My breakfast reading (as opposed to my pleasure reading. And I do mean opposed to pleasure) this week is A Book of the Basques by Rodney Gallop. I gather that it’s pretty highly regarded—and not only from the endnotes (which his wife wrote). Look up “Basque book” online, and it’s a title sure to pop up. But for the life of me, I can’t understand why it’s so well thought of.
Gallop continuously refers to the Basque as a “primitive people.” Oh, and “peasants.” (Check this out: “If Basque was ever the language of some highly-developed civilisation (and from internal evidence there is every reason to doubt it), that civilisation has irremedially disappeared.” Don’t hold back, Rod.)
And he contradicts himself—declaring, for instance, that the Basques from the French area of Basque Country were the most patriotic Frenchmen fighting in the Great War, and the Basques from the Spanish area of Basque Country equally patriotic Spanish… but if you ask a Basque whether he is French or Spanish, he will confoundingly respond, “Basque.”
And he enjoys slapping a label on various peoples around the world (the book may be about the Basques specifically, but our pal Rodney covers a lot of territory!). I’m only in chapter 3 and already he’s mentioned twice that the Basque peasantry (a redundancy, in his eyes) are simply content to be peasants, living peasant lives and doing peasant work—but transplant one to South America, and he comes to life, outshining every other resident of Mañana-Land.
This kind of thing can be very entertaining to read, if only because it provides the reader with a healthy sense of morals and knowledge superior to the author’s. And who doesn’t enjoy that?
But it’s only really entertaining if the writing is good enough—and Gallop’s just ain’t.
It’s not even bad enough. (Sometimes the truly horrible can be just as great a pleasure as a work of genius. Don’t believe me? You must not have seen “The Wicker Man.”)
The text is crammed with quotes in other languages—yet the Basque quotes are the only ones for which the author provides a translation. (That’s pretty much in keeping with his attitude; of course his readers know enough French, Spanish, or Latin to be able to slide right through quotes in those languages—whereas the barbarian Basque dialects are nothing but bibble-babble to civilized man.)
Even to a layperson, his etomological conclusions seem flimsy; he spends a number of paragraphs addressing words he confusingly deems onomatopoetic, despite the fact that they do not refer to a sound, but to a sight—like “flicker.” (“onomatopoeia, n. The formation or use of words such as buzz or murmur that imitate the SOUNDS associated with the objects or actions they refer to.” Thank you, American Heritage Dictionary.) For the love of language—how can the word for "spider" be onomatopoetic?
(But let’s play nice. Gallop appears to have genuine affection for the Basque Country, where—according to the dedication—he met his wife and their son was born.)
Though it’s (purportedly) nonfiction, A Book of the Basques started me thinking about the people, the cultures, writers write about. Fiction writers specifically. I’ve read many an interview—maybe you have, too—with a writer from one culture who chose to write about another culture; the intense work, the deep research the writer undertook in order to fairly represent that other culture. But can such deeply respectful effort create a true representation of the depicted culture? It’s a tough question. Sometimes an outside perspective provides objectivity; sometimes only an insider can see the truth. (And sometimes everything is just all jumbled up. Think of that dentist on “Seinfeld” who, Jerry suspects, converted to Judaism just so he would have the latitude to crack Jewish jokes.)
And that, my friends, is all the more reason for writers to stick with fantasy. Jar-Jar Binks and similar kerfuffle aside, few people are likely to take offense at the way a fantasy writer depicts a make-believe culture. (But keep in mind that those writers are missing out on the publicity opportunities that controversy can provide. So weigh your options carefully!)