AMONG THE many illustrious guests who will converge on Galway for Cúirt this month is Basque poet and novelist Kirmen Uribe whose books have been attracting international attention and accolades.
Uribe was born in 1970 in Ondarroa, a small fishing town about one hour from Bilbao, where his own father was a trawlerman. His first poetry collection Bitartean Heldu Eskutik appeared in 2001 and its first edition sold out within a month. It was subsequently translated into Spanish, French, and Russian and, in 2007, poet Elizabeth Macklin’s English translation (Meanwhile Take My Hand ) was published in the USA, the first time a book translated directly from Basque had been issued by a commercial press in America.
The collection was described as a ‘peaceful revolution in the world of Basque literature’. “I think the critics wanted to talk all about the reception the book received, it was one of the most read in Basque, and the renewal of the language,” Uribe observes, talking about the book. “Also, its topics were urban and I used different voices for the poems.
“The book came after a multimedia spectacle that we made, Bar Puerto, combining poetry, music, video, and oral history, that told the story of the neighbourhood whre my grandmother lived which was demolished to build a road. I think that helped a lot in the success of the book.
“This book has changed my life. I wrote it when my father died and the book itself has become somewhat of a father, because it taught me a trade, the way forward.”
Uribe has done many collaborative projects with artists in other media. One such was the CD-book Zaharregia, Txikiegia again which examined the question of whether Euskera, the Basque language, might be ‘too old, too small’ for these modern times. What are his thoughts on that subject?
“Euskera is a small language, there are less than one million speakers and it is one of the oldest in Europe, it is pre-IndoEuropean,” he replies. “But it is my tongue and I love it. I live through Basque. It has a literary tradition of 500 years and although it suffered a lot under the Franco dictatorship now I have to say that we are living a sweet moment with good writers, not just one or two, but several, a kind of boom, which I think will increase further with the arrival of peace.”
His family’s seafaring background was a key factor in Uribe’s formation as a writer as he readily admits.
“I’m definitely a writer because I was born in the place where I was born,” he says. “My father was a fisherman and I used to be at home with my mother and my aunts. I loved being among the women in the kitchen. There I learned to listen to stories, stories of the sea, war, love...Those women taught me storytelling. And the sea is always a reason for writing. In the novel I speak about a lost way of life, the fishermen. I could say that the book is a tribute to them.”
The novel Uribe mentions is his prize-winning Bilbao-New York-Bilbao which was published in 2008. It is a multi-faceted work revolving around a writer’s plane journey during which he contemplates his supposed novel-in-progress, which is about three generations of a family, his own, whose life is bound up with the sea.
“What I like most about the novel is its structure,” Uribe declares. “It’s like a net, and the knots of the net are the stories of the three generations, and it includes all the thoughts of the writer who flies to New York from Bilbao. His name like mine is Kirmen Uribe, but he is obviously another person. I wanted go a bit away from the conventional fiction and make a different book. It was funny to write it, and it works!”
The novel has not yet appeared in English but is in the process of being translated by Elizabeth Macklin.
“To me Elizabeth is an angel,” he enthuses. “There are people you meet in life and help you, help you without asking anything in return. I have met many, many angels. And Elizabeth is one of them. In the path of a writer these angels are essential. Lorca would have been nothing without his translator into English, at that time Juan Ramon Jimenez and Antonio Machado were much more famous writers but Lorca’s trip to New York changed everything.”
Finally, what is Uribe working on at the moment?
“Right now I’m in San Francisco, at The Headlands Centre for The Arts, writing my second novel,” he replies. “It’s about a girl in the Spanish Civil War leaving Bilbao in 1937, like thousands of children who had to flee alone, without parents, and she is adopted by a Belgian writer. It is an exciting history.
“Hopefully Bilbao-New York-Bilbao will soon appear in English, which would be a great joy. I am also working on new poems. Anyway, I am not a good friend of the hurry, I like to go slowly, like the boats leaving the harbour.”
Kirmen Uribe appears at Cúirt on Friday April 27 at 6.30pm in the Town Hall where he and the Galician writer Manuel Rivas will discuss their work with Jonathan Dunne. Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie