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Prince of Asturias Award for Literature 2000
First and foremost, I wish to most courteously thank the honourable Jury who conferred the Prince of Asturias Award for Letters for the year 2000 on me. Without their kindness, not to say bravery, I would not be in a position that I am so proud to be in; nor would I be alongside such outstanding artists, men of science, dignitaries and academics from so many different countries who have also been conferred awards and whom I greet with admiration and respect.
The press has recently claimed that by affording me this recognition not only was a Central American writer being recognised but also a literary genre, the short story, which has been relegated to a position of ever-decreasing importance by the major publishing companies, by some critics, and even by readers themselves. It is not in fact the least bit strange that this should be the case. The laws of the market place are inexorable, and neither we short-story writers, nor the poets -brothers in this negative lot- are liable to change them. But as Ecclesiastes said on the subject of the Earth, "generations come and generations go; but the story remains."
Whatever the case may be, it is indeed true that practically all my work has revolved around two specialities -the short story and the personal essay- that nowadays are well out of the limelight and the mainstream, even though they are far from unimportant as far as their ancestry is concerned; they vary their structure and meaning so much on occasions that some critics refer to a transposition of genres, and even to mutual invasion and overlap, which would provide a different, new interpretative slant to our usual means of literary expression. Comment has also been made on the brevity of this kind of work, and as if that were not enough, of the humour and irony to be found in it, all of which leads me to wonder whether this could all fit into the limited space that it occupies. Well, the scope of literature is so wide that even the smallest things find room there.
I have never intended to take up the mantle of defender of the common short story, or the very brief short story, and it has been even less of my intention to be a detractor of novels, be they short or long, that have delighted and taught me, both from Cervantes to Flaubert and Tolstoi and Joyce; what is more, on several occasions I have admitted that I learnt to be brief by reading Proust. The short story defends itself. Moreover, I am not a theorist, and I know that despite countless attempts at definition hazarded by those who know, at the present time establishing what constitutes a short story is an insoluble problem. Nevertheless, certain short story writers are still totally unaware of its evolution, and they still write short stories following the old rules, like the one about introduction, exposition and denouement, or even the one about having a surprising denouement. There are those who honestly believe that the short story is an insignificant genre, and that they are written - so they claim - as a kind of rest period between writers' real creative work, their important novels, in other words. Far be it for me to try to make them change their minds. In actual fact, you only really have to think of José Luis Borges, Juan Carlos Onetti or Julio Cortázar in our own language to begin to see how far we already are from the conventional short story.
In 1992 Barbara Jacobs and I published an Anthology of the Sad Short Story in Spain. As we were feeling rather taciturn the evening when we wrote it, we went as far as to assert in the Prologue that, "life is sad. If it is true that life is to be found in a good short story, and if life is sad, then a good short story will always be a sad short story." Not a few people reacted against such a melancholic thought; and I do know if life is sad for everyone - that is something I leave to the experts - but chance had it that the short stories that we chose almost at random from our respective memories were not only extremely sad, but also happened to be the works of some of the best and most profound writers of the last century and a half, ranging from such as Hermann Melville and William Faulkner, or Leopoldo Alas "Clarín" to Salarrué and Juan Rulfo, and including James Joyce, Thomas Mann and Corrado Álvaro, all of whom vividly portrayed the profound dramatic quality underlying the everyday lives of men and women from any country, rich or poor, in the centre of Europe or in the centre of America, in a genre that depicts life with insight, truth and beauty within its limited dimensions and apparent humbleness.
I would also like to see this award as recognition of Central American literature, which, as a Guatemalan, I form part of. Central America, as Eduardo Torres might well have said, has always been defeated, both by the elements and by the enemy's ships; I refer here to the catastrophes of Nature of recent years, and to the economic and political disasters that have been forced upon us by the interests of powerful foreign companies who produce the fruit that has given rise to our countries being called "banana republics". It is my duty to point out once again that it is not only bananas that we have produced over the centuries. I would remind you that our Mayan forefathers, consummate astronomers and mathematicians, who invented the zero before other great
Civilisations, who had their own cosmogony, in what is now known by the name of Popol Vuh, the national book of the quichés, mythological and poetic and mysterious. I would remind you of Rafael Landívar, the author of Rusticatio mexicana, the best neolatin poem of the XVIII century; of José Batres Montúfar, a satirical story-writer in verse whose octavas reales (eight-line, eleven syllable verse) descend straight from Ariosto and Casti and brilliantly round off world narrative in this verse; and to conclude, so as not to get dangerously close to our era, (I would remind you) of Rubén Darío, who renewed the language of poetry in Spanish like no other had done before since the times of Góngora and Garcilaso de la Vega.
Three legacies -indigenous, Latin and Spanish- that most Central American writers, I am sure, strive to be worthy of, and, why not, to preserve and contribute to with dignity and respect.
In a moment of optimism I declared a few years ago on an occasion like this that my greatest ideal as an author lay in taking up, one day in the medium-term future, half a page of my country's primary schools' reading text. This may well be the greatest immortality that a writer can aspire to. I am sure that having been considered worthy of the Prince of Asturias Award for Letters will contribute greatly to this wish, which is more conceited than it appears, becoming true.
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