” Literature is the most agreeable way of ignoring life.”
Ever since the temperature has dropped to 18 degrees, we’ve had to move off the beach in search of other activities on our days of leisure. So on Tuesday 8th December, whilst suffering from the 3rd day of fear after the previous Saturday night’s escapades, I made a two-hour journey to Durango in order to attend the long weekend’s hotspot, the annual Basque Book Fair, or the Azoka as it’s known in Euskera. I went with Jack and Radka, who I was going to give literary pseudonyms but they’re just too genuine to mess around with their identities so I’m inviting them to claim defamation at any point in the future.
I’m not going to pretend that I researched Durango before going nor even this particular fair. This was not by premeditated decision. I usually like to know where I’m going and its significance but the truth is that my social life had engulfed me whole that week for some reason.It only spat me out on Tuesday morning on the steps of Amara station at Jack and Radka’s feet. My fragile person with a packet of Dinosaur biscuits, €20 and the promise of books on the horizon. I was vaguely hoping but not really expecting that they knew where we were going.
Straight up, I love books. I am the closest you can be to being in a committed relationship with books. I love their smell, touch and the sweet nothings buried in their pages. When I left Dublin, I left a tentative pile of books on my bookshelf in the hope that someone would post me one of them. Yet, ironically, I’ve barely read since I got to Donostia. Too busy writing and living.(preparing classes and being hungover). But on that Tuesday, my self barely intact, I wanted only to be in the presence of only books and Jadka, the most comforting couple that have ever existed. Mostly because they share both my love of literature and my exact browsing pace. They also always have snacks and the common need to dissect social situations. The train ride was a breeze.
When we arrived at Durango, Jack and I were momentarily kidnapped by a very tall and very Basque security man who wouldn’t let us go by with our travel cards. The disorientation of being shifted to using yet another foreign language was palpable. We gaped at him until he led us through the turnstile and whatever way it worked out I think I only paid €6 for a return ticket which I think was a discount for the event.
Upon exiting the station, I immediately got the sensation that Durango is a dense town that seems to have been dropped at the foot of a mountain range. The weight of this Urkiola range is almost overpowering. Especially on a gloomy day like that Tuesday. However the murky atmosphere merely intensified the character of the fair and so, buzzing with the exciting novelty of being in a new town, we followed the crowds quite literally through a marathon to the building that has hosted the fair for the past few years in the Landako exhibition grounds. We stopped in the music marquee to watch a singer-songwriter on the way.
The Durango Book Fair, based on delayed research, dates back to 1965 when the Basque Book and Record Fair was held in Santa Maria church. This made this year’s event the 50th anniversary. Another interesting point of information which I didn’t know beforehand. It is organised by Gerediaga Elkartea, an organisation based around the region of Durango, who on their website claim that one of their main aims is to recover historical and cultural heritage and preserve what has already been retained. This fair, one of its key events, has grown to have a great deal of influence over the Basque publishing industry. A lot of Basque publishers are known to wait until December to release major titles in order to coincide with this event. It’s designed as a public platform to disseminate Basque literature and other material marginalized during the Franco regime. This is evident by its clear political undertones.
We meandered through the exhibition space early in the day and as time went by, the crowds descended and it became increasingly difficult to fight our way to the front of popular stands. I was amazed to see beautiful copies of books such as Ulysses by James Joyce, Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint -Exupéry and Bobby Sands’ biography just sitting on the tables, all translated into Basque. The entire mood of the fair was awe-inspiring. I struggle to fathom how we could successfully hold a similar event in Ireland, irregardless of our unique language and collection of Irish writers and musicians. Perhaps in the future, festivals such as the IMRAM festival may become as established and inclusive but it was the sheer volume of diverse groups of people mixed with the passion at the heart of the event which impressed me.
There were gangs of families and friends at the fair but to really understand the majority of the crowd’s style, especially in the music tent , you’d have to understand the Basque Radical Rock movement which emerged in the 1980s. This was an underground movement opposed to Franco’s values but intertwined with a surge in AIDS and heroin abuse. The style popularised by this movement ( piercings,plugs,tattoos, sleeveless shirts and drop crotch trousers) continues to permeate Basque society even if, according to my students, the music has mellowed a little. Tell that to the mini-supergroup Galtzagorriak which we witnessed performing impassioned Specials covers.
Jack discovered by word-of-mouth that this style is known as ‘baraka’ and though I hesitated before writing that in my blog, being unsure of its connotations, I have decided to mention it because all I could find online whilst researching this term was this entry about Amiri Baraka, a writer and activist associated with the Beat movement, black nationalism and socialism in America in the 1960s-70s. This is probably a complete coincidence but I consider it a pretty interesting one if it is. The only other near connection to this term may be Barricade, one of the first radical rock groups.
At the end of the day, all I had added to my book collection was a “Basque to Spanish” phrasebook and about 5 buckets of water in my hair due to the downpours but if you want to truly embrace and maybe take steps to understand Basque culture, I completely recommend making the journey to Durango next year. I was fascinated every minute and even made a nice little elderly man friend on the train home. Sometimes you can make a friend just by nodding at the right moments if they aren’t fussy. Living in a country is one thing but fitting in and respecting its culture and language is paramount to feeling at home in my opinion. Next post will obviously therefore be completely in Euskera.
I got some important details from the post enclosed. I cannot verify these details but as there is very little information online that I can understand, I appreciated them.