The Basques

The Basques by Roger Collins was unfortunately one of the most painfully boring works I have ever read in the eight years since I have been writing and publishing book reviews. If a brief section on the Basque language could put me to sleep–me, a linguaphile with a passion for minority European languages–then you know this book must have been bad. Collins based this history of the Basque people from the first twelve centuries of the modern era, so issues such as the suppression of the Basque language under Franco and the rise of Basque nationalism were not discussed. I was looking forward to the sections on anthropology, the Proto-Basques and tribal origins but…no. I was so thoroughly numbed over the twelve days I struggled through this book that I could not wait to get to the end of it. I did enjoy the research Collins did in locating centuries-old documents like charters that made reference to tangential points in Basque history. These were documents from before the second millennium, even. But then I was more interested in the dates when they were produced than by what was written on them. A very boring book gives me no inspiration to go over it all again to compose a review. I am sorry–I hated this book. There are so many others that do a better job about Basque history, but only Collins has spent as much detail in exploring the Basques’ first millennium. Even so, it was not a pleasure to read.

One sign that I did not like a book is that I do not quote from it. Nothing memorable yields nothing to note. Yet I did record two short passages that struck my interest by their subdued drama. The subject of the origins of the Basque people sometimes gives rise to hyperbole, even in academic texts. I appreciated that Collins never soared off the ground with his analyses, and, quite often, had the confidence to report that this or that aspect of the Basque origins was left to the unknown. One of the first such examples was this:

“The evidence just does not exist, be it anthropological, archaeological or linguistic, on which it would be possible to state where the Basques came from, and when and how they established themselves in the western Pyrenees.”

The Basques had no sense of their unique and ancient place in European history and never used this knowledge to strive for independence or more autonomy. The idea of a Basque sense of identity didn’t develop until the age of exploration:

“This lack of an overriding sense of a Basque identity and a low level of regard for the language in sophisticated circles were first seriously challenged in the later sixteenth century, probably as an indirect consequence of the period of discoveries in the Indies and the Americas. The interest thus aroused in the Indian peoples whom the Spanish explorers and settlers encountered created something of an ethnological revolution.”

Since I have been home from Tristan da Cunha I have read three dud library books in a row. I am reading one of my own books next.

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