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The Quality of the Fabric: An Interview with Bernardo Atxaga

By Cristina Slattery

Phillipe Starck´s forty-three-thousand-square-foot cultural center, the Alhóndiga, that was opened in 2010 was the setting for the Gutun Zuria literary conference that brought writers from the U.S., Spain and elsewhere to Bilbao in mid-April. Residents of the Basque city packed the auditorium each day to listen to the invited speakers, Bill Keller, Chuck Palahniuk, John Verdon, William Gibson and Philip Gourevitch, among others. (See: The Gutun Zuria, or "White Letter," conference is now five years old, and is an example of the cultural renaissance that is continuing what the Guggenheim-Bilbao started in 1997.

One speaker at the conference was the Basque writer, Bernardo Atxaga. Bernardo Atxaga (Joseba Irazu Garmendia, Asteasu, Guipúzcoa, 1951) belongs to the group who, as young writers in the seventies, began to write in Euskera. His first short story, Ziutateaz was published in 1976 and his first book of poetry, Etiopia, in 1978. Both works received the National Critics Prize for the best works in the Basque language. International recognition arrived with Obabakoak (1988) which, among other prizes, was awarded the National Literature Prize 1989. Many of his poems have also been translated into other languages as well. For more information on Bernardo Atxaga, please visit his Web site:

Cristina Slattery: A typical day for a ten-year-old Atxaga would include . . .

Bernardo Atxaga: I still lived in the town that I was born in, Asteasu, and I studied on my own, at home. In the mornings I studied or played handball in the handball court; in the afternoons, I rode my bicycle to the school that was four kilometers away, to report on my work. This is what I remember the most about my childhood along with some ceremonies in the church: the back-and-forth on the bicycle. Sometimes it rained or hailed, but it was marvelous to pedal under a raincoat.

CS: At sixteen years old, you were most interested in . . .

BA: I already lived in an industrial town that had a public library and I read many books. At that time, Dostoyevsky made a big impression on me. Apart from this, and for the first time in my life, I had real friends; friends that I still have today. We spent the weekends talking and philosophizing, and, once in a while, mostly in the summer, we went out to dance. There was a band in my town that played good versions of songs by the Kinks and the Beatles.

CS: Can you explain a bit about how your family has helped shape who you are?

BA: My father had a carpenter's workshop; my mother was a teacher, although when I was a child she was working for the accounting department of the town hall. Both struggled to give us university educations and did not let us forget the Basque language. Without this family environment, we probably would have lost it. Times were very bad. The dictatorship of General Franco weighed on everyone. When I was a child, the Basque language was practically prohibited.

CS: What types of stories most interest you? Why?

BA: I do not feel very comfortable when I read phrases like “how important it is to tell stories," or "to make a good film the most important thing is a good story." Unless I’m misinterpreting them, the idea behind statements like these is that literature, or fiction, consists in recounting events. This is what the two genres that have the most success, the crime novel and the fantasy novel, do. This is what the oral tradition does as well. It offers the reader a succession of events, or, if you prefer, actions.

It is true that literature has always been that way—isn't the appearance of the wooden horse in Troy the most important event? But, it is not just this. The saga of Gilgamesh or the death of Patroclus do not affect us merely because they occur, but because of the depth of what they say and how they say it; for the quality of the fabric, not the style of the suit.

CS: How do you start writing your novels?

BA: I will tell you how I wrote the last one—Zazpi etxe Frantzian, in Euskera. Seven Houses in France in the English edition. I was writing a book called Charlotte and the Monkeys and I had gotten to page 120. At this moment, the protagonist, who is visiting a zoo, talks to a bandit and says a silly phrase, "My grandfather gave his life for King Leopold II of Belgium." I started then to write a chapter about the grandfather . . . the chapter became the basis for the new novel. The first one never progressed at all after the first one hundred and twenty pages and, most likely, it never will.

CS:  Who are your favorite writers?

BA: I prefer to speak of books rather than of authors. Here are five: Bertold Brecht—Poems. Georg Christoph Lichtenberg—The Waste Books. Jean Itard—The Wild Boy of Aveyron. Samuel Beckett—First Love. Jean-Jacques Rousseau—Confessions. E.H. Gombrich— The Story of Art.

CS: Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

BA: I will send you, I will write you, I will call you. That is to say, promises. I have the bad habit of promising things that later I cannot do. I do not like this habit that I have, but I cannot get rid of it.

CS: What is your current state of mind?

BA: My mind is rather unsettled because I need to finish my new book, Dias de Nevada, this year.

Published May 9, 2012   Copyright 2012 Cristina Slattery

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