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Wednesday, 09 April 2008

Juan Bas: Long live the Republic and the Spirit of Wine!

Translation by Jeffrey Tabberner

It is not easy to decide whether Juan Bas should be considered as a Spanish author who was born in Baskenland, or simply as a Basque author. There are arguments on both sides.

In support of the thesis of a Spanish author with Basque origins, Bas shows himself to be a fierce critic of every form of Basque nationalism, whether the conservative sort represented by the government party PNV (Partido Nacionalista Vasco), or the other one, which with ETA, has kept the Spanish republic in suspense over decades, and which is still, to say the least, tying itself in knots. Anyone who attacks the leading Basque newspaper El Correo, can expect to find himself faced with sharp-tongued and mocking attacks by the author against the conservative side, and an indignant, and in his own judgment unequivocal position on separatist terrorism.

Supporting the thesis of a Basque author, Baskenland continues to be the setting for his novels, in which historical and political themes as well as national aspirations find a place. So, in his novel ‘La cuenta atrás’ (which can be roughly translated as ‘A Closed Account’) the hero begins his boxing career as a stone thrower, a strange and seemingly archaic Basque sport, in which whoever can lift the largest rock above his head wins. His novel ‘Alacranes en su tinta’ (‘Scorpion in its own Juice’) is amongst other things an explicit reckoning with ETA, after the publication of which he was officially advised to employ a bodyguard, which still today many people in Basque public life feel obliged to do.

After breaking off his law studies at the start of the nineteen-eighties, Juan Bas began his writing career as a scriptwriter for television. He wrote, amongst other things, 13 episodes of the first Basque sitcom ‘Juntos y Revuetos’, which today he himself describes as pretty bad, and worked for various Spanish television channels. A series called ‘Paginas ocultas de la historia (‘Hidden Pages of History’), that he wrote together with author and childhood friend Fernando Marías, achieved cult status. In an elegant manner, it linked together historical events and fictional elements, causing confusion amongst well-informed Spanish citizens. So in ‘La otra muerte der Federico García Lorca’ (‘The Other Death of Federico García Lorca’) the news arrives, in the style of investigative journalism, that Lorca did not die in the attempted murder plot by Spanish nationalists in 1936, but that suffering from a bullet wound to the head, he was cared for by nuns in a convent until his death in 1934. The series’ success led to both authors working on the script for a volume of short stories which appeared in 1999 under the same title, and which for Juan Bas represented the real beginning of his literary work.

 This was followed by a volume of short stories called ‘La taberna de los tres monos’, which brought together fifteen stories under the title of ‘Die Taverne zu den drei Affen’ in the German translation by Fritz Rudolf Fries, published by Europa-Verlag in 2003. This showed Bas’ talent for compression, the ability to create a dramatic atmosphere in a few sentences. [As a fan and a connoisseur of the ‘Genero negro’, and thus of the crime novel, he carefully chooses elements with many literary allusions to provide the excitement.]

 This was followed by two children’s novels, which, because of their historical background, many adult readers also read with pleasure. In ‘El oro de los carlistas’ (The Gold of the Carlistas’), published in 2001, the hero, Nicolás Gorstiza, who participated in the first Carlista war, recounts his experiences. Here again, the republican Juan Bas makes his appearance, criticising in the novel the monarchist movement with its absolutist Catholic convictions, and thus also lending support to work in the best sense.

 The children’s novel ‘Glabro, legionario de Roma’ (‘Glabro, Roman Legionary’), which promptly appeared in the following year, also tackled the war theme in a critical manner. The scene is Rome, and the first-person narrator this time is a Roman gladiator, who recalls his time as a legionnaire under Quintus Sertorius, who in 83 BC became Governor of the Spanish provinces.

 The next book by Juan Bas marks a pause, dedicated as it is to a private passion, namely drinking. ‘Tratado sobre la resaca’ (A Tract on the Hangover’) is a successful attempt to bring to the reader’s attention all the pleasures of drinking, in a highly amusing way. It also gives medical advice for the ‘day after’, as well as philosophical reflections, and the book is peppered with genuine and fictitious anecdotes, and many literary and cinematic allusions to the sometimes-unpredictable effects of alcoholic consumption.

 The novel ‘La cuenta atrás’ (‘A Closed Account’) features the reflections of former European heavyweight champion José Luis Arrida, who, as already mentioned, began his international career in the depths of the Basque provinces as a stone thrower, and just before his leap into the void sees his life pass before him. It is a black-humoured and unsentimental account of a shattered existence, which in his description of the ‘human condition’ reaches a universal dimension but, alas, does not receive the response it deserves.

 The novel ‘Alacranes en su tinta’ (‘Scorpion in its own Juice’), that also appeared in 2002, meant for Juan Bas a national and international breakthrough. The novel was translated into French, Russian and German, and at the Bilbao Book Fair it received the ‘Pluma de Plata’ for the bestselling book of the year. ‘Alacranes en su tinta’ (‘Scorpion in its own Juice’) is the story of a merciless campaign of vengeance, which as a series of confessions, is embedded in a background story located in Bilbao in the year 2000. The foolish hero, Pacho Murga Bustamente, chronically short of money, makes friends with the already greying Astigarraga, with whom he shares a love of haute cuisine, and opens the gourmet restaurant ‘The Bilbao World’s Menu’. While still intoxicated by a resounding success, Pacho is confronted by the written confessions of his partner and friend, after his fevered examination of which, it all ends in an angry showdown in the famous Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. This novel is politically explosive, because it portrays an explicit reckoning with ETA, in a manner so rare in Spanish literature.

 The deadbeat hero Pacho Murga Bustamente meets the reader again in Bas’ next novel, ‘Voracidad’ (‘Greed’), for which the author received the Premio Euskadi de Literatura (Basque Prize for Literature) in 2007. With the same stylistic energy as in ‘Alacranes en su tinta’ (‘Scorpion in its own Juice’), which pays homage to the grotesque in a masterly fashion, the reader is led, together with a garish collection of waxworks, into the depths of human desire, which here also lead to a crime of vengeance. Bas doesn’t allow himself either to get involved in various sideswipes against Basque nationalism or to indulge in negative criticism of the media, and consequently to denounce the excesses of a modern, and at the same time, a backward-looking society.

 In the last year the numerous articles from El Correo appeared in book form, and the new novel with the title ‘Es saxo es mi marido’ (‘I married a Saxophone’) is currently being reworked.

 Juan Bas is not only a tireless, clear-sighted and acerbic critic of current social and political events, but he is also blessed with enormous productivity, interrupted by frequent public readings, film sessions and copious dry martinis – of the best quality, of course

Last Updated ( Tuesday, 20 May 2008 )
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