the mystery of the four birds

Photo of Bernardo ATxaga1

It was a very short song, and the birds that were mentioned, four in number, were only small; but the secret the song concealed, the clear meaning it contained for anyone able to see beyond its absurd surface, had a great deal to do with what we term the “major themes.” The song was a traditional song and widely known, sung over and over by generations of Basque children, and it went like this:

Txantxangorria txantxate,
Birigarroa alkate,
Xoxoa dela meriante,
Txepetxa preso sartu dute.

Which means:

The robin sings his song,
The song thrush is the jailer,
And, with the blackbird’s help,
They’ve put the poor wren in prison.

It obviously wasn’t pure nonsense, nor was it a folk version of some English limerick, since, albeit obscure, it did make some kind of sense. But the idea that a bird—the poor wren—should have ended up in prison on the orders of the authorities—the song thrush—and to the great delight of Robin Redbreast, was not much help in gaining an overall understanding of the story, nor did it answer the fundamental question: what had gone on between the robin and the wren? Or to put it another way: why was one so overjoyed at the other’s misfortune?

more from Bernardo Atxaga at Threepenny Review here.