is an interview extracted from Newsletter, a publication
of the Center for Basque Studies, University of Nevada,
gratitude to David Río and to all who work in the
Center for Basque Studies, specially to Jill Berner.
next interview is publicated here as a homage to Robert
Laxalt, who had a good and unceasing relationship with Eusko
Ikaskuntza-Basque Studies Society.
this humble way Robert Laxalt used to define himself whenever
asked about his role in the expansion of Basque studies in the
United States or about his literary contributions to Basque culture.
This extreme humility was one of the features that most struck
me about Bob Laxalt when I first interviewed him in the spring
of 1995. At that time I was familiar with his impressive literary
career and admired him for his imaginative writings on the Basques.
In the following years, until our last meeting in September 2000,
I had the pleasure to visit Bob almost every summer and to discover
his deep humanity. Over time, my admiration for Bob Laxaltīs literary
gift was equaled by my high respect for his remarkable human values.
During these long
interviews with Bob Laxalt I was primarily interested in his Basque
roots and, above all, in his creative writings on the Basques.
In considering his work, we cannot forget that Bob Laxalt was
not just "a Basque who wrote", but the voice of Basque
immigrants in the United States, as exemplified in his masterpiece
"Sweet Promised Land" (1957) and in his superb trilogy
of the Indart family, which was composed of the novels "The
Basque Hotel" (1989), "Child of the Holy Ghost"
(1992) and "The Governorís Mansion" (1994). Likewise,
he displayed a similar artistic power when portraying the traditional
lifestyle of the Basque Country in non-fiction
books such as "In a Hundred Graves: A Basque Portrait"
(1972), "A time We Knew: Images of Yesterday in the Basque
Homeland" (1990) or "The Land of My Fathers: A Sonís
Return to the Basque Country" (1999), and also in the novella
"A Cup of Tea in Pamplona" (1985). In fact, Robert Laxalt
may be regarded as the most talented American author writing on
the experience of Basques both in America and in Euskal Herria.
In spite of my
interest in Laxaltīs impressive achievements as a literary interpreter
of the Basques, Bobís characteristic modesty sometimes prevented
him from expanding on his writing. I remember that during these
long interviews he would tell me from time to time: "Just
let my works speak for themselves!". However, it was so interesting
to hear about both his Basque roots and his literary production
that I evaded his request and we went on talking for hours on
these topics. The following passages are an extract from one of
our talks of 1995. They summarize both his intimate connection
with the land of his ancestors and his literary commitment to
offer an honest portrait of the Basques.
could you start by describing your Basque roots and the early
experience of your family in the United States?
Well, when I went with
my father to the Basque Country, back in the 1950s, I was totally
surprised, I didnít know anything about the Basque Country, nothing
about its history or culture. However, my first language was Basque.
My brother Paul and I spoke Basque while we lived on the Basque
ranches. But when we moved to Carson City and went to school,
none of the other children spoke Basque, so we had to leave it.
And it wasnít fashionable to be ethnic. Now. It is, but then it
wasnít. So we forgot Basque as quickly as possible.
did you start to explore your Basque roots?
When I went with Papa
to de Basque Country, I fell in love with the place. I couldnít
imagine anybody leaving such a beautiful country. I didnít take
any consideration at all because most of them were poor and they
had no opportunities there. But I had been raised in the desert,
so I was totally in a trance when I arrived there. I couldnít
believe it. I was feeling that I had always been there. It was
just somewhere in my folk memory. Besides, the people in the Basque
Country were beautiful people. I never felt alienated there at
all. They were my kind of people: they were strong and forthright.
The second time we went there, I missed it so badly that, when
we got to Garazi, I cried. I donít cry very easily. I just loved
-When and why
did you think that the Basque Country end the experience of Basque
immigrants in the United States could attract the interest of
the American audience? In Fact, your first book, "Violent
Land: tales the Old Timers Tell" (1953), does not deal with
Oh, no, and itís the
same with A Lean Year and Other Stories (1994). Most of
those arenít Basque, they are American. It wasnít until Sweet
Promised Land that I started my Basque period, but it was
difficult to convince publishers in New York that the Basques
were something worthy to write about. Publishers only thought
about money and market and there werenít many Basques around.
So I was discouraged. At first, I couldnít understand why they
werenít interested in Basque things. Then, however, as Bill Douglass
pointed out, this worked to my advantage because Sweet Promised
Land became an immigrant book. It was not particularly a Basque
book because I didnít know so much about the Basques. But that
book attracted so much attention that it opened up a whole new
field and other Basques began to write, and non-Basques began
to write, too.
-Do you think
that the key factor for the success of "Sweet Promised Land"
was the fact that it is not a novel, but a non-fiction story,
told in an intimate, personal style?
never analyzed why it was successful. It came as a shock to me.
I tried for a year to start that book. Finally, when I started
to write it, I was ready to give up. I couldnít write it as a
novel because something was missing. I think that the poignancy
of the trip to the Basque Country moved me very much. I guess
that it was a story of discovery for me too, but I never went
in that direction because it was my fathers story. Then I said
I would try one more time and I took the paper and the typewriter.
I wasnít even thinking and I wrote: "My father was a sheepherder
and his home was the hills". Then when I wrote that one line
and I did realize what Iīd written, I knew that I got the book.
-What was the
general reaction of readers toward "Sweet Promised Land"?
Can we talk about a more favorable response by the immigrant groups,
particularly the Basque community in the United States?
Well, first the critics.
There was a massive amounts of reviews. They came here from everywhere,
New York Times and others. And then England picked it up.
I never expected that. And about the reaction of the Basque-Americans,
at first I was apprehensive about my father. But their response
was amazing. Other immigrants also liked the book, but the Basque
ĖAmericans really loved it.
-You said once,
"Itís a very difficult thing to write about the Basques or
any other nationality unless youíve seen them in their own land".
What was the influence on your work of your different trips to
the Basque Country?
I knew the Basques
here, but there was always something missing in the Basques that
I knew in this country. The cycle wasnít complete. There was something
in seeing them on their own land and with their own people, as
I could see in my two years over there. I saw their reactions
and I saw how differently they reacted here. Here they always
seem like other immigrants that react almost as if they didnít
belong here. And when you think about it, they donít.
-Most of your
books show a positive image of the Basque Country, even an idyllic
one, except perhaps "A Cup of Tea in Pamplona" and "Child
of the Holy Ghost". Do you agree with this?
I tried to be honest when writing about the Basque Country. Well,
Child of the Holy Ghost was written because I was really
triggered by what happened to my mother there. I genuinely felt
it. I didnít try to portray the village as cruel. I was just the
way things were. In a way that was good for me because it gave
me objectivity. I could see that there could also be cruelty and
then I remembered all those wonderful movies about incidents in
England and Ireland and the cruelty of village life. So it worked.
And A Cup of Tea in Pamplona was a real thing in the sense
that i saw people there being denied an opportunity, poverty...Itís
an honest view. I love the Basque Country and the Basque people,
but that does not deny me the right to say when theyíre wrong.
Otherwise, I couldnít be honest.
do you think about the future of literature about Basques written
by the new generation of Basque-Americans?
I canít really predict
the future generationsī attitude. More and more the youngest seem
to be interested in their heritage. Monique [Laxalt, Robertís
daughter], for example, has identity with the Basque people and
the Basque Country, and she can write very well. And there are
others who might do it for some old, romantic, exotic sense, but
on the whole I cannot tell. I canít predict because being in love
with ancestors happens in some people and doesnít happen in others.
But as long as you have writers like Monique- and she is an honest
writer- I guess you can be optimistic about the future.
and David Río at Bob's house near Carsan City, Nevada.
Río is a professor of American Literature at
the University of the Basque Country in Vitoria. He wrote
foreword to the Spanish edition of "Sweet Promised
Land: Dulce Tierra Prometida", recently published in
Spain by Ttarttalo.
Laxalt, son of Basque immigrants, died March 23 in Reno,
Nevada, a t the age of 77. Laxalt had been Director of the
University of Nevada Press since its beginning in 1961 until
his retirement in 1983, and was instrumental in forming
the Center for Basque Studies.
At a memorial
service on March 28, former UNR President Joe Crowley called
Laxalt "one of Nevadaís greatest authors", and
said that "the University was privileged to have him
for many years as one of our leading citizens-as creative
administrator, a teacher of writing, a lover of books, a
friend to students and colleagues". He impressed students
in his writing classes with his encouragement and expertise,
and his ability to guide them in finding their personal
writing style. Many of his internationally acclaimed books
were included in the Basque Book Series published by the
University of Nevada Press, including "In a Hundred
Graves: A Basque Portrait" (1972), "The Basque
Hotel" (1989), and "A time We Knew: Images of
Yesterday in the Basque Homeland"(1990). "Sweet
Promised Land", first published in 1957, established
him as an expert on Basque culture and as a spokesperson
for Basque Americans.
Laxalt was awarded the Tambor de Oro (Golden Drum Award)
by the city of San Sebastián, Spain for his contributions
to the Basques and spreading their culture. He received
many other honors throughout his career, and was twice nominated
for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. He has been lauded for
his many contributions to the University and to the state
will be greatly missed by all who knew him. Goian bego,
Photos: John Ries, "Nevada
Appeal" and Joyce Laxalt
Euskonews & Media 132.zbk
(2001 / 7 / 20-27)