Cervantes Prize 2017 Acceptance Speech
Allow me to dedicate this prize to the memory of the Nicaraguans, who in the last few days have been murdered in the streets for demanding justice and democracy and also to the thousands of youths who continue the struggle with no other weapon than their ideals, so that Nicaragua may once again be a Republic. I come from a small country that raises its volcanic mountain range in the middle of the fiery Central American landscape that in one of the stanzas of his Canto General Neruda called, “the sweet waist of America.” An explosive waist. Balcanes y volcanes (Balkans and Volcanoes) was the title I gave to an essay of my youth in which I tried to explain the cultural nature of the region whose history is marked by the burning iron of cataclysms, repeated tyrannies, rebellions and brawls—but what also makes Nicaragua is poetry. We are all poets by birth, unless proven otherwise.
“Poet” is a way of greeting someone on the street, from sidewalk to sidewalk, whether one is addressing pharmacists, lawyers, obstetricians, office workers, or peddlers; and if not all my fellow countrymen write poetry, they feel it as their own, without a doubt, thanks to the formidable shadow of Rubén Darío, who created our identity not only in the literary sense, but also as a country: he wrote, recalling his native land, “Mother, that you were able to give from your small womb/so many blonde beauties and tropical treasures/so many azure lakes, so many golden roses/ so many sweet doves, so many wild tigers…”
In my case, I willingly declare myself a poet, in the same sense that Caballero Bonald declared in this same cathedral upon receiving the Cervantes Prize in 2012: “that verbal emotion, those words that go beyond their own expressive limits and open, or leave ajar the passages that lead to enlightenment, those ‘profound caverns of meaning to which San Juan de la Cruz referred.’”
Poetry is unavoidable in the substance of prose. This was known to Rubén, who besides poetry revolutionized the journalistic chronicle, and who was a novel story teller. However, I believe that someone who has not spent his life reading poetry would be hard-pressed to find the keys of poetry, which has need of rhythms and an invisible music: “the quiet music/the loud solitude.” It is what Pietro Citati, while talking about Francis Scott Fitzgerald’s prose in the Death of the Butterfly, calls “the music of the lost things”…“for most people, things are hopelessly lost. But for him, they left behind a music. And the essential thing for an author is to find that music of the lost things, not the things themselves.”
Not everyone in Nicaragua writes verse, but Rubén opened doors for generation after generation of poets, always modern, even today, such names as Carlos Martínez Rivas, Ernesto Cardenal, and Claribel Alegría, who were both honored with the Reina Sofía Prize for Hispano-American Poetry, and also Gioconda Belli.
It is curious that a nation was founded by a poet with words, and not by a general on horseback with a sword in the air. The only time that Rubén wore a military uniform with a dress coat embroidered with gold laurels and a cocked hat with a tuft of feathers was when he presented his credentials as the fleeting Nicaraguan ambassador before His Majesty Alfonso XII in 1908; this uniform was loaned to him by his Colombian counterpart because he did not have one of his own.
Rubén made liberating changes to the language that he received as inheritance from Cervantes, shaking it out of stagnation. As Borges says, “Everything was renewed by Darío: the substance, the vocabulary, the meter, the peculiar magic of certain words, the sensibility of the poet and of his readers. His labor has not ended and will not end; those of us, who sometimes fought him, today understand that we continue him. We can call him the Liberator.”
The language that was already that of Cervantes made Central America the outbound journey when the first copies of the Quixote arrived in Portobelo on August 19, 1605; and the return journey occurs with the first copies of Blue; it is then on October 22, 1888 that Don Juan Valera writes from Madrid in one of his American Letters; “neither are you a romantic, nor a naturalist, nor a neurotic, nor a symbolist, nor a Parnassian. You have mixed everything: set it cooking in the still of your mind and have distilled from it a rare quintessence.”
Three centuries after Cervantes, Rubén gives back to the peninsula a language that turns out to be strange because it was well-stocked with challenges and daring, a language that was a mix of the voices stirred by the fires of the Caribbean, where I too come from, because Central America is Caribbean, that space of verbal miracles where wonders belong to the dazzling reality and not to the imagination, and which only have to be copied: Rubén himself, Alejo Carpentier, who was worthy of the Cervantes Prize, as well as Miguel Ángel Asturias, and Gabriel García Márquez, who both won Nobel prizes. In the Caribbean all inventions are possible, and of course reality is already an invention in itself.
In that sense, I imagine Cervantes as a Caribbean author capable of altering the real and finding the keys of the magical as when he writes in The Coloquium of the Dogs that Camacha de Montilla “would freeze the clouds when she wanted, covering the face of the sun with them, and when she felt like it would calm the most disturbed sky; she would in an instant bring men from faraway lands; would marvelously remedy the damsels who had suffered some slip-up in guarding their integrity. She would cover widows so that with honesty they could be dishonest, and she would unmarry the married and would marry the ones she wanted…”
Rubén recognized in himself the signs of his own triple miscegenation, “the signs of having descended from the beatified and from sons of messengers, from African slaves, and from proud Indians…” And from there, from that damp darkness where the noises and murmurings of history are blended together, with lighting speed is assembled the language that the new world gives back to the Spain of Cervantes.
Rubén’s virtue is to mix everything, to place satyrs and bacchantes beside affronted saints and pious virgins, to find pleasure in contrasted colors, to have one magical ear for music and another one no less magical for rhythm, to tease out resonant words from other languages, to give brass the appearance of gold and to decorations real substance, to award popular airs musical majesty, to find and offer delight in the greedy hoarding of the exotic: “a yearning for life, a sensual shuddering, a pagan dew.”
But that language never stopped being the language of Cervantes, once again, as in the Golden Age, a language of novelties, and it is that language of the round trip that is today, in the twenty-first century, constantly reinvented while it multiplies and expands. A language that does not know calm. A language without stillness because it is alive and increasingly demands more space and does not understand walls or borders.
Rubén recounts in his autobiography that is was in an old armoire in the ancestral house where he spent his orphaned infancy in León, Nicaragua where he found the first books he would read. He was ten years old. “They were an edition of Don Quixote,” he says, “the works of Moratín, A Thousand and One Nights, a Bible, Cicero’s On Duties, Madame Staël’s Corinne, a volume of Spanish classical comedies, and The Strozzi Cavern, a terrifying novel by an author that I no longer remember.” He ends by commenting, “It was a strange and arduous mix of things for the mind of a child.” The edition in two volumes in very tight print of the Life and Deeds of the Ingenious Knight Don Quixote de la Mancha that he held in his hands was published in 1841 and was from the J. Mayol and Company Press in Barcelona.
It was that same boy whom his great uncle and adoptive father, Colonel Félix Ramírez Madregil, just as José Arcadio Buendía did with his son Aureliano, took to learn about ice: “a few years later, because of him I learned to ride a horse, learned about ice, about illustrated books for children, about California apples, and about French champagne,” he recalls in that same autobiography.
Once he is the owner of the treasure from the old armoire, he chooses the Quixote and begins the first of many readings of it that he will undertake during his life and what he begins is a journey, because all reading is a journey. But this will be a journey that narrates another journey.
Contrary to Ulysses, who wants to return to his home in Ithaca without any mishaps, Don Quixote leaves his home somewhere in La Mancha in search of mishaps. He wants to be interrupted and is not surprised by the interruptions; that is the reason he has gone out, to run into them: fabulous monsters, powerful rascals, charming evildoers, temptations of the flesh that as an honorable knight he must resist since he finds himself bound to his vow of chaste fidelity to his lady.
The rural world that Don Quixote is going to traverse would not be very attractive to someone who sets out on a journey in the usual sense under the needs imposed by daily life. It is his dazzled imagination that will create the obstacles, the dangers, and challenges. Of course, the obstacles that Ulysses encounters while he sails towards Ithaca are also the fruit of imagination, the imagination of Homer: sirens whose singing causes the doom of sailors, sorceresses who change men to pigs, winds shut up in a wineskin that cause shipwrecks when released.
But the giants, magicians, captive ladies, charmed caves and castles that Don Quixote finds in his path is born out of his own imagination. This is a world created by him as a character superimposed in the real world. He is his own character, while Ulysses is Homer’s character. Ulysses is a consummate liar, who invents to confuse others. Don Quixote invents for himself; he is the offspring of his own fiction. As soon as he recovers his sense, the whole structure he constructed in his mind dissolves, the curtains and the scenery disappear and what remains in view is simple reality. Then, all that is left for him is to die.
Both worlds, the real one and the imagined, match each other and oppose each other in the pages of the Quixote. The castles of bygone days are the inns of the road and the peddlers are not the enchanters, but rather the innkeepers who when they can exploit travelers. But one world could not exist without the other because it is its opposite and at the same time its counter balance and its complement.
From that first journey, Rubén would never abandon Cervantes, who become one of his models, literary and vital according to his sonnet: “Hours of grief and sadness/ I spend in my solitude./ But Cervantes/ is a good friend. He sweetens my rough/ moments and gives repose to my head…” He says in the following stanza, “He is life and nature, / he gives my roaming dreams/ a helmet of gold and diamonds. /It is for me: he sighs, laughs, and prays.” Life is how it is. The long-gone time of knights-errant, which is not a historical time since it is about a fictional character, enters real contemporary time and between the two there occurs a clash that instead of destroying them causes them to live.
And they are not destroyed because Cervantes narrates with naturalness those astonishing and crazy stories, far from the affectations and impostations that generally hide ignorance. A natural author is one who knows what he is talking about. He whispers into the reader’s ear, he does not scream at the top of his voice. He talks with gentle expressions, he woos with his words and his gestures: “speaks like a crystal-clear stream.”
Confronted by a madness that surprises, Cervantes is not unsettled; he laughs in a placid way, without letting the reader see him, and in distancing himself from that eccentric world with laughter, that is far from being a wicked or foul laughter, he teaches us to be compassionate and gets us used to contemplating the marvelous with naturalness: “it is for me: he sighs, laughs, and prays.”
The dead worlds, constructed from papier maché, the scenery that smell of paint or old age will sooner or latbe eaten by moths because that which is false does not survive. On the other hand, the world suffused with the natural by virtue of words, resembles life, or is like life. The natural and life become inseparable.
And the natural and life have to do, without a doubt, with humor and melancholy, that are also twin souls, as Ítalo Calvino explains in Six Proposals for the Next Millennium, “similar to melancholy is sadness that lightens up, similar to humor is the comic that has lost its corporal heaviness…”
These two qualities of literature and life help keep one and the other in equilibrium because they have the essence of lightness. The humor in Cervantes loses the corporal heaviness of the comic. It lives from lightness and in lightness, contrary to heaviness that does not allow the circulation of air between the lines of the text.
Just like Sergio Pitol, winner of the Cervantes Prize in 2005, who died this month in Mexico, and to whom I pay tribute, who was Cervantine through and through because he never accepted heaviness and knew how to transform it into humor, irony, parody; a “rare” one of those Rubén followers, who knew how to make writing a party.
In The Life of Don Quixote and Sancho, Unamuno reminds us that Don Quixote makes us laugh because his seriousness amuses and moves us. He does not believe in the ridiculous because for him the ridiculous does not exist: “a knight that made everyone laugh, but never told a joke…”
And when Rubén cites him in Litany of Our Lord Don Quixote: “King of the noblemen, lord of the sad/ who with strength encourages and dresses with dreams / crowned with a golden helmet of illusion…” He also cites the natural character of things: “listen to the verses of this litany/ made with everyday things/ and with others that in the mysterious I saw…”
At some point in life, one encounters Cervantes. It was my mother, Luisa Mercado, who in her literature classes in high school, because I had the infinite luck of being her student, taught me to read the Quixote, as well the Book of Good Love by the Archpriest of Hita, the verses of the Marquis of Santillana, the four-line verses of Jorge Manrique, as well as Lope and Quevedo. And it was not a few of these poems that I committed to memory for life.
My mother kept a copy of the Quixote in fourth major that had belonged to my grandfather, Teófilo Mercado. He had been an austere convert to the Baptist religion that was preached by some missionaries from Alabama who had arrived in 1910. Before then, he had been a liberal positivist with a blind faith in progress and in education, a sort of disciple of Augusto Comte lost in Masatepe, the small coffee producing town in the plateau of the Pacific coast of Nicaragua where I was born.
He was a farmer, surveyor, builder of artesian wells, and carpenter. The table on which I write was made by his hands. And among his books on medicine, agronomy, geodesy, and his manuals on plane geometry and elementary algebra was the Quixote. If for him, all reading had to be didactic, and he despised poets that let their hair grow long as well as the novelists who would get lost in the accounts of misfortunes of love and invented adventures, what then was the Quixote doing in his bookcase among such strange company if not to deny his distance from imagination? And does his novelist grandson not deny it as well?
Cervantine and Darían, I tie my writing with a knot that nobody can cut or undo. It has been a knot of words in my ears since childhood, nursed by a hybridized language that had the old songs of the Golden Age stored in the archaic peasant oral tradition and mingled with those words, shining like ancient gems in the dust of the centuries, from the far-away Nahuatl language—Masatepe, mszatl-tepetl, land of deer—and words from the much older Mangue language. While the landscape of my childhood tumbles toward the crater of the Masaya lagoon at the foot of the Santiago volcano, where the red, mauve, and yellow lava boils as it must at the mouth of hell, the residues of that almost forgotten language mark the neighboring territories:Ñamborime, near the water, Jalata, sandy water, Nimboja, road toward water.
Language is first made in the ears. The world of a child is a world of voices that sometimes turn into writing. Those of advice and legends, those of hawkers in the markets, those of the anonymous romances strummed on guitars. Also, those of the evening social gatherings attended by my paternal grandfather, Lisandro Ramírez, violinist and composer of waltzes, fox-trots, and mazurkas, and also a chapel teacher at the parochial church along with my musician uncles, poor like him, and bohemians. All of them formed the Ramírez orchestra. They gathered at the grocery store owned by my father, Pedro Ramírez, the only one who had resisted playing an instrument because they had tried to load him up with the heavy double bass. They would entertain themselves in a rollicking good time of conversation before climbing up to the balcony of the parochial church to play the six o’clock Rosary. Those conversations were a Cervantine verbal party in which they never told crude jokes, despised the ridiculous, transformed their sorrows into happiness, mocked with grace their own mishaps, thus winning, while laughing at themselves, the right to laugh at others.
Narration is a gift that springs from the need to tell, that urgent need without which those who surrender themselves to this incomparable profession cannot live in peace with themselves. From the bottom of that need, a novelist should illustrate in his prose all that lies in the deep caverns of the senses. He should bring the torch close to the faces of the characters hidden in the darkness, revealing the changing, hidden details of the human condition.
It is an epiphany for each day that does not grow without the use of procedures that begin with sitting down to write inside four walls like a prisoner who enjoys and suffers from the need to tell. One has to know how to capture flair. Writing is a provoked miracle. And not rarely, a many-times corrected miracle. “I pursue a form that does not find my style…and there is only the word that has run away,” says Rubén. The blank page is full of traces, shadows of fugitive words.
I feel that I am, thus, a synthesis of my two grandfathers, the musician and the carpenter, the one that takes up the bow and the one who one grips the gouge, half of the composer who filled the page of ruled paper with his melodic signs, and half of the artisan who was never satisfied with a piece of furniture with dislocated drawers, or that would not sit evenly on the floor, or whose joints had gaps.
I write surrounded by four walls, but with the windows open because as a novelist I cannot ignore the constant abnormality of the occurrences of the reality I live, so disconcerting and variable, and often very tragic, but always seductive. My America, our America, as Martí often said. The Latin Homeric as Marta Traba christened it.
To that illuminated landscape which is at the same time full of shadows, is desolate and at the same time full of voices, I return dominated by curiosity and astonishment, in search of its hidden corners and of the humble characters that populate it. Each one carrying on his back his little stories. I am enticed to watch them walking, without being perceived, or without perceiving, toward the jaws that devour them, so often victims of an arbitrary power that disrupts their lives, a demagogic power that divides, separates, confronts, and tramples. It is a power that does not have compassion nor justice in its nature and imposes itself with excess, cynicism, and cruelty.
Across the centuries of history, things have been written against someone, or in favor of someone. The novel, however, does not take sides, or if it does, it ruins its mission. The vast field of La Mancha is the kingdom of creative liberty. An author faithful to an official creed, a system, a single thought, cannot participate in that diverse, contradictory, changing adventure that is the novel. A novel is a permanent conspiracy against absolute truths.
It is reality that so burdens us. There were mourning caudillos before; today we have caudillos that are like carnival magicians, disguised as liberators, who offer a cure for all ills. And drug caudillos dressed like kings from a deck of cards. And the permanent exile of thousands of Central Americans to the United States that imposes marginalization and misery, and the death train that crosses Mexico with its eternal Wounded Beast whistle, and the violence as the most terrible of our deities, worshipped on the altars to Saint Death. The clandestine graves that continue to be opened, garbage dumps converted to cemeteries.
To close one’s eyes, to turn out the light, and to close the curtains is to betray the profession. Everything will, sooner or later, flow into the story, everything will, no matter what, end up in the water of the novel. And what history does not tell or writes badly, will be told by imagination, owner and master of a freedom “for which one can and should risk life,” since there is nothing that could or should be freer than writing, and which decreases itself when it pays tribute to power, that when it is not democratic only wants unconditional loyalty. We are, more or less, witnesses for the prosecution. Our duty, said Saramago, is to lift stones; if what we find underneath are monsters, it is not our fault.
In my youth, “I had other things to keep me occupied, I set aside the pen and comedies…,” as our father Cervantes says. And if one day I moved away from literature to enter the whirlwind of a revolution that overthrew a dictatorship, it was because I continued to be a child that one can imagine on his knees on the floor of an inn, watching a performance of Maese Pedro’s marionettes, eager to take up a broadsword to help Don Quixote behead wrongdoers.
But I cite once again the first paragraph of Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, just as I did in my memoir of that time, Adios Muchachos: A Memoir of the Sandinista Revolution: “it was the best of times, it was the worst of time; it was the time of wisdom, and a time of madness; it was an era of faith, it was an era of disbelief; it was a season of brightness, it was a season of darkness; it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of desperation.”
I live in my language, in the wide territory of La Mancha, and according to Carlos Fuentes’ apt sentence, a verbal region which is at the same time an indelible stain. The Stain that cannot be cut out nor erased. The stained writing, contaminated by beauty and by truth, by illusion and reality, by inequity and by magnanimity.
And in remembering Fuentes, a friend and teacher, I think as well of the enduring debt I owe to the Boom authors, who are so close to me and who taught me so much. García Márquez, who reinvented the Spanish language in his alchemist flasks, transmuting reality into marvel; Cortázar, who in the pages of Hopscotch gave my generation the keys to rebellion without calm, and who made me a cronopio forever; and Fuentes himself, who climbed platforms to paint the history of Mexico and of America as an amazing mural in motion; and Mario Vargas Llosa, whose novels I disassembled page by page as if they were Meccano models, in order to learn the rigors of the profession.
And the other enduring debt. Tulita, my wife to whom I owe, in many ways, my profession, and perhaps I can best explain it by repeating what I wrote as a dedication in my novel Devine Punishment, whose publication occurred thirty years ago: that she invented the hours for writing it; and being a better novelist than me, she has invented my life. And along with her, I owe a debt to my children and grandchildren, all present here today, my progeny in the spring of the patriarch for which I feel both proud and happy.
Thank you to Juan Cruz, the most Juan of all Juans, who knew how to arm me once again with the weapons of literature when I returned from other battles with a broken lance; to Antonia Kerrigan, the best literary agent in the world; and to Pilar Reyes, best editor in the world.
Thank you to the jury of the Cervantes Prize, led by the Director of the Real Academia de la Lengua, Darío Villanuea, for pointing his compass in such a generous manner toward my work.
And thank you to Don Felipe, for this honor that Spain, the source of “the thousand loose pups” of language, grants to Central America through me; and thanks to my country, a small belly but so generous.
Translated by Rosario Drucker Davis