David Rio. American Studies International. Volume 41, Issue 3. October 2003.
“I am not a Basque scholar or even a Basque writer; I am just a Basque who writes.” In this humble way Robert Laxalt (1923-2001), son of Basque immigrants and one of Nevada’s most renowned authors, defined himself whenever I asked him about his literary contributions to the rise of visibility of Basque immigrants in the United States or to the expansion of Basque studies in this country. Laxalt’s extreme humility cannot hide his impressive literary career, consisting of seventeen books that won him international acclaim. He was twice nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction. In fact, in considering Laxalt’s work, we cannot forget that Robert Laxalt was not just “a Basque who wrote,” but the most talented American author writing on the experience of Basques both in the United States and in Europe.
Any discussion of Laxalt’s role as the leading American literary interpreter of the Basques should inevitably begin with the impact of his Sweet Promised Land on the general image of Basques in America. The publication in 1957 of this intimate tale of immigration, dealing mainly with the return trip of the author’s father (Dominique) to his Basque homeland in the Pyrenees mountains after forty-seven years as a sheepherder in Nevada, put an end to the invisibility of the Basques in America. The instantaneous success of the book as a Basque-American epic became a fundamental event in the process of vindication of the figure of the immigrant Basque sheepherder in America. This new visibility of the Basques after Sweet Promised Land also extended to the American literary field where, until then, Basques had been overlooked as heroes and protagonists. As William A. Douglass and Jon Bilbao have noted,
The occupational specialization of the Basques isolated
them physically from their neighbors and identified them
with one of the least prestigious activities in the region’s
economy. Consequently, the Basques remained a “phantom-like”
element within the society of the American West,
largely ignored by the literati. (1975: 367)
Sweet Promised Land has been often described as an intimate biography or as an affectionate memoir of a son to his father. The approach taken by Laxalt to portray his father’s life pervades the whole book and contributes to its success. Readers feel attracted by Laxalt’s personal and direct statements about his father and the fact that it is the true story of a man viewed through the eyes of his son, though some incidents in the book may have been somewhat fictionalized. However, Sweet Promised Land must be read as the story not only of Dominique Laxalt, but of many Basque immigrants in the American West. The book goes beyond its personal level to embody the experience of Basque immigrants in the United States. These immigrants identified with Dominique’s story and felt encouraged to display their ethnic pride at a time, previous to the “roots” phenomenon, in which Basques were neither well-known nor popular in America. At the same time, the wider public in the United States discovered Basques, “they discovered this romantic sheepherder thing,” in Douglass’s words (Rio 1999a: 42).
Although the book deals mainly with the way of life of Basque sheepmen in the American West, their experiences can be regarded as a symbol of the struggle of American immigrants in general. The story works as a classic tale of immigration, where the immigrant’s experience is portrayed by Laxalt as a process divided into three basic stages: the immigrant’s decision to abandon his homeland to escape from poverty and/or oppression, his fight for acceptance in the new country and his impossible return to his native land once the assimilation process is over. Throughout these different stages Laxalt shows his deeply felt concern with the modern individual’s need for meaning, for a sense of place and identity.
Sweet Promised Land primarily emphasizes the challenges that immigrants faced in America and their often fruitless attempts to recapture the past. The integration experience of the immigrants in the American society is described by Laxalt as a gradual process in which the immigrants’ desire for acceptance and their reluctance to lose their ethnic identity often act as opposing forces. He particularly focuses his attention on the challenges that the newcomers must face during their first years in America. Thus, he gives in his book a detailed description of the hardships endured by his father when he first arrived in Nevada. Although Dominique’s struggle for integration presents some characteristics specifically related to his condition of Basque sheepherder, the tests he must undergo during this process illustrate the hard lessons the ordinary immigrant must learn in the new land, for example, adaptation to a new setting, isolation, loneliness, economic survival or hostility from the host community.
One of the first challenges that immigrants must face in America is the adaptation to a new setting, often completely different from the old world, and the need to overcome their nostalgia for the old country. Laxalt particularly emphasizes the deep impact that the Nevada desert produces on Basque sheepherders like Dominique, who longs for his green land:
You would have to see the beauty of the Basque country
before you knew what I meant, but I remember going out
into that cruel desert when I first came, and nights when I
cried to sleep in my tent. (1986: 50)
Laxalt also portrays isolation and loneliness as common trials for the immigrant. In the case of the Basque sheepherders the challenge becomes especially arduous. Their loneliness is not simply the result of their condition as newcomers, their ignorance of the language or the bad reputation of their job, as was often the case with other immigrants. The loneliness of the Basques is also produced by the utter solitude in which they find themselves as sheepherders on the open range. In the most desolate corners of the American West they long for human company, for the sound of a human voice, and the monotony of their lonely life exposes them to potentially severe mental strain. Related to this, it is worth mentioning that, even though the Basques had a special reputation among all nationalities in America for their capacity to endure solitude (Laxalt 1991: 23), Sweet Promised Land includes a Basque sheepherder, Joanes Ergela (or Crazy John), who loses his mind as a result of loneliness in the mountains. This example works as a symbol of the serious nature of the ordeals that immigrants had to endure in their new country.
Another major challenge that immigrants must face is economic survival, a subject that plays an important role in Sweet Promised Land. Laxalt shows that immigrants, apart from suffering hard working conditions, as in the case of the Basques mentioned above, usually have a difficult start making their living in the new world. America may be the land of opportunity, but working hard is not enough there. Newcomers must be ready to fight competitors, even resorting to violent means. In addition, they must resist the temptation to waste their money, even if that means staying away from town for a long period. Last but not least, their economic success often depends on a volatile market. All these features are perfectly represented in Sweet Promised Land by the struggle experienced by Dominique and Basque-American sheepherders in general. Thus, these immigrants are shown in open conflict with the cattle ranchers for feed and water. The book describes their obsession with saving money and their difficulties in resisting the temptation of wasting their money in town. Finally, Laxalt also introduces the livestock crisis of the 1920s as an example of the uncertain economic conditions: the sheep market began to decline and immediately most Basques lost everything for which they had worked so hard.
Apart from the different challenges mentioned in this article, immigrants must sometimes confront hostility, ridicule or contempt from the host community. In some cases this hostile atmosphere is closely related to economic causes, as we saw in the conflict with the cattlemen described above. However, in many cases this situation is simply due to the cultural and ethnic distinctiveness of the newcomers. They do not fit into the standard patterns of American society because they are outsiders, who speak a different language and have a different culture. And at that time in America, as Robert Laxalt remembers, “it wasn’t fashionable to be ethnic” (Rio, 1996: 125). As a result, the Basques, as other groups of immigrants with special ethnic features, experienced bullying, teasing and rejection. Laxalt does not wish to exaggerate the importance of these incidents and consequently he does not include any episodes of violent discrimination against the Basques in Sweet Promised Land. However, he shows how two young Basques are made fun of because of their speech and clothes and he also refers to the shame suffered by Basque-American children when they speak Basque in public. These examples illustrate the intolerance of American society in the first half of the twentieth century toward expressions of cultural or ethnic diversity. As William Douglass pointed out in his foreword to the 1986 edition of Sweet Promised Land,” persons who clung to their native language and who continued to manifest old world lifeways were suspect” (x). So, these immigrants, in spite of their reluctance to lose their original identity, will often have to hide their ethnic heritage or to renounce it in order to become American. In addition, the struggle for acceptance of the immigrants also extends to their descendants, for whom boxing works in the book as a useful symbol. As Laxalt knows from his own experience, second-generation Americans often must fight harder than the rest, just because they “were born of old country people in a new land” (1986: 66).
Although Laxalt’s interest is mainly focused on the obstacles that the immigrant finds on his way to integration, he also shows how the newcomer gradually becomes familiar with the host country and its people and even identifies himself with them. This process has its origin in the immigrant’s capacity to adapt himself to the new environment without questioning it:
… afterward it wasn’t suffering, because it was the way
things was, and a man couldn’t do anything about it, and
maybe that’s why he didn’t spend the time thinking about
it, either. (1986: 50)
However, the self-identification of the newcomers with American society is accelerated by a series of elements that represent the progressive acceptance of the immigrants by the host community. In fact, these immigrants will discover, as Dominique does in the book, that the new country is not only a place of disillusionment and brutality, but also of generosity and love. In Sweet Promised Land Laxalt also pays close attention to the last stage of the immigrant experience: the impossible return of the native. The book shows the return to the homeland as an unrealistic idea for most immigrants. Thus, although a lot of immigrants in Sweet Promised Land talk about going home, their return is nearly always postponed and in most cases it never takes place. Two opposite reasons may be argued to account for this situation: the failure of the integration process and its overwhelming success. Actually, the book describes a group of Basque immigrants who are unable to overcome the challenges of the new land, but have to remain in America because their return has become physically impossible. They have failed to save money or they have been defeated by adversity, age or loneliness. As one of the characters in the story says,
… they were lost souls, and they did not even have the
good fortune to be lost in their own hell. They were foreigners
when they came and they will always be foreigners.
As a contrast to these immigrants, Laxalt focuses his attention on the figure of his father, who symbolizes the success of the assimilation process. After forty-seven years in the new world, Dominique is so integrated in American society that his early wishes to return to the Basque country and settle there have vanished. Because of this, his nostalgic trip to the Basque country is portrayed by his son, who accompanies him, as a shocking and ambiguous experience. On the one hand, it is a moment for joy, reward and fulfillment. Dominique has the opportunity to see his relatives again and these welcome him as a hero, as “the youth who had gone out into the world in beggar’s garb and come back in shining armor” (1986: 122). On the other hand, the return makes Dominique feel sad and old because he realizes that too much time has passed and nothing can ever be the same again. His parents and some of his old friends are dead and, in spite of the joyous reunion with his relatives and the recall of youthful memories, he cannot avoid feeling like a stranger in his own land.
Robert Laxalt ends his tale of immigration by stressing the impossibility of returning to the past. Actually, Dominique’s final decision to leave again for the United States shows that once the assimilation process is over and the old land has become only a dimming memory, the return of the native is nearly always a chimerical idea. As Dominique says at the end of Sweet Promised Land, “I cannot go back. It ain’t my country any more. I’ve lived too much in America ever to go back” (1986: 176).
In the aftermath of the success of Sweet Promised Land, a book already translated into four different languages (German, French, Basque and Spanish), Laxalt published his first novel, A Man in the Wheatfield (1964), an allegory of good and evil set in an isolated western community composed almost entirely of Italian immigrants and their immediate descendants. This critically-acclaimed novel was named one of six Notable Works of Fiction that year by the American Literary Association sharing the honor with Saul Bellow’s Herzog and Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. It was reprinted in England and it was also translated into Spanish under the title of Adorador de serpientes. In fact, A Man in the Wheatfield rivals Sweet Promised Land in importance, though both works differ widely in their content and style.
As Laxalt himself noted in his posthumous book Travels with My Royal: A Memory of the Writing Life, the genesis of A Man in the Wheatfield was linked to his personal exploration of the meaning of “such overused words as good, envy, ego, hypocrisy, innocence, symbol myth” (2001: 149). In addition, it is possible to regard the whole novel as a masterful exploration into the connection between fear and evil, with an emphasis on its basic motivation: the anxiety brought by the unknown.
In A Man in the Wheatfield, obsession with evil is represented by Father Savio’s recurring vision of a black featureless figure in a wheatfield whom he knows to be the devil. His presentiment of impending evil and disaster seems to be confirmed when Smale Calder, an enigmatic stranger with an unusual passion for rattlesnakes and a mysterious power to handle them, comes to town. Calder’s attraction to snakes, with its Biblical overtones, and the changes that this outsider’s arrival provokes in the close-knit of Italian immigrants, make him the perfect incarnation of the devil in Father Savio’s eyes. His denouncement of Calder as the essence of evil springs from his inability to distinguish evil from fear, two concepts that often appear confused and intertwined in his mind. Thus, Laxalt’s novel shows us that the real source of evil, the real face of the man in the wheatfield of Father Savio’s dream is often fear, an overwhelming and unrealistic fear of the unknown. Laxalt particularly underscores the fact that human beings usually build up terrible fears and blame them on a series of external factors that are said to be evil. The novel emphasizes the need to explore the source of those fears, which often means a search for self-knowledge. In fact, Laxalt himself has stated that the book was the result of his own search for knowledge: “This book was my exploration. This was, as Hemingway put it, ‘all the things you don’t know.’ When it was finished, my own devils dematerialized” (2001: 149).
Laxalt’s masterful account of the conflicting nature of the relationship between Calder and his neighbors provides us with a privileged example of the tensions between the individual and the community. The novel illustrates the destruction of an innocent individual, pure of heart and good intention, by a community unable to discern evil from fear. Individuality and refusal to conform become the victims of misguided spiritualism and raw pragmatism. In this sense, Calder’s tragic end represents the destruction of the outsider who refuses to lose his individuality to achieve integration into an unattractive environment. As one of the characters in the novel predicts, “anybody who’s different from other people makes misery for himself” (1987: 130).
In A Man in the Wheatfield, Laxalt also stresses the extreme isolation of the desert town that he uses as the main setting of the novel: “so isolated were they in their tiny community that they might as well have been living in another world” (1987: 12). The decay of this town epitomizes the fruitless attempts of some groups of immigrants in America to establish self-contained communities, where they hope to retain their native practices and customs without any kind of influence or interference from the New World. The selection of Italians for this community instead of Basques, the immigrant group who played the most prominent role in Laxalt’s previous book, was not very well accepted by some readers. Even a few of them complained about the general image of the Italian community depicted in the book, as we can see in the following letter addressed to the writer:
I am curious as to why you made the townspeople Italian.
[…] What did not escape me is what I assume to be the
contrast between the kind, taciturn, snake-loving American
and the primitive, cruel, superstitious Italians who do
not believe in democracy but in “bossism”. […] Why didn’t
you make them Basques? […] The Negro and Jew are sacrosanct.
[…] This leaves a vacuum and naturally the Italians,
who have no pressure groups, fill it very nicely. Need
a villain in a story or stupid film? Then make him Italian. (2)
In response, Laxalt recently made the following comment:
The selection of Italians was important. American characters
would have been too cynical. I could have used
Basques, but their responses to the situations I planned to
use were too restrained. Italians, whom I knew well, had
the classic qualities I needed for what I was attempting to
say. (2001: 147)
A Man in the Wheatfield may be defined as Laxalt’s most unusual novel. In fact, this novel is possibly his most successful attempt to escape the labels of “regionalist” and/or “ethnic writer.” As William Douglass has noted (Rio, 2002), this book, despite its Italo-American Nevada setting, transcends time and place and it may even be regarded as Laxalt’s purist novel.
Laxalt also displayed his versatility as a writer in later books dealing with the history of Nevada (Nevada, 1970, and Nevada: A Bicentennial History, 1977), with traditional western subjects, such as A Lean Year and Other Stories (1994) or Dust Devils (1997), or even with his war experiences in Africa (A Private War: An American Code Officer in the Belgian Congo, 1998). Laxalt’s literary reputation rests primarily on his Basque books (Etulain 1999: 228). Thus, after Sweet Promised Land Laxalt established himself as a major literary interpreter of Basques in general with a series of impressive writings about the Euskaldunak, both in Europe and in the new world. On the one hand, he demonstrated his artistic talent when depicting the lifestyle of the Basques in the old world in non-fiction books such as In a Hundred Graves: A Basque Portrait (1972), A Time We Knew: Images of Yesterday in the Basque Homeland (1990) and The Land of My Fathers: A Son’s Return to the Basque Country (1999), and also in the novella A Cup of Tea in Pamplona (1985). On the other hand, Laxalt consolidated his position as the literary spokesman for the Basque-American community, with his superb trilogy of the Indart family, composed of the novels The Basque Hotel (1989), Child of the Holy Ghost (1992), and The Governor’s Mansion (1994), and also with his novella Time of the Rabies (2000). In fact, as Richard Etulain has noted (1999: 228-229), with his brilliant portraits of Basque experiences in Nevada, Laxalt joins other authors of rewarding fiction about European immigrant groups in the West, such as Willa Cather, Ole Rolvaag, Wallace Stegner, Frederick Manfred or Ivan Doig.
In a Hundred Graves: A Basque Portrait is Laxalt’s first book devoted to European Basques. This short non-fiction book represents an act of reflection upon the concept of identity as applied to a specific community, that of the Basques in the Pyrenees mountains along the border between France and Spain. In this fashion, throughout the forty-five stories which make up the book, Laxalt endeavors to demonstrate some of the principal aspects which, in his opinion, are representative of Basque identity. He does not perform an abstract analysis of the idiosyncrasies of the Basques through these narratives, but rather, the book retrieves the concrete experiences which were lived by this Basque-American writer in the land of his forefathers during two extended pilgrimages in the sixties. For this reason we are dealing with a markedly personal book, the product of the direct contact of its author with Basque reality.
In a Hundred Graves is not characterized by a desire to exhaust the topic at the moment of portraying the lifestyle of the Basques. As Richard W. Etulain points out, “… if one approaches this book looking for a detailed and straight-forward account of Basque social and cultural life, he will be disappointed” (1977: 15). The resulting vision of Basque society which Laxalt presents to us is completely fragmentary, much the same as the composition of the work itself. The forty-five texts that form the book refer to a very concrete space, the rural environment of Iparralde (the northern Basque country). This fact means that important political, social, geographic, economic or cultural aspects of Basque reality are not represented in the work. This is not an impediment, however, to Laxalt’s success in portraying with precision a good part of the fundamental traits of the idiosyncrasies of Basques.
Laxalt explores the land of his forefathers with the mentality of a man born and raised in America. It is from this perspective that In a Hundred Graves projects those characteristic elements of the Basques which stand out from the point of view of a North American. In particular, Laxalt stresses the close relationship between Basques and their past, emphasizing at every moment the importance of traditions in the Basque country or Euskal Herria. The fidelity to myths and customs transmitted by the forefathers becomes the axis around which the very identity of the Basques revolves. This faithfulness is represented In the book through the continuous presence of a series of voices and forms inherited from the past. They are usually related to daily activities of the Basques that define the lifestyle of this nation. Through the description of such activities, Laxalt discovers the attitudes which these exhibit in relation to a broad array of themes, among which he includes such matters as death, religion, justice, the family, nature, violence or leisure time. They are all fundamental aspects that permit the reader to know the particular idiosyncrasies of Basques.
Even though Laxalt profiles in In a Hundred Graves the affection of Basques for their past, he does not attribute to them an absolute immobility. Laxalt observes how time, though slowly, passes inexorably for the Basques as well. He is also conscious that Basque society has suffered changes and transformations throughout the centuries. Because of this, when he sets forth in his book a confrontation between characters that belong to different generations, such as between two pilotaris (pelota players) or between two shepherds, the victory tilts toward the side of youth. He even mentions the gradual abandonment of some traditions, such as the use of the txapela (beret). In this fashion, Laxalt wants to demonstrate that Basque society, even though it maintains great loyalty towards its ethno-cultural roots, is not stagnant, but rather evolves gradually, adapting itself to the course of time.
Laxalt continued his non-fictional exploration of the land of his ancestors through his collaboration with photographer William Albert Allard in A Time We Knew: Images of Yesterday in the Basque Homeland, a visual record of Basque traditional society during the sixties. In this large-format book Laxalt’s brief text supplements Allard’s seventy color photos to offer a chronicle of an ancient time, just before the vestiges of this traditional way of life were gone forever. Some of the passages of the book closely resemble previous articles by Laxalt on old world Basque society for National Geographic and also In a Hundred Graves, particularly in his affectionate descriptions of village life. Again, Laxalt’s nostalgic identification with the land of his ancestors coexists with his awareness of the inevitability of progress: “I knew even then that that was progress. And one would be foolish to argue against it, because he would not have reason on his side” (1990: 103).
Laxalt revisited the Basque country in The Land of My Fathers, another travel memoir based on his first-hand knowledge of Basque village life during the sixties. The book consists of sixty-five vignettes or sketches, some of them of extreme brevity, where Laxalt portrays several traits of Basque character and different scenes of traditional Basque social cultural, political and economic life. Indeed, we may define the book as an impressionistic mosaic of Basque experience in the sixties, which Laxalt uses to reveal the real nature of his ancestral homeland and some of the main features and secrets linked to Basque identity. Laxalt’s emphasis on rural life, and the repetition of certain motifs, scenes, and characters present in earlier works, such as In a Hundred Graves or A Time We Knew, may evoke a sense of deja vu in readers familiar with Laxalt’s other Basque books. We might even consider The Land of My Fathers as a sequel to those two, in particular, In a Hundred Graves, taking into account their similarities in theme and structure and also their common origin. Nevertheless, The Land of My Fathers does not merely revisit familiar topics and scenes. Instead, it offers glimpses into subjects that until then had played a minor role in Laxalt’s Basque works, such as the main symbols of Basque nationalism, the impact of Franco’s dictatorship on Basque culture, or the attitude of Basques towards bohemes.
A Cup of Tea in Pamplona is Laxalt’s only work of fiction entirely set in the Basque country. This brief (seventy-five pages), action-filled novella, which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, focuses on Basque smuggling along the French-Spanish border and many of its scenes are drawn from actual events (see Laxalt 2001: 165,168-171). Laxalt reveals the mechanics of smuggling and its role in Basque traditional communities, emphasizing the social costs of this activity. In fact, this novella may be viewed as a morality tale where respectability clashes with the natural desire to better one’s station. In particular, this conflict is represented in the book through the moral condemnation that must face those peasants who decide to defy local taboos and break the code of station. Thus Laxalt stresses the power of the old country mores to suppress an individual in a country where rich and poor were sharply divided. In Laxalt’s own words, “preserving a ‘good name’ in this society means following the code, not rising above one’s station monetarily” (2001: 177).
Certainly, Laxalt’s non-fiction books on the Basque country and A Cup of Tea in Pamplona extended his literary reputation as the leading American literary interpreter of Basques. It was his Basque family trilogy the work that confirmed Laxalt’s position as “Mr. Basque” in the American West. This trilogy is the story of a Basque immigrant family in the United States told by a second-generation son, Pete Indart. The similarities between this family and the author’s own have been highlighted by different scholars (see, for instance, Glotfelty 1998: 127), and Laxalt himself has conceded that the trilogy is “a blending of invention and actuality.” (3) Nevertheless, he has also emphasized the fictional characteristics of these books. See, for example, the way in which he refers to The Basque Hotel, the first volume in the trilogy:
It is not really autobiographical. […] Pete isn’t me, although
I suppose part of him is me, but not entirely. The story is
drawn from people I knew and the setting I knew- but the
events are invented. I knew these people. Then I created
different situations to fit them. (4)
Perhaps the best way to define Laxalt’s trilogy is as a semi-autobiographical story where family becomes the pivotal reference, the common thread of the three volumes. These novels offer different perspectives on family relations in a Basque household, but they all stress the tension between the power of family ties and the individual’s desire to develop his own personality. Thus, the Indart saga may be analyzed as a privileged example of the conflict between the concern for one’s racial ethnic and familial heritage and the natural desire to choose one’s own destiny, even if this means departing from such a heritage. Or, to use Werner Sollors’ terminology (1986: 5-6), we can view Laxalt’s trilogy as an exploration of the tensions between “descent” and “consent.” between ancestral or hereditary bonds and self-made or contractual identity.
Laxalt’s saga of the Indart family begins with The Basque Hotel, a novel focused on the rites of passage that adolescent Pete must undergo on his way to reach manhood. This initiation experience takes place in a very particular context: a Basque immigrant family struggling for acceptance in the American West during the first decades of the twentieth century. It is a fight for acceptance and integration into American society that gives birth to different attitudes toward old world heritage in the immigrant family.
In The Basque Hotel Laxalt includes some important references to the impact of American society on the first generation of Basque immigrants, represented by the adult members of the Indart family. The novel portrays their reluctance to lose their ethnic identity in exchange for integration, though these characters are aware that they have to limit the expressions of their heritage to a private, familial context. However, Laxalt’s main interest does not lie in the first generation of immigrants, but in the behavior of the generation born in America, represented by young Pete, the narrator of the novel. Laxalt illustrates the contradicting influences at work on this teenager growing up in Carson City. Thus, on the one hand, Pete’s Basque family atmosphere constantly links him to an ancient heritage that he is often unable to understand. On the other hand, he is closely tied to an American society, where he suffers prejudice and discrimination due to his immigrant family background. In fact, we may say that he embodies the basic identity complex between immigrant heritage and American heritage.
The protagonist is portrayed as a child who undergoes a process of change from innocence to experience, from youth to adulthood. This initiation process, symbolized by the passing of the seasons, also gradually transforms his attitude about his Basque heritage. Thus, at the beginning of the novel Laxalt emphasizes Pete’s inability to come to terms with this heritage. He finds it difficult to understand the role that immigrants are supposed to play in American society, and he only wishes to grow up like most kids his age. Pete’s acceptance of American standards cannot be regarded as a rejection of his ancestry. It is simply that his family’s Basque heritage often appears to him as a code whose meaning he is unable to decipher. Pete’s disquiet about his heritage is particularly intense when old world lifeways depart from American rules or traditions. Laxalt illustrates this point in the novel with an episode where Pete risks his life in a desperate quest for a Christmas tree, an American tradition that is ignored in his Basque household. In addition, Laxalt also includes different references to the ethnic prejudice that Pete, as a son of immigrants, has had to endure In America. For instance, we can see that he is tagged as the son of bootleggers because his parents serve some wine and whiskey at their hotel during Prohibition. It seems that at that time Basque immigrants were often the victims of such accusations, though they were not the only ones involved in this illegal but largely tolerated activity (Lane 1977: 39).
The Basque Hotel portrays Pete’s difficulties in assimilating his familial heritage, but it also shows how this adolescent becomes gradually aware of his ethnic background through a series of formative experiences. His journey from innocence to experience is also a journey from ethnic ignorance to ethnic awareness. He learns about the history of his family in the Basque country and the hardships suffered by his parents in America. Only through this knowledge does young Pete start to understand his family’s old-country values and traditions. Laxalt does not imply that this character is headed for a total identification with his ethnic heritage or his family ways. In fact, we cannot forget that while growing up, Pete experiences a process of individuation, of psychological separation from the family. However, this phenomenon coexists with a more understanding and mature approach to his family and his heritage. Therefore, the novel should be viewed as the account of a dual process in which the individual experiences both identification with, and separation from, his family and his ethnic heritage.
In Child of the Holy Ghost, the second volume of the trilogy, Laxalt resorts to the same narrator, now a grown-up, to explore the Basque heritage of this immigrant family. Pete’s journey to the land of his ancestors in search of his roots represents a common attitude among those descendants of immigrants who, although they feel at home in America, look to reestablish their ties to their ethnic heritage. In fact, we can say that Pete’s pilgrimage to his family’s Basque land may be regarded as a natural consequence of the immigration process. Children of immigrants, once they have become adults and have achieved their integration into American society, often fear the dissipation of their heritage and long for some kind of continuity with the past. It is not a passive discovery of one’s heritage, like the one portrayed by Laxalt in The Basque Hotel, but an active quest for one’s roots. This phenomenon will be much more common in the third generation, that is, among the grandchildren of immigrants, according to Hansen’s famous principle or “law” of third-generation interest: “what the son wishes to forget, the grandson wishes to remember” (1952: 495). However, this principle should not be regarded as a universal one because, as Werner Sollors has argued (1986: 219), it is possible to be second generation and act third generation.
Child of the Holy Ghost offers an interesting account of the struggle of Pete’s father, Petya, to endure loneliness and temptation in the American West. Nevertheless, the most remarkable sections of the novel are the ones devoted to analyzing the transcendence of family bonds in the Basque country, and in particular, the peculiar circumstances of the birth and upbringing of Pete’s mother, Maitia.
Laxalt evokes in this second volume of the trilogy the ancestral relevance of family bonds in the Basque country at the turn of the century, stressing the devotion of Basques to their families. He portrays a very traditional image of the family where each of its members is assigned a specific role, according to ancient unwritten rules. Among these rules, Laxalt underscores the peculiar Basque inheritance system, which determines that the primogenitous child becomes the only heir to the family farm and properties in order to keep them intact. This tradition implies a circumvention of the Napoleonic code, which required equal division at death. In this way, Laxalt emphasizes that tradition becomes more important than law in Basque family matters.
Although Child of the Holy Ghost highlights the transcendence of family ties in the old Basque country, this novel also shows that these family bonds are subordinate to an ancient code of honor which prescribes “a good name, or no name at all.” Laxalt uses illegitimacy and its painful consequences for both the grandmother and the mother of the narrator to illustrate the preeminence of respectability above blood relationships in traditional Basque families. Thus, the novel describes how defiance of the moral code means for Pete’s grandmother and her daughter the loss of society’s supporting threads and even a break with their kin. They endure ridicule, public condemnation and injustice due to the fact that the narrator’s mother is a “child of the holy ghost” (an old Basque term to refer to an illegitimate child). So, illegitimacy works in the novel as a powerful cultural taboo which conditions the development of the individual’s own personality in a society where “a good reputation is worth more than a golden belt” (1992: 14). Laxalt stresses the conflict between this traditional code and a modern American mind which regards illegitimacy as “Middle Ages nonsense” (1992: 5). Laxalt even includes at the end of the novel the image of the Statue of Liberty as a symbol of the final emancipation of the narrator’s mother from the stigma of illegitimacy.
In the third volume of the trilogy, The Governor’s Mansion, Laxalt uses a modern American setting to explore the impact of politics on the same tradition-bound immigrant family. Again, the story is told from the point of view of Pete Indart, who plays an active role in the political career of his brother Leon in Nevada during the 1960s. The main sources for the book are actual political events experienced by the author assisting his brother Paul Laxalt, former Nevada governor and U.S. senator. However, we cannot forget that the book was written as a novel. As Robert Laxalt remembers, “today if you asked me exactly what really happened in The Governor’s Mansion, I couldn’t tell you what of this is literally true or is invention” (Rio 1997: 23).
In The Governor’s Mansion Laxalt underscores the conflict between the Basque passion for privacy and the public exposure inevitably brought by politics. The novel illustrates how Leon Indart’s decision to join politics gives birth to a gradual and permanent invasion of his family’s privacy, a value that is traditionally regarded as a sacred treasure by Basques. Once again, Laxalt centers on the clash between modern American ways and ancient Basque values.
Leon Indart’s successful political career represents the triumph of the descendants of immigrants, of the second generation whose struggle for integration and acceptance is rewarded by American society. Nevertheless, Laxalt tries to communicate to the readers that the price to be paid for this achievement is too high: the violation of the treasured privacy of the Basque immigrant family. He shows how both the candidate and his family become public property and have to face some common ordeals in politics, such as personal attacks, ridicule or insidious rumors from rivals and opposition newspapers. So, we can view Leon’s rise in state and national politics as an initiation process for the whole family whose name is put on the ballot. This process not only means the end of the political innocence of this family, but also the need to explain and defend in public a series of private symbols, often linked to its roots and its background. In fact, one senses that the genuine characteristics of the Indart family become more and more artificial as its political notoriety increases, imposing on the family a commitment to a specific identity that has to be held up to the public.
In this third volume of the trilogy Laxalt portrays the Indart family as a closely knit unit where each of its members contribute to the well-being of the others. This self-imposed discipline of duty to the family group, a traditional Basque trait, is represented as a fundamental factor for immigrants bound to overcome prejudice in the new world. In particular, Laxalt stresses the importance of family loyalty and family devotion to face the negative dimensions and turmoil of the political world. Thus, the novel shows the sacrifice of individual careers by different members of the Indart family in order to contribute to a common goal: the political success of the eldest son, and therefore, of the family as a whole. This willingness to subordinate one’s personal views and aims for the betterment of the family should be regarded as the supreme example in the novel of the impressive past power of family ties.
Although Laxalt underscores in The Governor’s Mansion the importance of the family as a secure and protective frame for the descendants of immigrants in America, he also hints that the sacred circle of family may work as a hindrance to an individual’s personal development. When too many experiences are reflected through the family, the individual runs the risk of losing his own identity. This phenomenon is particularly common in such a context as American politics, where “all egos must be diminished to preserve the almighty ego of the candidate” (1994: 22). This sacrifice has a series of rewards, but in the long run it may destroy the individual’s own sense of reality. And it may provoke a permanent loss of identity that cannot be compensated by the ephemeral glory and fame of the political world. This idea is perfectly represented by Pete’s recurrent dream at the end of the novel. It is a dream where the narrator goes back home to find that the family house and the family name, the two main symbols of the Indarts’ unity and strength, are neither present nor even remembered in Carson City.
After the success of his Basque-family trilogy, Laxalt revisited the experiences of Basque immigrants in the American West in Time of the Rabies, the last book that Laxalt published during his lifetime. This novella, partly based on a real episode (an epidemic of rabies that swept across northern Nevada in the 1920s), does not represent a novelty in Laxalt’s fiction, though he moves from archetypal descriptions of itinerant sheepherders to focus on sheep-ranch life. Thus, we may find recurrent themes in most of Laxalt’s Basque-American works: the endurance of the Basque sheepherders, their hard work, their lean and solitary novels, their pioneering spirit, and the existence of certain ethnic prejudices towards these immigrants. Overall, the language and characterization in this brief book demonstrates Laxalt’s intimate acquaintance with the life of Basque immigrants in the American West.
Laxalt’s literary career ends with Travels with My Royal: A Memoir of the Writing Life (2001), a posthumous autobiographical book where Laxalt describes his youth in Carson City, his early writing days and the genesis of his major books. Although this memoir is not just a Basque book, Laxalt once again pays particular attention to his Basque-immigrant origins and to his stays in the Basque country during the sixties. Laxalt’s devotion for Basque topics is also stressed in the third section of this memoir, where six out of the seven books discussed by Laxalt belong to what we might call his “Basque era.”
From the beginning of his Basque era with Sweet Promised Land, Laxalt tended to represent the Basques in a highly positive light, focusing his attention on some of the main features traditionally associated with this ethnic group: integrity, endurance, loyalty to their heritage and their family and their pioneering spirit. His works often reveal his affection for the traditional lifestyle of the Basques, though, as Richard Etulain has noted, “he avoids ethnic chauvinism” (1999: 229). In fact, in books such as A Cup of Tea in Pamplona or Child of the Holy Ghost, Laxalt deals with the drama of poverty in the traditional Basque country and its major social obstacles and moral taboos, disclosing the cruelty present in its ancient villages. In Robert Laxalt’s words, “I love the Basque Country and the Basque people, but that does not deny me the right to say when they’re wrong. Otherwise, I couldn’t be honest” (Rio 1996: 129).
Laxalt’s literary production does not contain a comprehensive view of the social and cultural life of the Basque community. Instead he focuses his attention on a very particular field, on the most traditional aspects of Basque lifestyle, disregarding recent socioeconomic transformations or contemporary political events in the Basque country. Laxalt seems to find no romance in the modern industrial Basque country and, at the same time, he openly admits his lack of authority to write about it (Ibid.). Laxalt does not hesitate to introduce general statements about Basques when dealing with different aspects of character that he regards emblematic of Basques in general: “The Basques are not impressed.”; “The Basques are not much for words.”; “Reserve and restraint were qualities of the race.”; “Basques ignored what was not worth fighting about.” Laxalt is aware that by using these statements he runs the risk of overgeneralizing. Nevertheless, he justifies this choice on the basis that these features are still representative of Basques and he refers to his preference for strong statements: “I do acknowledge difference, but anytime I’ve drawn a character anywhere, I’ve tried to pick a dominant trait. I hate diluting characters” (Ibid).
In both his fiction and nonfiction books, Laxalt demonstrates his firsthand knowledge of the life and the idiosyncrasies of Basques. His commitment to presenting a faithful and convincing portrait of the Basques is also perceived in his decision to include several Basque words or expressions throughout his books. In most cases they are either common expressions or curse words that he remembers from his childhood, when Basque was his first language. Thus, his books contain terms such as makila (walking stick), chahakoa (goatskin wine pouch), gaichoa (poor), ergela (crazy), a la Jinkoa (My God!) and nolazida? (How are you?). Furthermore, Laxalt only translates these terms when he thinks that his American readers may find them too obscure to guess their meaning from the context.
Following the success of Laxalt’s works, in particular of Sweet Promised Land, the new visibility of Basques in the last few decades has stimulated a growing interest in the culture among American writers, both Basque and non-Basque. In particular, Basque topics and characters have gradually played a more relevant role in western American literature, though we still refer to a relatively small number of works (see Rio 1999b & 2001). This new literary curiosity in the Basques is represented by the consolidation of the Basque sheepherder as an attractive literary archetype for non-Basque novelists of the American West and also by the new prominence of younger Basque-American writers such as Frank Bergon, Monique Urza (Laxalt’s daughter) or Gregory Martin. Nevertheless, Robert Laxalt’s achievement in his imaginative writings on the Basques has not been equaled thus far by any other American author.