PUBLISHERS OF LITERARY FICTION SINCE 1983
A philosophical cow recounts her life and ponders its meaning.
Mo looks back on her long life: her unceremonious birth, dismay at the realization that she’s a cow, humans she befriended or fought, a tumultuous friendship with a fellow cow called La Vache qui Rit, and her dotage with a plucky French nun. Mo’s narration is monopolized by philosophical conversations with The Pest, Mo’s inner voice, an all-knowing, formally prissy conscience. Serenity, danger, and cruelty are all present in Mo’s account. The story is translated from Basque, and the author’s preface provides brief historical context about the Spanish Civil War and the anti-fascist Basque rebels who fought against Franco’s dictatorship after the war.
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.
Chosen by Henry Layte of The Book Hive in The Observer's Best Books of 2020 chosen by booksellers.
Memoirs of a Basque Cow must surely be in the running for Title of the Year, though it’s difficult to speculate what expectations it might evoke in young readers' minds. What they would find is a gentle bovine tale, set among the mountains and valleys of the Spanish Basque country, beginning in the late 1930s and then meandering towards the end of the century.