Basque-ing in Garmendia’s presence

April 16, 2010, 12:51 a.m.
Basque-ing in Garmendia's presence
José Irazu Garmendia, visiting professor of Iberian and Latin Cultures, has devoted his life's work to writing, teaching and studying Basque culture. ANNE PIPATHSOUK/Staff Photographer

As a young novelist, José Irazu Garmendia shrugged off the beckoning calls of his friends and the excitement of the town dance. Instead, he opted for the twisted and touching tales of his Russian literary collection. The Basque writer had found his passion at age 14, and today, Garmendia is still as dedicated to reading, writing and literary rumination as ever.

Garmendia has published many works about the great cultural oppression imposed upon the Basques, an ethnic group that inhabits areas surrounding northeastern Spain and southwestern France, and how that oppression has affected him as a person and as a writer. Called the “Defender of Basque culture,” Garmendia is one of the world’s most renowned and respected Basque writers. He will be teaching two classes at Stanford this spring which focus on Basque language, literature and culture, while tying into modern issues affecting the group.

In a conversation in broken English and Spanish, Garmendia described his youth in Asteasu, a small village in the Gipuzkoa province of the Basque Country. Noting the closeness of the Basque communities, Garmendia called his village “ancient” because of its distance from the outside world, almost as if the 1920s town was stuck in a time before the forces of modernity.

“Life was about the church, the school and the main street, creating a very tight community,” Garmendia explained, smiling in reminiscence.

The secluded provinciality came to an end in the mid-1930s when the Spanish government, under the Franco dictatorship, banned all expression of Basque language and cultural identity. The imposed discrimination strongly marked Garmendia’s adolescence, and he and his peers found an affinity with Russian literature.

“We became hypnotized,” Garmendia recalled, describing how he and his friends loved the literature’s dramatic plots and psychological analysis of human life.

Earning himself the nickname “Fyodor,” after the deeply philosophical writer Fyodor Dostoevsky, Garmendia began writing his own novels in his early teens. Yet due to political conflict, he could not continue studying philosophy and literature in college, majoring instead in economics at the University of Bilbao.

After school, he worked as an economist, a bookseller, a teacher of Basque and a radio scriptwriter, until he finally decided to focus on writing professionally. Writing in Euskadi, the traditional Basque language that had been banned by the Spanish government, Garmendia adopted the pseudonym Bernardo Axtaga. Under this name, Garmendia has written prolifically since the 1970s, publishing numerous poems, short stories, novels, children’s books and articles.

“I needed to write hidden behind a mask,” Garmendia said, noting again how the political oppression influenced his professional decisions.

But from behind that mask, Garmendia has still given a great deal to Basque literature. For his works, Garmendia has received global fame and won multiple literary awards, such as Spain’s 1988 Premio Nacional de Literatura.

“I am not exactly a teacher–I’m a writer,” Garmendia said with an almost apologetic smile.

Although he may not identify as a teacher, here at Stanford, Garmendia is a visiting professor in the department of Iberian and Latin American cultures. He is teaching two classes: “Cultural and Political Change in the Basque Country,” a course about the leading figures of the 1970s postwar period, and “The Hedgehog’s Awakening: Basque Culture’s Return,” a seminar on the rebirth of the Basque language and new literary and artistic creations.

“This seminar provides a rare opportunity to dive deeply into Basque culture under the tutelage of a native scholar,” said Monique Johnson, an employee at the Stanford Office of Development who is auditing the class for fun. “Professor Garmendia is very passionate about helping us develop an insider’s perspective on what it means to be Basque.”

Garmendia also offers Stanford students a scholarly experience that few others could provide.

“I have books and films that are very difficult to find about Basque literature,” Garmendia noted, as he rummaged through a few old philosophy books on his desk.

He explained that his classes are more like discussions, with dialogue about the layers, history and power of literary traditions as well as the complexity of human life.

“I might be too broad, too unorthodox,” Garmendia said of his teaching style, rolling his eyes in between short chuckles.

Garmendia’s love of literature, philosophy and deep analysis of life emanates through every minute of conversation with him. His appreciation for them is evident, and he hopes to instill this curiosity in his students.

“Literature is about life in general. Life is an infinite thing,” Garmendia said. “Life and literature are without end.”

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