LONDON (Reuters) - Set in the Basque country of northeastern Spain in the 1930s, U.S. writer Dave Boling’s debut novel is a family saga with the horrific German bombing of the small town of Guernica in the Spanish Civil War at its core.
It follows the lives and loves of two Basque families, the Ansoteguis and the Navarros, and takes in a cast of characters including the artist Picasso, smugglers and fishermen, child refugees and a downed RAF pilot.
It also paints a portrait of the Basque culture, which was repressed under the rule of Spanish dictator General Francisco Franco after the civil war.
Boling is a sportswriter who turned to novel writing in his 50s. “Guernica” won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association fiction award and was picked by British bookseller Waterstone’s as one of its 12 “New Voice” novels for 2009.
Q - The Basque country is an obscure part of the world in which to set a novel. What sparked your interest there?
A - It starts with a love story. When I was in college at the University of Idaho a beautiful young girl walked past me one day and I just had to stop her and say hello. It turned out she was Basque American, her parents had come to Idaho to herd sheep in the early 20th century. We ended up getting married and over the course of 25 years I got a rather full immersion into the Basque culture and history, and great affection for her family as people of very high character, strong morals, very family orientated, hard workers. They are very proud of their traditions.
Q - The horrors of the Spanish Civil War are very vivid in the novel. What was your intention there?
A - When I was starting there was another war getting going and I wasn’t very happy about that, and so I thought was there something that might have an antiwar subtext. After the attacks in 2001 in America, I had been really surprised that nobody in the mainstream American media traced the history of this sort of attack back to the bombing of Guernica. The epigraph quote from Churchill that Guernica was an ‘experimental horror’ — that I thought really showed that this was the beginning of this sort of thing. Because of my connections to the Basques, I’d heard about the bombing of Guernica. If Americans had heard about it, it was mostly the Picasso painting, not the actual event that triggered it. I thought that is an event that was one of the great tragedies of the 20th Century and it’s been slipping away from consciousness and there’s a real contemporary relevance.
Q - Picasso and the creation of his painting figure in the book. Was that difficult to work in?
A - I’ve had people question why Picasso is in there. Some people love it and some people think its extraneous. It’s so iconic it would have been difficult to write a novel titled “Guernica” without some sort of reference to it. When I first wrote the book it was about 600 pages long, Picasso was a fully fledged character. Likewise I had painted Franco as a contemporary and really fully examined him.
When I submitted it, the agent said it was too long for a first time novelist. So I cut most of Franco, most of the politics and the historical background. Franco is more of an off stage menace. But when it came to Picasso I thought I kind of need him in a couple of areas so I left him in.
Q - Did you want to draw parallels between the bombing of Guernica and conflicts going on in the world today?
A - Exactly, whether it’s Iraq, Afghanistan, or a hotel in Mumbai or the tube in London. Whether it’s state-supported “military terrorism” or acts of extremist, to the victims the distinction is lost. What I hoped to do with fictional characters was put a face on these incidents so maybe it would be a little bit harder to read the accounts in newspapers. I want to be able to freshen our outrage at these sorts of things, and not become immune to the mere numbers.
Q - As an English-language author writing about Spain, you are going up against some heavyweights. Was that daunting.
A - No, because I’m telling different stories, in a different time, written in a different style. We’re writing half a century or more apart. I don’t try to be Hemingway, or Orwell, or Dos Passos. I never sought to be compared to any of these people. It’s a big topic with plenty of room to go around.
I wanted to put local people to face these challenges and see how they dealt with them in what I hoped would be maybe inspirational ways. At the core this is a love story. It’s not just love with people, it’s the Basque love for the country, for the heritage.
Q - Awareness of the Basques for the public at large has a lot to do with the separatist group ETA and political violence. What are your thoughts on that situation?
A - I only have an outsider’s view. Most of what I know is just from reading and is reflected from the Basque in-laws. My perception is that the typical American Basque understands the frustrations and can deeply relate to the oppression that the Basques felt during the Franco years, can understand that resentment. But they realize that the extremists are a very minute portion of the Basque population yet what the world hears about the Basques so frequently in past years were acts of terrorism, counterterrorism, whatever you want to call it. I think the typical Basque feels badly that it gave them a bad reputation, for a group of people who are very peace-loving, family orientated.
“Guernica” by Dave Boling is published in Britain by Picador and by Bloomsbury in the United States.
Editing by Paul Casciato