IN THE gambling city of Reno, where red, green and fuchsia neon signs shine like “boiled sweets”, the University of Nevada has a Centre for Basque Studies. Bizarre at first glance, this odd match of place and subject makes sound historical sense. Emigrants from the Basque country left 19th-century Spain to settle in the American West, first as miners, then as shepherds. In 2007 Bernardo Atxaga, the foremost Basque author of his generation, followed in their wake as a writer-in-residence. From that year-long experience he has fashioned a subtle and touching book, offered as fiction but rich in topical allusions. It stands a canyon’s- length away from the stereotypical travelogue of the snobby European scoffing at transatlantic vulgarity and ignorance.
Over 139 short sections, “Nevada Days” spans journal entries, news items, family memories and yarns imported from the Basque homeland. Without any surplus exoticism, Mr Atxaga records the strangeness, physical and social, of his desert berth: this primeval landscape where bare trapezoid mountains have “nothing to do with us”. Pitiless nature feels “remote and alien”. Poisonous spiders and rattlesnakes abound. On campus suspense builds as a spate of sexual assaults nearby ends with the abduction and murder of a student (a real case). Near and far, the prickle of threat and dread sharpens. Barack Obama, during his first candidacy, comes to town to denounce the war in Iraq.
Snapshots of Basque history and legend punctuate these eerie Western scenes. Margaret Jull Costa translates them with all her customary grace. The final illnesses of Mr Atxaga’s parents put mourning, and memory, at the centre of his desert stage. In a dream he regrets that “metaphors can do little in the face of death”. Yet flashing gems of insight illuminate mortality amid the hostile scrub and rocks. Closely observed, never patronised, Nevada becomes the “dream place” that helps the author settle with his past before a “return to our everyday life”. Still, loss and grief persist. On war memorials, the roll-call of the fallen grows. As for the Reno campus killer: a man was convicted, and remains on death row.