Atxaga, Bernardo


I was born in the village Asteasu, Gipuzkoa, in 1951, and from a very young age I felt a strong inclination to read and write. My mother was a teacher, so my family favoured everything that had to do with books, and although to a lesser extent, so did the Basque society of the sixties; in the absence of televisions, words took up old seats. When I was thirteen, influenced by what I had read in encyclopedias and comic books, I wrote my first poem, where everything rhymed with -ix: ‘You have eyes the colour of onyx, and your hair is like those brunettes from Guadix…’ I never showed it to anyone —my siblings were still young—, but I corrected it a few times and neatly wrote it down in my first hardcover notebook.

Shortly after my first literary attempt, my parents decided to move to a more urban area, so we settled in Andoain, an industrial town only eight kilometres from Asteasu. Despite the short distance, it was an enormous change for me: I went from a fundamentally rural world to an industrial one, full of factories and workshops, and this change also coincided with the start of my adolescence. In this new situation, the only outlet was the one that led me to the City Library, where I spent most of my free time during the first year, the year of adapting. Then, when I enrolled in the La Salle de San Sebastián School and made my first few friends, I began taking part in literary contests and publishing articles and stories —nothing too complex— in the school paper. Sometimes, following the advice of my Religion teacher, a priest called Bereziartua, I wrote in Basque, a language most of my classmates considered to be of commoners.

However, although my literary interest was strong, it would not have been enough to cement a literary career which, as I learned later on, would require great devotion and an even greater patience. I owe my definite diversion towards literature —a diversion from what in the Spain of the seventies was considered a ‘normal life’— to none other than the poet Gabriel Aresti, who, having read a short play I had written, recommended to him by a bookseller, sent me a long letter assuring me that if I persisted I would become the ‘sixth Basque writer in time’. I was young, barely twenty, and the praise from the author of Harri eta herri (Stone and People) gave me strength to continue. It was then when I adopted the pseudonym Berardo Atxaga and published my first works in the Basque magazines of the era, especially in the now extinct Anaitasuna. I was living in Bilbao at the time, finishing my last year of university in the Faculty of Economic Sciences of Sarriko, famous for its conflicts and the number of extreme leftists it accommodated.

Some writers go into the world fully made, with a perfectly rounded work that is immediately recognised by a legion of readers and critics. Unfortunately, I did not belong to that group. It took me more than ten years to find my place, figure out where I was headed, what Aresti calls ‘controlling the boat’, and a few more to find my own voice and get my first texts right. I was aided in this task by the writers that coincided with me in the Banda Pott —Iturralde, Sarrionandia, Bakedano, Juaristi, and others—, as by musicians and painters —Ordorika, Laboa, Zumeta, Ameztoy, Eguillor…— with whom I collaborated in many projects. With their support my writing began acquiring consistency, despite the flimsy Basque literary institution and the overwhelming political situation. In the late seventies, after different jobs, I decided to leave the Social Security system and live in an area which was then populated by beggars, farmers, housewives, and artists. Years later it would become the district of the ‘professional’ writers and, in nicer terms, of the ‘free’.

One time, in a rather unpleasant and exasperating place, I picked up a paper from the ground and I suddenly found in my hands —nearly making me lose my balance— Mallarmé’s famous sonnet in -ix. Someone had written it down, with neat and careful handwriting, in its original French form: Ses purs ongles très haut dédiant leur onyx... While recalling the first poem of my life and celebrating that strange coincidence, I considered the piece of paper to be a message from the Parnassus spirits. They wanted me to keep writing, to work at my studio desk and search for what some people like Mallarmé had already found a long time ago. Twenty years later, I have at least that certainty: that I have worked hard, that I have continued on my specific diversion, and that I am still not tired of being a writer.

Bernardo Atxaga

Portrait of the author by Alejandra Hidalgo