Reviewed By Mark Pleiss
- Graywolf Press (2018)
- 352 pages
Bernardo Atxaga (1951-) is unquestionably Basque Country’s most prominent author in terms of editorial success and critical acclaim, and he has become not only one of Spain’s leading writers of fiction but also an influential voice for Basque cultural identity inside and outside of Europe. Atxaga became a major player on the world literary scene with the publication and translation of Obabakoak in 1988, which won several awards and prompted further translations that gained the attention of audiences in some twenty-five languages. Since then, Atxaga has published children’s books, poetry, essays, plays, and several critically acclaimed novels. He released his most recent book, Nevadako egunak, in 2013, and he translated the work to Spanish in 2015. Graywolf Press has presented several of the author’s works in English, and its most recent translation, completed by Margaret Jull Costa in 2018, has made Nevada Days now available to audiences in the English-speaking world.
Nevada Days is a quasi-autobiographical depiction of Atxaga’s year as a visiting scholar for the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada in 2007-2008. The book belongs to a classic tradition of travel narratives in which a character journeys to a foreign land and undergoes experiences of displacement that lead to reflection and self-discovery. Curiously, Nevada Days relates these experiences with a first person narrator-protagonist who acts as a fictionalized version of the author. The technique infuses ambiguity into the relationship between the real-life writer and the narrator, and it casts uncertainty around which actions truly took place and which have been enhanced, misremembered, or completely invented.
Nevada Days subsequently cannot be read entirely as an autobiography, a novel, or a collection of stories. It is instead a hybrid text that compiles several genres and narrative lines into one book. It contains journal entries about the narrator’s time in Reno, excerpts on notable Basque immigrants in the United States, letters to the narrator’s parents, and headlines concerning the murder of a student at the University of Nevada. Despite the plurality of forms, the book receives unity through a central story line that develops across the travels of the narrator and his family through the Great Basin Desert, Virginia City, Steamboat Springs, Death Valley, Area 51, and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe’s Reservation. Moreover, the characters visit military bases, cemeteries, and cantinas, and they attend NCAA basketball games, political rallies for Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, and even a desert speed car race. The entries consequently map the social, cultural, and geographic features of the region, and they document connections between the narrator; the land; and other Basques who lived, worked, and died in the region.
The relationship between the narrator and the land develops as he investigates a population of Basque immigrants who moved to Nevada from Spain during the gold rush of the mid-1800s. They are recognized as the first Basques to live in the United States, and they established themselves in the region selling wool and lamb to the boom of pioneers searching for gold. The narrator’s time in the North American desert allows him to understand the hardships of his predecessors, and it leads him to the work of Robert Laxalt (1923-2001). Laxalt became one of the most prominent Basque-American writers and intellectuals in the United States and wrote the book, Sweet Promised Land, about his father, Dominique, who worked as a shepherd in Nevada for some forty-seven years. Robert also served as a writer-in-residence at the University of Nevada Reno.
The narrator’s study of Laxalt leads him to feelings of comradery toward the Basque scholar and a desire to continue a tradition of Basque intellectualism in the United States. Moreover, the Nevada desert serves as a meditative resource for the narrator to reflect upon his past and that of his homeland. The pattern emerges when spaces, objects, and even animals across the desert trigger memories from the narrator’s youth in Basque Country:
I closed my eyes. Then I opened them. Standing right next to the nose of the car were two wild horses looking at me. They were very still. One of them had a white star on its head like the horse at Loyola that Cornélie used to ride. Where would Cornélie be now? I hadn’t heard from her for possibly thirty years. An image came to mind: the head of a horse peering over a stable door, and a figure nearby smoking a cigarette . . .
The sudden opening of the narrator’s eyes invites us to wonder if he is fully conscious or still in a dreamlike state. The horses, which many in Basque Country believe to be sacred, serve as memory markers that recall important people from the past and a definitive moment in the narrator’s childhood—one involving a horse—that leads to a decades-old mystery within his family. Other markers recall dinners, weddings, and funerals from the past and experiences with family members who endured political oppression. The strategy gradually produces a brief history of Basque Country during the twentieth century, especially its place within the cruelty of the Franco dictatorship in Spain from 1939 to 1975.
Following a tradition of writing among European travelers in the United States, Nevada Days also shares praise and cultural criticism. The narrator demonstrates a love of music, including popular, folk, and country, as he regularly listens to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, and Dolly Parton. He also expresses excitement toward the freedom of the area, a space he describes as an eternal wild west where military toys are tested, alien spacecraft can be uncovered, and world land speed records can be broken. But the narrator is also critical of the war in Iraq and the country’s abusive treatment of minority groups. He details the poor conditions that Basque immigrants faced during the gold rush, and he recognizes the murder of Native American tribes, the abuse of Chinese workers building the railroad, and the systemic oppression of immigrants from Latin America.
Nevada Days presents a cultural history of the Basque people as they continue to live from the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the Pyrenees, but readers are also likely to connect with the book’s portrayal of displacement, travel, and loss. At its core, the story explores the confusion of feeling like an outsider both inside and outside of one’s own country, as it presents the idea of a homeland not as a point of origin but as a state of mind that is developed across distances, friendships, and communities. Such themes speak to specific topics commonly linked to immigration and the oppression of cultural minorities, but they also connect readers to other experiences associated with contemporary US politics and the human condition. If our sense of belonging exists primarily in the realm of the imagination, then—the book seems to suggest—we must reconsider systems of thought that are bound by geographic locations, national origins, and other social divides. Margaret Jull Costa’s translation offers a remarkable vision of an often-forgotten region of the United States, and it does so from a Basque writer who finds his homeland in the horses, sand, and sagebrush of the North American Southwest.
Mark Pleiss is a writer in Denver. His collection of stories April Warnings won the Veliz Books (El Paso, Texas) publication prize for fiction and is forthcoming in June 2019. He has a doctorate in Spanish literature and has published peer-reviewed literary criticism in academic journals; and his essays, fiction, reviews and other writing have appeared in Tupelo Quarterly, Pop Matters, the Omaha Pulp, Sequel, Fine Lines, Palimpsest, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Denver Post. He is from Omaha, Nebraska.