ’91 Protos Reserve, strong & rounded like a good blasphemy.  (Obviously, good blasphemy is no substitute, rhythm-wise, for buena blasfemia, but I can’t quite finesse it.)

In the end, it more or less confirms my suspicious that mediocre fiction is a great training-ground for someone reading in a second language. There’s lots of quotations & references threaded in — you even get the entire Olentzero children’s song in Basque & Spanish — and some undigested historical references.

I’ve got a stack of Spanish books from the library on my desk now, including an historical novel set in Cadiz, 1811, and Jordi Puntí’s Maletas Perdidas (Lost Luggage?), which is his long-form followup to his widely acclaimed (and still not translated into English) story collection. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Txakoli (& kalimotxo)

10 March 2010

Romería, José Arrúe (1977). Museo de Bellas Artes de Bilbao.

“El tercero era un tal Txomin Oronoz, alias Txordo (cerjijunto), un silente navarro de Elizondo, el experto en explosivos. Era adicto al kalimotxo, innoble brebaje cuya paternidad o al menos bautismo se atribuye al sediento poeta bilbaíno Gabriel Aresti.”

Alacranes en su tinta, Juan Bas (p. 188)*

Kalimotxo, (that innoble brebaje, Bas calls it — more on his weird, weird little novel tomorrow), is one of those things you discover quickly: the Basques, you’ll be told, drink (the person telling you pauses here, scandalized) wine and coca-cola together. Yes, true: In the midst of some of the best wine country in Spain, Bilbao’s youth adulterate their plonk with litres of coke, apparently since 1972, when during fiestas in Getxo (in the origin story, it was still called Getcho then), a massive quantity of wine spoiled somehow & to save the party, it was mixed with gallons of Coca-Cola so that nobody would notice.

Truth is, though, mixing cheap red wine with whatever’s at hand is kind of a Spanish national pastime (see: tinto de verano). In Aragón & parts of Navarra they call it cubata del pobre — ‘poor man’s cuba libre.’ Elsewhere in Spain, the spelling is knocked into castillian orthography & it’s called calimocho, or sometimes rioja libre. It tastes about how you’d think. The sallow 15 year-olds who are its primary consumers are called kalimotxeros.

Txakoli is a different story altogether — it’s a local white wine, very dry & acidic & served cold, didn’t even have a denominación de origen until about twenty years ago (some types were only certified eight or nine years back). Before that, it was all homemade. “Now,” a teacher from my school told me, “they even make it with grapes!” It used to be like battery acid, she said. You needed a stomach made out of steel to drink it.

But these days, it’s gone & refined itself — there was an article in the local paper about a big tasting in Madrid, it’s become trendy like Argentinian malbecs were a couple years back. There’s three main regional varieties, some of which (I drank this kind in San Sebastían) are kind of frothy, almost fizzing. In bars, they pour it into flat-bottomed glasses from a great height, or you drink it at village fiestas out of a porrón, which is this glass decanter with a spout that you hold about three feet over your head.

That’s, at least, what I did on Sunday afternoon, at the going-away party for a Basque bartender-friend who’s studying in Poland for three months. Look closely at the left part of the Arrúe painting, at the guys with the accordion & the guitar & (probably, although I can’t see it) an alboca — that was more or less the scene in Plaza Nueva three days ago: virtually everyone I knew in the city trooping through the streets of the Casco Viejo, playing traditional Basque music, dancing, drinking txakoli (an excellent accompaniment to fried seafood), drawing a crowd, little kids running alongside us.

When I get my hands on some good photographs I’ll try to tell you all about pintxos.


*Translated: “The third was one Txomin Oronoz aka Txordo (“Unibrow”), a taciturn Navarrese from Elizondo whose specialty was explosives. He was crazy for kalimotxo, that bastardized concoction fathered, or at least baptized, by that thirstiest of Bilbao’s poets, Gabriel Aresti.”

(This has to be some kind of joke that I’m not getting — one of Bilbao’s most famous Basque-language poets was a kalimotxero? If you say so, Juan Bas.)

A note on Basque spelling: tx is pronounced ch, and knowing that gets you a long ways towards being able to read it out loud.

Born standing up

25 February 2010

Church & bridge of San Antón, oldest in Bilbao. Via carpantillo (flikr).

Anywhere worth going to in Spain will already be crowded by the time you get there. This is partly because bars (in Basque Country, in Andalucía, in Catalunya) are shoebox-sized conflagrations of smoke (filled, depending on where you are, with bartop trays of pintxos, or forested with hanging legs of cured jamón, festooned with strings of garlic & dried peppers, or there are giant barrels of wine with metal spouts, or painted tile, espresso machines . . . ) — they’re standing room only, usually, and often people spill out in knotted groups into the narrow medieval streets, even in the light Basque rain, & stand holding beers or crianza.

But it’s mostly because eating & drinking in Spanish cities is a complicated dance that takes place on a mysteriously shifting intersection of place & time. I don’t just mean the comparative rigidity of the midday meal, la comida, when the streets empty out & the siesta is sacred, because really that’s truer in Andalucía than anywhere else (here in Bilbao, shockingly, I’ve seen stores open at 3 pm. It must be a northern thing.)

No, I mean that streets themselves change, they are modular & fluid. The steel shutters that close the stores rise & fall, the signs are lit or unlit, terraces laid out & bright or else stacked & chained, so that wandering the old towns you are even more lost at night than you used to be, nothing looks the same as it did that morning. Streets crowd to the bursting or are ghost towns, bars and cafés and restaurants too.

(And often those three places, the place you come to in the morning to read the paper & have your coffee in tranquility & the one you eat in at midday — two plates, bread, wine, coffee, dessert — & the bar you crowd around at night to shoulder around beers, are the same place, the essential unit of Spanish eating-and-drinking: the café-bar. With both its shelves of liquor & its espresso machine & its kitchen, not always open, so that not just the streets but the places themselves never stay the same, are modular & fluid themselves.)

Crowded, empty — it all depends on a kind of Spanish eating-and-drinking differential calculus: the day of the week, the time of day, summer or winter . . .

I feel like I’m drifting off into illegibility, so let me try to be specific. My friend was trying to show me around Barcelona one night, & we were accompanied by a number of impatient Swedes, and suddenly it seemed that nothing that should have been open — the cheap champagne bar, for starters — was open at all, on this Wednesday night; the plaza where normally at ten or so the young people start to swarm to drink out of bottles & skate was empty. Barcelona, she was explaining to the impatient Swedes (I nodded, we understood each other) worked by zones — you ate dinner here at 9, you had a drink over there at 11. If people weren’t where they were supposed to be, something had happened. We put our heads together.

As it turned out, we realized, it must be Ash Wednesday — carnivales had been the previous weekend, ending on Tuesday with the funeral of the sardine (Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Martes Gordo — in Bilbao it’d been on a Sunday, people wearing black & mock-crying while the sardine, giant & wearing a floppy purple hat, was burned in effigy outside the opera house on top of a bier of sticks) — and so the entire city was hungover, including the bartenders. Nobody was going out. Places were shuttering left & right around us.

Surely, the impatient Swedes said, there was somewhere to go.

No, we said. There is nowhere to go. This is how things are here. Anywhere in Spain worth going will already be crowded by the time you get there. If it’s not crowded, something’s wrong.

It’s no use peeking in & seeing the roiling cloud of smoke, the mass of dark coats, the napkins & cigarettes & broken glass mosaics on the tiled floor & saying, Too crowded, let’s try another one. You have to dive in, there’s nothing else to be done. The city is a dance, it follows a rhythm, & you are always a few steps behind. My first year in Jaén I called it the Spanish bat-signal. It was as if implanted at birth in the brain of every Jiennense was a transmitter that guided them unerringly to the right place at a given time.

I think this particular kind of crowd logic is unique to the places I’ve lived here. I don’t remember it being the same in, I don’t know, Boston.

You’ll be taken to, say, La Granja — a staid old café in the Plaza Circular with a wood bar, polished brass railings, starched old men serving coffee — on a Friday night, a particular Friday night, where suddenly it’s become a live music joint, there’s a band playing, the lights are off, everyone’s drinking cuba libres at two in the morning. Later, you’ll try to repeat the success with some foreign friends, guessing blindly, & find nothing but a quiet bar, a couple of old men sucking down vermouths.

You’ll try to plan a nice dinner in Gracía, in Barcelona, and find a couple of places via guidebooks & online reviews, only to find the two restaurants you’ve chosen shuttered, inexplicably, on an empty street. A block away, on c/ Verdi, swarms of families walking, old people, students, children, every place open & clamorous. You throw up your hands & decide to choose by sight.

And then when you finally think you’re getting the hang of the dance (ok, 8:30 & still early enough for Plaza Nueva, you think, or: 11 now, Somera will be filling up, or: Sunday noon in Sevilla, time to wander over to Alameda de Hércules and have the first beer of the day) you’ll be thrown off-balance by something big — a local saints’ day or festival, a national holiday, a change in the weather — and suddenly what was closed is open, what was open is closed, up is down and down is up, streets filling & emptying as if they were waterways with drains & sluicegates.

And everybody is standing bolt upright, leaning on the bar to eat, talking incessantly, gesturing with cigarettes. Don’t even bother looking for a table. In the winter, the doors are kept open, & the coats stay on. Some places have hooks beneath the bartop to hang them on. Or you pile them on top of the cigarette machine. Small ignitions of lighters (mecheros — I thought they were matcheros for over a year because I never had to spell it), floating ash, pintxos in Basque Country or Navarre, tapas everywhere else (the Cátalans are not big on tapas, & have banned bullfighting . . . the Basques hate flamenco & don’t drink sangria). Nothing to be done but follow the noise & see what’s going on. It’s not worth planning too carefully — you’re never sure which city you’ll be stepping into, where the crowded places will be.


8 February 2010

A failed disposable camera picture of my desk in Boston in ’08. Two photographs tacked to the wall are visible: An artists’ photograph printed in Harper’s of a controlled fire set in an empty model home in Britain to train firemen, & a newspaper picture of the Iraqi minister of the Interior blindfolded & tied to a chair in his office after he was arrested for corruption.

I got up earlier this afternoon, still at the same café, to order another coffee & I put out my cigarette while I straightened. While I walked away what was left of it was still smoking in the ashtray, a kind of signal or trace. It reminded me, when I sat down again, of those effective & precise signifiers of absence (that is, of former presence) that crop up most often in crime fiction — the detectives are just seconds too late, & there’s still a thin coil of smoke coming up from the ashtray.

I suppose, overused, these verge on cliché — the flapping curtains in the open window, the still-warm, slight imprint in the empty bed — but the physicality of the best of them is moving. I read a Chilean poet once, I can’t remember who, it was a friend’s bookshelf in Ronda, & I still remember a turn of phrase — someone had come home to find that a person close to them had been taken by the special police, had been disappeared. An empty saucepan or a teakettle sat on a hot stove, smoking, ‘dry as a bone,’ the water all boiled away.

I can’t think of other similar moments in fiction, but perhaps you can.

People disappear sometimes in Basque Country, too (not in the same way as in Chile! — I want to add, because parallels are cheap), & the stories you’re told about it are typically difficult to make a single clear sense of. A friend works in a pueblo east of here, way up in the mountains, & five people were detained a few weeks ago in 3 a.m. raids with — from her high schoolers’ perspective, at least — no explanation. They were spirited away in the night & nobody knows what’s happened to them. This, at least, was what she was telling me, what her kids had been talking about in class in their mixture of Basque & Spanish. The same thing happened last fall — there were massive demonstrations in Bilbao. My friend brought it up at a party, to a Spanish woman, who listened with a particular kind of expression on her face & then said, politely but firmly, “There must have been a good reason.”

Which is to say, Don’t trust your kids to give you an accurate sense of what’s going on out of their own feelings of persecution.

This morning while I was taking my coffee at the bar in the Mercado de la Ribera,  I read in El Correo about the cache of explosives recently seized in Portugal; ETA, it seems, has been making noises about car bombs, attacks on airports. Most of their leadership is in jail — if you look at the wanted posters you see a bunch of rural kids from the pueblos. An ongoing season of crackdowns & detainments that started this fall, probably not all justified, probably not all unjustified.  I’m in over my head. I didn’t mean to start writing about this again. I’m just trying to give a sense of what’s left, what’s hanging in the air.

San Blas

3 February 2010

Today is the feast day of San Blas (English: Blaise), patron of the throat. Here (by here I mean “in Bizkaia,” as one of the teachers at my school was quick to tell me: “Just in Bizkaia — not in Gipuzkoa”) you wear something — I didn’t quite catch what, a medallion or a ribbon, I’ll tell you when I find out —  around the neck for a certain number of days in his honor, and groups old men, in the Basque way, wear checked kerchiefs & berets & roam the old town singing in the streets. The church dedicated to him is in Arenal, across the river, and on my way here to write this there was a crowd spilling out the door of the church and into a line that stretched down the side of the street.

For San Blas they also sell a kind of flat, unleavened pastry made with oil, anise & a sugar glaze that someone brought to school a few days ago, and also a kind of small, hard donut (buñelo) out of what I think is the same dough.

(Gipuzkoa, incidentally, is the neighboring province, capital San Sebastian, which is a cosmopolitan seaside town & retreat for the wealthy — French menus, world-famous chefs, exquisite pintxos, a beach. There is a provincial rivalry.)


25 January 2010

Louis-Lucien Bonaparte’s 1869 map of Basque dialects,
via, of course, wikipedia.

Basque is an ancient language which has no surviving family members — whatever classificatory tree it was a branch on withered & died a long time ago, & it’s all alone in these low green hills, crouching amidst a veritable horde of Indo-European tongues, everyone counting the same from Sanskrit all the way over to Galicia — and it doesn’t look or sound or operate quite like anyone else, or even any of the other minority languages in Spain, not like in Valencia where there are street signs bilingual in valenciano , or in Galicia (gallego), or in Barcelona (catalán).

This isn’t really my field — I’m just trying to give you an idea, because when I go home to the wide, placid wilderness of America I’m reminded of how strange this is for most of the people I grew up with, the notion of all of these little languages right on top of each other, all interrelated & almost-but-not-quite mutually intelligible & mostly different from village to village. And meanwhile, we grow up (I did, at least) in the States, on what’s essentially a 3,000 mile long island where everybody talks almost identically, even if in Boston they’ll pretend not to understand you if you ask for a milkshake. I’m remembering right now the polite incomprehension of everybody I tried to explain this feeling to over Christmas, & probably overexplaining now.

You know the definition of a language, right? (A language is a dialect with a navy.) So. There’s between six and nine Basque dialects — to start with, one for each of the three provinces of País Vasco, plus Navarre, plus those bits of ethnic Basque France — which is one of the reasons why I can never get anybody to pronounce village names alike. This is also because most placenames have changed, at least on the maps, since Franco died & the Basques got limited regional autonomy. Every place has a castellano name & a name in euskara, as well as various spellings: Bilbao is also Bilbo, San Sebastían is Donostía, Vitoria is hyphenated with Gastiez. The province I live in is Vizcaya or Bizkaia. The pueblo I teach in is called Galdakao now, but it used to be Galdálcano, and, depending on who you talk to, some people still pronounce that ghost of an n.

Incidentally, the EU has a commission on regional & minority languages, & one of the ironic effects of the attempt to preserve these languages has been to standardize them, give what used to be an extremely localized, oral patchwork of dialects (deprecated by government schools & oppressed to greater & lesser degrees) a standardized dictionary & spelling — that is, to preserve linguistic diversity by reducing linguistic diversity. Imagine for a moment the fights that break out over the phrase “six to nine” when I talk about Basque dialects, the quarrels that it elides, and then extend that over the entire continent.

As a non-native speaker of Spanish, though, conversational Basque sounds, if you’re not paying attention, a lot like Spanish (the vowel sounds, for instance, are the same).  The inflection, the rhythms of speech, aren’t, for the first couple of seconds, noticeably different from locally-accented Spanish, — but none of the words are even close to recognizable. The other day, I was sitting in the teacher’s lounge & a teacher came in and asked if anybody wanted coffee & I did a doubletake because I had no idea what he’d just said. It’s as if, imagine, someone came up to you and began speaking in what you thought sounded like English, the same conversational tone, but all you heard was nonsense. The reason this is at once both unsettling & familiar for me, too,  is because I’ve only been fluent in Spanish for a little while, and feeling like I can’t understand a word people are saying to me is something I remember viscerally.

Word stress & rhythm of speech is different from Spanish, actually (stress patterns are extremely different between dialects, too, which is why nobody pronounces village names alike), but given the number of Spanish speakers who speak Basque as a second language & Basque speakers who speak Spanish as a second language, living here I think it’s much harder for me to figure out which is influencing which.

One last thing. When referring to Basque, even in Spanish, you usually say euskara here (the lack of a capital is a habit I’m picking up from Spanish). Spanish itself is most commonly referred to as castellano, which isn’t so surprising in a region that calls a tortilla española tortilla de patatas instead. What is surprising is that that’s what I already called it, because I lived in Andalucía last year, and I think the reason’s the same. Andalucíans may learn castellano in school, because the dialect from Castille has always been the dialect with the navy — but they speak andaluz. And  while in the rest of the country andaluz is just a debatable name for a hick accent used in television shows to signify comic relief, it’s their own. Spanish isn’t Spanish in Andalucía — it’s castellano, just like in here in Basque Country. It emanates from Madrid via newspapers, literature, government proclamations, fluorescences of culture, reconquests, cervanteses, a royal academy. It has a navy.

Previous attempts to write about Basque Country:

Swordfish Bars

“La banda terrorista”

24 January 2010

Opening my morning paper today in the café-bar, past Haiti & an article on immigration, I find a small article summarizing a new book, Vidas rotas (Broken Lives) — which (I cannot help but think — the article is filed out of Madrid) in the very Spanish El País is summarized by the headline as “Una niña, primera víctima de ETA” — a little girl, ETA’s first victim, ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) being, of course, the Basque separatist group that has carried out bombings & assassinations since the 60s — or, I should say, since the article gives the name of the girl & the date, since June 27th, 1960, when a child named Begoña Urroz Ibarrola died in the bombing of the train station in San Sebastián.

Vidas rotas, then, is a book that records every single person killed by ETA over the last 50 years, in chronological order, as well as, if known, the people who killed them, & in what manner.

Its 1,310 pages, say the article, “contribuyen a recordar, en carne viva, que la histora y la política del País Vasco no pueden entenderse sin aceptar el vasto coste humano del terrorismo.” The history & politics of Basque Country cannot be understood without accepting the vast human cost of terrorism. This is, of course, true — & yet writing it makes me nervous, ties my tongue. Of course, it’s true that the murder of a little girl for political ends is unspeakably ugly.

The article lists:  361 civilians, 209 Guardia Civil, 149 national police, 97 soldiers, 16 special police & 25 city cops. A murder every year except for 1999, 2004, & 2005. The book closes with the two Guardia Civil killed in Calviá (Islas Baleares) last July.

I’m not sure how this story would be told if I were reading it in something aside from El País, if I were hearing someone from here tell it, & part of that is what makes me hesitant, nervous — I’m reading this in a café-bar, after all, in public, & in public you just don’t talk about these things, particularly if you’re a foreigner. The rest of Spain, as far as I can tell from the reaction of friends of mine in Jaén when I told them where I was going — “You’re going where?” — views Basque Country with a kind of irrational, ignorant fear tinged with exoticism, as though I weren’t living 4 & a half hours by car from Madrid but in some kind of magical land on the far end of the earth, or rather, not magical but wartorn. It feels like talking to college freshmen in Boston about living in Jamaica Plain.

You can’t argue with the weight of the dead. But of course here the relationship between the kind of political sentiment that ETA represents & a rejection of the violence they carry out is much more contingent & embroidered. Yes, I can hear someone saying, yes, this was wrong, this was horrible. But — and I don’t know what would follow. Something, assuredly. All I have after four months here are bare fragments, & maybe I’d be better off keeping quiet until I know what I’m talking about, but part of me wants you, dear reader, to share my confusion.

I wasn’t planning on writing about this this morning.