‘Post tenebras spero lucem’ by Bernardo Atxaga, translated by Margaret Jull Costa

My Basque friend Jokim once made me wait at Bilbao bus station for a coach to the airport while he ran to the nearest bookshop to get me a copy of Obabakoak. The publication of this book in 1989 was hugely significant in the Basque Country and across Spain. There is very little literature published in Euskera (Basque), because the language is so hard to learn: a pre-Indo-European language, its origins are mysterious. Euskera was suppressed during the dictatorship (signs in telephone boxes would warn the public to “speak Christian”) and Jokim was among a generation who learned the language of their forebears in clandestine schools.

Obabakoak was not only a vibrant addition to the Basque canon, but the first Euskera novel to win Spain’s National Prize for literature, in a Spanish translation Atxaga produced himself. The title means “the people and events of Obaba”(a fictional village)and the book comprises a series of tales about different characters in a fictional Basque village, a place Atxaga has described an “an interior landscape.”

In this story, a young schoolmistress, far from home and feeling starved of affection, begins to lose her mind in the cold and forbidding landscape of her new posting. A serious soul whose penchant for maths means that she is always counting steps, or mountains or swallows (“one hundred and twenty swallows on one wire and one hundred and forty on the other, two hundred and sixty swallows in all”), she is finally driven by loneliness to seduce one of her young pupils, with disastrous results. Once more, this translation is by the peerless Margaret Jull Costa, who has played such an important part in making Spanish fiction available to a wider audience. 

First published in Obabakoak, Erein, 1988 and in translation from Hutchinson, 1992

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