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'The Basque History of the World' By Mark Kurlansky

'The Basque History of the World' By Mark Kurlansky

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The Basque History of the World
Mark Kurlansky
Walker & Company
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If you see a Basque, so the story goes, standing on a clifftop or leaning on a tree by the roadside, and some hours later you find him in the same place and position and ask what he is doing, he is apt to give, in French or Spanish or one of seven varieties of Euskera, the Basque language, the simple answer, "I am staying."

He is not just whistling Dixie. The Basques, in their taciturn, ornery way, have shown an astonishing staying power. Whether or not they are, as they believe, the direct descendants of the Cro-Magnon hunter-artists of the Magdalenian period 20,000 years ago, there is no doubt that they have been staying in their Pyrenean valleys at the corner of the Bay of Biscay for thousands of years. They have preserved unique prehistoric blood groups and a unique language, stuffed with x's and z's and utterly unlike any other language on earth.

The title of Mark Kurlansky's book is only marginally ironical. The Basque History of the World does allow players like Charlemagne, Napoleon, Karl Marx and Francisco Franco to flit across the stage, but only when they are doing something (generally bad) for the Basques. It is not as if they have lived in remote desert wastes. Their mountain gorges lie at a strategic crossroads between great rich plains, constituting handy invasion routes since the beginning of history. Armies of the Romans and Visigoths, Arabs and Franks, Spaniards, French and English have pillaged and departed, while the Basques — peasants and shepherds and fishermen — have stayed.

Through it all they have never formed an independent country; they never even had a name for their country until a late-19th-century visionary poet-agitator coined one — Euzkadi, meaning "Euskera-speakers united." They have never been united in peace; in the civil wars that have torn Spain apart in the past two centuries, Basque has fought against Basque.

The Basques have left their marks on the outside world. They invented the beret, and the game of pelota (jai alai). They helped invent what is now the resort industry, when they lured the idle rich of Paris and Madrid to the seaside villages of Biarritz in France and San Sebastian in Spain. And it was brisk Basque entrepreneurs and bankers who turned their port of Bilbao into a steelmaking and shipbuilding industrial powerhouse.

Through thick and thin, they have clung to their identity and old ways, all documented in Kurlansky's book: the pre-Christian rites, midsummer bonfires, goat races and dances and spider-crab stews. Before the word had become fashionable, they resisted. Sometimes it was violent, as when, in a.d. 778, wild Basque mountaineers, resenting the presence of a foreign army in the pass of Roncesvalles (it was the rearguard of Charlemagne's army, retreating from an unsuccessful effort to drive the Arabs out of Spain), rolled rocks down on the invaders. The casualties included the rearguard commander, one nobleman named Roland. This episode was recorded by Charlemagne's friend and biographer Eginhard; by the time the monks at the monastery of Roncesvalles had gotten through with the story, it had turned into a 12,000-line poem, the Chanson de Roland.

A small people who number no more than 2.4 million, fewer than half of whom speak the official Basque language, they had little chance of maintaining an independent existence in the face of France and Spain. The boundary between those two countries was fixed 300 years ago on the crest of the Pyrenees; the Basques have always lived on both sides of the mountains.

They learned early on that a reliable source of income could come from smuggling goods over an international border, which for them has never been more than a line on the map. At times the goods were human: in World War II, they smuggled thousands of resistance fighters, Jews and British intelligence agents over the mountains from occupied France into Spain. After World War II, they smuggled Nazis and collaborators out of liberated France into Spain. But year in and year out, they smuggled any kind of goods on which duty was supposed to be paid.

After half a century of turmoil — bloody civil war, brutal repression under General Franco, a long campaign of bombings, murders and kidnappings by intransigent fighters for Basque independence — the ancient land has been slipping into an era of peace and prosperity. The three Spanish provinces of Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa and Alava have been formed into a Basque Autonomous Community, with considerable powers over local matters like education. Euskera, which Basques were forbidden to speak under Franco, is taught in schools; road signs are full of incomprehensible words full of x's and z's.

But the more the Basques indulge their sentimental devotion to the past, the more they are being absorbed inexorably into the modern world. The younger generation is more interested in the jobs they can get in the new high-tech factories. And the Bilbao skyline is no longer dominated by steel mills but by the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum, lured here at a cost of $56 to every citizen of the Basque Autonomous Community.

There are no more smugglers because there is no more frontier; Spain and France are members of the European Union. Jeannine Pereuil, who runs a pastry shop specializing in gâteau basque in the village of St. Pée-sur-Nivelle, on the French side, finds life distinctly less interesting than it was in the old days. "You used to hide a little bottle of Pernod in your clothes and nervously smile at the customs officials. Now, it's not any fun at all to go across."

But fun or no fun, she is going to stay in St. Pée-sur-Nivelle.

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