Translation Tuesday: “English Lessons” by Mónica Lavín

"Stepping into the United States was stepping into order and cleanliness, Patricia always thought."

This Tuesday brings us a story that straddles the US-Mexico border. In Mónica Lavín’s “English Lessons,” a Mexican woman travels to San Diego for an all-too-brief reunion with her brother. Her notions of America, a “better world” glimpsed in the Dick and Jane stories from her childhood, are upended in an unexpected, heartrending manner. 

For more great short works like this, check out the fiction section and special Korean literature feature in the Spring 2018 issue of Asymptote.

English Lessons

Stepping into the United States was stepping into order and cleanliness, Patricia always thought. A sense of well-being settled in her chest when she crossed the border. It was like entering a story, a fiction, proof that a better world existed. Like the world her first grade English books had shown: the house with a garden, the family with a dog named Spot and a cat called Puff. Sally, Dick and Jane played with a “red wagon.”  “Red” was rojo, “wagon” carretilla? She’d never seen one except in the color illustrations of those books. The mother called them in to dinner, with her styled hair, her big smile and an apron over her full-skirted dress. Not that Patricia wasn’t critical of many things about the gringo lifestyle—their detachment from family life and excessive practicality, their sense of being the center of the world. But in her experience, U.S. highways had no potholes, there were fewer rattletrap cars, and San Diego’s landscaped roundabouts were a pleasure to see. She suspected her idea was childish, so it was a conception she didn’t dare confess. Certainly, after standing in the tedious line, and feeling like a convict when the guard took her papers and examined her, knowing she was safely “on the other side” made her breathe more calmly. She anticipated enjoying this trip especially because she’d visit her friend Laura in California, and her brother Daniel was also coming to San Diego for two days. They hadn’t planned it, but it was a happy coincidence. He lived in Guadalajara, further from the border, loved and knew San Diego. He’d promised to take her for a drink at the Hyatt at sundown to see the bay. And she would accompany him on his mission to buy household goods: sheets, towels, kitchen things, placemats for his bachelor breakfast table. She liked his attitude, how he was determined to make a pleasant abode for himself, treating it as a new project to be enthusiastic about, instead of being depressed by his divorce.

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Blog Editors’ Highlights: Spring 2018

Our blog editors pick their favorite pieces from the Spring 2018 issue!

Here at the blog, we continue to be amazed by the breadth of the material featured every quarter at Asymptote. From our Korean literature feature to a Japanese dadaist‘s outrageous fusion of text and image, our Spring 2018 issue again proves that the most groundbreaking material is being produced far from the centers of Anglo-American literary dominance. This issue’s Tolstoyan theme, “Unhappy Families,” might suggest an individualized focus on how each of us is unhappy in our own way. However, the blog editors’ selections all touch on wider themes of war and genocide, suggesting an undercurrent of collective trauma beneath the stories of personal travail. These pieces are just a small taste of the vast terrain covered in the Spring 2018 issue. You won’t want to miss any of it!

Iya Kiva’s “little green lights” (translated by Katherine E. Young) almost immediately caught my attention in this new Spring issue. It is divided into three sections that are distinguishable through their tone—the first one resentful, the second satirical, and the third calmly futile. The second section revolves around the punning of воды [water] and война [war], which is perhaps a rare instance when the translation succeeds even more than the original. The war in the Donbass region of Ukraine is now in its fifth year of conflict between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces, with no end in sight. Kiva’s ironic assertions of “what if there’s no war by the time night falls” and “in these parts it’s considered unnatural / if war doesn’t course through the pipes” creates two possible interpretations: the disbelief at the war’s complete destruction, to the point that there is no running water (as if a war could be comfortably fought from both sides), and the biting accusation that war, not water, is essential to a people’s survival, as well as their nation. Running water is no longer the passive object for Romantic contemplation, but has become a basic expectation for life in a modern society, tragically, just as war has. On the other hand, not everything in Kiva’s poem is double-edged. One of my favourite lines is the simplest: “and it’s really beautiful / like in a Tarkovsky film”, which at first sounds like a platitude, but becomes charming with the realisation that nothing more can be said about a Tarkovsky film without slipping into pretention. I highly recommend our readers to delve into this poem, to question Kiva’s stance and at the same time to feel as if their own ideas are being questioned.

—Stefan Kielbasiewicz

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Weekly Dispatch from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to Albania, Hong Kong, and Brazil.

Spring is creeping in and we have just launched a very special and very exciting new issue full of amazing literary voices from around the world, including Jon FosseDubravka Ugrešić, and Lee Chang-dong. Check out the Spring 2018 issue here! In the meantime, we are here with the latest literary news from around the world. This week we report from Albania, Hong Kong, and Brazil.

Barbara Halla, Editor-at-Large, reporting from Albania:

Classic and contemporary Albanian literature is heavily focused on male authors and the male experience, a status-quo challenged recently by “Literature and the City.” Throughout April and May, journalists Beti Njuma and Alda Bardhyli will organize the second installment of this event consisting of a series of discussions and interviews exploring trends in contemporary Albanian literature. This year the encounters will highlight the work and world of Albanian women, through discussions with authors including Flutura Açka, Lindita Arapi, Ardian Vehbiu, Edmond Tupe, and Fatos Lubonja. A particularly exciting event was the conversation conducted with Ornela Vorpsi, a prolific author who writes in French and Italian but who remains virtually unknown in the Anglophone sphere. So far, only one of her books has been translated into English by Robert Elsie and Janice Mathie-Heck: The Country Where No One Ever Dies.

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In Conversation: Stephanie Smee

As her translator, I have had the opportunity to sit quietly with her as she pondered the inhumanity of the Nazi regime when she was forced to flee

The Spring 2018 issue launch is just around the corner (stay tuned…) and it is full of amazing writing from around the world. This season we approach the question of family. Texts explore exiles, adulterers, and a levitating aspirin in our Korean Fiction Feature, headlined by acclaimed filmmaker Lee Chang-dong. Amid exciting new writing and art from twenty-nine countries, gathering together such literary stars as Mario Vargas Llosa and Robert Walser, discover “tiny shards” of childhood on the verge of experience as remembered by Jon Fosse—a giant of Norwegian letters in his own right—or not remembered by Brazilian author Jacques Fux à la Joe Brainard.

Although “unhappiness is other people,” according to Dubravka Ugrešić, we’re just as likely to be imprisoned in our own family, a predicament brought to light in Dylan Suher’s review of Eileen Chang’s Little Reunions. In a generously personal essay, Ottilie Mulzet reveals how she turned to Gábor Schein’s “father-novel” to unlock the secret of her intransigent birth mother, whose refusal to speak to her had “stood in [Mulzet’s] life like a monumental cliff.” Schein’s poetry also graces this issue, and in a timely echo of Spring and past horrors, he takes up the refrain of Dayeinu of the Passover Haggadah—it would have been enough for us: “Enough, if you or I still / hoped for something. Enough, if we forgot to remember…”

For some, family remains a hall of mirrors, leaving the outlook bleak for human brother- and sisterhood: “My path doesn’t lead to you. Your path doesn’t lead to me,” writes the Libyan poet Ashur Etwebi. At times, language cuts as deep as our common mortality, that kinship beyond all social roles, as in the poignant drama, The Last Scene. Echoing the resignation of Alain Foix’s death-row prisoner, poet Esther Tellermann laments, “breathe me / sister in death.” Others, like Cairo-based artist Amira Hanafi, strive to knit together connections between strangers. Her recently concluded installation, A Dictionary of the Revolution, deployed a vocabulary box of 160 words to generate conversations with more than two hundred people across Egypt.

As a special treat for our blog readers, we bring you a special interview conducted with this new issue in mind. As she prepared her enlightening criticism, Brigette Manion sat down with translator Stephanie Smee to talk about her translation of No Place to Lay One’s Head by Françoise Frenkel. As Brigette explains in her review, “No Place to Lay One’s Head looks back over Frenkel’s life, from her youth as a bibliophile and her establishment of a bookstore in Berlin, to her journey across France and final passage into Switzerland. Frenkel presents a story of survival and resilience dedicated in her foreword to the memory of the ‘MEN AND WOMEN OF GOOD WILL’ who, with great courage and often at considerable risk to their own lives, helped and inspired her along the journey.” Happy reading!

Brigette Manion (BM): How did you first come across Françoise Frenkel’s memoir, and do you remember your initial response to it? 

Stephanie Smee (SS): I first came across Frenkel’s memoir after reading a review in Lire magazine. I had the good fortune to be in Paris when I read it for the first time, and many of the images she described, particularly of her early years in Paris, felt incredibly poignant. Perhaps my response to her very moving story was tempered by that. I also found her descriptions of different places so detailed and lyrical that they evoked a visceral response in me. I remember, too, being terribly affected by the immediacy of her writing, a characteristic of her memoir which truly sets it apart, in my view, from many other memoirs that are often written several years after the events that are the subject of the work.

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Dispatch: Bologna Children’s Book Fair

Human representation has acquired a renewed central position, previously abdicated in favor of animals and such.

Four days of intense work within a whirlwind of smiling people who convene here year after year like old friends, while at the same time looking for, proposing, and selling stories that will hopefully enchant today’s children. It is the Bologna Children’s Book Fair, the most important event for children’s literature in the world, taking place every year in Italy. This year’s edition ended almost three weeks ago. From March 26 to 29, seventy-seven countries and regions, 1,390 exhibitors, and 27,642 publishing professionals gathered in a bustle of illustrators, authors, publishers, agents, translators, booksellers, and journalists.

Walking through the stands, one can run into tidy lines of novice illustrators who, nervous and creatively dressed, are waiting to exhibit the works they clutch in their hands. One could also bump into celebrations of publishing houses’ “birthdays” or other anniversaries, while inside the stands, agents exhibit new books’ plates before the publishers’ and journalists’ attentive eyes. Just around the corner, interesting educational events are taking place while trembling crowds of aficionados await to meet their favorite artists in flesh and blood. The air is international: in just a few steps one can walk from the forests of Northern Europe to the colossal American stands, to the elegant French stalls. From there you can meet the Japanese artist who collects pebbles and encloses them in personalized books, along with artists, writers and editors from Iran, Chile, Africa and India.

These four days are a vortex of fatigue, legs grinding mile after mile among the stands and eyes taking in an extraordinary amount of illustrations, images, and stories. Once back home, it is necessary to take a few days to detox and reflect upon what one has lovingly noted.

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Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt from Darkness and Company by Sigitas Parulskis

Photography can do that—it can show us what an object really is. Photography is not just the object itself; it is always above it, beyond it.

This week we bring you a final installation of our series featuring Lithuanian writers inspired not only by these excellent writers, but because the Baltic countries are is this year’s Market Focus at the London Book Fair.

This excerpt of Darkness and Company is by the prolific Sigitas Parulskis. With a healthy sampling of Plato, this piece explores questions of photography, truth, and beauty as a young photographer goes in search of the perfect light to capture a horrific scene of violence and death during the Holocaust. The jarring and unsettling nature of this piece gives us a taste for the rest of Darkness and Company and reveals an incredibly talented writer. 

This showcase is made possible by Lithuanian Culture Institute.

The word ‘angel’ was scrawled on the blackboard in chalk. The rest of the sentence had been erased. Angel of vengeance, angel of redemption—it could have been either one.

He got up quietly so as not to awaken the other men and went out into the yard. He couldn’t see the guard, who was probably off dozing somewhere. The Germans were staying at the local police station; the brigade was sleeping in the town’s school. After a night of festivities at a local restaurant, most of the men were indistinguishable from the mattresses spread on the floor.

Vincentas stuffed his camera into his coat and headed off in the direction of the forest. He looked at his watch and saw that it was five in the morning. The sun was just coming up—the best time of the day if you wanted to catch the light. To capture the idea of light, as Gasparas would say. Where could he be now? Underground, probably; still wearing his thick-lensed glasses. Lying in the dark, trying to see the essence of things with his myopic eyes. His grey beard sticking up, his thin hair pressed to his forehead in a black band. Although short-sighted and ailing, he had been a strange and interesting person. His photography students called him by his first name, Gasparas. The photographer Gasparas. It was from Juozapas that Vincentas had first heard about photography, that miracle of light. While still a teenager he had read a few articles and a small book called The Amateur Photographer, and then, when he turned eighteen, he had bought his first camera, a used Kodak retina. But it didn’t go well, so he had found Gasparas. Without his thick-lensed glasses Gasparas couldn’t see a thing. He would take them off, look straight ahead with his strange, empty eyes and say, ‘Now I can see the real world.’

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Asymptote Book Club: In Conversation with Jhumpa Lahiri

"I’m old enough to look back on my life and to think and to marvel, and also be terrified by the randomness of it all."

In our fourth Asymptote Book Club interview, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri spoke with Asymptote Assistant Editor Victoria Livingstone about her translation of Domenico Starnone’s Trick.

In this discussion about her work and the forging of her own artistic identity, Lahiri reveals why translating Starnone seemed like “a sort of destiny.” Lahiri draws us into Starnone’s fictional world, but also reflects on her own mutable relationship with language and writing, and on the marvelous yet precarious ways in which our lives unfold.

Victoria Livingstone (VL): I wanted to begin by asking you what brought you to translation. I just finished reading In Other Words in which you reflect on your decision to switch from writing in English to writing in Italian. Did you see translation as a natural progression after working between multiple languages and living in Italy? And what drew you to Domenico Starnone in particular? 

Jhumpa Lahiri (JL): During the initial part of my stay in Italy, I wanted to translate something, but I didn’t know what it would be. I was reading only in Italian for many years. As my reading progressed, I would think that I would like to translate this person, or that person. Once my Italian was stronger and my reading in Italian seemed to have a larger ongoing purpose and focus, translation was something that really intrigued me.

I was considering it in this vague way and then I read Lacci by Domenico [Starnone] and immediately felt that if I were to translate something, that this would be the book I wanted to translate. I felt very close to it. It spoke to me very deeply. It felt like the natural first step. That’s how it started. When he asked me to translate the book, we were already friends and I felt—I feel now—that it was a sort of destiny. Everything was properly aligned in the moment that I was drawn to the idea of translating and was ready to translate with the appropriate amount of distance. That was when Lacci, which became Ties, won a prize which enabled the translation to be funded. It was a series of fortuitous circumstances that led to the translation of that book a couple of years ago.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup lands us in Romania, Moldova, India and Egypt.

Prizes, events, book publications, festivals—whatever you can think of, our Weekly Dispatches have you covered from one end of the world to the other. This week our editors are focusing on the most exciting news from India, Romania and Moldova, and Egypt. 

Janani Ganesan, Assistant Managing Editor, reporting from India: 

When everything is sponsored by a multinational company, from football to governments, literature is no different. India’s richest literary award was announced this March by JCB group. An annual prize money of INR twenty-five lakhs (USD 38,400) for a fiction book could have only come from a company manufacturing construction equipment.

(The DSC Prize, which was the most generous literary award in the country till its prize money was reduced from USD 50,000 to USD 25,000 in 2017, is also funded by a company specializing in infrastructure.)

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In Review: White Shroud by Antanas Škėma

"This work is a befitting emblem of an art which lends enduring shape to adversity."

As the Baltic countries are this year’s Market Focus at the London Book Fair, we continue our showcasing of Lithuanian literature this week with a review of a Lithuanian modernist classic. This showcase has been made possible by Lithuanian Culture Institute.

White Shroud by Antanas Škėma, translated from the Lithuanian by Karla Gruodis, Vagabond Voices, 2018.

Reviewed by Erik Noonan, Assistant Editor

White Shroud (1958), the best-known work and the only novel by Lithuanian artist Antanas Škėma (1910-1961), presents the life story of a poet named Antanas Garšva as he arrives at the threshold of adulthood. The novel is told through stream-of-consciousness interior monologue, journal entry, and omniscient third-person narration, arranged according to the association of ideas, rather than the conventions of rhetoric. This work is a befitting emblem of an art which lends enduring shape to adversity.

Garšva grows up in the town of Kaunas as the only child of two teachers, a mother “of noble birth” and a “charming liar” of a father. Neither of his parents is faithful to the other, and he witnesses the dissolution of their marriage, his mother’s descent into dementia and his father’s decision to place her in a sanitarium. Throughout an indigent existence the character adheres to a bohemian way of life, as variously as possible, doggedly. Škėma presents his story in a mode apt to the character, the mode Modernist, the language Lithuanian, the stance postglobal.

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In Conversation: Naivo and Allison Charette on Beyond the Rice Fields

"Each language has its own tolerance to gravity—or to weightlessness."

The Best Translated Book Awards longlist was announced yesterday, and it included Naivo’s singular novel, Beyond the Rice Fields. The first novel from Madagascar to be translated into English (from the French by Allison Charette), it comprises a narrative that unfolds like palm fronds. Set in 19th-century Madagascar, the narrative stem follows the evolving relationship between Tsito, a boy sold as a slave to a trader, Rado, and the trader’s daughter, Fara.

Naivo (the pen name of Naivoharisoa Patrick Ramamonjisoa), who is also a journalist, pairs a reporter’s unflinching approach to storytelling with a poetic style and distinctive orality that stems from the Malagasy literary tradition. The story moves from the Madagascan highlands through the midlands to the country’s capital, Antananarivo, the ‘City of Thousands’, and even to England. Through it all, the concept of “frontiers”—between traditions, social classes, countries, and historical moments—is posed as a question: how do we close the interstices between beliefs, and the gulfs between each other?

In Beyond the Rice Fields, Madagascar’s brutal history is revealed through individuals whose journey, relationship and thoughts are as important as the larger historical narrative, which sweeps them along, but is never in danger of sweeping over their story. In one instance, Fara’s grandmother’s tales dissolve into the outcome of the primary narrative. Here, the past is not viewed as finished, nor the present as momentary; rather, Naivo shows that the past is still with us, and that we are part of the past. This is evident even in his phrasing: the “evil red crickets” of an invading tribe; the juxtaposition of terms like “judge” and “earth husbands” within the context of a trial-by-poison. Although Naivo paints the march of time as implacably brutal, his is not a moral nor critical view of history; crimes are committed—in the name of both tradition and progress—but what is more important is what endures: love, nation, storytelling.

Asymptote spoke to Naivo and Charette about inspiration, the process of writing and translation, and the literary scene in Madagascar.

Alice Inggs: Allison, How did you come across Beyond the Rice Fields and how did you come to translate it?

Allison M. Charette: Back in 2013, I randomly found out that no novels from Madagascar had ever been translated into English. I decided to help fix that, and ended up traveling there the next year to meet authors, learn the culture, and acquire books. Beyond the Rice Fields was one of the thirty-some-odd books I brought home, but it was a particularly good one: it had been recommended to me by a couple of booksellers and several authors, who all called it one of the best literary debuts they’d ever seen. I read it and loved it, so it was one of the top 5 novels that I wanted to start shopping around to American publishers. I was fortunate enough to receive a PEN/Heim grant for it in 2015, which is how Restless got interested. And the rest, as they say . . .

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Translation Tuesday: An Excerpt from Silva Rerum by Kristina Sabaliauskaitė

"There was a desperate need for faith so that all this activity would really have some meaning."

For the second Translation Tuesday in a row, we are proudly featuring an author from Lithuania—not just for their excellent writers, but because the Baltic countries are is this year’s Market Focus at this year’s London Book Fair.

This excerpt is by one of the country’s most lauded authors, Kristina Sabaliauskaitė, from her four-part historical novel, Silva Rerum. The novel gives us a panoramic sweep of history from 1659 to 1795 in narrating the generations of a noble family, the Narwoyszes. In Lithuania, the series has been a literary sensation on the level of Knausgaard in Norway or Ferrante in Italy. This excerpt, a seriocomic episode about the death of a beloved cat, provides us with a taste of what Sabaliauskaitė’s talent has in store for the world. 

This showcase is made possible by Lithuanian Culture Institute.

On that hot July in the year of Our Lord 1659 Kazimierz and Urszula Narwoysz saw death for the first time. Even though death was all around them, the twins in the tenth year of their lives looked directly into its grey mutable face for the first time and that confrontation which lasted but a few moments, it could be said, decided their fate.

Everything had started several weeks before, when their beloved tabby Maurycy died, a well-fed creature, their companion from the cradle who, keeping his claws retracted, like a Stoic, suffered all their pranks with patience. Even their favourite prank where one of the twins would hold it tight, while the other pulled on its tail. Caught unawares, Maurycy obeyed nature and, forgetting the forgiveness of felines to small children, struggling fiercely, would scratch the one holding it. Most often it was Kazimierz who would feel the brunt, since it was Urszula who had the miraculous ability to put on an angelic face and ambush the cat by pulling on its tail; sometimes, amusing themselves, they would tie something that made a noise to its tail and wrap the unfortunate pet like a babe in swaddling clothes. The last time was when they took things too far: without anyone seeing them and exercising great caution they wrapped Maurycy up and changed their newborn sister lying in her cradle with him. The wet nurse, on seeing the cat wrapped up, began to scream in a voice not her own, while the twins fell around and shrieked with laughter, and later they themselves were screaming in voices not their own while being thrashed, this dangerous prank causing even Jan Maciej Narwoysz to lose his normally unshakeable patience.

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What’s New in Translation: April 2018

Looking for your next read? You're in the right place.

It’s spring, the days are (hopefully) sunny, and this month we’re back to shine a light on some of the most exciting books to come in April, including works in translation spanning Colombia, Lithuania, Martinique, and Spain (Catalonia). 

tundra

Shadows on the Tundra by Dalia Grinkevičiūtė, translated from the Lithuanian by Delija Valiukenas, Peirene Press

Reviewed by Josefina Massot, Assistant Editor

In his Afterword to Shadows on the Tundra, Lithuanian writer Tomas Venclova draws a parallel by way of praise: Dalia Grinkevičiūtė’s account of the Gulag ranks with Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s and Varlam Shalamov’s. Those acquainted with Gulag survivor literature know that’s high praise indeed: Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago and Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales are paragons of the genre. And yet, I venture, Shadows on the Tundra transcends them both.

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Weekly Dispatches from the Frontlines of World Literature

Our weekly roundup of literary news brings us to Brazil, Indonesia, and the United States.

We are back with the latest literary news from around the world! This week we hear about various happenings in Brazil, Indonesia, and the United States. 

Lara Norgaard, Editor-at-large, reporting from Brazil:

Brazil made international headlines when black feminist city councilperson Marielle Franco was assassinated in Rio de Janeiro on March 14. Renowned authors from around the world, including Chimamanda Adichie, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Angela Davis, and Arundhati Roy, signed a petition demanding an investigation into the death of the activist and civic leader. One of Brazil’s most prominent black women writers, Conceição Evaristo, recited a poem in Marielle Franco’s honor during the days of protest and mourning that followed the murder.

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In Review: Twist by Harkaitz Cano

Let’s hope that translation remains not so much a means of preservation but rather the best way for one tool to sharpen another.

Harkaitz Cano’s Twist, recently released by Archipelago Books in Amaia Gabantxo’s translation from the Basque, both shimmies and shimmers on various levels, each of which exhibits its own twist. Like the famous Chubby Checker song, which was itself a cover or translation of sorts, this novel offers a new version of events that rocked the Basque world in the convulsive 1980s—a period when ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), an armed separatist group promoting the independence of the Basque nation, was not only active but also actively pursued by the GAL (Grupos Antiterroristas de Liberación), which were illegal, government-sponsored death squads dedicated to destroying ETA and its influence in the region.

Officially disarmed in 2017, ETA used as its symbol a snake enveloping an axe, with the former representing politics and the latter armed struggle. Twisted around each other to suggest their inseparability, it is also ultimately a reminder that what lies at the heart of the Basque conflict is precisely the idea of separation: there is a nation that wishes to separate itself from the Spanish state; a Basque nation already separated by the French-Spanish border; and a broad separatist movement that includes those who wish to distance themselves from forms of violence like that carried out by ETA.

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