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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
Memoirs of a Basque Cow
by Bernardo Atxaga
Age Range: 12+
Young readers may first have become acquainted with Bernardo Atxga’s work in English from the delightful Adventures of Shola, about a feisty little dog with attitude. Here, Atxga has produced another original tale about a cow named Mo who lives in the mountains of the Basque region of Spain.
Mo is an engaging cow who narrates her bovine memoirs after being persuaded by her Inner Voice, better known as ‘The Pest’. Mo looks back on her early life in Balanzategui with twelve other cows and her significant meeting with La Vache qui Rit, (the Laughing Cow – perhaps a witty play on the brand of processed French cheese which depicts a cheerful red cow on its packaging whilst Mo’s new friend is black and rather surly and certainly has no time for the red cows), a large ill-proportioned cow who regards all other cows as ‘absurd creatures’ telling Mo that ‘there’s nothing in this world more stupid than a stupid cow’. Mo feels she needs to prove that, despite being a cow, she is not at all stupid.
At the front of the book, Atxga provides an introduction explaining where the inspiration came from for the story. Set in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) with Franco’s imposed dictatorship firmly in place there were still groups of defeated Republican resistance fighters living in the mountains who were being hunted down by the brutal Nationalists.
The text waxes lyrical and is full of wit provided by the chatty narrative from incidents in Mo’s life, her philosophising as well as dealing with the more serious aspects of the ongoing strife after the civil war.
The challenge for the translator, Margaret Jull Costa, who has done a wonderful job ensuring that the nuances and humour are captured as the narrative weaves back and forth from past to present, often with digressions where Mo launches into her sagacious monologues or her cow-related sayings such as: – ‘Better a Cow alone than a cow in bad company’, ‘If you want to know how it all turns out, open the book at the end, not the start' and ‘the cow who thinks a lot sleeps a lot’ – as well as the interspersed stories told to her by her friend the nun Pauline Bernadette including the classic tale of ‘The Trojan Cow’!
As well as the comic interludes there are some frightening and narrow escapes for Mo when Nationalist fighters launch a surprise attack on the farm where she lives or being captured and made to take part in a traditional village fiesta.
Whilst not having a definitive storyline together with some complex references which a younger audience might not pick up there is no doubt that Memoirs of a Basque Cow has depth and many layers which probably lends itself to being more suitable for 11+ upwards including adults who will get much from the book too.
Bernardo Atxga is considered to be the finest Basque writer of his generation. He has written novels, short stories, song lyrics, plays and children’s literature. The Adventures of Shola won the 2015 Marsh Award for Children’s Literature in Translation and is reviewed on the website.