Mari Jose Olaziregi Alustiza

Mariasun Landa Etxebeste

Biographical sketch of Mariasun Landa.

University of Nevada

University of the Basque Country

Mariasun Landa Etxebeste (Errenteria, 1949)

It is well known that all literature establishes a dialogue between the strictly personal and the universal. Mariasun Landa proves this in her books, which were originally written in Basque, the oldest language in western Europe, currently spoken by only 700,000 people. Her fascinating characters, such as Rusika the flea and Kikunga, the bird-hearted elephant, have captivated audiences from all over the world in translation, becoming an integral part of the biography of many readers. 

The concept of creation underlying all of Landa’s works is worthy of mention. For her, writing for children does not mean limiting one’s subject matter. Landa has always maintained that during childhood, one can experience deep feelings and emotions (loneliness, fear, hatred, love), which children may not succeed in manifesting. She considers this one of the greatest challenges of children’s literature: to speak of universal human feelings in an uncomplicated manner, using an apparently simple style. Consequently, for Mariasun Landa, any theme is valid in literature for children and young people. Her writing is characterized by great intensity and rhythm. Her stories value risk and tenderness and display a minimalist style in which every word, every paragraph, is millimetrically studied, where she seeks to eliminate anything superfluous or lacking in evocative depth. Viewed in this manner, for Landa, as for William Wordsworth, childhood becomes those “spots of time” in which we relive our lost paradise. 

A domestic fantasy, embedded in every day and reminiscent of Gianni Rodari, prompted Landa to begin her literary career in the 1980s. It was a fantasy that sought to underscore the contradictions inundating the reality that surrounds us. Following her first book, Amets uhinak (Waves of Dreams, 1982), works such as Elixabete lehoi domatzailea (Elixabete the Lion Tamer, 1983) and Partxela (1984) set out to subvert sexist literary stereotypes. However, it was undoubtedly her turn towards critical realism with Chan el fantasma (Chan the Ghost, 1984; English translation: Karmentxu and the Little Ghost, University of Nevada Press, 1996. Translated by Linda White) that marked a milestone in her career. This book, narrated by the ghost Chan, tells the story of a girl with autistic features who is committed to a psychiatric hospital. The emotional intensity of the text is undoubtedly one of the reasons why it was translated into Spanish, Catalan, Greek and English. This was the book that opened the door to other literary markets for the author and constituted a major step towards bringing Basque literature into the modern age. Landa’s critical realism, reminiscent of authors such as Christine Nöstingler, was also a determining factor in other books published around that time, such as Una bicicleta en huelga (A Bicycle on Strike, 1991), in which a bicycle demands the right to go on strike, and Potx ( 1992), which criticizes the intransigence and conformity of today’s society. 

The publication of Iholdi (1988), which appeared on the 1992 IBBY Honour List, marked another milestone in the literary evolution of Mariasun Landa. This is one of her most successful works, featuring excellent illustrations by Asun Balzola (1942-2006). The 16 “microstories” contained in Iholdi are marked by simplicity, accuracy, and suggestive power that will amaze any reader. The loneliness, incomprehension, and sadness of its young protagonists are reflected as microworlds contrasting with the interference of the adults. The stories Ainhoa (1990) and Alex (1990) display clear similarities to Iholdi. Recently, Iholdi has become the protagonist of a series of stories: Amona, zure iholdi (Grandmother, Your Iholdi, 1999) and Marina (2003). In both stories, the author has produced prose that suggests more than what is said, in which the inclusion of disturbing elements (such as a gun or drugs), make the reading of the text a truly intense adventure. The latest book in the Iholdi series is Haginak eta hilobiak (Teeth and Tombs, 2005). 

Other stories by Landa, such as Katuak bakar-bakarrik sentitzen direnean (When Cats Feel So Lonely, 1997) and Nire eskua zurean (My Hand in Yours, 1995), have sought to approach adolescent readers. The separation of the protagonist’s parents in the first story, and the jealousy caused by the mother’s new relationship in the second, are used as elements in which the first-person narrative allows the author to explore the psychological conflicts of the protagonists. On the other hand, Galtzerdi suizida (The Suicidal Sock, 2001) takes a more no-nonsense literary approach, in which a surrealistic account of the adventures of a rather peculiar sock serves to transmit, with large doses of humour, a message in favour of a life lived to the fullest, and with risk. 

To complete this rapid review of the author’s works, we cannot forget all of those stories in which the use of animal protagonists serves as a vehicle for presenting a veritable “inner fauna” of desires and fears. The flea Rusika (1993. English translation: The Dancing Flea, University of Nevada Press, 1996. Translated by Linda White), who travels to Russia to achieve her dream of becoming a ballerina, and the love story, complete with a diet, featuring the characters Julieta, Romeo eta saguak (Juliet, Romeo and the Mice, 1994), are good examples of successful works that have been translated into different languages. Humour, and the narrative strategies of adventure stories, are ingredients that make these stories indispensable. In addition to these, we cannot forget Landa’s rewrites of well-known classics such as Ahatetxoa eta sahats negartia (The Duckling and the Weeping Willow, 1997), featuring a daring duckling who decides to become a scuba diver. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s duckling, he shows us that it is worth looking inside people to get to know them. This message is also present in Landa’s delicious story Elefantetxori bihotza (Bird-hearted Elephant, 2001), a literary tribute to Kipling’s “The Elephant’s Child” (included in Just So Stories, 1902). 

With Kokodrilo bat ohe azpian (A Crocodile Under the Bed, 2003), Mariasun Landa brings us yet another text that does not trivialize children’s discourse, and which uses the literature of the absurd to explore the themes of loneliness and anguish. This book takes us far away from the narrow margins of what is currently considered, using excessively commercial criteria, “youth literature”. It can be read as humour by any young person but is also appealing to any adult, who surely knows quite a bit about fears and inner anguish. Like the protagonist of the story, J.J., we cannot help feeling relieved to discover that the imaginary crocodile that lived under the bed feeding on shoes has disappeared, presumably due to the new love story that is about to begin. Indeed, literature, when it is good, serves that purpose: to explore life’s moments of happiness.

Dr. M.J. Olaziregi,University of Nevada/University of the Basque Country