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The Princess of Asturias Foundation

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Laureates  

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Carmen Martín Gaite and José Ángel Valente

Prince of Asturias Award for Literature 1988

SPEECH BY CARMEN MARTÍN GAITE

As the award that brings us together today is named after the Prince of Asturias, and taking advantage of the fact that he accompanies us here in person, it seems obvious to me to choose him as the interlocutor for my words, I shall speak directly to him, considering that the matter of the dedication is a key issue in setting the tone and content of what is going to be said.

However, things become complicated in this case, as I do not speak in my name alone. My initial perplexity when I was informed that I was to be the person responsible for putting together this speech arose when I realized that this commission upsets the proper manners that presided over my education as a girl from the provinces and that is still quite rooted in me as I have not experienced these graces as a burden. Since I share the Prince of Asturias Award for Letters, and am most pleased to do so, with a writer of my generation who grew up like me in the early post-war years, what would be expected is for the boy to speak and the girl to stay quietly in the background sipping a gin fizz and looking at him out of the corner of my eye, according to the educational patterns I referred to and which I have comprehensively discussed in my essay Usos amorosos de la postguerra española [Customs of Loving in Post-war Spain]. If we had met at one of the saint’s day celebrations in the province of Orense, which we unknowingly frequented during the same years, I would never have dared to ask Jose Angel Valente if he wanted to dance. Today I do so, though slightly embarrassed, in obedience to higher authorities, and I hope he lets himself follow my lead. I have rehearsed so much at home that I hope not to tread on his toes.

The second perplexity arose when imagining a situation like the present one, which becomes unusual –as I already said– owing to the unusual condition of the recipient of my words, namely that I am addressing a prince.

I realised that among the literary models that might help me put together a speech of this nature, the one I found to be more amenable and less corseted was that provided by certain  fairy tales –that Felipe de Borbón will have read in his childhood, as I read them in the mine– in which the prince is a human being like the rest of the characters in the story, with his contradictions, hopes and fears, eager to see and learn new things, and for whom in many parts of the story the velvet mantle that fate has placed on his shoulders feels like an uncomfortable costume. In fairy tales, in which prodigious situations are treated as if they were the most natural, everyday thing, a prince is allowed to be able to talk on equal terms with hermits, woodcutters, witches, animals who speak sententiously and ragtag wanderers that went out into the world in search of adventure and who carry no more than an apple and a piece of bread in their backpack. This rhetoric of wonder helps weave dreams able to remove the child from a world that he sometimes finds hard to live in and difficult to understand, either due to the lack of prospects his misery boils down to or on account of the isolation he is condemned to while settled in that enchanted garden where the cruel blows of a coarser reality barely reach him.

In his book Psychoanalysis of Fairy Tales, Bruno Bettelheim seeks to demonstrate that the assiduous reading of these stories not only brings pleasure to the child, but also teaches him to ask questions about the problems he faces throughout his slow and hesitant transformation into an adult.

For the present occasion, which –like many others of an unexpected turn– offers me no other haven than that of returning to the myths of my childhood, I have been more tempted by this rhetoric of transforming the wonderful into the ordinary than that of sticking to the conventions imposed by official protocol. I therefore rule out the option of using the cloying oratory of the laureate that melts into dithyrambs on the unearned laurels that the prince bestows, and I prefer to address Felipe de Borbón, if he will allow me to do so, in a more relaxed, serene and also nostalgic manner, as you would any boy of his age. Among other things, because I think it will be more entertaining.

He is a Spanish boy who I have seen grow, become an adolescent and go on to higher education amidst the political, diplomatic and economic changes taking place which have transformed the situation of Spain over the thirteen years since his father was chosen as King. During that time I, while remaining a sporadic spectator of these upheavals and victim of those which were transforming my personal life, I have continued to cling stubbornly, as the only lifeline, to my fountain pen which I inherited from my father, filling notebooks in my best possible handwriting, just like when I was as a diligent schoolgirl.

This faithfulness to a calling –although the term ‘vocation’ is increasingly discredited– is the only privilege I conserve of the many that life has taken from me: faith in words and thoughts. And from that redoubt –a kind of precarious, threatened vantage-point–  I dare to speak to young Felipe de Borbón, as if casting him a very fragile silk thread, the only one available to me, for him to pick up if he should so wish.

He will face a super-technological society dominated by machines and the mass media, by hastiness and violence, by the excessive desire for material prosperity, a society whose accelerated mutations are infiltrated by the increasingly brazen conviction that everything is negotiable and that to obey the Logos alone, as Plato taught us, is to stick to an outdated form of behaviour that is not worth the effort. And yet, I can only accept the honour conferred on me today if I consider it a prize for my perseverance in this behaviour, no matter how outdated it might be, which is governed by obedience to the Logos, that is the word. I refer not only the given word, but also to that received.

Those who have a passion for the word and are receptive to it acquire, both from the books they have read and the conversations they have heard, a continuous stimulus that may tempt them to write, a kind of sap that seeps in through every pore and steers them towards a more efficient and careful way of expressing themselves. And in this respect, although I cannot clearly say how we learned to write, we do know that this mysterious learning experience, which began in childhood, has always been encouraged by texts or discourses that have presented us with questions that at least supplied us with infallible answers. Why does one write? One writes to cast new questions to the wind, to interrupt the assertions of others, to try to better understand what is not as clear as it is said to be. To distance oneself from reality, to look at it as a spectator and convince oneself that nothing is what it seems. Writers, even though they may have glimpsed the inconsistency of their personal contribution and even the increasing chaos it may suppose, nevertheless write. Why? Because they believe that no-one has yet said what they are going to say from their point of view. It can be considered arrogance, a vice or a defence mechanism, probably being a bit of them all.

Nonetheless, according to Unamuno’s famous phrase “believing is creating”, I think that writing is fundamentally a matter related to faith, not to fame and fortune.

And this is precisely from where the contradictions of its learning arise. For, although it is true that when we start writing we have much less skill in the ‘craft’, faith and enthusiasm are often much greater at an early age, when the adventure begins. As the years go by and writers achieve more or less public recognition, they are often forced to confess that they no longer have the faith they had in their early days, and that everything consists in recovering that faith, in reviving it. If they fail in this endeavour, they run the risk of becoming stuck in an overly comfortable rut, which will cushion any shock. And in the depths of their being, that is not that what they seek or what they want.

Learning to write is a never-ending process; it is renovated and called into question every time we are faced with a blank page. A carpenter who has built a solid table can be relatively sure that he has learned to make tables, but even though a writer may have already written a book, there is no guarantee that the next one he writes has to be better or, for that matter, even good.

It is true that, after reaching a certain stage of their career, writers can benefit from and take advantage of the opinion of others as to the results of their work. However, they should not trust in the flattering illusion of justifying and considering as good everything they do in the future solely by virtue of what they have already done.

Those who consider the craft of writing as a garden path where flowers spring up spontaneously often tempt the good fortune we have at being able to work without having anyone standing over us giving orders. And that is indeed true. If we do not write, nothing serious happens, nobody tells us off and no-one will fire us. Although it is also true that it is not a spectacular business, but rather a slow investment, which could well bear as a motto the maxim from Ecclesiastes: “Cast thy bread upon the waters: for thou shalt find it after many days”.

The writer’s task is a solitary adventure that entails all the hesitations, uncertainties and surprises inherent in any venture undertaken with enthusiasm. But in a world in which people increasingly flee from being alone, the writer is disconcerting, like someone swimming against the current, and arms emerging from all over wish to annex him to a particular group and enslave him to their standards and rules. Against this danger, the dissident has no other choice than to continue resisting in his stronghold, starting from nothing, invoking that youthful faith I spoke of.

No one has stated this in more exciting a way than St. Teresa of Avila, whose writing exemplifies the path taken starting out from nothing and whose exploration calls into question and puts at stake life itself. Undertaking this task, which she faced as if it were a battle, requires, in her own words:

“… a great and very resolute determination to persevere until reaching the end, come what may, happen what may, whatever the work involved, whatever criticism arises, […] even if I die along the way, […] or if the whole world collapses.”

No message would provide a better summary than this of the saint whose feast we celebrate today for what I wish the Prince on the threshold of a world in which vocations are subordinate to business and where anything and everything goes, as in rugby: do not lose faith in the word nor in resolute determination.

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