I first became aware of the Basque Country my senior year of high school while studying various regions of Spain in Spanish class. However, because we focused more on other areas, the small community of northern Spain did not stick with me at the time. It was not until the fall I started here at Loyola, when I began following Athletic Club Bilbao, the area’s most prominent and successful soccer team, that I became enamored with the Basques. Athletic Club is unique not only in the world of soccer, but sports in general, for employing only Basque players. This means that while every other team has its pick of top players from all around the world, Athletic has an extremely limited selection from a population of around 3,000,000 people in Spain and France. I was intrigued about this, about why it was of such importance that all the players be tied to the region, so I began researching the Basque country. This quickly changed from a casual curiosity to a near obsession. (I once stayed up until 4 in the morning reading Wikipedia articles about Basque mythology.) I was excited when we watched the movie on Frank Gehry in class because it focused so much on the city of Bilbao. And naturally, when browsing around a second hand bookstore, I was beyond thrilled to find a cheap copy of the book The Basque History of the World by Mark Kurlansky. I was particularly excited at this find because even online information on the Basque Country, and especially it language Euskera, is difficult to come by.
Knowing this, my interest was once again piqued. Not many writers would choose such a topic to write an entire book on, especially considering many people are not even aware of the existence of the Basques. I decided to look into other books Kurlansky has written and discovered that this is not a singular example. One of his most well-known works is entitled Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World; another is Salt: A World History. Almost all of his books are topics that, while understood perhaps superficially by people, are largely unexplored on any deeper level. In each case, he sees a story that has since gone untold, and takes it upon himself to bring it to the world. But with titles like Cod and Salt, one has to question exactly how thrilling these stories could possibly be. How can in depth studies of such ordinary and common topics garner top spots on multiple bestseller lists? By being not just the facts of the matter, but a detailed and often compelling story that explores not only the topic at hand, but every aspect of history and culture touched by these subjects. He does not want to focus one just one aspect of the topic at hand, but rather, as he said in an interview, “I get an idea, something I want to write about and then I have a very long conversation with myself about it. I do have that central spine – the idea. But then I allow myself to run out in a lot of directions.”
However, Kurlansky does not just write non-fiction. He has several fiction works, as well, and even multiple children’s books. This is perhaps one of the main reasons his non-fiction narratives never fall flat. When asked in an interview if he approaches writing the two genres the same, he replied, “Yeah. I find they have a lot in common. How you solve your problems are quite different. In non-fiction you can always go back to the research, whereas in fiction you have to go back to yourself -- which is a little bit scary.” In another interview, along the same lines, he stated that, “I have written a great deal of both and the process is similar. Both involve factual research. But in fiction you have to dig within yourself and your experience for things you find in archives for nonfiction. With fiction often you are the archive.” Beyond the problem-solving matter, there seems to be little difference. For him, cod and salt are not a fish and a rock, but living, dynamic characters, as would be seen in any work of fiction. In The Basque History of the World, the character is an entire nation of people whose history has rarely been shared. For Kurlansky, there is more than just pure fact to every subject; there is always something new to tell.
This is part of the reason he branched into writing books for children and teens. He has said multiple times that he enjoys writing for a younger audience because they are more open and receptive in ways that adults are not. After writing Cod and Salt, he went back and wrote children’s versions of each, along with The World Without Fish: How Kids Can Help Save the Oceans. While telling the story of the risks of overfishing, this book also instructs a young audience on how they can protect fish in the future, with the hopes that once they become adults the lesson will have stuck. But my favorite, probably unsurprisingly, is The Girl Who Swam to Euskadi.
Written in both English and Euskera, it tells the story of a girl who swims from her home on the east coast to the Basque Country, only to return home and find that no one believes the place is real. I found this concept particularly poignant after an encounter I had with a friend while I was reading Basque History. Even after asking me about the book and reading the back cover, he asked if it was a true story, if these were real people.
This incident highlights just why his books are so unique. While being primarily non-fiction, they are so rich and compelling, it is almost as if such forgotten histories are unreal. The stories are so fantastic and yet so realistic they seem to become a genre unto their own.