Euskal Herria

‘the green steep slopes of the Basque countryside’ Mark Kurlansky
‘the green steep slopes of the Basque countryside’ Mark Kurlansky

When I started out on the idea of writing a romantic novel with a French setting I hesitated between the Côte d’Azur/Riviera, so naturally beautiful in spite of hordes of tourists and too many fishing-net-draped restaurants, and the ‘other’ coast, the Atlantic.

Having spent many holidays there with friends who had Basque branches in their family tree I was lucky enough to get an insider’s view of this fascinating part of the world. I went to local festivals, listened to Basques singing a capella, went  up into the wild mountain region between France and Spain, was introduced to the local cuisine at small village inns.  It was there I was rendered speechless by my first hot Basque, the famous fiery red pepper from the town of Espelette. (Advice to culinary novices – proceed with caution.)

A village 'fronton' with 'pelote basque' players
A village ‘fronton’ with ‘pelote basque’ players

Many summer evenings were spent gripped by the drama of pelote basque,   invented here and exported under the name of jai alai. Pelote, in French, originally meant a ball (of string, rope etc) and today is used mainly to refer to a ball of wool. But the pelote used in the game is a far cry from the fluffy little objects nestling Granny’s knitting bag. Propelled against walls (frontons) by rackets, ‘baskets’ (chisteras) or simply  bare-handed (main nue), they get up to truly impressive speeds. They are especially impressive when glimpsed heading in your direction at 150 mph. (Spectators are protected by nets and partitions, but that doesn’t stop the ducking and gasping). Other evenings we’d join in the fun and thrills at a course de vaches landaises, the local ‘corridas’ where the bull gets to chase would-be matadors, and spectacular ‘bull-leaping’  is a key feature of the entertainment. (Also, the bull-a cow actually-doesn’t die, but lives to torment other hopefuls.)

So I made my choice. The ‘other’ coast it was.

In the first book of the French Summer Novels, ‘Biarritz Passion’, I was so enthused by the setting and culture that occasionally they threatened to take over the story (as one reviewer remarked). But how can anyone spend time in the Basque country and not be stirred by passion? What I learned about the Basques from friends was anecdotal and personal, but looking more closely into their history, it’s hard not be moved by the story of this ancient and mysterious people.

In  ‘The Basque History of The World’, a dramatic, encyclopaedic 400-page must-read, Mark Kurlansky dives into their origins and culture. The Basques, he reminds us, are very  probably the original Europeans, with evidence pointing to their direct descent from Cro-Magnon man, who lived 40 000 years ago. Their language, Euskera, which has no linguistic relative and is probably the oldest European language still spoken, is a defining element in their identity. Their land is called Euskal Herria, the land of Euskera speakers.

A set of laws, fueros, governed the way society worked. They were handed down through oral tradition until the 12th century, then written into a legal code in Spanish and regularly debated and amended . They were the cornerstone of Basque freedoms, remarkably liberal and progressive for their time, banning the use of torture, for example, and allowing property to be handed down the female line. As in other contemporary societies, the discussions and assemblies took place beneath a meeting oak.

The story of the Basque oak tree is a moving one. The original, planted in the fourteenth century, is said to have lived for three, maybe four hundred years (accounts vary). Part of the trunk of its ‘son’ can still be seen in the nearby gardens, and the third tree was a miracle. The oak under which the Basques had debated their  fueros for centuries was situated at the edge of the town of Guernica.  Somehow, this third tree survived the horrific destruction when the German Condor legion, helping dictator Francisco Franco, carpet-bombed the town on on April 26th 1937. It was market day. Hundreds of civilians were mowed down and the town reduced to rubble. But the fueros oak, symbol of Basque autonomy, still stood.

‘Guernica, the most ancient town of the Basques and the centre of their cultural tradition, was completely destroyed yesterday afternoon by insurgent air raiders…The whole of Guernica was soon in flames except the historic Casa de Jontas with its rich archives of the Basque race, where the ancient Basque Parliament used to sit. The famous oak of Guernica, the dried old stump of 600 years and the young new shoots of this century, was also untouched. Here the kings of Spain used to take the oath to respect the democratic rights (fueros) of Vizcaya…’

Article by George Speer, The Times, April 27th 1937

The French Summer Novels are contemporary romances. When writing Book 2, ‘Hot Basque’, I wanted to keep the romantic element to the fore but felt that it was also important to touch on this other, darker, aspect,  the sufferings and adversity endured by the Basques during those decades of the 1930s and 40s. So when Antoine (our ‘hot Basque’) takes Jill to visit his native village, she learns that his grandfather was killed in the bombing of Guernica.

The sense of horror in the aftermath of the attack on the town was presumably felt even by the perpetrators, as every attempt was made to hush it up. But there were witnesses, the survivors, and the press, notably the British correspondent for ‘The Times’, George Speer, quoted above. When his account of this new weapon of terror reached the outside world, the revulsion was unanimous:

‘At 2 am today when I visited the town the whole of it was a horrible sight, flaming from end to end. The reflection of the flames could be seen in the clouds of smoke above the mountains from 10 miles away. Throughout the night houses were falling until the streets became long heaps of red impenetrable debris.’

Pablo Picasso, hearing what had happened, took up his brush to create one of the most famous paintings in art history, ‘Guernica’. Its powerful monochromatic depictions of suffering with the enigmatic central symbol of the wounded horse have made the work a universally recognized expression of the horrors of war.*

Back to the written page. Having introduced the Guernica connection for Antoine, the question then became how to move on from that sombre period of history, how to get back to Jill and Antoine’s story and the more upbeat, romantic theme of the novel? The problem gave me a lot of sleepless nights. I almost changed the whole chapter, giving Antoine some whaling ancestors instead. They would have tied in nicely with the family restaurant and its seabream a la plancha.

But Guernica still niggled. 

Finally, one small detail  in Picasso’s painting  gave the answer and provided the perfect transition.

Later, as they lay together, hands entwined, he asked her if she had seen something in the painting of ‘Guernica’, a little flower.

‘A flower?’ She turned to him, eyes widening.

‘At the bottom. In the middle, by the sword. Just a small flower. It is a symbol. A symbol of hope, that life conquers death. And Picasso told us to remember the law of the corrida, a law which says it is the bull that must die, and the horse who lives.’

(Hot Basque)

*There are many interpretations of Picasso’s painting, but the one I chose for the novel comes from  brilliant art historian Robert Hughes. In ‘The Shock of the New’ he writes: ‘…it is a general meditation on suffering…the gored and speared horse (the Spanish Republic), the bull (Franco) louring over the bereaved, shrieking woman…’

A final word before signing off.

I’d like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to Caroline for doing a promo post on ‘Hot Basque’ at AReadersReviewblog (run by Caroline Barker and Tina Williams, booklovers check it out; when do those two devoted ladies ever sleep??)

And another beaming smile to indie author extraordinaire, Matt Abraham, who re-blogged the post. Yey! All Private Investigator fans (oh how we love ’em) check out his site and meet The Great Dane  at:

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