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The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation

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From Mark Kurlansky, the bestselling author of Cod, Salt, and Birdseye—the illuminating story of an ancient and enigmatic people.

Straddling a small corner of Spain and France in a land that is marked on no maps except their own, the Basques are a puzzling contradiction—they are Europe's oldest nation without ever having been a country. No one has ever been able to determine their origins, and even the Basques' language, Euskera—the most ancient in Europe—is related to none other on earth. For centuries, their influence has been felt in nearly every realm, from religion to sports to commerce. Even today, the Basques are enjoying what may be the most important cultural renaissance in their long existence.

Mark Kurlansky's passion for the Basque people and his exuberant eye for detail shine throughout this fascinating book. Like Cod, The Basque History of the World,blends human stories with economic, political, literary, and culinary history into a rich and heroic tale.

Among the Basques' greatest accomplishments:

Exploration—the first man to circumnavigate the globe, Juan Sebastian de Elcano, was a Basque and the Basques were the second Europeans, after the Vikings, in North America Gastronomy and agriculture—they were the first Europeans to eat corn and chili peppers and cultivate tobacco, and were among the first to use chocolate Religion—Ignatius Loyola, a Basque, founded the Jesuit religious order Business and politics—they introduced capitalism and modern commercial banking to southern Europe Recreation—they invented beach resorts, jai alai, and racing regattas, and were the first Europeans to play sports with balls
“A delectable portrait of an uncanny, indomitable nation.” –Newsday

“Exciting, Illuminating, and thought provoking.” –The Boston Globe

"Entertaining and instructive… [Kurlansky’s] approach is unorthodox, mixing history with anecdotes, poems with recipes.” –The New York Times Book Review

400 pages, Paperback

First published October 1, 1999

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About the author

Mark Kurlansky

60 books1,607 followers
Mark Kurlansky has written, edited, or contributed to twenty books, which have been translated into twenty-five languages and won numerous prizes. His previous books Cod, Salt, 1968, and The Food of a Younger Land were all New York Times best-sellers.

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5 stars
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3 stars
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50 (1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 463 reviews
Profile Image for Jennifer.
778 reviews39 followers
June 14, 2013
I wanted to like this better, but one key missing element kept nagging at me the entire time I was reading: where are the women? You'd think that the deciding factor in defining Basque culture is having a penis. Seriously, there are a couple of asides about the role women have played in preserving Basque culture, but nothing of substance. Deeply disappointing. That said, I did learn a lot from this book about the history and language of Euskadi, and hope to learn more in the future.
Profile Image for Ciara.
Author 3 books349 followers
November 21, 2008
mark kurlanksy has a real gift for taking a potentially great subject & running it into the ground with his painful writing style. he's a classic pop historian, more interested in writing about himself & what a totally awesome dude he is than the subject his book is supposed to be addressing...or he writes about his perceived self-awesomeness through the prism & drama provided by his subject. but unlike some other authors who certainly inject plenty of their own personalities into books that are ostensibly about some historical aspect of the world, he clings tenaciously to the pretense that he is a valuable & important historian. just shut up, mark kurlansky. dial down the ego & let me know when you're ready to be a real author. the basque nation was such great fodder for a potentially super-interesting books, &...nothing.
Profile Image for Adam  McPhee.
1,254 reviews178 followers
January 15, 2023
Weird that I've never paid much attention to the Basques given that they show up in a lot of topics I'm interested in, such as: The Song of Roland, The Spanish Civil War, niche national liberation struggles, gladio-type conspiracies, pre-Confederation Canadian history, and the Newfoundland cod fishery.

This book is almost more of a miscellany presented in chronological order than a proper history, but that's fine for folks like me coming to the topic as beginners. A good jumping-off point, like a book length wikipedia article.

A bit heavy on the recipes and the personal narrative/travelogue parts were a bit clunky. Sometimes when he was quoting someone it was hard to tell if he was taking this from another source or his own experiences.

Still, a great primer on the Basques.
Profile Image for Matt.
184 reviews10 followers
December 5, 2010
Rarely do I not finish a book and Kurlansky's Basque History of the World falls into that less-than-stellar category.

I know nothing about Basque history and I thought that this would be a good introduction. Instead, I found it very disjointed and schizophrenic. I've heard good things about Kurlansky, so this book was an even bigger disappointment. I read 100 pages and remember almost nothing, which is very out of the ordinary for me and I'm going to go ahead and blame it on the format and writing of the book.

I hate giving books three stars, never mind only one. I only do it now because I feel that this book deserves it. Harsh, I know, but I will pick up Cod in the near future, as I hear it's supposed to be his best work and I'll give him another chance. But, to be honest, this was a horrible book with which to introduce myself to Kurlansky.
Profile Image for Aitziber.
71 reviews25 followers
March 9, 2014
I've given up on rating this book because I have a lot of mixed feelings about it. The Basque History of the World will serve those who want an introduction to Basque Culture well. It covers both Basque History and the Basque perspective and participation in World History. It is written with the best intentions, too, and this is easy to tell from Kurlansky's unprejudiced narration of a history that is hotly contested and told with too many biases by both Basques and Spaniards.

My first issue is that, well, Kurlansky can be a really boring writer. I slogged through the first section wondering what all of these chapters had to do with anything. Some of the chapters in this first section are referred to later, but I would've preferred the book to be more structured, so that I didn't have to get an idea of what the writer was attempting to achieve in the latter half of the book.

The second is that this book is seriously begging to be proofread. Names of locations, particularly, are constantly misspelled or spelled in different, contradictory ways. Either consolidate the names, or explain why you're spelling them differently every sentence. I really have to wonder what an unfamiliar reader will make of the explanation that Sabino Arana named the region 'Euzkadi' because z is a more Basque sound than s, only to spell it Euskadi consequently. (Not to mention that Euskadi is the official name now, rather than Euzkadi.) I have to object to the use of Basqueland throughout the book, which invokes the idea of a land of mythical creatures or possibly a theme park. The Greater Region of Basque Country, or Greater Region for short, or even Basque Speaking lands, are all more appropriate and to the point. Then there are the mistakes: I saw Hondarribia being spelled as Hondaribbia or Hondarribía, and its Spanish name Fuenterrabía as Fuenterabbía. These are only a couple examples of the many in the book.

The third issue is that, while I will disagree with reviewers who found this book to be "pro-terrorist propaganda" (really, though? and what would Kurlansky gain by writing "pro-terrorist propaganda," as an uninvolved American?), there are a couple of pages where I thought he portrayed victims as opportunists. I didn't think Kurlansky was spewing a "load of lies" or sharing propaganda, but it seemed to me that, in his effort to be unprejudiced about a delicate subject, his sympathy for his subjects briefly overtook him. Aside from said two pages, I found the book to make, as aforementioned, an effort to remain objective. This is all the more obvious by its treatment of the Basque Nationalist Party and their exploits, which Kurlansky characterizes as economically privileged with all that that entails, and silly at turns. See: the whole Guggenheim Museum section.

And anyway, it is hard to call a book ETA propaganda when only 4 of its 16 chapters devote any time to the terrorist group. The author is actually concerned about the idea that Basque has come to be synonymous with ETA, and the apparent goal of the book is to show the culture, cuisine and language that Basqueness is really about. Instead of closing with a screed about the evil Spaniards, Kurlansky shares scenes of a 'txarriboda', an occasion in which a rural community gathers to kill a pig, make sausages, chorizos and other pork products, eat them and share jokes in Basque and Spanish both. I guess you could argue that the murder of a pig is symbolic, but then you'd probably be the reason why I choose to read books about Spanish History by foreign historians, rather than homegrown ones.

And, on that note, if Kurlansky's writing didn't impress you and you wish to read of the whole of Spain rather than the Basques, then I recommend Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past by Giles Tremlett. While also a light read rather than academic writing, it should satisfy those cursorily intrigued by the country.
Profile Image for Richard Derus.
2,894 reviews1,927 followers
December 16, 2011
Rating: 3.6* of five

History is the beautiful, brightly lit foam on top of the annihilating tsunami of the unrecorded past. History books are the spectrographic analysis of the light glinting off that foam. Any attempt at making a book more than that is doomed to failure and tedium.

This is not a tedious or failed book. It's just...well...curiously insubstantial. I don't like the focus on the Great and the Good in place of the gestalt of the actions of the Basques. I know, I know, most people can't name their great-grandparents, still less find evidence of their obvious existence, and historians are limited to what documentary evidence exists. But Ignatius Loyola stalled me every time I tried to re-read this book. I hated that jerk when I was confirmed, and given the confirmation saint of St. Charles Borromeo, a major Jesuit figure. I am a flawed being, I admit it...I can't abide hagiography, and I fear Kurlansky's absence of harsh, vituperative judgments thundered down upon the founder of the Jesuits sat ill with me.

But the book is, overall, an attempt to do the extremely difficult: Show the unrecorded points of commonality that linked major events in history, ie the involvement of a people generally overlooked. I suspect the Basques like it that way. I don't know what the Basque majority's opinion was of this book, but I suspect it was well and truly mixed. He's drawing attention to us! Yay! Boo! And often from the same person, I'd bet.

Why such a mingy rating as 3.6 stars? Because...well, because it wasn't anywhere near as much fun to read as I expected it to be.

And Loyola, that rotten sleazebag.
268 reviews16 followers
March 11, 2020
3.5 Star.

An objective, comprehensive yet simplified history of Basque from its beginning to the end of the 20th century. I enjoy the easy, conversational narrative style the author writes in. Furthermore, I feel like the author doesn’t try to gloss over or make up excuses for some of the horrific acts perpetrated by the militant ETA, who attempted to gain a Basque independence through violence, despite indicating his strong sympathy toward the ultimate goals of the Basque people.

However, I also feel like it’s a rather superficial overview of the Basque history. Perhaps, it’s the difficulty of trying to write a comprehensive yet concise overview of any subject. In this book, I feel like despite the numerous interesting historical figures who played significant roles in the history of the conflicts between the Basques and the Spanish, I don’t think I remember any of the crucial player (or, perhaps that’s just my weak memory). I just feel like the author doesn’t spend sufficient time to focus on those important figures. Furthermore, the author also likes to jump to a different year and scenes before redoubling back to the initial subject or figure. As a result, sometimes the book feels confusing and disorganized. Also, I wish there were an updated version, considering that it’s first published over 20 years ago. I’m sure there have been a few interesting and significant changes.

By the way, my interest in this subject is not particularly deep. I first heard the term “Basque” from Athletic Bilbao in the game Football Manager. All I knew was that the club exclusively recruited (still do?) Basque players. I’d also heard of the separatist movements, trying to gain independence for Basque as a nation.

Overall, this is a pretty good book to start with if you’re interested in this particular subject and if you didn’t know anything at all, just like I was.
Profile Image for Tuck.
2,223 reviews208 followers
July 25, 2012
one of my favorite books i have read many times, you can dip in and out wherever and just as satisfying sampling as reading cover to cover. kurlansky has a penchant for writing about history from one point and letting all of humankind swirl around that point in time and space. he did it with cod fish, with salt, with santo Domingo baseball, and with basques. it's such a wonderful country, in history, people, languages, food, beaches and mountains, dancing music art on and on that this serves well for a short and entertaining primer. has nice maps, pictures, bibliography and recipes too.
Profile Image for Elizabeth Theiss Smith.
297 reviews83 followers
April 13, 2012
Anything by Kurlansky is rich and beautifully written. His book about the Basques is especially memorable for its historical and cultural perspectives. Kurlansky is not only a good storyteller; he is also a fine researcher who provides evidence to document his finely woven histories. Having spent time in Basque country, his work helped me to appreciate the people and gave me a sense of place.
Profile Image for Noreen.
487 reviews27 followers
January 1, 2017
Like Korea, Basqueland lies in territory claimed by two countries, France and Spain instead of Japan and China. Before France and Spain were nations the Basque were in play. The French mostly ignored the Basque. After the Muslims and Jews were chased out of Spain around 1492 the Spanish were casting about for a cultural identity. I'm weak on Spanish history, don't know when Spain became a naval sea power. Basque shipbuilders probably built most of the Spanish ships which propelled Spanish exploration and sea power. What would the Vikings have been without Floki type creative shipbuilders? What would Spain have been without Basque shipbuilders?

Without the Basque land, people, and culture Spain would be a third world country. France, Spain and Italy have claimed Basque accomplishments for their own. I was surprised to learn Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits is a Basque.

In 1940 Franco, Spanish dictator, wanted to enter the war. At a meeting with Hitler, Franco talked of his supply needs, Hitler talked of his war problems. Hitler decided the conversation was pointless to continue and left. Hitler referred to Franco as "Jesuit Swine."

The Basque have not been a formally recognized political, or religious institution. Basque accomplishments, both individual and business are counted as Spanish accomplishments. How can a Basque be identified when they can't decide who is a Basque and who isn't? Kurlansky poses interesting questions about one's culture. Outside of immediate family, the Basque refer to themselves as "Our".

Question for 2017 reading: What role did the Basque play in Spanish medieval history and Catholic history? Was Roderigo Borgia the first Spanish pope of Basque origin like Ignatius Loyola?
50 reviews2 followers
January 19, 2020
Lovely historical survey of the Basque people and their culture. Feel I understand a bit better what sets these people apart from every other group in Europe. Don't fuck with the Basques basically.
1,073 reviews105 followers
December 30, 2017
An Enjoyable Grab-bag of Events, Recipes and Trivia

In my search for a better understanding of the Basques, their place in European history and the reasons for the continuing conflict in their region today, I picked up Mark Kurlansky's book. THE BASQUE HISTORY OF THE WORLD is extremely well-written in modern journalistic style. That is, nothing is pursued to the bitter end, certainly, nor, sometimes, is it pursued to a logical conclusion. Subjects are touched upon, suddenly turned into something else, or dropped. Objectivity is not a high priority, but love of subject finds a secure place. These qualities may not be praiseworthy, academically, but do make for enjoyment. Any historical event can be the trigger for a recipe, an odd but pleasant characteristic of the book, which is thus full of interesting recipes, from `hare with walnut and chocolate', to `Salmí de paloma' (a pigeon dish), to `alubias de Tolosa' (beans). I found loads of fascinating interludes, for example, the description of Basque whaling and fishing expeditions and techniques; the discussion of the intellectual roots of Basque nationalism; how to make pelota balls; and the course of the Spanish Civil War in the Basque country. Kurlansky has the ability to discuss issues without getting bogged down. I have seldom met clearer (but perhaps they were incomplete) passages on the Carlist Wars that ravaged Spain for much of the 19th century. Rather than be an organized history in the usual sense, THE BASQUE HISTORY....... is a kind of "Whole Earth Catalogue" of Basqueness, of Euskal Herria. I liked it. It is not a work for serious scholars, but it certainly can be a jumping off place. It would be an overly serious person indeed who did not find Kurlansky's work charming. I can easily recommend this book to anyone who would like to read about a seldom-discussed people; a distinct European ethnic group with a unique language who have occupied the same lands for thousands of years.
Sometimes I felt that the author threw in "facts" without checking. For example, on page 138 he talks about the Basque word "jauntxo" and says it has come into English as "honcho". This word entered American English after WW II because it was the Japanese word for "superior officer" and was used to ask prisoners who commanded them. Similarly on page 293, Kurlansky claims that "cipayo", used as an epithet to describe local Basque police, was borrowed from a pejorative word used by Indian nationalists to describe Indian police who worked for the British. The word "sipahi" is certainly Hindi/Urdu, but it merely means `soldier' or `constable' and doesn't have any pejorative meaning.
A large section of the book discusses the Basques during Franco's long, oppressive regime, and during its aftermath with the entrance of Spain into Europe, and the rise of Basque terrorism in the struggle to maintain identity and/or become independent. While I found some of this rather diffuse, THE BASQUE HISTORY OF THE WORLD is the only book I know which can give the reader, unfamiliar with the events of 1970-2000, a background to the mayhem from a Basque (nationalist)point of view. For the most part, the author has done his homework, interviewed many interesting people, and compiled his information in a pleasing way.
Profile Image for April Hamilton.
Author 12 books16 followers
March 23, 2009
This is a fascinating book about a mysterious people. The ancestral Basque homelands lie on the border between France and Spain, encompassing a bit of each country's territory.

While the Basque are officially considered citizens of Spain, they consider themselves a separate group entirely. They are a mysterious group because anthropologists can't say exactly where they, or their native language, came from, only that both their physical traits and language have little in common with either the French or the Spanish. This book proffers a mixture of theory and recent scholarship to try and solve the mystery of the Basque: who are they, where did they come from, and how have they survived as a separate and unique people for so long?

It's a very interesting read, and not at all dry or highly technical like many of these anthro-theory nonfiction books can be.
Profile Image for Martin Hare Michno.
123 reviews28 followers
June 4, 2018
Mark Kurlansky will not shut up about food recipes and I could not finish this book. He comes close to mythologising the Basques, and claims that the more mysterious something is, the more Basque it is. The way he writes history is terribly bland, and frankly makes it impossible to follow. He attempts to take on more information than he can handle, and mostly writes about boring, uninteresting and superfluous events. I'll try to read the last part, which deals with recent history.

As far as I'm concerned, this book was written with the scraps of information he couldn't fit into 'Cod: Biography of the Fish That Changed the World'. Perhaps Cod is good, but The Basque History of the World is not, at all. Unless you are looking new mysterious, mythical Cod recipes.
Profile Image for Adria.
147 reviews1 follower
May 8, 2011
I bought this book randomly at a book store near where I lived in Crouch End, London, back in 2001. I knew nothing of the Basques other than what I saw on Euro News (mostly ETA terrorism). The writer presents an interesting and lively story of a people whose language is unrelated to any other in the world (and as a linguist, I loved this!) and an insight into their rich culture, which predates many others. I enjoyed getting to know the Basques away from all the bad press, and later on, as a graduate student in Denver, wrote a paper on Basque culture and drove up to Boulder one Saturday to meet a Basque woman and hear her perspective.
Profile Image for Jessica.
Author 6 books193 followers
February 12, 2008
Kurlansky's on his game with this one. "Cod" led him to the Basques, it was an obvious segue as the Basques had a jump on everyone else in this area (fished off Newfoundland Banks long before Columbus, etc.) Anyway, I enjoyed the book thoroughly, but I recall very little of it now, 8 years later. The Basque were/are a fascinating people, with their own language, culture, food, separate from Spain & France, but...well, wish I could remember more...
Profile Image for Sophie (RedheadReading).
373 reviews65 followers
June 28, 2019
A great introduction to Basque culture and history! I felt the editing of this could be better though; the author would go from discussing intense political developments in the Franco regime, then do a chapter on eating eels, then back to politics, which I found a little jarring!
Profile Image for Pep Bonet.
766 reviews20 followers
June 6, 2015
I bought this book in 2011 in the Basque Center in Boise, ID. And this is mostly the reason why I bought it. It gave it some respectability. Being published by Penguin was the second factor which decided me: it tends to be some kind of guarantee. The third factor is more stupid. On the cover it says: by the author of SALT and COD. Good, I told me, if the author has already written about salted cod (staple food of the Basques and other Atlantic communities), he must really know. Only later I discovered that it's two books, one about salt and another about cod, that he's written on many subjects. But, nevertheless, his knowledge of the Basqueland is quite good, even excellent.

I wasn't expecting really much from the book, to be honest. It was very likely that it'll be a laudatory book on the author’s adored Basques, given that there are some important stable communities in the Northwest of the USA, or the typical book which is more a journalistic report on anecdotes, taken locally with some nice chap, where the locals are all sweet and lovely. Admittedly, it was about history, but history is where myths are built, ergo a very dangerous thing.

At the end of the book, I must say that I am rather impressed. It has some mystic admiration of a brave race of stubborn people who have resisted for centuries invasion, while making money and being refined and cultivated, even if they play rude games involving brute force, etc. But the facts are quite correct, from what I more or less know, which is a mix of a Francoist indoctrination, plus reading works by nationalists, plus discussions with Basque friends of differing views. I would say that the author places himself in this middle ground which is difficult to live in Spain (you have to take sides, else you are on the other side, don’t ask me other from what!). The result is quite a good, although journalistic, description of the main milestones of Basque history.

Deserves special mention the issue of toponymy, always a difficult one. The author gets most of the names right, but has some hesitations. Thus, he is able to distinguish between the Basque way of writing Guernica (Gernika) and the Spanish way, which is the one commonly used by him and the one used for the famous Picasso painting. But then, why writing Muxika, instead of Mújica? There are a number of cases like this. On orthography now, it because very curious the mix of ‘z’ and ‘s’ due to the change in writing convention from the original one established by Sabino Arana (Basqueland is Euzkadi) to the one widely used today (Euskadi). The author, without much telling, uses the z when talking about Arana and the s in subsequent chapters.

Summarising, it is far from being the reference book, it is somehow feel-good, it is much about the four Sourthern provinces, even the three composing present day Euskadi, but it’s informative and rather neutral.
Profile Image for Chrisl.
607 reviews87 followers
July 3, 2015
First choice of the Kurlansky's I'd like to re-read.


A comprehensive view of all things Basque, from the author of Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (1997). The Basque History of the World is an honorable title, alerting readers to its singularly Basque-centric mix of cultural studies, history, and politics. The writing is direct and accessible, although limited by the occasional descriptive clichÇ (—jagged mountains” and “crisp fall days—). It’s most interesting when describing the periods when Basque history intersects with the history of the larger world. For example, in a section on the Spanish Civil War, Kurlansky utilizes quotes from survivors of the 1937 bombing of Guernica by Franco’s forces, the first large-scale use of air power against a civilian population, to create a sense of suspense, dread, and terror. The bravery of members of the Basque underground, who helped over 700 downed Allied fliers escape from Nazi-occupied territory to England during WWII, is also depicted through compelling first-person recollections. The last third of the book, covering the post-WWII period and the radicalization of a faction of the Basque independence movement, is most problematic. While Kurlansky adeptly explains the logic for Basque autonomy and presents the most radical wings” justification for its historical use of terrorism, his analysis too often accepts the Basque view at face value and offers no independent perspective. Perhaps this is because Kurlansky is enamored of his subject, especially the Basque language, Euskera. Euskera warrants attention, as it’s a unique non-Indo-European language with no known linguistic relatives. Kurlansky knows the Basques well and includes many entertaining anecdotes, myths, and facts about them, all of which reflect a quaint Basque chauvinism. According to the author, the Basque are: probably the original Europeans, the first Europeans to cultivate tobacco, the first bankers in Spain, the most devout Catholics in the world, and among the inventors of beach resorts. In its entirety, this is an informative but ethnocentric history that readers should approach with their critical faculties intact."
Profile Image for Mónica Ruiz.
4 reviews25 followers
June 21, 2014
I absolutely love this book. I read it for the first time 5 or 6 years ago and I've re-read some parts of it since then.

As a Basque myself, I see two aspects of this book that make it special:
First and foremost, the fact that is written by an outsider, with no conection with our people or ways whatsoever. It's simply beautiful to see that some foreigner can overcome the Media, the prejudices and the public image that is projected of our people and see things for what they are. This makes some parts simply heart-breaking, and I actually surprised myself shedding some tears.

The other one (quite alarming if you ask me) is that I actually learnt pieces of the history of MY people that I was absoultely unaware of. Truly remarkable things. I discarded them at first, thinking that Mark Kurlansky was simply too enamoured with the whole Basque myth to be fair. Shockingly, and after doing a little research, I discovered that they were, in fact, historical, scientific facts. Facts that, sometimes, the whole world accepts today as true, but that we, in the Basque Country, have never heard of.

For this reasons I recommend it to anyone, and specially interesting for the Basques themselves. As for the author, I can only say this: eskerrik asko, Mark.
Profile Image for Julen Biguri.
58 reviews11 followers
September 13, 2020
Dudo mucho que nadie sea capaz de explicar con tanto detalle el carácter, y sobre todo, el por qué de tantas manías y peculiaridades de los vascos. Sí, tuvo que venir un yanqui a explicárnoslo.

Mi primer contacto con el libro fue el de reírme, ante la portada de "vasquito" de tienda de souvenir del Casco Viejo. A continuación siguió una crítica, sin fundamento ni conocimiento real sobre el contenido, en la que, de nuevo, me reía de la propaganda nacionalista, sea de la nación que sea. Y es que el título evocaba ciertos derroteros. Pues bien, reírme, me he terminado riendo, pero de mí mismo, y de mi carácter vasco.

Kurlansky retrata, desde el cerrado hasta el más internacionalista, todos los personajes que componen el curioso cosmos euskaldun. Se para, con una familiaridad que sólo alguien que come y cocina bacalao al pil-pil conocería, en cada preocupación que acecha al vasco de hoy en día, desde el conflicto de las gulas/angulas, la situación sociolingüistica del idioma, hasta los dichosos Fueros.

Definir a un vasco, y ya no digamos el concepto de Euskal Herria, es para muchos meterse en un bonito fregao. Para Kurlansky está claro: alguien que come, canta, habla y promete mucho en vasco. Y, ante todo, alguien que quiere que le dejen en paz con sus cosas.

Profile Image for Gordon.
212 reviews43 followers
October 3, 2015
Why did the Basques, a tiny group of fewer than three million people, survive as a culture? This is implicitly the main question asked by Kurlansky's history of the Basques. (Incidentally, this is not really a Basque history of the world as much as it is a history of the Basque world -- though since the Basques got around a lot as sailors and whalers, it's a good-sized world). Here's what I take to be the author's answers to that question:
1) Because they were relatively geographically isolated in an infertile part of the world with rugged landscapes that isolated them from surrounding peoples and even from one another -- small as the Basque region is, there are still seven different Basque dialects from different areas! A single written language did not emerge until the 20th century.
2) Because in the era of urbanization in Spain, mainly the late 19th and the 20th century, Basqueland became prosperous from industrialization and so the Basques did not have to migrate to the cities of other countries or other parts of Spain where they would have been assimilated.
3) Because they were persecuted by Franco and other Spanish rulers, which strengthened their tribal solidarity.
4) Because they were clannish and family-centered, due to a weak state apparatus that forced them to rely on one another and their community.
5) Because a common Catholic faith and a strong network of Basque-speaking parish priests held them together.

But the argument can be made that the Basque culture has only "survived" in a limited sense, if language is taken as the key defining element of a culture. The vast majority of Basques don't know how to speak Basque fluently and certainly don't speak it at home. When I traveled to that region this year, I sure didn't hear a lot of Basque spoken on the streets of San Sebastian or Pamplona or other Basque cities. In a century, will the language still exist as a daily means of communication? I hope so, but I think it's a long shot that a language that has declined this far can be fully brought back to the mainstream -- no matter how much effort Basque authorities put into teaching it in schools and ensuring a steady stream of Basque language publications. We live in an age in which the languages of small groups, especially those that don't have their own country, are dying out at a brisk clip. Most of the languages spoken in the world today are not expected to exist by the end of this century.

The book is a fascinating read, from the earliest historical times during the Roman era up to the present. The reach of the Basque people extended far, wherever their fishing boats and whaling ships and emigrants reached, and contributed very heavily to the exploration efforts of the Spanish during the age of the Spanish global empire (late 1400's through the early 1800's). The author does a particularly good job, I thought, of explaining Basque nationalism, both its narrow-minded, nativist aspects and its rich cultural elements. The competing desires of different Basque groups drove them into taking sides during Spain's various civil wars of the 19th and 20th centuries that pitted them against both other parts of Spain and even against one another. Highly conservative, religious monarchists fighting on the side of the Carlist pretender to the throne during the civil wars of the 19th century clashed violently with more progressive Basques seeking greater autonomy for their homeland under a less centralized monarchy. Similarly, during the Civil War of the 1930s, some Basques such as those of Navarre allied with Franco because of his supposed devotion to the Church and to the monarchy, in opposition to the Spanish Republican government and to most of the rest of their fellow Basques, who were slaughtered by both Franco's well-armed troops and those of Mussolini and Hitler. Kurlansky tells a complicated story very well -- while not leaving out his favorite Basque recipes.
Profile Image for Christopher Ackerman.
1 review1 follower
November 29, 2015
Mark Kurlansky has made a niche for himself writing popular books about boring subjects (Salt, Cod). The books take the form of biographies - focusing on the subject as it exists in different, disconnected time and places - but since the "subjects" are objects, there's no internal development or psychological drama to be had. Here the subject has a bit more life, and one comes away with an appreciation for the proud, tough, and adventuresome Basques. Settling along the Atlantic corner of what is now northern Spain, the Basques exhibited classic tribal/clannish behavior- high in-group vs out-group favoritism, simple civilization, superstitious beliefs, aggression. They were also talented ship-builders, clever traders, and courageous explorers. They first circumnavigated the globe (the survivors of Magellan's expedition were mostly Basques), they were champion ocean fisherman (and may have chased whales as far as Newfoundland before Columbus's voyage), and they survived for millennia on difficult land as empires rose and fell around them. In the hands of a more talented writer, these could have made for gripping tales; here, one merely respects their daring at an intellectual level. Still, given that a typical American reader might have only heard of the Basques as an (often violent) separatist movement in Spain, the book does serve a purpose. The fiercely nationalistic, revanchist Basques seem an odd subject for the left-wing Kurlansky, who early on expresses his disdain for antiquated notions of nationhood. The Basque territory has in more recent times become more ethnically and culturally mixed (a development celebrated by Kurlansky, who claims that Basque identity is heterogeneous), and their grand days of accomplishment seem a part of the past, a loss balanced by the increasing peacefulness of the region.
Profile Image for Og.
18 reviews
April 3, 2013
The book is about one of the oldest surviving cultures in the world - the Basques.

The book discusses Basque language, cooking (including some recipes), culture, historically significant people, graffiti (3+4=1), sports (pelota), internal conflicts among the Basques themselves, the Spanish Civil War (the German bombing of Guernica), art, WWII, religion (Catholic versus secularism) and current issues. I didn't realize the Spanish government was so dictorial towards this culture.

The author is supportive of a Basque nation but that doesn't seem possible now. He almost justifies Basque violence by saying the Spanish government also engages in violence. The author thinks it is realistic for the Basques to follow their own laws but still be a part of Spain/France. That is not logical.

I gained so much knowledge and understanding of this culture. I wish I knew more about the people when I was in Spain so I could have been on the lookout for cultural references.

There is a question-answer session at the end of the audiobook. I would have liked to have heard how the Basque language sounded.

Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Michael Armijo.
Author 2 books26 followers
November 2, 2010
An interesting, historical look into Northern SPAIN.

I was very interested in the Basque country after I learned that my family (ARMIJO) can be traced as early as the 13th Century to Laredo, Spain, a small resort beach town in the heart of Basque land. I learned a lot & reflected on a few customs that have been carried over in my family...for example, love of sardines & pride in my Spanish heritage. This was quite interesting to learn about the long history of the Basque people. It's amazing to realize that it is quite likely that the Basque people may very well be the first known Europeans.
I strongly recommend this for any one visiting Northern Spain, any historian interested in Europe &/or any one of Spanish ancestry. I recently (Oct. 2002) visited Laredo, Spain, Zaragoza, Spain (The Armijo Palace) and Biarritz, France...I felt at home and safe in these areas.
Profile Image for Xander Ring.
29 reviews1 follower
May 13, 2011
This book explains a lot. We live in an area of France that is either within or on the edge of the French Basque country (depending upon who you ask). The book explains the roadblocks and car searches that we have encountered while crossing the Pyrenees into Spain. I remember the first time we drove to Bilbao. It it a dense urban area with large factories and huge rusting steel plants. And I had this romantic idea that the Pays Basque was a land of small farmers, goat herders and cheese artisans. Who knew that it was the Pittsburgh and Northern Ireland of Spain? And what were we to think when an ETA arms cache was found up the road from our village? The Basque History of the World explains all of this. I'll never drive through this area of Northern Spain without thinking back to this book. Merci beaucoup. Mucho gracias.
209 reviews
June 8, 2014
While perhaps not the most well written book (and I do not purport to know how accurate his fact telling is), this book was immensely interesting to me. I'm visiting Basque country this summer and I found myself furiously taking notes about certain aspects of Basque culture. It was a great primer for me, someone who came into the book with very limited knowledge of the Basque people.

My interest in linguistics also predisposed me to totally eating up the sections about the Basque language, Euskera, which is totally unrelated to Spanish or any other language on the planet for that matter.

Also of great magnitude to me as a foodie was the discussion of gateau basque, dried cod, peppers, pil pil, Itxassou cherries, and more.
Profile Image for Karen.
380 reviews
October 5, 2010
Overall, it was very poorly written. Some interesting history but did not flow well chronologically. Additionally, the information has a lot to do with locations and they were not described well at all. It was difficult to know where the narrative was taking place as the author jumped from one location to another and did not give enough dialog to this important aspect. There were not enough clear inclusive maps. Author described the food (including recipes) better than the all important locations and very confusing political/fighting alliances.
Profile Image for Bruno.
24 reviews
February 7, 2018

A rich depth of information, I like the way this book is written. It is a pleasure that I did my placement in such a different place with unique people. Recognising places I visited throughout the year in the book was fun and understanding the vast history of the Basques and their language has made me appreciate the Basque Country even more. Eskerrik asko Mark Kurlansky 👏🏼
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