Understandably, the Basques themselves are fairly obsessed about being old since this is what makes them different. They may not be descendants of the Cro-Magnons or even the lost 13th tribe of Israel, as some versions of the Basque myth suggest, but they do probably represent Europe's oldest living culture. Their language, Euskera, which has no modern relative, predates the Indo-European invasion of Iberia around 900 B.C. They are also physically distinct: Basques have the highest incidence of Type O and Rh negative blood in the world.
Several years ago Mark Kurlansky had a surprise bestseller with his book, The Basque History of the World, in which he revealed the fascinating story of a people we'd come to associate only with terrorism in recent times. José Maria Lacambra-Loizu, a native of the Basque region, has taken this rich history and turned it into an epic novel reminiscent of James A. Michener. Mr. Lacambra-Loizu accepts the version of the Basque past that holds they are directly descended from Cro-Magnon man--they do have a language and blood types that are unique--and follows as adventurous Ice Age bands trek from the Caucasus to their eventual homeland in northern Spain, in the Western Pyrenees, along the Bay of Biscay. Once settled they interact over the coming centuries with such historical figures as Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Richard the Lionheart, and, of course, the kings and queens of Spain and defend their chosen land against Celts, Romans, Franks, Moors and Spaniards.
The strengths and weaknesses of the book are much of a piece with Michener's works and any fan of his is likely to enjoy this one. Mr. Lacambra-Loizu uses the device of plunking down successive members of one family in the midst of the action. The format is necessarily episodic and just when you're getting to know the main character you're about to leave him behind. However, the goings on around them are so interesting as to make up for such quibbles. It's no coincidence though that the best portion of the book is an extended visit with Inaki, a young knight who ends up going Crusading in the Holy Land with Richard. Inaki is the most fully developed of the characters and his tale the most compelling overall. The best set piece is probably the defeat of Charlemagne in the pass of Roncesvalles, which later formed the basis of the poem Chanson de Roland, though credit therein was given to the Moors rather than the Basques.
It's a longish book -- big enough to take to the beach this summer -- as befits its topic and the sweep of thousands of years. Still, it cuts off rather abruptly in and leaps ahead to the present. Presumably Mr. Lacambra-Loizu is working on a sequel, because there's plenty of Basque history still to be told and its recent past is just as event-filled. This fine effort will certainly get you started though.
See also:Historical Fiction
-EXCERPT: Preface to the Lords of Navarre
-REVIEW: of Lords of Navarre (Lynda Ochsner)
Book-related and General Links:
-Buber's Basque Page
-The Basque Country Page
-Center for Basque Studies (University of Nevada, Reno)
-Larry Trask's Basque Page
-Basque Recipes (Radio National)
-REVIEW: of THE BASQUE HISTORY OF THE WORLD By Mark Kurlansky (Alan Riding, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW: of The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky (Sara J. Brenneis , Flak)
-REVIEW: of The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky (Robert Wernick , Smithsonian)
-REVIEW: of The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky (Jeff Pyles, BookPage)
-REVIEW: of VISIONARIES: The Spanish Republic and the Reign of Christ By William A. Christian Jr. (DAVID BLACKBOURN, NY Times Book Review)
Copyright 1998-2015 Orrin Judd