Hamlet in the Basque Club

2006 June 21
Hamlet in the Basque Club

Exile, and the exile of writers in particular, becomes an issue of identification: to be from here and from there, to estrange oneself from one place in order to belong in a strange land. Our exile is nothing like that; that is our contribution to the universal history of exile, the absence of this issue.

On the whole, the postwar exile in 1936-1937 was highly organized, both in the exiles' manner of escape and in the way they settled. Jose Antonio Aguirre made good use of the contacts the Party had already made, and in Argentina and Venezuela, they gave the Basques as warm a welcome as the Spanish republicans received in Mexico.

Our exile, he whom we label a «Basque writer», has traveled in groups, in euskal etxeak (Basque clubs), in the Basque Country itself almost, within a dense network of relationships. And the malady of those who write from a distance, that beclouding mist caused by homesickness, has dominated our literature for a long time without anyone going anywhere: the idealization of the Basque Country came before the exile itself. This can be seen no more clearly than in Bingen Ametzaga's poems of 1920.

Exile, was it merely an escape?

It seems that our poets are rooted in endless us-ness, the only exception being Orixe. But not because he suffered any crisis of identity when he took a cutting from the ombu tree on Otaño's ranch -and thus, from the walnut tree on the farm on the other side of the ocean, that is, here- because he does not become Americanized due to transplanted nostalgia, but plunges into mysticism. Exile didn't cause those who were more Basque than the Basques to waver in the least; the words they wrote have no ties whatsoever with reality, or with personal suffering, or with their strange but attractive surroundings. Our writers lived in the ghetto in exile, smiling in parental idiocy at the vitalism of a Sabin Irizar (Txirike-Parú). They inherited a ponderous type of poetic language, and tell us the same stories again and again. They would curse Unamuno, they didn't want to be the pallbearers of the language («Oh!»), and it would seem that they never heard that famous and elegant insult, «the honest Basque poetry». The world frightens them. Ametzaga would rather have the Gobela than the Seine (the «Gobela alferra» he called it [lazy Gobela], a wholly excellent epithet for a small river, born of the need for a rhyme for «bazterra» [corner] of course); rather than Paris or London, he would have Algorta, a small port at the time. Not because of the port itself, but because it was Basque.

Ametzaga's peers wrote a fine stack of poems outside of the Basque Country, but we can barely read exile in their texts. Our exiled writers are unfamiliar with the struggle of the dialectic of the here and there; if we read the journal Euzko-Gogoa [Basque Soul], published in Guatemala, from cover to cover, we will learn nothing about America. They write for years and years without stopping, it seems that the problem is not exile, nor is it a linguistic problem, it's incredible. They continue blind, turning their backs in America as well on the realities they refused to see in Europe: Dakar, Casablanca, La Habana, Barranquilla, Montevideo, Caracas... where didn't Bingen Ametzaga go! Nevertheless, we will not find exile in his poems. For that, to read about our own situation, that is, the situation of one from there who lives here, not that of one from here who lives there, we have to enter into another language, and into the unpublished collections Guerra y Destierro [War and Banishment] and Rincones Mágicos [Magical Corners"]. Yes, Ametzaga's works. Because literature is one thing, and Basque literature another. He inherited a ponderous type of poetic language when learning our language, an infantile imagery full of stupidities of church and stupidities of locality, and cannot explain life, the world, anything new. The Basque club is both haven and prison. To such an extent that this literature, this imagery and way of thinking all in all might have been strangers in their own land. This country that lived in a single ideology was the theme of their songs, the words of their poetry, which was far from reality. Reading these poems, we imagine the interior of the house: images of a pilgrimage and pictures of the Virgin.

To be free, they would need another language, another poetic art.

This is what makes Bingen Ametzaga interesting, this need, though it was never expressly formulated, because the journey he took through the poetry of others shows an enormous effort to transcend the obsolete poetics. Precisely this is this poet's exile and this exile's struggle: he wants to do his own thing but is in need of someone else's, he finds in the work of others the beauties he cannot express in his own; he appropriates them and, bit by bit, in making them Basque, brings us different propositions. What exile doesn't provide, translation bestows. These are the two ends of Ametzaga's tightrope: what he writes and what he gives us to read, what he writes in Basque and what he brings to us from the languages of the world, that is, what he translates for us but is unable to write himself. In this way he conquers the anachronism of his poetry.

Bingen Ametzaga's poetic works have no particular personality, he created poems that any lesser monk would be capable of, but through him we know Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Milton, Whitman, Turgenev -he had a keen eye as a reader- and he translated Wilde's long work The Ballad of Reading Gaol for us in its entirety, precisely and excellently. Because he both invented and was indebted, we can thus place him in the dialectic of the transplanted writer: «I am not this, I would like to be that, I am thus when I do my own thing»; this I think is the message of his body of work. And taking into account our language, the objective situation that our literary expression had at the time, we can safely say that Bingen Ametzaga was a superb translator.

That was his way of dealing with the world.

Perhaps he began translating as a pastime, putting one thing in Basque today, another tomorrow, simply for fun, or perhaps they were things he had in hand. His first translations are dated 1939; in other words, they would have been completed on the long voyage he made on the well-known ship Alsina. But what began as a game took over his whole life to the point of obsession. "If it is both a result and a metaphor of exile, why am I not that? I am actually, look!" And he takes Du Bellay as a basis to create his own work, or Goethe. «Why are we not this?» the poet asks himself somehow. Because literary reality is these authors, not our literature; ours is Basque, the little port of Algorta.

We do read a type of exile, in fact, in reading Bingen Ametzaga's own poems and translations. He wants to be from here and of the world; he has two provenances, in conflict with each other. What did he feel when he was translating Wilde? Fury, without a doubt. He met the other, had the audacity to rub elbows with his neighbor. He learned that the other, though not an ancient Greek, was literary.

He seems like a contemporary Basque poet who writes to us about Palestine, Sarajevo, Manhattan, Baghdad, Lisbon. In the sense that he needed the other in order to define himself, Bingen Ametzaga could not be more modern.

For more information: Bingen Ametzaga Itxaso aurrean [By the Sea].

Published by permission of the author and www.susa-literatura.com.