An outsider’s perspective on the West

A Basque writer transplanted to Nevada takes a critical look at American culture.

 

The Basque Country of northern Spain and southern France is a land of misty coastlines and damp mountains — green and soft. Yet in the 19th and 20th centuries, many Basques immigrated to some of the driest regions of the United States, to places like Nevada, eastern Oregon and Idaho. One Basque shepherd recalled his first experiences after arriving in Nevada: “I wasn’t much more than 16 years old, you know. And they sent me into the desert with a dog and 3,000 sheep. … Though Basques are used to being alone, these deserts were something else.”

A century later, a family from the Spanish Basque Country relocated to the urban wilds of Reno. Bernardo Atxaga’s Nevada Days once again raises the question: How does someone who grew up in a verdant European countryside respond, mentally and physically, to a bone-dry land with blazing horizons? In the case of Atxaga, one of the Basque Country’s most celebrated writers, it stirred up old memories and prompted a sprawling series of stories within a story. Atxaga (pronounced “Achaga”) spent the academic year of 2007-2008 in a writer’s program at the University of Nevada, accompanied by his wife and two school-age daughters. Ten years later, he published Nevada Days. Technically a novel, it retains the realistic feel of a travelogue — and, presumably, it is largely just that. But the distinction here between fiction and nonfiction may not be that important anyway. Perhaps the most valuable quality of Nevada Days is that it gives the American reader the opportunity to reimagine a familiar Western landscape from an articulate outsider’s perspective.

A child drags an ATV back to the start line of the Mud Drag Race during the annual Pine Nut Festival in Schurz, Nevada.
Nina Riggio

Atxaga’s observations highlight the particularities of a Nevada-style desert. Soon after arriving in Reno, the central character of Nevada Days writes a letter to a friend back home about a long drive with a friendly neighbor. He had been expecting a Lawrence of Arabia kind of landscape, a sea of sand. Instead, he found trees and shrubs, “piles of rocks” and trapezoidal mountains. “Seeing those trapezoid mountains in the distance, I got quite confused. I lost all sense of time and space. If someone had told me that I was travelling in the Discovery space shuttle rather than in Earle’s Chevrolet Avalanche, that we were crossing outer space and not the Nevada desert, I would have believed them.” But later that fall, his “mind turns the corner”: Walking into a dusty bookshop in Reno, he encounters just the right kind of silence, and then just the right kind of music (Summertime … and the living is easy). This “lent Nevada a pleasant lightness and suddenly it didn’t seem so very difficult to live there.”

Arguably, it is place, rather than people, that drives this novel. Nevada and its natural features are imbued with Atxaga’s underlying themes of violence, death and memory. Rattlesnakes and alien, abstracted mountain shapes suggest an existential threat. Black widow spiders, and the kind of people who keep them, represent the very real threat of a killer who stalks young women at the University of Nevada and makes Atxaga’s main character fearful for his daughters. Meanwhile, the raccoon that makes regular appearances in the backyard — initially a startling figure with eyes that shine in the night — becomes a comforting source of consistency in the family’s Reno home.

The landscape of language plays a role here, too. Atxaga is a much-admired author who has published in both Spanish and Basque; Nevada Days was written in Basque, translated into Spanish by Atxaga, and then rendered into a recognizably British form of English by a professional translator. The text emphasizes sensations, metaphor and musings that leave the reader with visceral impressions: mysterious desert, loud city, intimidating mountains. Westerners might expect Atxaga to present a clichéd version of his visit, developing Old West tropes of ghost towns, brothels and vulgar Americana. But though Atxaga is not interested in tearing down American culture, he does bring the critical eye of an outsider to its peculiarities. In the spring, the novel’s main character drives to Lake Tahoe to attend the memorial service of a soldier who was killed in Iraq. When he gets to the little mountain church, he is alarmed by the sentimental military poetry and the priest’s “velvety voice” repeating the refrain — “Honor. Duty. Sacrifice” — while speaking about a war that many found immoral. As he often does, Atxaga responds to Nevada by invoking references to European events and commentators, creating unexpected yet relevant connections that prompt the reader to reframe familiar ideas. In this case, the main character imagines himself reciting his own lines — created in response to the 2004 terrorist attacks in Madrid — at the American soldier’s service: “Life is life / And the most precious thing of all. / To lose a life is to lose everything.”

For Westerners concerned about the danger of cultural myopia, Nevada Days is a gift: a foreigner’s snapshot of place that is personalized, literary and
thoughtful.

Sierra Standish is a PhD student studying environmental history at the University of Colorado.

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