This is a great insight into many aspects of life and culture in the Basque Country including language, literature, history, religion, economy, sports and food. The latter adds some quirky flavour in the form of recipes scattered throughout the book. That comes as less of a surprise if you know Kurlansky worked as a fisherman and a chef before publishing books entitled Salt and Cod either side of this one. The fish plays a big part in Basque cuisine and there is good insight here into the role Basques have played in seafaring, whaling and overseas exploration.
I decided to re-read this book recently because I will shortly relocate to the Basque Country – or Basquelands – as the author tends to refer to them. The BHOTW provides the opportunity to pick up a few words of a language which appears difficult because it bears almost no relation to Latin or even Western European languages in general. In fact, Basque is only one of four European languages that do not belong to the Indo-European group (the others being Finnish, Estonian and Hungarian).
Euskal Herria (the land of the Basque speakers) is a complicated and intriguing place in many ways: spanning the French-Spanish border with three provinces in France and four in Spain; although the former kingdom of Navarre is an autonomous region of the modern Spanish state in its own right and not officially part of the autonomous Basque region (or Euskadi).
The book looks at the origins of these people who have no tradition of aristocracy outside of Navarre, before outlining key events in its history such as the ancient Fueros laws, Carlist Wars, the bombing of Guernica and other Basque towns during the Spanish Civil War, the Franco era and the history of ETA. I’ve read some criticism of this book that it doesn’t go deeply enough into atrocities committed by ETA, but surely that is an area that has been more than adequately covered elsewhere. As Kurlansky pointed out at the time of writing (1999), 95% of articles about the Basque Country in the international press mention ETA. Of course, the political situation has changed somewhat since this book was written. That is the only sense in which it has dated but it gives good background to the sources of conflict.
Is this bias or simply a different perspective that some, particularly Spaniards, may not wish to acknowledge? Many of the views expressed in the mainstream Spanish press about the Basque political situation are hardly objective, and it is worth asking if they, or a writer from Connecticut, USA, can provide a better balance. However, the Basques themselves appear to have taken to this book since Kurlansky was awarded an honoury ambassadorship from the Basque Government and inducted into the Basque Hall of Fame in 2001.
There are other areas I have not touched upon such as the importance of Catholicism to the Basques (particularly the Jesuits), industry and economy (“Basque banks controlled one third of all investment in Spain”), “the most policed population in Europe”, the flagship Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, and unique sports. But I would encourage you to get this informative and entertaining book and find out more about this intriguing place that merits recognition for more than terrorism.