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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.

The Romans, who took Iberia and gave the Basques their name around 200 B.C., found it easier to coexist with, rather than subjugate, these wild mountain people. They built roads connecting the Basques with the rest of Iberia, but they neither assumed military control nor levied taxes. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, while their lands were occasionally invaded and they were frequently ruled from afar, the Basques retained their way of life. Only in the mid-19th century, after successive defeats in civil wars, did they lose their autonomy. Yet, by the turn of the century, nationalism was surging anew. [...]

For all their introspection, the Basques have never been shy about exerting their influence beyond their borders. From the ninth century, the Basques were extraordinary fishermen, wandering far beyond the treacherous waters of the Bay of Biscay to chase whales and later cod in the North Atlantic. Did they land in North America before the Vikings supposedly built huts in Newfoundland around A.D. 1000? Kurlansky believes they probably reached the New World in the 13th or 14th century. By the 15th century, he writes, ''widespread rumors persisted, especially among fishermen and maritime people, that Basque fishermen had found 'a land across the sea.' ''In the meantime, they were supplying a good part of Spain and France with dried cod.

Christianity, which came late to the Basque region (many pagan traditions persist to this day), in turn quickly transformed the Basques into enthusiastic combatants in Spain's Reconquest (against the Moors) and Counter-Reformation (against the Protestants). The link between sword and cross was personified by Inigo de Loyola, who as ''a knight of the Virgin,'' Ignatius, founded the Society of Jesus in 1534. Within a century, the Jesuits, packed with Basques, were playing a central role in Christianizing Latin America and educating Europe's elites.

Still, it is as capitalists that the Basques have best insured their survival. While French Basques were poor farmers, ill-equipped to resist 19th-century centralization, the Spanish Basque region, notably Bilbao, flourished through shipbuilding, mining, steel and banking. This also meant that, when nationalism returned late in the century, the rest of Spain felt threatened. Indeed, even Franco might have worried less about the Basques had they not been central to the economy. Conversely, over the last 20 years, the closing of many Basque heavy industries has made it easier for E.T.A. to recruit unemployed youths.

The Basque region, though, is rising again. Culturally, it has not been so alive since the 1930's, as evidenced by rapid growth in the number of Basque speakers and by pride in the new Guggenheim Museum Bilbao. Economically, it is looking for a postindustrial vocation that can absorb its jobless. And politically, while independence is not in the cards (and may not even be the wish of the majority), ''we are not fighting for a Basque state but to be a new European state,'' the Basque nationalist leader, Xabier Arzalluz, explains. His real objective, though, has not changed: it is for the Basques to remain Basques.
    -REVIEW: of THE BASQUE HISTORY OF THE WORLD By Mark Kurlansky (Alan Riding, NY Times Book Review)

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.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Historical Fiction
José Maria Lacambra-Loizu Links:

    -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)