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Bernardo Atxaga: Obabakoak (Obabakoak)

The first modern Basque work published in English is a real post-modernist gem. Obabakoak apparently means the people and things of Obaba, Obaba being a Basque village. The book may be Basque but the style, in many ways, recalls Italo Calvino with its clever games, mixtures of stories (some blatantly and overtly plagiarized), comments on modern literature, chitchat, diary entries and so on. The first story is a good example of this. It concerns a German who has come to live in Obaba to escape from Hitler. He knows that he will have to stay but is worried that his son will, too. One day, his son faints in church and imagines that a German girl, Maria, who gives him her name and address, comes to him. He tells his father and then writes to her. To his surprise, she responds, telling him that she saw him at the same time. A correspondence ensues which lasts a long time, with Maria helping him, advising and being a friend. Eventually, however the letters drop off and the correspondence dries up. However, he is now aware that there is a life outside Obaba and goes to university. Much later, when his father has died, he happens to be in Hamburg (where Maria lived) and, eventually, goes to the house, where he finds out the whole letter writing was cooked up by his father and his father’s friend. The boy had, in his dream, conjured up a real address – that of his father’s friend – and a real woman, a former friend of his father’s, long since dead, but the rest was his imagination!

This is, of course, just one example of what Atxaga is up to. Some of his stories are clearly not his own. For example, he tells the well-known story used by Somerset Maugham in his Appointment in Samarra. Only he sets it in Isfahan instead of Samarra. And then has a chapter entitled How to Plagiarise, which is just that but a somewhat tongue-in-cheek lesson on plagiarism from a old Basque author. Much of the story is the narrator’s interaction with the people of Obaba. The shepherds who are the petty criminals of the village, the self-deprecating dwarf, the lonely teacher, all have a story to tell and Atxaga brilliantly tells their story and then tells the story of the telling of their story. It’s superbly done. If this is what the Basque novel has to offer, I can’t wait for more!

Publishing history

First published in Basque 1988 by Erein Argitaletxea, Donostia
First English translation 1992 Pantheon Books/Hutchinson
Translated by Margaret Jull Costa