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Garmendia, Joseba Irazu 1951-(Bernardo Atxaga)

GARMENDIA, Joseba Irazu 1951-(Bernardo Atxaga)

PERSONAL: Born July 27, 1951, in Guipuzcoa, Spain. Education: Attended University of Barcelona.

ADDRESSES: Agent—c/o Harvill, 77-85 Fulham Palace Rd., Hammersmith, London W6 8JB, England.

CAREER: Writer and translator.

AWARDS, HONORS: National Prize for Literature (Spain), 1989, for Obabakoak.



Ziutateaz, Kriselu (Donostia, Spain), 1976.

Bi anai, Erein (Donostia, Spain), 1984.

Obabakoak, Erein (Donostia, Spain), 1988, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, Hutchinson (London, England), 1992, Pantheon (New York, NY), 1993.

The Lone Man, translated from the Spanish by M. Costa, Harvill (London, England), 1997.

Lista de locos y otros alfabetos, Ediciones Siruela (Madrid, Spain), 1998.

(With Mikel Valverde) Recuerdo de mis abuelos, Ediciones Alfaguara (Madrid, Spain), 1999.

The Lone Woman, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill Press (London, England), 1999.

Poemas & hibridos: selección y versiones del propio autor, 1974-1989, Visor (Madrid, Spain), 1999.

Un espia llamado Sara, Ediciones SM (Madrid, Spain), 2000.

Two Brothers, translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa, Harvill Press (London, England), 2002.


(As Bernardo Atxaga) Sugeak txoria'ri begiratzen dionean, Erein (Donostia, Spain), 1983, second edition, 1985.

Also author, as Bernardo Atxaga, of children's books and poetry. Contributor to Toros, a catalog in Basque and Spanish, 1999.

SIDELIGHTS: Bernardo Atxaga, the Basque novelist who was born Joseba Irazu Garmendia, became an internationally known author after the 1988 publication of his novel-in-stories, Obabakoak. Previously, he had written poetry, children's books, and two early novels. His practice is to write in Basque, then translate his own work into Spanish for publication. Even so, there is no doubt of Atxaga's allegiance to his Basque heritage, for much of his work is set in that culture, and his novel The Lone Man, published in the United States in 1997, sympathetically portrays Basque separatism.

Obabakoak, his best-known work, is made up of three sections, each of which contains a number of stories, some of which, in turn, are themselves made up of stories. "Its very structure, and the extraordinary method of its narrative, mark it as radically different," wrote Spanish novelist Eugenio Suarez-Galban in the New York Times Book Review, noting Atxaga's use of the infinite variety of storytelling forms as one of his themes. Crime stories, fairy tales, magical realism—"but not simply another docile imitation of Latin American magical realism," Suarez-Galban declared—diaries, poems, scientific papers, essays on the art of narrative, and more furnish the forms of Obabakoak.

The work is nominally set in a small village named Obaba; the word Obabakoak, according to the Times Literary Supplement's Abigail Lee Six, means "the people and things of Obaba." It soon becomes apparent that for Atxaga, this tiny Basque village is the nucleus of a vast universe which extends into other lands and other times. As Suarez-Galban pointed out, the stories' long geographical and historical reach set them apart from such unified collections as Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio: "The range of the author's imagination and his apparently inexhaustible fund of narrative voices alone would distinguish this book from other collections of stories.... What Obabakoak does share with all these works is a certain ironic delight in observing provincial narrowness; but this social criticism, so central to the others, is merely one element in a much deeper vision in Mr. Atxaga's book."

That vision is structured, within the book, into three sections. The first, "Childhoods," includes five tales set in Obaba. In Six's view, it is the most conventional of the sections and it "shows the author to be a skilful handler of the short-story genre, deftly mixing nostalgia with pathos and finding a good twist for his endings." The second, and shortest, section, is "Nine Words in Honour of the Villamediana," a set of anecdotes about the life of an apparently ordinary, but also magical, village. The third section, "In Search of the Last Word," was assessed by Six to be the most original in its narrative strategies. Unified by a single narrator, it contains numerous smaller stories within that frame, and its characters recur from story to story. Central to this scheme is the narrator's belief that one of his friends caused another friend to become an idiot by inserting a lizard into his ear: a hypothesis, Six added, that "appears to be borne out in the extremely effective surprise ending." In this third section, Six explained, Atxaga blends traditional storytelling with postmodern comments on that art form; Six acclaimed the "embedded" stories as "small masterpieces."

Concluded Six, "Above all, it is the tone of the novel which is one of its most attractive features, for it maintains a lightness of touch without ever becoming flippant; there is humour shot through with pathos and irony that is wry rather than biting, a novel that is entertaining without ever becoming lightweight." Suarez-Galban, who viewed Obabakoak as a collection of short stories rather than a novel, termed it "a delicious literary paella, very baroque and very Spanish." He found Atxaga's literary charm to be so complete that the book's brief essays on the art of narrative did not seem like digressions: "The book, you see, turns out to be a practical and theoretical manual on storytelling." In short, wrote Suarez-Galban, "Its pages make the word and the world new and fresh again, with an originality not very common in contemporary Spanish literature." Los Angeles Times Book Review writer Karen Stabiner, calling Obabakoak a "sprawling, sweet, and eccentric novel," characterized Atxaga as "clever without ever being superficial; there is poignancy in his nimble prose." His prose, in the English version, was translated by Margaret Jull Costa from Atxaga's Spanish translation of his own Basque original; Suarez-Galban said of this once-removed translation that it "beautifully retains Mr. Atxaga's magically flowing and seemingly simple style"—a style, the critic explained, which displays the talents of an inventive virtuoso.

Two related novels explore the thoughts and motives of terrorists. The title character of 1997's The Lone Man is Carlos, a former Basque separatist fighter who now is part owner of a Barcelona hotel. The story unfolds during World Cup action in 1982. The Polish national soccer team is staying at Carlos's hotel, as are a pair of terrorists, Jon and Jone, whom Carlos has agreed to hide on the premises. "The hotel is crawling with cops, ostensibly there to protect the Polish team, but Carlos knows it is only a matter of time before they discover his clandestine guests," reported New York Times Book Review critic Jenny McPhee. As Carlos bides his time, he reflects on his own violent past and finds he is emotionally unable to accept his former or future existence.

In The Lone Woman, central figure Irene has served four years of prison time, accused of terrorist conspiracy along with her lover, who was killed. Her incarceration, according to Amada Craig of the London Times, has become "the central experience of her life"; now, on a bus from Barcelona to Bilbao, Irene is shadowed by two policemen, who suspect her of smuggling a bomb on board. As the bus trip progresses, the woman increasingly feels that prison was a more real experience than the outside world; she copes by reminiscing about her confinement and education at the hands of Margarita, an elderly Argentine murderess who was her cellmate. "Irene is hardly a sympathetic character, but she is vividly alive and uncomfortably convincing," commented Margaret Walters in a Sunday Times article. Walters found The Lone Woman "as taut and tense as a thrill, as well as an often moving meditation on the meanings of freedom."

Obaba is again the setting for Two Brothers, a 2001 release that is "a short novel with a long history," according to the Guardian's Michael Eaude. Garmendia wrote the text in the 1970s; it was published in Basque in 1985; the author provided his own English translation for a 1995 release. The story is about two adolescent orphaned brothers in the small village. The younger brother, sixteen-year-old Paulo, inherits the family sawmill and much of the responsibility since his brother, Daniel, age twenty, has the mental age of a toddler. The emerging sexuality of both brothers adds to the pressure of making ends meet for Paulo. "Like all Atxaga's characters, they have little room for [maneuver]," said Eaude. As the author told Eaude, he deliberately set up the conflicts in Obaba because "village life is tough. People are often disagreeable and ignorant." Daily Telegraph contributor Lucia Graves found a "refreshing directness" in Two Brothers. Graves also remarked, "From the first page, Atxaga propels the reader into a compelling narrative in which fantasy and symbolism are used to tell a dramatic tale of real life." Death stalks the novel, as Ray Olsen noted in Booklist, and the action culminates in a tragedy in a story that is delivered "with the lightness of a Mozart aria."

In his interview with Eaude, the author said he considered Two Brothers his most important book, "because it showed me that my idea of how to write about village life could work." As for his writing on Basque issues, Atxaga acknowledged that he has learned to see the Basque/Spanish conflict from both sides, and has seen people from both factions killed. He realizes that in creating such books as The Lone Man and The Lone Woman he has become known as the Basque novelist; Garmendia also "knows he will always be a standard-bearer," wrote Eaude. The books of Atxaga, the reporter added, "have put Basque culture on the map, but [the author's] success is also specific and literary. His simple style has not come simply."



Book, July, 1999, review of The Lone Woman, p. 84.

Booklist, June 1, 1999, Michelle Kaske, review of The Lone Woman, p. 1788; March 1, 2002, Ray Olson, review of Two Brothers, p. 1089.

Daily Telegraph (London, England), January 5, 2002, Lucia Graves, "Cast Out to the Wild," p. 06.

Guardian (London, England), October 20, 2001, Michael Eaude, "A Life in Writing: Michael Eaude Talks to Bernardo Atxaga, Basque's Strongest Literary Voice," p. 11.

Kirkus Reviews, June 15, 1999, review of The Lone Woman, p. 911.

Los Angeles Times Book Review, June 6, 1993, Karen Stabiner, review of Obabakoak, p. 6.

New Statesman, June 28, 1999, Lisa Jardine, review of The Lone Woman, p. 49.

New York Times Book Review, June 20, 1993, Eugenio Suarez-Galban, review of Obabakoak, p. 20; April 20, 1997, Jenny McPhee, review of The Lone Man.

Publishers Weekly, December 30, 1996, p. 55; June 28, 1999, review of The Lone Woman, p. 54; January 21, 2002, review of Two Brothers, p. 63.

Sunday Times (London, England), April 11, 1999, Margaret Walters, "Simply No Way Out," p. 12.

Times (London, England), March 27, 1999, Amanda Craig, review of The Lone Woman, p. 19.

Times Literary Supplement, August 21, 1992, Abigail Lee Six, review of Obabakoak, p. 18.

Translation Review Supplement, December, 1999, review of The Lone Woman, p. 31.*

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