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June 9, 2008
By Zanny Marsh
Harvard University recruited Bernardo Atxaga as an author-in-residence, but the Basque author turned the famous university down. Instead, he accepted the position of Center for Basque Studies William Douglass Distinguished Scholar for 2007–2008.
During his term, he wrote on two books, lectured to University students and faculty and received perhaps the most prestigious award of his career. Adage’s most recent novel, The Accordionist’s Son, captured Italy’s most important literary prizes: Grinzane Cavour Grand Prize and Mondello Prize, widely considered predecessors of the Nobel Prize for Literature.
“It is an extraordinary honor to host an author of such distinction and acclaim at the University,” said Eric Herzik, interim director of the Center for Basque Studies, headquartered at the University. “His work transcends Basque culture and has brought him much attention from the international community. He lectures around Spain and all over Europe and our students have had the extraordinary opportunity to listen to him lecture about his books.”
Atxaga has traveled to the United States only twice before beginning his term at the University. He lived in Atlanta and in Boston, where he performed researched and wrote. He yearned for a ‘Western’ experience.
“In literature, there are many references to ‘passing through,’ which describes a connection to nature and to the landscape,” Atxaga said. “The history of Nevada is rich with this evocative connection to the landscape and the pioneer spirit. I wanted to capture that in my work.”
His appointment in the Center for Basque Studies afforded Atxaga the opportunity to interact with students and Basque scholars from around the world.
Outside of the classroom, Atxaga dedicated hours each day performing research and writing two books during his residency.
His first book titled Nevada Days is an amalgam of stories and memories that Atxaga heard from residents as he traveled the state. He spent considerable time in rural communities, especially at the popular “watering holes” such as barber shops, grocery stores and diners.
“The East appears to be a more homogenous society,” Atxaga said. “The building, the construction of Nevada, has more diversity, culture, more depth and growth. Nevada looks like the world of the future.”
Atxaga also wrote the book Seven Houses in France while he was in Reno.
Atxaga is among a small group of Basque writers whose careers were established when they began publishing in their native language.
“Writing in the Basque language reinforces egalitarianism but it elevates the individual voice,” said Mari Jose Olaziregi, assistant professor and specialist in Basque literature. “It separates the experience, makes it unique.”
International recognition for Atxaga came after publication of his 1988 novel Obabakoak, which was awarded the Spanish National Fiction Prize. It has been translated into more than 26 languages.
Several of his novels — Obabakoak, The Accordionist’s Son, The Lone Man, The Lone Woman and Two Brothers — have been translated into English.
Atxaga has also written short stories, children’s literature, poetry and essays. Atxaga’s work has sold more than 200,000 copies, making him the most translated and celebrated Basque author.
The Center for Basque Studies conducts and publishes Basque-related research and offers an academic minor in Basque studies and a tutorial doctoral program. The center is offering two courses for the Fall 2008 semester: BASQ 451/461, a course on Contemporary Basque Literature, and BASQ 452/652 in Spring 2009, a course on Atxaga’s literary works.